The untimely and tragic shooting death of actor Merlin Santana on November 9, 2002, is a moment that stands out as a staggering circumstance in a distinct era in black entertainment. It was a time in which black sitcoms were fairly plentiful. Stories about families, workplaces and roomates were the norm, and they grew at a steady pace since the early-mid 1990s, following the success of "The Cosby Show". Although few projects made it to see longevity through the seasons, network television hubs such as UPN, Fox and WB made a concerted effort to cater to black audiences, dedicating programming to all ages in the black family.
In the mix of it all was Merlin Santana, a Bronx-born, Afro-Dominican who first appeared on-screen as an extra in Woody Allen's 1985 film "The Purple Rose of Cairo." It wasn't long before Santana became a familiar face within a class of '90s black child psuedo-stars who seemed to net all the guest-starring children and teen roles in our favorite television shows and movies - black or otherwise. Many of them are still recognizable today: Wesley Jonathan, Alexis Fields, Kyla Pratt, Robert Ri'chard, Reagan Gomez-Preston, Essence Atkins, Orlando Brown and Brandon Quinton Adams, who was seated next to Santana inside a vehicle the fateful moment he was shot in killed in the Crenshaw section of Los Angeles. Some of those actors were rewarded with starring roles and are forever immortalized by our memories of the characters they portrayed. After playing Theo Huxtable's afterschool program student Stanely on "The Cosby Show", Joey on "Sister, Sister", Calvin on "Hangin' with Mr. Cooper" and Ohaji on "Moesha", Santana was chosen for the role we'll always remember him for: Romeo, the dim-wittedly debonair seventh-year senior in Mr. Hightower's music class on WB's "The Steve Harvey Show".
Why'd we love him? Well...to be frank... God bless the dead, but Santana was so believable as a dummy. I mean, shockingly charismatic and wholly fascinating and funny as hell as a dummy. It also helped that he had his sidekick Bullethead to help drive home the hilarity. Together, they had excellent timing the could rival any duo in the annals of the buddy comedy hall of fame. But, it was clear Romeo Santana was the more dynamic of the two characters, as much like he did with his role on "The Cosby Show", Santana was able to shine in complex, emotional episodes that gave depth to his character's arch. Remember the one when Romeo's father pulled him out of college preparatory classes and tried to enroll him in vocational training? That showdown between Romeo and his father was an epic push and pull, but beyond the writing was the cultural significance of the characters involved.
As a child, it confused me, because I always saw Romeo as black. And I never thought anything more of it. Listening to him and his father go back and forth in Spanglish surprised and befuddled me. It was the first time I'd encounter any awareness about Afro-Hispanic identity and the oppresive history black and brown people throughout the Americas, due to imperialism.
But, mostly, Romeo and his stupidity was a necessary part to the personality of "The Steve Harvey Show", a program grounded enough in reality for all its ridiculous parts to be endearing (more on that later). And Romeo is characteristic of how a dumb character can be written in a fairly intellectual way, then performed at an even higher level.
On the 15th anniversary of Santana's death, let's celebrate some of the most cleverly written and performed dumb, dynamic characters who made the black television so much fun to watch.
1) Lahmard Tate as Jerome on "Moesha"
Let's start with the mildly dumb, less iconic Jerome - slept-on character in UPN's "Moesha" universe.
Jerome's time in Moesha Mitchell's life was short-lived. At least, the time we spent watching him interact with her during her stay in college was brief, as his 9 appearances on the show are confined within the show's sixth and final season. "Moesha" infamously concluded without a proper send-off. And, while many fans of the show long for answers to questions such as who kidnapped Myles or who's positive pregnancy test was that in Moe's apartment, I want to know what happened to Jerome, who was as clueless as Neicy's reluctant lover as he was in being Hakeem's new best friend.
2) Countess Vaughn as Kim Parker on "The Parkers"
Kim didn't start out as dumb as she ended up. As one of Moesha's two best friends, she was fairly competent, although overzealous and a bit unfiltered. It wasn't until her character was spun-off into the show's successor "The Parkers" that she started to get dumber and dumber by the season. While it was a little disheartening to see Vaughn have to portray a character who eventually regressed to childlike levels of sheer ignorance to the world around her, the once-talented actress took the Kim's de-evolution on the chin. In later seasons she really commits to Kim's utter obtuseness, connecting with the character and the writing staff's knack for crafting one-liners perfect for Vaughn's portrayal of Kim.
3) Terri J. Vaughn as Lovita Alizay Jenkins Robinson on "The Steve Harvey Show"
In 1997, when Terri J. Vaughn joined on to the second season of "The Steve Harvey Show" she brought with her an unforgettable complement to Cedric the Entertainer's Cedric Robinson character as a love interest. But, as funny as they were as an off-kilter, country couple, Lovita is even funnier as an inept secretary at the school where Steve and Ced and work.
Even though she was terribly uncouth in the professional setting, you want to root for her as soon as she uttered the phrase "Boss Lady, you my she-ro!" in admiration of her boss Principal Regina "Piggy" Grier. Uptight and stern, it's obvious Regina needed a little Lovita Alizay to balance her out in the workplace. The girl-power was a phenomenal balance to the male-dominated show. And the character was a welcome and warm addition to our hearts.
