'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air': A tribute to the series that launched Will Smith

Will-Smith

Image Credit: Bureau L.A. Collection/Corbis

Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped-turned upside down. And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell you how I became obsessed with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Really, seriously obsessed. And, strangely enough, not until recently. Sure, I caught the show every once in awhile in the 1990s. But I never fully appreciated it until I was much older — and aware about Will Smith’s status as a superstar.

Prior to revisiting Fresh Prince a few years back, thanks to those TBS reruns, I never could call myself a fan of the multi-camera sitcom. Most series in the genre were dated, predictable, and less funny than Hillary’s boyfriend Trevor. So when I flipped on a rerun of Fresh Prince a few years back, I was surprised how much Fresh Prince distanced itself from other sitcoms of its era. The wardrobe might have represented the worst of the ’90s, but the series still felt, well, fresh. The show took risks, going bluer than most sitcoms aimed at a family-friendly audience. And, most importantly, it was knock-down, drag-out funny.

Of course, most of the credit can be given to its star, Will Smith. Even in his early days as an actor, the multi-hyphenate lit up the screen, commanding it better than co-stars with years more experience. Tuning into Fresh Prince, it was clear the young actor would soon be inviting cheers at your local theater punching aliens. But part of what made Smith so impressive — and so darn likable — was his ability to share the wealth on-screen. Yes, he stole every single Fresh Prince episode. And, yes, the series would be lost without him. But Smith allowed Fresh Prince to be an ensemble show, even when it was clear he was its true star. The show wouldn’t be complete without James Avery’s Philip Banks, a foil who showed us exasperation at its finest. Or Janet Hubert and Daphne Reid’s Vivian Banks (Hubert left the show after three years), the straight woman who could still keep up with her wise-guy nephew; Karyn Parsons’ Hilary Banks, the Veruca Salt-esque spoiled cousin with a heart of gold — because that’s all she loved; Tatyana Ali’s Ashley Banks, the adolescent cousin who adored Will and served as proof that Smith could cater towards a family-friendly demographic; Joseph Marcell’s Geoffrey, the hospitable butler who evened out Will’s manic ways with quiet hostility; and, of course, Alfonso Ribeiro’s Carlton Banks, a character so outlandish, everyone could mimic “The Carlton Dance” to this day.

The series was so fresh and so smart, it’s no wonder several high-profile guest stars stopped by the Banks mansion throughout its run: Fresh Prince boasted appearances from the likes of Tyra Banks, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Queen Latifah, and Dick Clark. But the series hardly needed big names to succeed. Actually, I always preferred the episodes that would focus squarely on the Banks family and Will’s hijinks. Think “Talking Turkey” (the first Thanksgiving episode), “Burnin’ Down the House” (in which Will accidentally destroys the Banks kitchen), and “Strip-Tease For Two,” when Carlton and Will unintentionally become the dancers for a party involving Aunt Vivian. The Banks were a glamorous family with big hearts and hearty humor — who wouldn’t want to join in with their shenanigans? And give Smith millions and millions of dollars to headline Hollywood’s most profitable films?

But now I turn things over to you, PopWatchers. What are you favorite memories involving the Banks family? And, with the exception of Will, who was your favorite Fresh Prince character?


Follow Kate on Twitter @KateWardEW

Comments (53 total) Add your comment
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  • jordan

    This honestly is one of the best shows of all time. All the jokes are hilarious, it kept a consistent, basic storyline, but mostly, was just incredibly fun to watch.

    • why?

      the best scene ever was when Will and Carlton are in jail and the only other person in the cell is a white guy – and the white guy is acting weird, singing and looking menacing. Will turns to Carlton and says “When you see a white dude in jail YOU KNOW he did something bad”

  • ST

    I too, didn’t catch this show until reruns later on but LOVE it!

