Chris Palmer digs deep into ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’
New book takes a look at star Will Smith, the show’s legacy, and why fans still love it
Over 30 years after The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air hit NBC, the show not only remains incredibly popular, but it’s also still big business. The sitcom remains in syndication, clips from the series garner millions of views on YouTube, and the cast reunited for a popular HBO Max special in 2020. Last year, Will Smith joined with Morgan Cooper and Fresh Prince series creators Andy and Susan Borowitz to produce Bel-Air, a reimagining of the ’90s series for Peacock (season two drops on Feb. 23).
Journalist Chris Palmer took a deep dive into the series with his new book, The Fresh Prince Project: How the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Remixed America. It’s an exhaustive look at not only how the hip-hop-infused sitcom came together, thanks to a young rapper who had never acted before, but also how and why the show became an important touchstone of Black culture, and pop culture overall.
Andscape recently caught up with Palmer to discuss the book, the show’s legacy, “the slap,” when Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock during the Academy Awards in 2022, and so much more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why write a book about The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? And what made it so personal for you?
I was very young when The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air first came on, and it was a show like I had never seen before. It was a hip-hop-infused show, and there had never been anything like that on prime-time network TV. The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff were also the first group that my parents allowed us to listen to, so I had a connection with Will Smith right away. I love the show. I love the humor. I love the back-and-forth between Will and Carlton, these different kinds of dudes thrown into the same situation. I love that, and that’s one of the reasons that the show resonates for me. Plus, it was as funny as hell, and it looked cool. So from a young kid’s standpoint, that’s why I love the show.
I also just love stuff from the ’90s, whether it’s music, fashion, culture, film, TV, anything. And I think for a lot of people, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it gives them a really, really nostalgic feel. I think that’s one of the things that makes the show resonate with so many people. It brings you back to a time that you used to be and just makes you feel good.
What was the process of putting the book together?
My background is in the NBA. It’s sports. So I’ve done a lot of NBA books. This is one of the first books that I did that was not sports. So if I’m doing an NBA book, I can pick up the phone and call anybody. They know me. Now with this book, everyone you see in the book … I don’t know any of these people. There’s not a single person that I knew. So I’m calling and emailing everybody cold. That was one of the first big obstacles, but you just got to do it and see if they’re receptive.
So, that reporting was very unique and very new to me, because I didn’t know anyone that I was going to be interviewing. When you do a book like this, it’s very research-heavy and resource-intensive. First of all, you start out with the research, but the research never ends. When you’re done with the book, that’s when you don’t do any more research. You have to know everything about the subject that you’re talking about, so we’re talking about sitcoms, TV, Hollywood, all these different things. Who are the players? The network executives? These are names that I wasn’t familiar with, but I had to find them out, and find out what they do, why they’re significant. And then you find people and you do the interviews. You put out as big a net as you can. Some people will be receptive, some people won’t, but you have to ask. Everyone has an origin story. Everyone’s story needs to be told.
Did you try to get interviews with some of the major actors like Will Smith, Alfonso Ribeiro, Janet Huber, and Tatyana Ali? Or did you feel like they already had told their story, especially given the HBO Max reunion?
That HBO Max reunion was like, 60 minutes, and this show was six years. I started working on the book way before the HBO Max reunion, and they only told us a slice of the story of the show. I loved it, but it was only a small piece of the story. I tried to get in touch with every single person who was on the show. You have to. And so I reached out to him, but I didn’t get Will. He was finishing up his book when I was writing my book, so it didn’t make a lot of sense for him to talk to me. His book was a huge resource for mine, but he’s got a 400-page book. Everybody should read it. It was brilliant, but he only devotes maybe 12 pages to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air because his book is about his entire life, his rap career, his movie career, a lot of his personal stuff.
Can you share how much this show meant to pop culture as a whole, Black culture, and television history?
It was a game changer in a lot of ways because it introduced hip-hop culture, and not by thrusting in your face, but almost in a spoon-fed kind of way. It had never been done. So when I started the book, I was like, ‘I’ll start the book out with episode one, where it started.’ And then I realized it started way before that. So how do we get to the point where The Fresh Prince … is on air? I had to go back and study Black sitcom history. And I go all the way back to Norman Lear, who started All in the Family. We’re now in the ’70s. That was a show about a racist dude who was living in New York, and it was a superpopular show. That kind of show had never been seen before. And there was a character introduced in the show named George Jefferson, who was his next-door neighbor. That was really the first spinoff ever in TV history, which became The Jeffersons. It was a hugely popular sitcom. Then there was Good Times and The Cosby Show. All of these shows make the next one after it possible. So you get The Cosby Show and that makes The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air possible. Now we’re seeing all these different looks in African American culture introduced to America on a very broad scale. But The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the first time hip-hop was introduced.
The Fresh Prince was interesting because it was a fish out of water concept, which is a very, very popular concept for television sitcoms. But normally, if you have a hip-hop Black kid or a Black character, you put them with a white family, and then hilarity ensues. But what was unique and smart about this is that it took a Black character and put him with a Black family, and he was still a fish out of water. That was brilliant.
You got to see different slices of African American life thrown up against each other and see how they were different. People began to see that at a time when they might not have known that Black people are not a monolith, and not just one group. They’re very, very different. And Will was very, very different from the Banks family, from Uncle Phil, and Carlton. Many people had never experienced Black people like this before, and that’s the beauty of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. That’s a huge part of its legacy.
It’s so nostalgic for so many people. It’s like comfort food TV. The YouTube clip of the “Will’s father leaving” episode has over 13 million views.
Yeah, there’s a huge nostalgic component to the show overall, but that episode in particular resonated with millions and millions. And it resonated not just with people who didn’t have that father figure, but it also resonated with people who did as well. When my dad and I watched that episode, I was like, ‘Bro, what’s going on? Why am I crying when I’m watching a funny, colorful bouncy sitcom?’ It was the connection. And Will brought that ability to connect with people. That’s what his character was about. His character was about you wanting to find connection. He finds it in Uncle Phil, who is an excellent father figure. And I think that’s why that episode is so emotional, and resonates with so many people.
There’s no mention of “the slap” in the book. Was that a conscious decision or was it a matter of timing?
Yeah, the book was done already by that time.
In the book you talk about Will’s temper, the beatings he took from his father as a child, his need to feel like he has to protect everyone around him. Knowing as much as you know about him, was that slap as much of a shock for you as it was for everyone else?
Even if I didn’t know that stuff, it would still have been a shock. But knowing that ahead of time, I can’t sit here and say, ‘Oh, yeah, I understand what he just did.’ It was still a shocking, shocking moment. But you can never put yourself in someone’s shoes. And we seem to always want to do this with a very big celebrity character. We look at him like he’s a superhero. He literally saves the world for a living. And so we expect him to take anything that’s heaped upon him, and he’s supposed to handle it with a smile or a funny joke, laugh and move on.
Except, that might be what we want him to do, but it’s not the reality for him because he’s the one who has been heaped onto and you’re never going to be in his head. It’s not a matter of justifying what he did. It’s understanding that you’re never going to be inside of his head, and you can’t rationalize and say, ‘Oh, he shouldn’t have done that.’ Yeah, a lot of people shouldn’t do a lot of things, but you never know what someone’s going through.
Do you think that moment will affect the legacy of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?
They’re not even in the same universe. The Oscar incident and The Fresh Prince are as far away as you can get. I think The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a show that people loved and still love. Will Smith is an individual. We want him to be a simple superhero, but he’s a human being. A very complicated individual. So I think both of these things are completely separate from one another, and I think people will still love the show. I don’t think there’s any way you can stop loving The Fresh Prince.