Back to Bel-Air: How One Handshake Shaped My Life

CoryJeff

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is my favorite television show of all time. But you knew that. Or, at least, you figured that. But it isn’t for reasons that may seem clear. The show spoke to me. It spoke to the youth of my city. I related to it, in many ways. And with today being 18 years since Will Smith looked around that iconic can’t-be-mistaken-for-any-other-room-in-the-history-of-television with the face that was clear to the viewers that even he knew that “this was it,” it was similar to an old, wise man closing a book. You knew it was over, you didn’t like it, but you’ll never forget it.

To provide context to all further viewpoints, my father is Jeffrey Allen Townes, a.k.a. DJ Jazzy Jeff, one half of the Philadelphia rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and “Jazz” on the show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Needless to say, my connections to the show are strong. I remember being taken to Los Angeles with him when I was in grade school, whether for a birthday or just to hang with him, doing a week’s worth of homework for a day, and then spending the rest of the time chilling out, maxing and relaxing (or enough that a 10-year-old kid could do).

I met the entire cast on different occasions, walked on the set, kicked it in the pool house, etc. It was pretty cool, amazing to other kids my age, but pretty normal for me. Growing up with your father on your television and on the radio was pretty – how can I say – unique. I definitely lived a life different than the average black kid from Southwest Philadelphia. But with those perceived advantages and perks, came pitfalls. My father spent most of his time in LA shooting shows or recording music. I didn’t get a chance to see him a lot, while seeing him on my TV screen every Monday night.  I didn’t understand, as much as my mother did her best to explain. It was weird. But as I got older and started to develop my own tastes in things like music, art, and, well, television, I started to look at Fresh Prince in a new light.

The character Will Smith was an African-American teenager from West Philadelphia who got into some trouble in his neighborhood and was shipped off to his wealthy relatives in Bel Air, California. Now while that isn’t the ideal situation for many of the youth in the neighborhoods in Philly, the show was a hit because one of our own was not only on our television, but was bringing the city with him. It was cool to hear the word “jawn” on a syndicated show. It was cool to see Charles Barkley and Philadelphia Flyers t-shirts in LA. He wore his clothes like us, talked like us, and represented the city that made all of us. It was a form of “art imitating life,” as Will always spoke proudly to the media about being from Philadelphia, the corner stores and basketball courts that shaped him into the worldwide celebrity that he is today. It was something we related to, and it was something we held, and still hold onto, dearly.

Two moments defined The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air as a show for me. The first was the handshake. Yes, the handshake that Will and my father used to do on what seemed to be on an every-episode basis. That simple “low-five into the thumbs up bring back” that started as a crew handshake off-camera would become a culture-crossing phenomenon. It would also be one of the first things people would try to do with me upon finding out who my father was. As much as I tried, I couldn’t escape it. To this day, if someone tries to do the handshake with me, it’s the quickest way to see my “C’mon, son” face. And to be quite honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever tried it with my dad, but I’ll be sure to follow up with you all the next time I see him.

The second was episode 97, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse.” It was the memorable episode when Will meets his absentee father – only to be deserted by him in the end – and finds his father figure in Uncle Phil. As parenthood, more specifically fatherhood, was a hot-button topic back in the ’90s, this episode in particular hit home for a lot of people – for those who grew up in households without a father, for those who stepped up to actually be the father figure to a young boy or girl. Moments like this showed the show’s versatility as not just a comedy, but also as a vehicle for showing the nation what African-American families, rich or poor, were really like. It made me think of the relationship between me and my father, and it helped me realize that I may have wanted him around more, but he purposefully would commute back and forth to LA for six years and work just so I could have any and every thing I could ever want. And I always gave him a reason to come back home. And now, as a grown man, I can say it’s ironic the very show he was working on helped me realize that type of sacrifice.

After telling my father I was going to be writing this article today, it gave me a chance to ask him questions as a writer that I never thought to ask him as a son. When asked what he enjoyed most about doing the show, he said, “I knew everyone. From the crew, to the caterers, to wardrobe, we all were family.” I asked him who created the infamous dap. It was invented by one of their original background dancers. They did it once on set, and it stuck – after that they always did it. The last thing I asked him was if he kept anything from the show. His response? “I kept the ‘throw out’ shirt.” Classic. And that’s why The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is my favorite show of all time: it allows me to learn more about one of my greatest heroes.

Cory Townes is born and raised from Southwest Philadelphia, PA. When he’s not cheering for his Philly sports teams and laughing at the misfortunes of the New York Knicks, he’s a contributing writer for theSTASHED, Vibe, The Grio, and more. Talk to him nice, or don’t talk to him at all, but if you’re looking for conversations about music, culture and the like, reach him on Twitter. His name is his name:@CoryTownes.

Photo Credit: The Townes Family. 

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Cory Townes

Cory Townes is born and raised from Southwest Philadelphia, PA and lives in Brooklyn, NY. When he’s not cheering for his Philly sports teams and laughing at the misfortunes of the New York Knicks, he’s the Social Media Manager for EBONY Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for theSTASHED, Vibe, The Grio, and more. Talk to him nice, or don’t talk to him at all, but if you’re looking for conversations about music, culture and the like, reach him on Twitter. His name is his name.