‘Black and White’ Stars Sherrod Small and Christian Finnegan On Using Comedy to Spotlight Race in America

“It’s ok, we can have this conversation — look, the world didn’t end.”

In a recent panel at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Black-ish creator Kenya Barris lambasted a reporter who asked about the racial makeup of his show’s audience: “I have the best job in the world and I am constantly having to talk about diversity,” he lamented. “I have the best actors. It’s ridiculous.”

“Diversity” has become one of those near-meaningless buzzwords — like “innovation” or “authentic” — that doesn’t really tell us how a given show treats a sensitive topic. But a new comedy talk show on A&E goes beyond lip service. On Black and White, comedians and longtime friends Sherrod Small and Christian Finnegan perform a valuable public service: Conducting awkward yet entertaining conversations about race.

From a parody of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee (Comedians in Cars Getting Pulled Over) to a weekly segment where audience members submit anonymous questions for Small and Finnegan to parse, Black and White is fearless about mining the awkward territory of race in America. Now three episodes into its eight-episode first season, Black and White‘s guests have included The Carmichael Show‘s David Alan Grier, The Nightly Show contributor Shenaz Treasurywala, and perhaps the least likely of all, conservative pundit Ann Coulter. 

We spoke to Small and Finnegan about airing the show during this “racially charged” election cycle, the reaction of Black and White‘s studio audience, and why Finnegan is the “archetypal white guy.” In the words of the show’s hosts, sit back and get uncomfortable.

Where did the idea for the show come from?

Christian Finnegan: One of the original discussions that started this show is that I think for white people, at least of my generation, Beverley Hills Cop is like, the quintessential Eddie Murphy movie.

Sherrod Small: For black people, it’s Coming to America. That’s a big difference! You can tell a lot about a person by what they think is the number one Eddie Murphy movie.

So I guess it’s just good timing that the show’s coming out during the election season.

S.S.: Which seems more racially charged than when we had elected a black president.

C.F.: It’s made the show feel a little different than it might have a couple years ago. It was a wisp of an idea that I had talked about with my manager. And we were like, well who would you want to do the show with, and I said clearly it’s got to be Sherrod.

S.S.: You can’t do it with anybody else! I told him years ago, you can’t escape me or black people! Black people made Christian’s career. You remember that Dave Chappelle skit.

C.F.: There’s always been something about me that’s like, “I want to see that guy interact with black people. That would be hilarious.”

Why do you think that is?

C..F: I think that I am the archetypal white guy.

S.S.: But you like knowing stuff, you like finding out stuff.

C.F.: Yes, exactly. I think we’re good ambassadors for each other. I feel like usually when people talk about race, it’s either black people talking to other black people or it’s white people angrily talking on Fox News. It’s very rare that you get a black and white person talking about it in a light, easy way. It’s not Black vs. White, it’s Black and White.

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Have either you ever felt like the other person went too far?

S.S.: No, I say he needs to go further.

C.F.: A lot of angry people will tweet at us like, “This show’s so biased — the black guy says all these racist things and the white guy’s not allowed to.” No, I don’t want to! Also, black people are allowed to say things that white people aren’t because the oppressed have more leeway than the oppressor. That’s just the reality.

S.S.: Plus, white people can say stuff like, “I’ll take that mortgage!” Or, “The house is mine!”

C.F.: But liberals too often assume that if you’re on the top of the heap as white people, that you know that. Nobody walks around every day like, “It’s great to be me!” So when you see people allowed to say a word that you’re not allowed to say, you rightly or wrongly feel like you’re the victim. Everyone wants to be the victim.

S.S.: It’s like the ghetto. You brag about whose neighborhood is more dangerous. But white people do it, too.

C.F.: We have this other sketch coming up which is like a compilation album of drunk sorority girls’ favorite rap terms — like “fam” and “ghetto.”

Did you pitch this as a show explicitly about race?

C.F.: That’s what the show was, but we didn’t necessarily feel like it was going to be like, “We’ll heal the nation.” It was just going to be a fun social experiment. We just try to be funny and true to who we are. I think we’re two reasonably dumb but interesting people.

It’s also been very interesting because we’re on A&E, which has an audience that is not necessarily the kind of audience that would traditionally go for a show like this. If it was Comedy Central — and I’ve worked at Comedy Central a bunch — Comedy Central has a voice that they speak in. They’re a comedy channel, they have ways of doing things. A&E had none of that. This is a new thing for them. It’s been harder in a sense because it’s like hacking through a field that nobody’s farmed on before. But they’re like, “You’re the experts, we’re not.”

What have your studio audiences been like?

C.F.: Sometimes I’ll have difficulty when we’re taping, I’ll zone out for a bit because I want to watch the audience. It really is a racially mixed audience, and there’s a real dynamic at play. White people, they get very uncomfortable. Black people in the audience, when you say something they agree with, you hear it: “Yep, uh-huh.”

S.S.: “Amen!”

C.F.: It’s a really fascinating dynamic, and I love it. It feels like you’re watching a test case happen in front of you, of these very conversations we’re having.

Particularly the segment where you take anonymous questions from the audience.

C.F.: That bit is to me the most socially relevant part of the show. Bring your awkward questions to us — we are ok with each other so we can deal with it in a way that other people can’t. I just feel like opening a window and being like, “It’s ok, we can have this conversation — look, the world didn’t end.”

 

Black and White airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on A&E.