Remembering the Black Friendship of “Hey Monie!”
One of only two BET animated programs, Hey Monie! turned fifteen last month. Here, key figures involved remember the show, which was centered on themes of black friendship and the black working class long before Atlanta and Insecure ever existed.
Aughties BET offered a lot of ephemera that’s been left outside the Internet’s immortalizing grasp. Think of the gems from AJ and Free’s 106 & Park that never made it to YouTube, or consider how Cita’s World will be an abstract concept at best for nine out of ten people you meet. Then there’s Hey Monie!, an animated show built around the friendship of two black women approaching their thirties. Unfortunately, the series is about as obscure as its premise.
Starring real-life best friends Angela V. Shelton and Frances Callier—known as the comedic duo Frangela—Hey Monie! was part of a wave of early-’00s series and programming blocks reiterating that cartoons weren’t just for the eighteen-and-under crowd. Infamous Nicktoon Ren & Stimpy got an even cruder revival on the now-deceased Spike TV, Family Guy was pummelling Jimmy Kimmel Live! in the eighteen-to-twenty-four demographic when it ran on a nascent Adult Swim, and NBC made a failed attempt at jumping in on the trend with Father of the Pride.
The success of South Park, known for its basic cutout animation, also showed a new path for networks hoping to grab a young adult demographic. “The networks, cable and regular, learned that you can make animation a little bit cheaper,” said Brendon Small, creator of Adult Swim’s Home Movies and a voice actor on Hey Monie! “The Simpsons was the main cartoon everyone looked at, but it took eight-to-nine months to make an episode and it cost a few hundred-thousand dollars. We showed that we could make shows way cheaper.”
Still, Hey Monie! was the only animated show for adults that featured two black female leads, which remains a rare distinction even with modern television’s new focus on diversity. Hey Monie!’s existence also marked a few firsts for its collaborators. It was the only series of its kind for Soup2Nuts (Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Home Movies), an animation house known for an unrefined cartoon style that emphasized dialogue. The series was also BET’s first animated show. (The only other one is the Black Panther adaptation—an embarrassing mix of bad animation and worse dialogue—that aired in 2010.)
“The Simpsons was the main cartoon everyone looked at, but it cost a few hundred-thousand dollars to make an episode. We showed that we could make shows way cheaper.” — Brendon Small
Before landing on BET, Hey Monie! premiered as five-minute shorts on the Oxygen Network’s animation series X-Chromosome. The channel launched in 2001 and was still looking for what would become its flagship show. When former Soup2Nuts producer Dorothea Gillim originally pitched Oxygen on what would become Hey Monie!, she had comedienne Wanda Sykes in mind to play the lead role. Sykes couldn’t commit, so Gillim enlisted Shelton instead.
“I said, ‘I’m casting the part of your best friend and wouldn’t it be cool if you had a real-life best friend?’” Gillim recalled, referring to an early phone call she had with Shelton about the show. “Before I could even finish the sentence, Angela said, ‘She’s right here.’” Shelton and Callier were living in the same apartment complex.
Much like Dr. Katz, Hey Monie! relied on an improvisational script that pushed Shelton and Callier’s authentic dynamic to the forefront. With Shelton as the career-minded titular straight woman and Callier playing her sharp-tongued best friend Yvette, the leads’ back-and-forth had a natural chemistry that gave viewers the sense they were peeking inside a lived experience.
The duo emphasize that while the show centered on them being friends, it was not necessarily about them being black friends (it’s not called “Two Black Women Interacting Positively,” Shelton notes). This isn’t to say their experiences as African-American women went ignored—one episode featured Yvette trying to give Monie a perm (with disastrous results). “It’s one of the ones where I wonder if white people understood what was going on there,” Shelton said.
It’s hard to gauge exactly how popular those early episodes were, since less than 50 percent of Americans had Oxygen when they originally aired. But there were some small indicators that Hey Monie! was at least headed in the right direction: “We’d be in a store and people would go, ‘Hey! Are you from Hey Monie!?’” Callier recalls. And, of course, BET picked it up to start airing in March of 2003, stating in a press release that the show was in “the tradition of entertaining and satirical animated programming like The Simpsons, The Critic, and Daria.”
By then, the episodes had extended to eleven minutes and moved toward a more scripted format. While the blues riff used in scene transitions was more repetitive than endearing, the extended entries still retained the originals’ energy. Some of the highlights include Monie and Yvette’s Oprah audition (with a brief cameo by Oprah Winfrey herself) and the girls hitting a nightclub after one of them finds a gray hair.
“I think Oxygen was really surprised that BET was interested and that black people watched it. I think they were surprised. We weren’t.” — Angela V. Shelton
Hey Monie! was at least temporarily a success for BET, becoming its most-watched new Tuesday series at the time, according to Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But after extending the episodes once more to twenty-two minutes, BET decided not to bring it back for the 2004-2005 season. What actually led to the show’s demise is where the narratives surrounding it diverge. Gillim says BET’s demographic, predominantly young men, just didn’t meld with Hey Monie!’s perspective. On the other hand, Shelton and Callier say the show’s momentum halted when executives got involved, hiring a white writer—without consulting either of them—to pen the final episodes.
“They literally had a white man writing a script for two black women who had absolutely no understanding of women, or blackness, or friendship in that way,” Shelton said. “Then they came back to us and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you give him ideas.’ And we were like, ‘You mean the things we had been doing before?’”
The duo remembers that the final episodes were blander than the ones that came before, but there’s no way to know for sure if they’ve aged well, because—much like basic Hey Monie! plot synopses and episode credits—none of them exist online, though the five-minute and eleven-minute episodes can be found with a thorough Google search. (Not to be confused with the lost half-hour episodes, the eleven-minute episodes often show up combined in a single twenty-two-minute video.)
Unfortunately, Hey Monie!—once hailed as a possible flagship series—is now a deep cut with at least five “e”s: Even Gillim was astonished that she was contacted for an interview for this piece, based on how little updated information about the show is available online. One big possible reason for its disappearance is that Hey Monie! never had a DVD release. Home Movies was canceled after five episodes on the now-defunct UPN and didn’t attract that big of an audience when it first landed on Adult Swim. But creator Small credits the DVD release for its increased popularity and cult following.
Adult Swim’s predominantly black classic The Boondocks (2005-2014) featured still-resonant sharp social satire, and Disney Channel’s The Proud Family (2001-2005) had a black teen girl as the lead. But even keeping those shows in mind, Hey Monie! feels radical: Issa Rae’s Insecure is an HBO hit that focuses on black women’s experiences, but that perspective hasn’t been transmitted to the animated television realm, and the dearth of black female voices can be seen in hit adult animation series like Rick and Morty and BoJack Horseman (Home Movies featured Melissa, a dark-skinned character as the tritagonist, while Aisha Tyler’s Lana from Archer isn’t quite the lead role, but does deserve recognition). It’s a point-of-view Frangela knew the value of over a decade ago.
“I think Oxygen was really surprised that BET was interested and that black people watched it,” Shelton said. “I think they were surprised. We weren’t.” FL