The show goes on location at the nation’s most famous black university. The pressure is on.
At 9 a.m on a rainy Friday morning, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith are finalizing their show rundown. They’ve set up camp in the lounge at the Blackburn Center on the campus of Howard University for a live taping of “His& Hers,” their talk show on ESPN. African American artwork from the 1960s and ’70s hangs in the room. Smith drinks orange juice and Hill eats yogurt while producers try to sort out which of the school’s alums make the most sense to list on the show.
The only all-black sports talk television show in America is at the country’s most famous black university, and the pressure is on.
“This ain’t the place to make mistakes,” Smith says after noticing a rundown error. “Not about that,” Hill replies, laughing. Getting the founding date of the school wrong, even though it was just a producer’s typo, would have been a major botch.
The show is unapologetically black, without being cartoonish. In the production meeting, the crew is talking about “Empire”; nobody can figure out the show’s plot line. At one point, Mike and Jemele sing “I just want to take it nice and slow” in an unintentional chorus when someone asks them if “Nice and Slow” is the title of Usher’s 1997 breakout jam.
“Breaking news: We’re the only allblack cast on national television as far as I know, definitely in the sports space. Maybe in national television period, a black man and a black woman,” Smith explains. “While that’s not something that is in the opening credits, while that’s not something thatwe walk around like, ‘Hey, did you know we’re black people!’ but it’s certainly you know, we are who we are.
“We don’t dare shy away from that or apologize for that, from a content standpoint, from a conversation standpoint, from a perspective standpoint, from a structure standpoint.
“We are who we are, and that’s it,” Smith continued. “We’re not trying to accommodate anybody else. We’re not trying to isolate anybody, but we’re also not trying to accommodate.”
Blackness in America means more than just keeping time and athletic accomplishments. “His& Hers” reflects that largesse of identity, often overlooked for black television hosts. And although neither went to historically black colleges, they nonetheless respect the importance of the Howard homecoming stage.
“Obviously anybody that’s a part of the black community, you’re aware of the legacy, the history and how much HBCUs have contributed to just our advancement as a people,” Hill said Friday. “In the sense thatwe— there’s enough faith in us as a show, that ESPN’s own commitment to come here — we don’t necessarily have to explain why we’re here.
“It was honestly their idea. That showed a commitment and faith on their part. And I think for the campus, people that go here, it does do something to the collective esteem of the institution. Like, ‘Somebody like ESPN is checking for us in this way.’ ”
More personally, both were glad to finally make it to one of the most important dates on the black-American social calendar.
“When I was in college, it was two events that people talked about nonstop and I never got to go to either of them. One of them was Freaknik; the other one was Howard’s homecoming,” Hill, a Detroit native and Michigan State graduate, said with a laugh. “Like, allmy friends, they would caravan and come here, to go from East Lansing to D.C. I mean, that’s a 10-hour drive. That’s a trip. That’s how much the word was out that, yo, this place, this is the place to be.”
“His& Hers” stands out from the conventional format of talking heads screaming at each other not only because of the race and gender of its hosts, but also because of an on-air chemistry that results from genuine friendship.
Ultimately, though, there is a responsibility that comes along with being a black man and black woman on television every day. In 2015, it’s still a unique position.
But, coming up on their one-year anniversary, Hill and Smith know what they’re doing.
“The devil’s always in the details for us. So, when something doesn’t go off right, we’re like, ‘Come on, man.’ That’s not, like, us saying something wrong. TV stuff happens, but avoidable mistakes,” Smith said after the show Friday. “Because we know what time it is. We’re not afforded those types of opportunities to keep making mistakes. We’re enjoying ourselves.”
Andcoming to Howard, in a tangential way, validated the whole show.
“I think especially now, where it seems like with all the things going on in the world, especially the Black Lives Matter movement, there are times I think, as a black person, you just feel the weight of the world,” Hill said. “So it’s kind of nice to be in an environment that’s kind of apolitical.
“It’s just about having a good time, recognizing the achievements of this university and just collectively as a community coming together.”
From left, Michael Smith and JemeleHill talk to ex-Howard quarterback JayWalker while filming in D.C. onWednesday.