Comedian John Witherspoon is best known as the funny, cautious, loving, and always slightly inappropriate dad of Ice Cube and Regina King in the cult classic, Friday.
But before he was Craig’s (Cube’s) dad, Witherspoon, who died Tuesday at age 77 in his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home, cemented his role as the world’s most embarrassing father in yet another cherished black American flick, Boomerang. And that was thanks to this bit of fashion advice: “You got to coordinate.” (Note the dragging out of every syllable so it sounds like “co-OR-DIN-ate.”)
The scene is imprinted on our collective funny bone. Marcus (Eddie Murphy) is at a family dinner with friends Gerard (David Alan Grier), Tyler (Martin Lawrence), and Angela (Halle Berry.) The key moment happens when Witherspoon, who plays Gerard’s dad, Mr. Jackson, corners Marcus. Mr. Jackson is wearing a brown leisure suit and mushroom-printshirt he painstakingly has matched with a similarly printed mushroom belt. No, he doesn’t have a mushroom ring, as Marcus suggests he might, but the lining in his leisure suit has the same mushroom print. “The secret is you got to coordinate," Witherspoon says with wide eyes and hands that go “poof," speaking to the magic of an old-school black man looking good. “Most people don’t coordinate. You got to coordinate.”
In a movie full of classic one-liners, Witherspoon’s soliloquy on the importance of all things matchy-matchy, from a man who came of age in the ’70s perspective, is among the film’s most memorable. It did so much to push Witherspoon, at the time already a veteran comic and former fashion model, into the new millennium. So much so that he named his 2009 comedy tour “You Gots To Coordinate.”
But why does that scene remain so funny? Why do we still think of ourselves as clever when we refer to our own or our friend’s matched-to-a-T ensemble as “coordinated?" Because dressed in his garish ’70s polyester duds, Witherspoon reminds us of our own dads and uncles back in the ’90s, whose endearing personalities were dressed in the same kind of passe tackiness that embarrassed us, too. If Bill Cosby’s Cliff Huxtable was the spit-shined, expensive-sweater-wearing, aspirational dad we dreamed of back in the day, then Witherspoon was his cantankerous, over-the-top, polyester-wearing antithesis in our lives.
Take my dad, for instance. No, he didn’t make bathroom jokes in public or refer to lovemaking as “BANG! BANG! BANG!,” but his wardrobe, a mixture of then 20-year-old leisure suits, short-sleeved shirts, and butterfly collars, was very similar. Like Witherspoon lamented in his stand-up, my dad missed the smooth “coordinated” ensembles of The Temptations that dominated the fashion scene in his heyday. He wasn’t a fan of the budding menswear look of down-to-the-knees baggy jeans of hip-hop. And he definitely let me know every time one of my boyfriends came in a Jeep playing loud music to pick me up.
These men — my uncles, my friend’s friends — drank their brown liquor with one cube of ice from short glasses. They drove clean Cadillacs and Volvos. They thought going to McDonalds was a waste of money. And they bought most household items in bulk because it was about saving a dime while feeding your family. They loved our moms, and they loved us.
Witherspoon would reprise his role in two sequels to Friday. He also played a similarly gaudy dad to brothers Marlon and Shawn Wayans on their WB show, The Wayans Bros. Witherspoon voiced Granddad on The Boondocks. In all these roles, he was as mortifying as he was loving.
The irony is that while Cosby’s behavior now lives in infamy for inappropriateness, Witherspoon is remembered today for actually being a loving family man. No buts about it. Friends on social media recall meeting him in person with his wife, to whom he was so attentive. And Wednesday morning, his son, J.D. Witherspoon, posted a remembrance on Facebook with photos of the two through the years and a tribute that noted “His legacy will live on through me, my family, his friends, and everyone else who was touched by him here on earth. He was my best friend & my Hero.”
On its face, Witherspoon’s iconic “you got to coordinate” line was slap-yo-mama-funny fashion advice. But like all things style-related, its magic is in its nuance and familiarity. Witherspoon’s style was an authentic reminder of a time and a place when to be coordinated was to be the man. A family man. A dad. Like mine.