4) Alex Thomas and Suli McCollough as Phil and Mouse on "The Jamie Foxx Show"
After he renounced his seat as the next in line to to run his family's hotel empire and after he flamed out on tour with K-Ci & JoJo, Jamie King found new work in L.A. writing and performing music for commercials at Jingles 2000. Riding alongside him in the company Chevy Astrovan were Phil and Mouse, two idiots among a long list of recurring characters in Jamie's orbit, as the show's configurations changed through the years.
Phil and Mouse weren't Jamie's only friends in his new office and they certainly weren't the only entertaining members of the Jingles 2000 staff (Jamie's boss Bob was played hilariously by Blake Clark), but they were certainly the dumbest. They work well together because they are dumb in different ways. Phil was more of a gullible kind of dumb, played up by his eagerness and willingness to participate as an aide to Jamie's narcissism. Mouse... well, Mouse was just plain stupid.
5) Shawn Harrison as Waldo Geraldo Faldo "Family Matters"
Waldo Faldo, with all his obscurely named family members, is the befuddling best friend to Eddie Winslow on the popular ABC sitcom "Family Matters". Sure, everyone came to see Steve Erkel, and this is a show that jumped the shark way early on in its lifespan. But, Waldo's outlandishly silly one-liners are one of the only consistent threads in a show that transformed its cast way too often over its years on television.
6) Marlon Wayans as Marlon Williams on "The Wayans Bros."
Here's one of my favorite characters on this list. And likely one of my favorite characters in all of television.
Marlon Williams, the slapstick foil to the suave, enterprising Shawn Williams on "The Wayans Bros." is another character who progressively became more dense as the show's seasons went on. Unlike Kim Parker, though, Marlon Wayans' character doesn't simply rely on one-liners, although he had 'em in abundance. Almost like a black version of Cosmo Kramer, Marlon went all the way out with physical humor, practically from the jump, when the series debuted in January 1995.
This evolved into Marlon's little rants that pepper the show's later seasons. Marlon would often render uncontrolled, hysterical reactions to twists in the show's plots. He'd then proceed to climb over things, crawl on the floor, remove people's artificial hair before placing them back atop their unsuspecting heads, and all sorts of other antics while Shawn, the straight man, would apologize on his behalf while trying his best to subdue his embarrassing kid brother. It might've been an overused gag, but to me, it was funny every time.
Oh, and those one-liners I mentioned only got better in the show's later years. I'll share my two favorites with brief context, for those of you who don't remember the show well.
- The time he told a social worker that he wanted to adopt a child because "They tied my tube"
- The time Shawn said all they trust him to do at his new, degrading office job is "punch holes" and Marlon responded in disgust of potential man-on-woman assault with "WHO PUNCHED A HO?!"
- The time someone told him chivalry is dead and he tearfully responded "Little Chivalry Jenkins from 125th Street?!"
Thankfully, these kinds of antics live on with Marlon's new titular character on the excellent NBC show "Marlon". It's obvious Wayans' new role is a subtle tribute to his glory days, running the newsstand with his brother on The WB.
7) Whitman Mayo as Grady Wilson on "Sanford & Son"
Although Bubba is a little slow, and Fred sure ain't the sharpest knife in the drawer, it's Grady Wilson who stands out as the most remarkably dumb character on "Sanford & Son", my favorite of the numerous Norman Lear sitcoms of the 1970s.
Mayo even starred as the character in "The Sanford Arms" as well as his own spin-off "Grady", although if you blinked you would've missed it during its 10-episode run from 1975 to 1976.
8) Kel Mitchell as Kel Kimble on "Kenan & Kel"
For such a young actor, Kel Mitchell really brought it when it came to using his entire body to great comedic effect. "Kenan & Kel" and other Nickelodeon shows of its ilk might be a little tough for millennials to enjoy as adults. Looking back I think, "Why the hell did we find this funny in the '90s?" But, it ain't hard to tell why Kel's goofs got a giggle out of me each day, sitting on the carpet in the living floor, drinking my chocolate milk, eating a Kid Cuisine TV dinner. The gags still hold up today.
9) George Gore, II, as Michael Kyle, Jr. on "My Wife & Kids"
If we were to wager the dumbest characters on this list, I'd probably put my money on Junior from "My Wife & Kids". Junior is the undisputed king of one-liners in the silver age of of black sitcoms. There are too many dumb moments to name and too many great lines to point to in order to demonstrate just how dumb this boy was. But, do take note that this is the same boy who scored a 200 on the SAT exams ("They give you 300 if you sign your name correctly," his father told him in the episode, before adding "There's no 'Y' in 'Junior.'")
As time went on, not only did Junior become more of a dunce, but all the characters in the show were written to become more exaggerated versions of themselves.
In the final season, the show became a couples war in which every main character, including little Kadei, had a romantic equivalent. Every plot was centered around how each couple would react to a change in the dynamic of the crowded extended Kyle family. Junior's younger sister Claire, who wasn't the brightest, either, brought into the fold her boyfriend Tony Jeffers, who was certainly dumb. But, he was still no match for Junior - the undefeated champ!
Did I miss any characters from black sitcoms who made you giggle with their brilliant idiocracy? Lemme know in the comments! And for more on black sitcoms and their golden age, check out AJ+'s investigative piece on what the hell happened to our variety of black TV shows.