You turned the TV on and look….
Nine hundred forty-eight channels and there’s still nothing you want to watch. Seen that, seen that, watched that twice, but it wasn’t always the case. Once, your Monday nights were spent with a show you never missed, featuring a young guy who made you laugh. And in the new book “The Fresh Prince Project” by Chris Palmer, he made America laugh, too.
Born to solidly middle-class parents in West Philadelphia, young Will Smith gained a reputation early for being something of a class clown. Though he tried, he was not athletic; instead, his talents lay in helping people have fun. When he met Jeff Townes it was a perfect match: DJ Jazzy Jeff spun the tunes, “Fresh Prince” Smith made the raps.
Everybody wanted to be at their party. They made records and went on tour. Weeks before high school graduation, months before he turned 18, Smith was a rich kid with a nice car and lots of friends. But “bubblegum” hip hop was on its way out, “hard-driving” rap was in, and Smith’s money dried up as fast as it had arrived. Seeking Fame and Fortune Part II, Smith headed for California.
Writer Andy Borowitz was already there, cutting his teeth on Normal Lear projects and other television productions in Hollywood. When Brandon Tartikoff, who seemed to have a golden touch when it came to TV, asked Borowitz to work for him, the answer was yes and Borowitz’s wife even joined the team. Tartikoff knew a lot of industry people, including Quincy Jones and music mogul Benny Medina, who was considering a step into the TV industry. At this same time, Will Smith was hanging around The Arsenio Hall Show backstage, hoping that fame might rub off on him.
On the afternoon that Smith met Medina, the young rapper had no idea who the elder man was. Medina, conversely, was well aware of Smith’s early career. And when he asked Smith if he could act, Smith bluffed his answer, as he had so many times before…
From the outset, “The Fresh Prince Project” tries too hard. Its earliest chapters are filled with thirty-year-old language that feels forced, and allusions to some issues with Smith’s father that are never completely, satisfyingly explained. This unevenness doesn’t ever get much better as the book progresses: there’s a lot of backtracking, and the words “fish out of water” show up a ridiculous number of times.
And yet, if you can separate style from substance, author Chris Palmer does the job: his book shows how one TV comedy and the people who made it, shaped Monday nights and everyday viewpoints. It’s also a great profile of a star with one foot in a job he loved, and the other foot firmly on film.
Overall, fans who can withstand the up-and-downs of this book and don’t mind a little whiplash sometimes will want to hop on “The Fresh Prince Project.” If you like things freshly-polished, though, this book might turn you off.
By Chris Palmer, c.2022, Atria, 320 pages