Evolving “Hair Love” into “Young Love”: Matthew A. Cherry’s “live action-feeling” animated comedy

It’s Wednesday, the first day that Writers Guild of America’s film and TV scribes officially returned to work, and “Young Love” creator Matthew A. Cherry is in New York for a family-friendly celebration of his Max animated series in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene park. He explains that there will be a DJ station where kids can create their own beat, just like his show’s father Stephen (voiced by Kid Cudi) does in the series. There’s also a reading corner, a nod to Cherry’s New York Times bestselling children’s book inspired by “Hair Love,” the Oscar-winning animated short that launched this journey. It probably goes without saying that there’s also a hair braiding station.

This is all part of promoting the latest adventures of up-and-coming producer Stephen Love and his daughter Zuri, introduced in a heartwarming 2019 short in which neither had any dialogue. Hearing them talk wasn’t necessary at the time, since Stephen’s actions conveyed everything we needed to know about this devoted dad. With his partner and Zuri’s mother Angela Young (Issa Rae) treating her cancer in the hospital, it fell to him to style his daughter’s natural hair, a task he assumes with tenderness following a bit of coaxing and coaching via Angela’s hairstyle vlog.

Continuing the family’s story feels natural too, along with giving Zuri a sparky demeanor provided by newcomer Brooke Monroe Conaway. Together this twentysomething Black family makes it a joy to spend time with them as they live, work, go to school and nurture the love for each other. Every aspect of “Young Love” is thoughtfully rendered, from its setting in Chicago, Cherry’s hometown, to its depiction of what life is like for a struggling artist and a hair stylist doing everything they can to make ends meet while being present for their little girl.

Modern city living does not make that easy. Although they live in a building owned by Angela’s parents Gigi (Loretta Devine) and Russell (Harry Lennix), Stephen and Angela struggle. While he battles to get a foot in the door of Chicago’s music scene, which means dealing with egomaniacs like the rapper Lil Ankh (Idriys Jones). Angela simply wants to resume checking off her list of live goal now that her cancer is in remission.

As each ponder where they’re going, they and Zuri contend with pressures to keep up with materialistic peers, appropriation, the slow vanishing of their local culture due to gentrification and more mundane challenges like keeping their junker of a car running.

“Obviously the big theme for us was one step forward, two steps back,” Cherry told Salon in a Zoom interview, “Because that’s really like what it’s like in your 20s. You feel like you’re making all these moves, you’re hustling, you’re thinking you’re moving yourself forward, but then . . . now my car broke down. The money I finally got from that ‘net-30’ job finally came in, and I gotta use that money for this.”

The result, he says, is “something that I haven’t really seen done a ton in animation before, which is this kind of grounded, live-action feeling kind of family situational comedy.” 

“Young Love” does feel rare in that way, much like his premise for “Hair Love” was when he proposed the concept in Kickstarter campaign launched in 2017. Some may be tempted to compare it to “The Proud Family” or even aspects of “The Boondocks”  — which isn’t off base, since Cherry’s co-showrunner is “Boondocks” producer Carl Jones. But this show eschews the heightened humor and slapstick of those other shows to lean emphatically into situational realism.

Prior to his Fort Greene event, Cherry connected with me over Zoom to discuss the philosophy guiding that approach and the challenge of creating an animated series that appeals to all ages and feels like a situational comedy. 

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

This is the first day that the writers’ strike is officially over. How are you doing?

Feeling anxious, like everybody, you know? I think we all wanted it to be over sooner, but also thought we’d probably have some more time. I’m sure the email is about to be inundated with different things that were started before the strike, and now have to be finished up. So yes, it’s definitely happy because, oh my god, it seems like the writers got pretty much everything they were fighting for. So that’s really incredible. But it’s also a weird time. I mean, these people were telling people, they wanted them to lose their houses. So how do you go back and work for these people with that same level of joy and passion? It’ll all get worked out.

“Obviously the big theme for us was one step forward, two steps back.”

Related to that, so many shows launched during the strike, yours being one of them. This was obviously a labor of love, and animation takes a long time to complete from idea to fruition. So what’s that been like for you?

Definitely it has been a long journey, you know. It took us three years, basically, from pitch to the premiere. So it’s definitely been a minute. Thankfully I’m able to handle a lot of the press responsibilities . . . But it’s bittersweet, too, because somebody like Brooke Conway, this is her big break. So hopefully people are still able to discover her. I feel like if they actually saw her talk and do interviews, they would probably book her three or four times over. So I think the word overall for all this stuff is “bittersweet.”

Young LoveYoung Love (Max)I hear you. OK, let’s get into “Young Love”: One thing that struck me while watching it is that only in the last decade or so, maybe a little bit more, has there been this very open proliferation of animation marketed toward for all ages. But there’s still a delineation between family and children’s animation versus animation geared toward adults. “Young Love” really seems to bridge that divide. Was it a challenge to pull that off?

It was definitely different, you know. I think the good thing though, was that we had “Hair Love,” which was our testing ground in a way. “Hair Love” is very kid-friendly and kind of visual appeal, but also it deals with real issues, and real health issues. . . . A lot of stuff that I think people were really relating to was right there in the pitch. Like, we knew we wanted it to be co-viewing we knew we wanted it to be something that the entire family could watch. We knew we wanted it to be grounded, we knew that we wanted to feel like a live-action sitcom.