  • Ann

    I loved this show when I was a kid. I had such a crush on Will Smith. He was hilarious and I loved the Carlton dance and the way Mr. Banks always threw Jazz out of his house (literally). Of course the best part had to be the theme song. I still have it memorized.

  • Dee

    I’m an easy crier, but I remember one Fresh Prince, where Will’s dad comes by, and I don’t really remember the plot, but he leaves at the end, and Will and Uncle Phil are talking, and then the scene (and show) ends with Will saying, in this really heartbroken voice, “Why don’t he want me?” and then they hug. The tears, they came in droves.

    • casey

      oh my god yes. i cried so hard haha

    • Kat

      That was my Favorite episode too!

    • shef

      Oh, man, you HAD to bring up that scene, didn’t you? I cry EVERY TIME Will says “There ain’t a damn thing he can teach ME about HOW TO LOVE MY KID!” Now I’m tearing up just remembering it.

      • Molly

        I just watched in on youtube and am tearing up in my office!

    • Lyndsey

      Jeez!! Only TV episode that can choke me up every single time I watch it!
      I loved this show when it first aired & it’s one of the only sitcoms that I can watch repeatedly (it’s up there with The Golden Girls & Frasier for me). You knew even way back then that Smith was going to be a star…at least in comedies, I don’t think any of us saw the action hero status coming. And he proved on numerous occasions that he could excel with more dramatic work as well. He did such a great job with this show and he really appears to have remained the same humble, down-to-earth guy that he was then. This is why he’s still one of my favorite actors and one of the only ones I’ll watch in pretty much anything!!

  • Sheri/Philly

    I also loved Fresh Prince and Will immensely.First,I am West Philadelphia born and raised myself,and because Will Smith and I attended the same HS (many yrs apart).I love that he has incorporated Overbrook in his production name,and NEVER forgets us no matter how big he gets.As for fave episodes,there are so many to choose from.One is def when Trevor was killed in the plane jump,because only a stellar cast could make that a hilarious scenario.I loved all of the cast,but standouts were Hilary,Uncle Phil,Geoffrey,Carlton,& Will,of course.Fantastic

  • Shiva

    West Philadelphia born and raised….

  • Kyle

    I would watch this show every morning during the summer. No matter how many reruns I saw, I never got tired of it.

  • Avi

    Not gonna lie, I always had a soft spot for Hilary. There was something about her that I thought was so funny. I think this is the only show from that time period that I still know all the lyrics to the theme song.

  • Michelle

    “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone….”

    Enough said.

  • miss k

    Fresh Prince never gets old. It’s one of those shows you can watch over and over and it’s still funny.

  • DAK

    I know I was very young (maybe twelve?) and I always go back and question my adolescent tastes, but in this case I think I recognized true comic gold even then. I remember my parents rushing into the living room during the pilot episode because I was laughing so hard it sounding like I was crying hysterically. They thought something was wrong. No…just funny. Really really funny.

  • Vivi

    This is my show! Like you said, it’s amazing how well it holds up in freaking 2011. Anytime it’s on TV, I must watch it. Granted, I should just buy the complete DVD set or something. But it feels much better watching it on some random channel at some random time.

  • Julia Putnam

    I also tear up every time I watch the episode with Will’s dad (played by the always awesome Ben Vereen). I think Uncle Phil shined in the episode and the acting between James Avery and Will Smith sealed Will as an actor for me. I remember calling my boyfriend after the episode, to console him about missing his father. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I was consoling myself over the absence of my own father. Oh, Fresh Prince, how seminal you were to my childhood. Arguably one of the top three theme songs of all time, too!

  • MhM

    THE GREATEST

  • jessica

    My favorite episode was when Hilary dropped out of UCLA (or was it USC?) and she didin’t want to tell Phil and Vivian so she stupidly told Will who of course blackmailed her. This in turn, led Hilary to tell Carlton who blackmailed Hilary. It all came to a head at the dinner table. I caught this episode again over the summer and it was still as funny as when I originally watched it.

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