What happens when you take a hip-hop loving, basketball-playing, wisecracking kid from Philadelphia and transplant him into the upper crust of Bel-Air high society? Apparently, that’s what the folks at NBC wanted to find out when they aired the first episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1990. The off-beat sitcom starred Will Smith, the future movie superstar who at the time was just coming off his success as a popular 80’s rapper. Smith played a troublemaker whose mom sent him to live with his uncle Phil Banks, a wealthy judge played by James Avery. Also present in the Banks’ California household were Smith’s aunt Vivian, cousins Hilary, Ashley, Nicky
and the uber-nerdy Carlton. Smith’s partner DJ Jazzy Jeff was also a frequent guest, much to the annoyance of Phil and his witty butler Geoffrey.
The Fresh Prince was a revelation for 90’s audiences, who were tired of seeing the same sitcom concepts recycled over and over again. Smith was not only funny but genuinely charismatic, and he was completely believable in his fish out of water role. His character’s willingness to do the right thing and generally lighten the mood 24 / 7 led to some hilarious and bizarre situations throughout the program’s run. The cast of the show had excellent chemistry, with the laughs coming fast and furious and often way out of left field. One of the most enduring gags on the show was Jazzy Jeff’s deadbeat character being physically thrown out of the house in rather spectacular fashion. Other memorable plot lines involved Will Smith attending his uptight prep school, and his constant battle of the wits with determined Republican Carlton, who rarely saw eye to eye with his freewheeling cousin.
One of the most memorable aspects of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air has been the theme song. Rapped out by Smith, it details his journey from Philly to Cali and is undeniably catchy. It would probably be difficult to find anyone between the ages of 25 and 35 who couldn’t at least recite one or two bars, putting it up there with the themes from Cheers and M*A*S*H in terms of familiarity. Will Smith is one of the rare stars who was able to successfully combine a music and acting career without seeing his popularity in either arena fade, and The Fresh Prince is an enduring icon of 90’s television comedy.