The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Dir: Debbie Allen
Original Air Date: 10 September 1990
After recently perusing Netflix in a now standard vain attempt for new casual entertainment, my lack of effort and comfort in the familiar led me to begin gradually re-watching Will Smith’s classic sitcom and television breakout, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Part of BBC2’s regular rotation for the 90s generation (weeknights at 6.20pm after The Simpsons, 6.45pm on double-bill Friday), the show gained official quotable status amongst British youth and remains one of the most popular television programs ever exported from the United States. This year marks twenty-five years since the show’s debut, so as part of ILT’s SceneKid# series, I’ll be taking a look back at various memorable moments throughout it’s illustrious, hilarious history.
Looking at season one of Fresh Prince, director Debbie Allen’s opening two episodes do a fine job of establishing the characters and tone right off the bat, after which Jeff Melman takes up the reins. Of course major character developments do occur over time (Hillary and Ashley being the most obvious), but in general the main characters are well founded in terms of traits, general outlook etc. The pilot stands up to this day (Smith’s “Firth, Wynn, and Meyer/Earth, Wind, and Fire” line and the late, great James Avery’s “I heard the brother speak” powerhouse are early examples of the strong writing featured throughout the series), but the earliest moment many remember in terms of outright, looping-viewed comedy comes during episode two, ‘Bang the Drum, Ashley’, and, in particular, the entrance stage right of the first major secondary character, Jazz (played by, of course, DJ Jazzy Jeff).
Seemingly dazed upon admittance to the Banks’ residence, as he attempts to take in the associated wealth of what he points out is a rather apt family name (“Man, you loooaaaded!”), it isn’t long before Jazz’s respective reputation and relationship to Will and Uncle Phil, via the medium of unconventional handshakes, is born. Stereotypical streetwise characteristics are hardly the most difficult to convey in a show such as this, especially considering the status of the main character, but what we have here is a well done, timeless impact that lends itself well to future repeat appearances and references. If Will is the anti-Carlton in Uncle Phil’s eyes, then Jazz is the anti-Christ, little more than a (hilarious) stain on society and a bad influence on Will and his own children. This of course comes to a head later in the episode following Jazz’s eye opening wooing of Hillary, his backward teatime appreciation (“Biscuits!”), and his rather non-classical perverted scratch technique, culminating in his soon-to-be traditional exit at the hands of Uncle Phil.
Prior to these escapades we have the finale of the scene in question, at which time Will takes over. His highly amusing tendency to break into song and/or dance at any time was previously featured briefly near the back end of episode one (and would of course later produce another staple moment in modern dance floor pop culture), but here we get the full steak and chips for the first time. As Jazz thunders away on the drums, we’re treated to the incomprehensible but somehow hysterical chorus of what years later was revealed to many YouTube users to be Techtontronic’s most-80s-track-ever, Pump Up the Jam. Will Smith then goes full on Will Smith, throwing limbs everywhere in a ridiculous, side-splitting improvised routine that’s as simple as it is genius. A demonstration of the all round talent that had already made him a star in the music industry – reapplied here in his own comedy television setting – was an early sign that Smith’s eye for a quick laugh extended to virtually every method available to him. His repertoire of natural comedic outlets knew few boundaries at this point, and would only continue to develop and mature as the series progressed. Twenty-five years, multiple hit albums, Hollywood blockbusters, and an Oscar nomination later; genuine off-the-cuff moments like this remain fresher than ever.