More than a black “Friends”: the brilliant, subversive message of Alan Yang and Jay-Z’s sitcom spoof

An alternate reality.
An alternate reality.
Image: Screenshot of Jay Z's moonlight
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We stuck in La La Land

Even when we win, we gon’ lose

In the opening sequence of Jay Z’s new music video for his song “Moonlight,” viewers step into an alternate reality, a La La Land of sorts. The setting is familiar—the apartment of the beloved 1990s sitcom Friends—and so is the dialogue, which is word-for-word from the Friends episode “The One Where No One’s Ready.” But the actors reciting the lines aren’t Jennifer Aniston or David Schwimmer. Instead, it’s a stunning cast of black Hollywood’s most talented young actors.

Standup comedian, actor, and writer Jerrod Carmichael is suited up in a tux to play Ross. Issa Rae, the writing and acting talent behind HBO’s Insecure is Rachel. Tiffany Haddish, who’s having a moment following her starring role in Girls Trip, is Phoebe. LaKeith Stanfield of AtlantaGet Out, and The Incredible Jessica James is Chandler. Lil Rel Howery of Get Out and The Charmichael Show is Joey. And Tessa Thompson of Dear White PeopleCreed, and Westworld is Monica. The cast acts out the scene faithfully, with the audience laughing on cue. They even recreate the opening sequence, but instead dance to the Whodini song “Friends.”

Then the scene shifts: The cast breaks character when Lil Rey’s cell phone goes off. Carmichael wanders off the set and asks the comedian Hannibal Buress what he thinks of the show so far, to which Buress replies: “It was terrible, man. It was whack as shit. It was just Seinfeld episodes with black people. Who asked for that?”

Carmichael and Buress chat about the abysmal roles available to black actors (Buress boasts of booking a role as a “parrot with a bad attitude that has a heart of gold” in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Cruise Line”)—making Jay Z’s point that even when black entertainers “win,” and land on blockbuster films or TV shows, they still lose.

Still, the video’s cast attests to the fact that there are more diverse, brilliant TV shows now then ever before, including—Master of None, Insecure, and Atlanta. It’s a powerful rallying cry to tell real stories, by artists who are doing just that.

‘Cause their grass is greener

‘Cause they always rakin’ in mo’

Directed by Master of None co-creator Alan Yang, the music video, which dropped on Tidal at 4:44 pm on August 4, and will reportedly be more widely available in a week, has already sparked a lot of buzz on social media. Many reactions haven’t got past the idea of a “black Friends” with some calling for a full 30-minute show with the black cast.

But as others have already pointed out, “black Friends” already exists—Living Single. The 1990s TV show, which starred Queen Latifah, aired a year Friends and was widely regarded as a hit (albeit, never reaching the fame of Friends).

(Again, Jay Z reinforces this point. No matter what black entertainers do, their white peers are “always rakin’ in mo.’”)

Y’all niggas still signin’ deals? Still?

After all they done stole, for real?

Carmichael walks back on set, clearly disoriented. The audio track fades as the camera focuses on a dazed-looking Carmichael. It becomes clear he doesn’t want to be there, reading lines from an all-white sitcom. Rae-as-Rachel then emerges from a bedroom, beautifully dressed, and leads him out the apartment’s door.

Then it all gets a little surreal: Jay Z’s “Moonlight” finally begins to play as Carmichael walks out a back door onto a lush green lawn at night, and actual moonlight beams down. Alone in this dark, uncertain place, Carmichael sits on a park bench. The audio of Faye Dunaway announcing, wrongly, that La La Land won the best picture Oscar plays as Carmichael looks up at the full moon.