Much-panned 'Different World' finds its legs


June 21, 1991|By Michael Hill

Dawnn Lewis says that it took Bart, Homer and the rest of the Simpson clan to get her show the respect it deserved for years.

Lewis plays Jaleesa Vinson on NBC's "A Different World," a comedy that could have been titled "The Lisa Bonet Show" when started in 1987.

The Carsey-Werner production company basically strong-armed the network into making a spinoff of "The Cosby Show" and putting it in the half hour following that runaway hit.

Bonet's character of Denise Huxtable, a daughter from "The Cosby Show," was sent away to her Dad's alma mater, the predominately black Hillman College, where she found a new bunch of co-stars.

Resentful critics were pretty universal in their pans, and even Lewis, who was with the show from its beginning, admits that there were extensive growing pains that first season.

"Our original executive producer was a former 'Saturday Night Live' writer who had done 'Square Pegs,'" she said of Anne Beatts, who had created that high school comedy which ran for one season on CBS.

"That first year, we were basically doing 'Square Pegs' in college. They made us do silly stuff, it was just a year of fluff," said Lewis, who was in Baltimore for the convention of the Broadcast Promotion and Marketing Executives.

"Things changed in the second season. We got new producers and writers who started talking to the actors about what their characters should be doing. We had a writer who had gone to a black college who knew what kids were laughing about on campus," she said.

Bonet also left the show during her pregnancy and ended up never returning as the scripts began focusing on different characters.

"A lot of people blame Lisa for the show's problems, but that wasn't the case at all," Lewis said. "She could only say the lines that were written for her, just like the rest of us."

Lewis said that in that second season "A Different World" became a different show, a much more sophisticated comedy that could hold its own with the best on television. But it was still labeled a sitcom that would be getting slaughtered in the ratings if its big brother -- "The Cosby Show" -- wasn't fighting the big bullies for it.

This past season, however, "The Cosby Show" suffered when Fox put "The Simpsons" up against it, but "A Different World" held its own in the weekly Nielsen tally.

Lewis wasn't surprised. "We've been doing good shows for years. We've done shows on date rape, on AIDS, on sexual activity and the need for protection and birth control. We did a show on the effect getting called up for the war in the gulf had on a group of friends. Not too many comedies have tackled these issues."

The show is also credited with a precipitous rise in applications to predominately black colleges, some from students who start out wanting to apply to the fictitious Hillman.

Lewis, who grew up in a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Brooklyn and graduated from the equally diverse New York High School of Music and Art, attended the University of Miami where, she said, her first encounters with racism made her understand those who choose black schools.

"It was a heavy load to bear at times," she said of years of fighting in the theater department where she was relegated to stereotypical black roles in productions.

"Finally they cast me in the lead of 'No, No Nanette,'" she said. "That caused quite a stir. The department changed while I was there. At first they were only doing things like 'No, No Nanette.' By my senior year, they were doing shows like 'The Wiz.' It was a way of opening up to the many ethnic influences they have in Miami."

Despite the problems, she is glad she went to multi-racial school. "I grew up and learned a lot during those years," she said.

Lewis' character, Jaleesa, graduated from Hillman last season, got a job in business and an apartment that keeps her in contact with the students at Hillman.

"I want to stay with the show, but only as long as they can figure out creative ways to have my character involved," she said. "When it starts feeling forced, I'll look for something else to do."

Though Lewis credits "The Simpsons" with bringing "A Different World" respect, she has to thank "The Cosby Show" for keeping it alive.

"We were given time to find our legs," she said of that shaky first year. "Not too many shows get that chance."

Maybe the networks should learn something from that.

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