John Bowman, Comedy Writer With a Knack for Crossing Over, Dies at 64
A white writer who left a corporate job, he became known for working on series with Black stars like Keenen Ivory Wayans and Martin Lawrence.,
A white writer who left a corporate job, he became known for working on series with Black stars like Keenen Ivory Wayans and Martin Lawrence.
John Bowman, a white television comedy writer and producer who left the corporate world to find success on Black-centered shows like “In Living Color” and “Martin,” died on Dec. 28 at his home in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 64.
His wife, Shannon Gaughan Bowman, said the cause was dilated cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle.
Mr. Bowman’s work consisted primarily of writing for and running comedy series. But he also made an important contribution later in his career as a labor leader, helping unionized TV and movie writers get a cut of streaming revenues long before services like Netflix and Hulu changed viewing habits and grabbed tens of millions of subscribers.
Mr. Bowman had been a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” as had his wife, when he joined the staff of the Fox sketch show “In Living Color” in 1990.
“In Living Color,” created by the Black comedian and actor Keenen Ivory Wayans, brought an African American hip-hop sensibility to network television. Mr. Bowman was one of the show’s first white writers and became head writer in its second season.
“He got Keenen, and Keenen got him,” Ms. Gaughan Bowman said in a phone interview.
Mr. Bowman had said that Mr. Wayans did not want his show’s writers to bring an overtly political or racial point of view to their work.
“Sometimes the white writers would come up with a hard-hitting thing that took a racial attitude,” Mr. Bowman was quoted as saying in the book “Homey Don’t Play That! The Story of ‘In Living Color’ and the Black Comedy Revolution” (2018), by David Peisner, “and Keenen would say, ‘No, no. That may be politically correct but it’s not funny. All you’re doing is trying to incite people, you’re not trying to make them laugh.'”
Among the more memorable “In Living Color” sketches Mr. Bowman worked on was “Men on Football,” part a live episode that Fox used to counterprogram against the Super Bowl halftime show in 1992. The sketch, a variation on the regular feature “Men on Film,” featured Mr. Wayans and David Alan Grier as flamboyantly gay reviewers playfully employing double and triple entendres to discuss football.
Later that year, Mr. Bowman left “In Living Color” to create “Martin,” also for Fox, with Martin Lawrence and Topper Carew. The show gave Mr. Lawrence, who played a talk-show host in Detroit, a showcase for the arrogant but goofy persona he had perfected as a stand-up comedian.
Mr. Bowman, who was the showrunner for the series, “understood my vision,” Mr. Lawrence said in a statement after Mr. Bowman’s death, adding, “There wasn’t anything too big or too small that could faze him, which made working together a great experience.”
Mr. Bowman recalled that Fox’s censors were tough on “Martin” in its first season, which began in the fall of 1992, and that the show suffered for it.
“The language on this show is more uncompromisingly Black than it is on any other show,” he told Entertainment Weekly that year. “But you find yourself in the most absurd discussions with censors. I think we’re all frustrated.”
Mr. Bowman tapped into his time on “In Living Color” when he teamed with Matt Wickline to create “The Show,” a short-lived 1996 sitcom about a white writer working on a Black series. He was later the showrunner for two other series with Black stars: “The Hughleys,” with D.L.Hughley, and “Cedric the Entertainer Presents,” of which he was also a creator.
Ms. Gaughan Bowman said that her husband “liked Black comedy and culture.”
“He liked the way Black comedians used language,” she added. “He didn’t want to run ‘Everybody Loves Raymond.'”
John Frederick Bowman was born on Sept. 28, 1957, in Milwaukee. His father, William, was a lawyer, and his mother, Loretta (Murphy) Bowman, was a homemaker.
White attending Harvard as an undergraduate, Mr. Bowman was an editor at The Harvard Lampoon. He graduated from Harvard Business School in 1985 and became an executive at PepsiCo, based in Purchase, N.Y., before deciding that what he really wanted to do was work in comedy.
At the time, his wife was writing for “Saturday Night Live.”
“I told Jim that my husband wasn’t happy at PepsiCo and he wanted to do this,” Ms. Gaughan Bowman said, referring to Jim Downey, the longtime “S.N.L.” head writer.
It was a big leap from a corporate job to the “S.N.L.” writers’ room, but Mr. Downey, a former president of The Lampoon, had mined the magazine for writers and was familiar with Mr. Bowman through his writing and through mutual friends. He asked Mr. Bowman to submit sketches; he was hired a year later.
“He had the best dry sense of humor of almost anyone I’ve ever worked with,” Mr. Downey said by phone. In his only season with the show, Mr. Bowman shared a 1989 Emmy Award with the rest of the writing staff.
He went on to be the showrunner in the mid-1990s for “Murphy Brown,” starring Candice Bergen.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Bowman is survived by his daughter, Courtney Bowman Brady; his sons, Nicholas, Alec, Jesse and John Jr.; a sister, Susan Bowman; and two brothers, William and James.
From 2007 to 2008 — when he was working on his final series, “Frank TV,” starring the impressionist Frank Caliendo — Mr. Bowman was chairman of the negotiating committee of the Writers Guild of America West during its 100-day strike against TV and movie producers. During the strike, he talked individually to top studio executives about the union’s position on giving writers a percentage of revenues from what would come to be called streaming — a demand that was ultimately met in a deal struck with production companies.
“A lot of it was explaining to people like Les Moonves” — then the chief executive of CBS — “that if they didn’t make money, they didn’t have to pay us anything,” Patric Verrone, who was the writers guild’s president at the time, said in an interview. Referring to Mr. Bowman, he added: “He was a rock. We stood on him and when we needed him, we threw him at things.”
Mr. Bowman later taught comedy writing at the University of Southern California.