1. Arts & Entertainment

Cedric the Entertainer debuts in new TV Land comedy

It's a delicate question, posed with some care.

After talking to Cedric the Entertainer awhile about his new sitcom for TV Land, The Soul Man, I had to ask, in a diplomatic way:

What took you so long, brother?

Cedric (given name: Cedric Antonio Kyles) had a development deal for years with ABC, where he filmed two pilots for comedy shows and wrote the script for a third.

The network never took any of those ideas to series, leaving the comic wondering if a sitcom universe in love with the acerbic vibe of The Office and 2 Broke Girls was ever going to make room for his sensibilities again.

"Each time (I developed a project) I thought, this is the one … and they made Cavemen instead," he said, referencing ABC's failed 2007 comedy based on the caveman characters in a series of car insurance commercials. "Like, what made you think that was gonna be hot … because the commercial was hot for, like, 30 seconds?"

For Cedric, 48, too many TV comedies seemed addicted to snark: "I just felt like a lot of network shows started to be really kind of mean-spirited and they call it edge. I thought it was important to go back to a time when there was more love between family members and friends and, even if you say things that are mean, the sentiment of the character wasn't mean."

So the comic developed The Soul Man, building a family comedy around a character he played as a guest star on TV Land's Hot in Cleveland: sexy R&B star-turned-church pastor the Rev. Boyce "The Voice" Ballentine.

He'll also make a bit of history, starring in the first predominantly black-cast sitcom aired by TV Land, better known for building new comedies around past sitcom stars such as Valerie Bertinelli on Hot in Cleveland and Fran Drescher in Happily Divorced.

In the process, he has joined a growing trend of black-centered comedies featured on cable channels, where audience expectations are lower and outlets are looking to stand out by developing pockets of loyal fans.

Back in the mid-'90s, when he played best friend Cedric Robinson on The Steve Harvey Show, black-centered comedies still popped up on emerging networks such as the WB, UPN and Fox, offering an alternative to the Big Three mainstream networks.

Now that concept has moved to cable, where TBS, GMC, BET and TV Land have centered new scripted television projects on programs with mostly black casts and family themes, often targeting black women who watch TV more than any other group.

And when Cedric worked with Hot in Cleveland's producers to create the character of a star once known for singing sexy songs taking over his father's church, he had one singer in the back of his mind:

R. Kelly.

"It stemmed from a joke I used to tell about what if R. Kelly became a minister because he has so many dirty little songs," the comic said of the voice behind hits such as Bump n' Grind and I'm a Flirt. "You could just imagine the skepticism everybody would have. I just thought it was a fun way to come into the show right away."

Surrounded by ace backup in Niecy Nash as the Rev. Boyce's "volumptuous," put-upon wife and John Beasley as the irascible father he replaced as church pastor, it is an easygoing, family friendly showcase for Cedric's off-the-cuff comedy, with just one challenge.

It's making sure target audiences — that is, churchgoing black folks — realize he's producing a black-centered family comedy on a cable channel that doesn't usually target black viewers.

"We're doing more grass roots promotions, hitting directly some of the bigger churches and letting the individual church community know this show is for them," said the comic, who also will tout his show at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in New Orleans later this week.

"It's kind of that Tyler Perry method, the way he was able to grab a subculture audience that people didn't ever really target as an audience. We're going to have a bit of a learning curve, but hopefully TV Land will give us time to find my audience and bring them over here, as well as keeping their audience."