The television sitcom A Different World was innovative for many reasons. The primetime television show was centered around African-American students at the fictional HBCU, “Hillman College.” Since its September 24, 1987 debut, the show dared to tackle many heavy and “taboo” subjects that continue to erupt in the community. Even though the many changes that occurred behind the scenes, the sitcom consistently delivered and went the extra mile. So much so that Debbie Allen, one of the show’s creative forces, claimed that advertisers wanted to review its scripts because they thought they were taking it too far!
It was beautiful to witness an absolutely positive and affirming depiction of being young, gifted, and Black on television. After season one of A Different World, legendary multi-talented director, and producer Debbie Allen was hired to help revamp the show. An alumnus of Howard University herself, Allen was able to fully all the authentic aspects that the show needed. Besides widespread Black excellence on a college campus, some topics that the Jasmine Guy and Kadeem Hardison led show touched on were racism and the AIDS epidemic.
Talking to TV One’s Unsung cameras, Debbie Allen explained how “excited” she was to develop stories surrounded by season one star, Marisa Tomei. However, the producers gave Tomei the boot as they were interested in the show going in a different direction, culturally. Once Allen arrived, details such as “hot sauce” on the cafeteria tables to fraternities and sororities were included in the show.
Soon, the Cosby Show spin-off rose above the competition to claim a position in the top 5 on Nielson rating charts, and the number one spot in African-American households. A Different World‘s content also began to shift from being solely comedic to having much heavier tones at times. Many of those episodes continue to live memorably as they remain impactful to this day.
Debbie Allen and actress Jasmine Guy touched on the episode where the focus was on a student that contracted HIV/AIDs. In the episode, Guy shares that the network (NBC) was resistant to air an episode surrounding HIV as they did not find any comedic element to it. However, feeling the urgency to speak on the topic, they pressed on and acquired Tisha Campbell and Whoopi Goldberg to guest star.
Another episode touched on the issues of men who cannot take no for an answer from women. Years later, it would broach this same heavy subject again, but in an office setting. Many of the hard-to-watch scenes were also included in episodes that touched on colorism. One was directed towards “Blackface” depictions, called “Mammie Dearest,” that many in the cast and crew expressed was deeply “emotional.”
However, according to Debbie Allen, the bravery of the show’s creative team discouraged many advertisers. Allen told Unsung that the AIDs episode, in particular, had them in shambles. “You would have thought we had put Jesus back on the cross,” she said. “We couldn’t show a condom in a package. We could only point to something in a purse.”
Times were definitely much different in the 1980s than they were now, with things being way more conservative on television and film. Advertisers soon began to demand access to the scripts prior to production and airing. Because of the heavy content, A Different World was threatened to be pulled off of the air. However, thanks to Bill Cosby, the show would not remain in jeopardy. “Bill Cosby stood by us,” Allen explained. “He said, ‘You do the show.'” We are thankful for shows like A Different World that were such important and pivotal marks for the culture and in Hollywood.