On this day in comedy on September 24, 1987 A Different World premiered on NBC!
Originally a Cosby Show spin-off, the sitcom became its own show. Denise Huxtable was supposed to go off to Hillman College in Virginia and viewers were meant to be exposed to life on a historically black college. Great idea; major problems. The fact Hillman was fictional and based on Hampton University was not a problem. The fact Denise Huxtable had a white roommate (Marisa Tomei) was not a problem (many HSUs have interracial student bodies). However, the fact Lisa Bonet who played Denise Huxtable got pregnant was.
After the first season the show needed retooling. Complaints had come in that the portrayal of Hillman was inaccurate so Debbie Allen was brought in to make the show authentic. Debbie had attended Howard University (a legit HSU) and was a skillful director of actors. She took the series writers to 3 black colleges to flush out true-to-life ideas.
Since the decision had been made to have Denise Huxtable drop out of Hillman and move to Africa (so viewers would never see the ‘good girl’s’ baby bump), Allen focused the show on the new principal characters of Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) and Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison). Social issues the parent show shied from were explored on A Different World such as racism, date rape, AIDS, blacks owning slaves, the Persian Gulf War and class relations.
A Different World had a cast that remained in flux. After the first season departure of Lisa Bonet, Marisa Tomei and Loretta Devine; Cree Summers and Charnele were brought in as regulars. Dawnn Lewis and Mary Alice remained, but Sinbad and Darryl M. Bell went from recurring to main characters. Glynn Turman and Lou Myers were also given more camera time. In subsequent seasons Ajai Sanders and Jada Pinkett were signed on as recurring and later bumped up to main characters.
The sitcom was noted for accurately portraying college life, fraternity and sorority involvements and the black experience. To help tell these stories the show featured a wide range of black talent. Over the years, appearances were made by Kim Wayans, Jenifer Lewis, Rosalind Cash, Ron O’Neal, Phylicia Rashad, Malcolm Jamal Warner, Robert Gulllaume, Bill Cosby, Patti Labelle, Diahann Carroll, Tisha Campbell, Art Evans, Lena Horne, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Richard Roundtree, Halle Berry, Roseanne Barr, Tom Arnold, Dean Cain, Whoopi Goldberg, Heavy D, David Alan Grier, Gladys Knight, Jesse Jackson, Blair Underwood and Tupac Shakur.
During its six season run the sitcom was always in one of the top two slots with Black viewers and has been credited by many college alumni that it is that show that encouraged them to attend historically black colleges.
A Different World had its series finale on July 9, 1993.
By Darryl “D’Militant” Littleton
Check out this clip: