Sherrod Small and Christian Finnegan on ‘Black and White’ and How To Make Race Discussions Funny

Scott Gries/A&E

Sherrod Small and Christian Finnegan are always good for a quote: The stand-up comedians and longtime friends have been seen on more talking-head shows than either would like to count (you might remember them from Best Week Ever, for instance). But with their new series, Black and White, they’re front and center, talking about this country’s racial divide in a way that’s not only accessible, but funny.

In the premiere episode, which aired on A&E on July 27, Small parodied Jerry Senfeld’s streaming hit from the African-American perspective, in a sketch called Comedians in Cars Getting Pulled Over. Also, they had a frank and funny discussion about double standards with comedians Charlemagne the God and Jim Gaffigan. In the upcoming episode on August 3, the duo take to the streets of New York to see how people would react if they heard news that James Franco was cast as Bob Marley in a biopic (which you can see in the clip below).

Small and Finnegan talked to TV Insider about the show, why they had to put a disclaimer at the beginning of their first episode, and why Vanilla Ice is the guest that they most regret not booking.

How’d you guys get the idea in the first place? How risky was it for you guys to do this, when you pitched it around?
Sherrod Small: First of all, damn the rest, Joel. Damn the rest. Go ahead Chris.
Christian Finnegan: Yeah, absolutely. We’re daredevils.
Small: We’re the Flying Wallendas when it comes to this.
Finnegan: The show has kind of evolved over a long time. Sherrod and I have been friends for a while and we worked on various projects together. I think that because we have an ease in talking about this with each other in a way that I don’t feel like people do as much. It happened a little bit by accident. Throughout my career, for whatever reason, I have gotten cast as the “white guy” a number of times.
Small: Yes, without black people, you would be nothing.
Finnegan: Sherrod, by virtue of his many appearances on Fox News, has become the “black guy” in that context.
Small: The “black, angry guy”. I think it was the role I was born for.
Finnegan: Sherrod isn’t me and I’m not Sherrod, but we’re able to have an easy banter about topics that other people seem to want to avoid. It just made sense to try to form a show around that core.

Obviously a lot of what could be said in the greenroom or at the bar of the comedy club, if it was said on TV or even on Twitter, people would get pushback for it.
Small: If it’s done right, you can do it. I think our sensibilities come through the screen. People know where we’re coming from. You can’t just write something off because you hear one thing you might not agree with, one thing that’s a little too aggressive. We want people to be able to breathe and watch the show and realize we’re not coming from an evil place.
Finnegan: Exactly. If I say something that makes people make their buttholes pucker a little bit because it feels uncomfortable, then they see Sherrod take it in the spirit that it’s intended because he knows where I’m coming from, he knows that I’m not coming from a hateful place. To see him laugh about it and to be able to debate me and let me push back and say, “This is where you’re wrong,” but not get angry. I feel like that just lets a little air into the room. So much of this stuff, nobody wants to say out loud and it festers like a cancer inside you and that’s what makes people quietly go and vote for Trump.

Do you guys also think that this is like the type of conversation that people would have behind closed doors, but then when they get out in public or they get on social media they’re like, “I would never say anything like that”?
Small: Most people will say, “I won’t ever say anything like that” because they don’t want to get fired or ridiculed or thrown out their church. But these conversations are still being done. The same conversations that comics may have in the comedy club backstage or you might have with your boys at the barbershop. You really think barbershop talk. If you imagine a big barbershop all filled with comedians. That’s what our show is. Free conversation, and free spirit.
Finnegan: You rarely see black people and white people having a conversation together.
Small: In a genuine way.
Finnegan: It’s either white people talking to other white people or black people talking to other black people or black people angrily pontificating and white people shame-facedly nodding and saying, “Yes, we’re terrible.” There’s got to be a space where we can let a little air into the room and say this stuff out loud and show that the world won’t explode if you actually just express the way you really feel.

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You had to put a disclaimer in front of the first episode because you had taped it before the incidents in Minnesota and Dallas and Baton Rouge all happened. Are you going to be taping the same week you air? Is that going to be the idea going forward?
Small: That’s what we want to do. These [first 8] episodes, we kept all these episodes evergreen so they can all play at any time, the stuff that we’re talking about. Eventually that’s what we want to be. We want to be week to week. That’s how we want to do it.

How did you guys feel though when all of those events happened after taping this first batch? We’re you debating whether to put the disclaimer in there?
Small: I didn’t want to disclaimer anything. I was like, “Hey, this is what our show is.” When you stay this close to the truth, this is what’s going to happen. Real life is going to catch up to us at some point. We didn’t base our comedy around these incidents, but if you live in America, you’ve been in this kind of thing. It’s only a matter of time before a big one comes in the news and you have to have an episode that’s like it. I was thinking, “Oh well.” But then I think it was good because just play it safe and put it in this so people will know that we’re not a–holes stepping on these stories. This is the country we live in and if you play this close to the truth it might look like what you’re doing.
Finnegan: It wasn’t our idea to do the disclaimer, but I think it actually turned out okay. I think we were both really nervous because we didn’t want to get out there and apologize for a show that we’re very proud of.

It looked like the interview with Jim Gaffigan and Charlemagne the God in episode 1, was a genuine discussion.
Small: Maybe because it was that Jim and Charlemagne, we’re all friends. We’re so used to talking to one another. We’re all comics and we all talk for a living like that. I think that flow was so loose and what not that even our next conversation might look stiff compared to that one.
Finnegan: You clearly never seen Jim address stuff like that. It feels more idiosyncratic because it’s not a field that you’re used to seeing somebody like Jim Gaffigan talk about. There is no Jim Gaffigan material about race.
Small: That’s the joy of the show. That’s the joy of it.

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Who are we going to see in the next 7 episodes?
Small: So many people. Oh, we’ve got everybody. We’ve got some of the hottest people.
Finnegan: Also, just interesting people. We have the weirdest, most diverse group of guests.
Small: We’ve got everybody from David Alan Grier coming on, to Ann Coulter, to Bassem Youssef …
Finnegan: Bassem Youssef, he’s like the Egyptian Jon Stewart, and Daymond John from Shark Tank.
Small: We got Romany Malco from 40 Year Old Virgin, the black dude.
Finnegan: Why did you say, “the black dude”?
Small: We got Raekwon from Wu-Tang. Who else going to have Raekwon and Ann Coulter on the same stage?

Is the idea to put the two people that are opposite viewpoints together like that?
Small: They may not necessarily be on the same show. They may not necessarily be on the same episode. That’s the wheelhouse of people who we want to talk to and we want to clown with and we want to play and joke and bump up and give some ideas. That’s how we want to play.
Finnegan: When we brought in Ann Coulter, it was just Sherrod and I interviewing her because I felt like if we bring in a fourth person, then it becomes like Crossfire or any other damn show that you’re used to seeing Ann Coulter on. It all depends on the particular show.

Can you see yourselves bringing on some of the other hosts who talk race like, W. Kamau Bell, Larry Wilmore and Trevor Noah?
Finnegan: We’re going to have a mix of people who talk about race and also people who never talk about race. That to me, having that mix is what’s interesting because we don’t want it to feel like a symposium. We don’t want it to be like some sort of academic discussion. We want it to be people having their real opinions. Having someone like Kamau would be great because obviously he operates in the space. But I also want to find people who you never would think of them as having opinions about this stuff. And when I say that, of course, I’m talking mostly white people.
Small: Plus we want to hear about other people’s experiences. We want to hear perspective and experiences. We want to bring a different voice to it, and make a comedic voice too at the same time. It’s not an easy thing to do, Joel. We didn’t pick the easiest thing to do on television. I could have dated Flavor Flav. But I said no.

That episode with Henry Louis Gates and Carrot Top, is that coming?
Small: [Laughs] That’s coming and I know both guys. I’ve interviewed both already. Yes. That’s coming.
Finnegan: Sherrod has the weirdest Rolodex in the world.

What would your dream panel be?
Small: I would love to have Trump and Obama on at the same time.
Finnegan: This didn’t happen so I feel bad talking about something that didn’t happen. We have one episode where we were talking about cultural appropriation. We were very close to booking Vanilla Ice which would have been like Patient Zero.
Small: He’s the outbreak monkey of appropriation that caused the hip-hop generation. And we wanted him so bad. We’re fans of him. I love Vanilla Ice. I think he got the short end of the stick. Because you know what, it’s not easy being the only person to look like you and entering the industry. I don’t give a f–k who you are. Obama or Vanilla Ice.

Black and White, Wednesdays, 10:30/9:30c, A&E.