Nov 25, 2015

Inner City Prettyboy: What's Happening!!

In 1971, there were no network television programs with all-African American casts.  In 1976, there were six, including such hits as Good Times, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons.  But only What's Happening!! featured teenagers (yes, two exclamation points in the title).

It began as a four-episode summer series about the exploits of Shirley (Shirley Hemphill), a sassy waitress in a poor African-American neighborhood.  When the regular series began, Shirley was still present, but the focus was on the bookish high schooler Raj (Ernest L. Thompson, right), his best friend, the rotund schemer Rerun (Fred Berry, left), and Duane (Haywood Nelson, center), a shy younger boy who was happy that they let him hang around.  Filling out the cast was Raj's imposing, no-nonsense Mama (Mabel King) and his little sister Dee, whose catchphrase "I'm telling Mama" enjoyed a brief popularity.

There were immediate complaints about the simplistic plotlines and the cultural stereotypes. Weren't Raj and Rerun just a teenage Amos and Andy?  And Mama just a new version of Aunt Jemima?  Mabel King wondered why her character had to be a maid.  Why not have her go back to school, get a better job, start a business?  It didn't happen, and at the end of the second season she left.  Without Mama as a moral center, the series limped along with low ratings and was finally cancelled.


But there was a lot for gay kids to like in What's Happening!!  

1. Minimal heterosexual interest.  During the first two seasons, no episodes involved Raj and Rerun liking girls or getting girlfriends (two involved Duane).

2. Homoromantic buddy bonding between Raj and Rerun.  In the third season, they even move into an apartment together.



3. Duane was shy, soft, passive, pretty -- gay-vague.  Maybe that's why he got girls, because audiences need reassuring about his sexual identity.

4. No shirtless or semi nude shots, but lots of bulging.  Duane looked good coming and going.

A sequel, What's Happening Now!!, aired from 1985 to 1988.  The gang was now young adults.  Raj, newly married, was working as a writer. Rerun sold used cars. Duane was a computer programmer with a spectacular bodybuilder's physique (but he took off his shirt in just one episode).  They also added a couple of teenage best friends (Martin Lawrence, Ken Sagoes).  The homoromantic subtexts were all but forgotten.
Ernest L. Thomas has busy since the 1980s, most recently in a recurring role as a creepy funeral director on Everybody Hates Chris.  I met him in Hollywood in 1988.

Fred Berry died in 2003.

Haywood Nelson was a popular teen star during What's Happening. His roles included The White Shadow (1979), where he got to buddy-bond with Timothy Van Patten (right), and Evilspeak (1981), where he had a nude scene.  Today he is well known as an inspirational speaker.  There are gay rumors, but he hasn't made any public statements.

Nude pics of Hayward Nelson are on Tales of West Hollywood.