Typically, when you think of a sitcom or a live-action comedy, and especially when you think of a family, you never really see [an age] gap as wide as we have. Even most family sitcoms, if they have a kid, that kid is 13, because the 13-year-old’s experiences in high school are very similar to what adults deal with. But you never really see a six-year-old in first grade and the gap between them and being an adult. So that was really hard, to be honest. It was definitely not easy. There was definitely some wanting to treat Zuri as more of a side character. But it was always just like, “Look, Zuri is the reason why we’re here.” You know what I mean? Zuri is a character that is beloved. The book shipped three million copies, like I mentioned, and we’ve been viewed X amount of times. We can’t just ignore her.

And I think [Sony Pictures Animation executive] Karen Tolliver had this really amazing suggestion when it came to Zuri, which helped everybody in the room get on board with really treating her as a main character. And it was this idea of, we take Zuri’s issues and the kinds of things that she’s dealing with this season, and we make her issues allegories of what adults deal with.

For example, in Episode 5, there’s this funny storyline where she’s trying to join the Girl Scouts. And she does a hard day’s work, kind of excels. And she’s expecting to get paid at the end of the day. Then she realizes that just to get a pat on the head, and “This is for the experience. It’s not actually for money.” We all can relate to being told we’re going to be paid in experience, or eventually, one day, it’ll translate into money. So treating Zuri and her friends’ experiences kind of like allegories of different adult situations allowed us to raise her relatability factor.

. . . When we’re in the adult world — like when we’re with Steven and Lil Ankh and Star, let’s be in that world. When we’re with Angela and her friends at the salon, let’s be in that world. And then when we are able to bring it all together by the end of the episode, we’ll see what lessons we’ve learned.

And this may be one of the first co-viewing animated series that deals honestly with money that I’ve seen in a long time. I imagine there must have been a lot a discussion related to that, because especially during the first half of the season, it really comes up a lot – and actually, it plays throughout the season before coming around to dealing with the topic of debt to near the end.

You know, I felt like we were getting really inundated with a lot of projects – I’m not going to name any specifically – but that were just about seeing how the other side lives: everybody has the big houses, big cars. They were just getting to a point where it was so disconnected from reality.

Every day you’re seeing on the news how the cost of living is going up, and the wages aren’t meeting that. So it just felt like, especially if we’re going to set it in Chicago, when you think of Chicago you think of hard-working people. And I think especially if you’re in your 20s, or if you’re an artist, you’re not going to necessarily have it all figured out. Unless you’re just like this one in a million prodigy.

Insecure” was actually a really good comedic reference for us in how they were more situational. There are moments in the show that aren’t necessarily there to make you have a belly laugh, but they make you smile. So it was just this really interesting, delicate balance that we really tried to figure out.

Young LoveYoung Love (Max)And I wanted to make sure that I asked about the animation with regard to their characters’ hair, as that relates back to “Hair Love.” Even if I’d never seen “Hair Love,” I’d have noticed the intricate textures and all the detail that you don’t see in other animated shows where, especially for Black hair, they depict it as, like, a blob with swirls. Obviously that was important part of this show’s animation.

“If you’re in your 20s, or if you’re an artist, you’re not going to necessarily have it all figured out.” 

We were really trying to make sure that the hair felt like hair. Zuri has like four or five different hairstyles she rocks throughout the season. Stephen with his locks; Angela, kind of with her shorter afro. And just all the diversity just everywhere — like you see bald heads, you see weaves, you see, you know, big afros, you see everything, you know, even Gigi’s Sisterlocks. So we just really wanted it to be as diverse as the city is. That was really important.

And obviously, this is coming off a short film called “Hair Love.” We knew that the hair was definitely going to have to hit. But we also spent a lot of time with the skin tones. So if you see the entire family together, you’ll see Gigi’s got a little bit of reddish undertones. Angela looks a little bit more similar in skin tone to her father. We really tried to showcase the whole gamut. Even Angela being a dark-skinned love interest compared to Stephen was important to us, because you don’t typically see that when it comes to love interests. And then having Issa Rae play the character, obviously we want to represent her too. I think we have like over 150 different hairstyles that are featured in the show, from primary characters to background characters, which is kind of unique, too. We just wanted to look and feel like Chicago.

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When people watch this, what are you hoping that they will take away from the experience?

I want them to feel good. You know, there are certain topics that we tackle that, obviously, I think we could have went a little harder on and kind of impacted a little deeper. But also, for us just knowing it was more of a family show — like just knowing where we wanted to sit within the library of different content that’s out there — we just really wanted to people come off of watching the show feeling good, you know, feeling like these people feel like real people that they know, feel like themselves, feels relatable. And I think the biggest lesson is that with family, you can overcome anything. That’s really the main goal that we try to get across.

Can I just say about the issues that you tackled this season that I think that there’s a fine line between taking on those issues and taking people out of the story. So I hope you’ll give yourself a little bit more credit.

No, no, for sure. I mean, I think for us the thing that was cool with “Hair Love” is that we always had this North star. Like we knew that there are . . . parents reading this to their four- and five-year-olds, right? And maybe sometimes even toddlers and newborns. So we want to introduce these topics and obviously be kind of true to dealing with real issues. But also at the end of the day, we still want it to be an enjoyable experience, right? We’re not trying to hit people over the head.

So there’s a definitely a thin line. But I think, what we were going for, I think we really hit the mark. And hopefully the audience thinks so too.

Eight episodes of “Young Love” are streaming on Max. The final four episodes debut on Thursday, Oct. 5.

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