Small Screen: Cedric the Entertainer tackles racial tensions in sitcom

TORONTO — Cedric the Entertainer admits it took some coercing for him to star in The Neighbourhood.

Debuting Monday on Global and CBS, the comedy series stars the veteran performer and Tichina Arnold of Martin fame as the Butlers, who live in a predominantly African-American neighbourhood in Los Angeles.

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Former New Girl star Max Greenfield and Beth Behrs of 2 Broke Girls fame play the Johnsons, a white family that moves next door and disrupts the dynamics of the community.

Cedric said he wasn’t sure about tackling such sensitive subject matter with levity. He worked with show creator Jim Reynolds to get the tone right.

“The idea of the show actually happened to him, where he moved into this predominantly black neighbourhood, and yet when I first read the script, it was strictly from his point of view,” the actor and standup star, who was born Cedric Antonio Kyles, said in an interview.

“It didn’t necessarily tell the story of how the black guy saw it and it made it strictly about race and I was like: ‘No.’ I didn’t respond to the script at first, so we met, we started to talk, we found some commonality about it.”

The story sees the Johnsons move to the area from Michigan when Behrs’ character gets a job as a school principal in L.A.

Other cast members include Marcel Spears and Sheaun McKinney as the Butlers’ sons, and Hank Greenspan as the Johnsons’ son.

Cedric, who co-starred on the sitcom The Steve Harvey Show from 1996 to 2002, said he liked that The Neighbourhood was a multi-cam series with a “nostalgic energy to it.”

Having a live audience helps them determine whether a joke works and provides much-needed immediate feedback when they’re dealing with this type of subject matter.

“I think we can defuse things,” he said, “and at the same time run straight at ’em in a way that people are like: ‘Oh, you’re not preaching to me, you’re just showing me what would be a stage play and I can watch it happen and know that hopefully the outcome will be something that either I’ll be shocked and grow by and moved by, or I’m going to be entertained most of the time with a good laugh.”’

Still, there were moments during shooting when the test audiences weren’t sure whether to laugh, he said.

Cedric is hoping audiences will find parts of the series funny, despite ongoing racial tensions in the U.S.

“I just feel it’s unfortunate that that’s the tone of the country, and so with this show we can have the opportunity to take that, flip it and then turn it into some fun,” the Missouri native said.

“Even though we do have serious subject matter, we still know that it’s an opportunity for laughter inside of it.”

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