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Social Studies

Comedy Central

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 3/19/2008

And now, a true life adventure from the Williams Stronghold: The wife and I are sitting on the sofa one evening enjoying some of the fine programming that Television One offers when a commercial came on that . . . well, it didn't change my life, but it was certainly amusing enough that it has stayed with me and I'm writing a column about it. The piece opens with people jumping around engaging in some kind of generic aerobic activity to the sounds of the Black Eyed Peas. It was like every exercise-program commercial you've ever seen except for the fact that the participants were singing along with the song. And, as if on cue, a title flashed on the screen to formally introduce us to Billy Blanks Jr.'s Cardioke! Get it? It's a combination of karaoke and cardio--cardioke!

While the concept is enough to garner a generous chuckle, the eagle-eyed among you probably already spotted what helped cardioke transcend joke status into art: its creator, Billy Blanks Jr. That's right, cardioke's creator is the son of Billy Blanks, famous for his own exercise and pop-culture phenomenon, Tae Bo! And, in the great tradition of "Jr." characters (Captain Marvel Jr., Frankenstein Jr., Sinbad Jr.), Blanks Jr. is sort of like a low-budget version of his father. He's also buff and bald, but he's not as buff or bald as his famous dad. Still, that wouldn't be enough to warrant 800 words. Oh, no. What happened after we chuckled for few minutes over the concept of a Blanks Family Dynasty of novelty-driven exercise programs ("In 30 years, Billy Blanks III will introduce Rodeo Pilates!") is my wife squinted her eyes and uttered the fateful words: "His wife looks familiar. I think she was on Good Times."

And, sure enough, she was. Blanks Jr.'s lovely wife, Sharon Catherine Blanks, is a singer, dancer, and actress who has worked in the entertainment industry her whole life, singing on the What's Love Got to Do With It? soundtrack, featured in the film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, and having the distinction of being the youngest person to ever play the role of Effie in the last Broadway production of Dreamgirls. But, in our minds, she's most famous for her role of "Fun Girl" in the 1977 "Breaker, Breaker" episode of Good Times that focused on the topical issue of CB radio.

For those keeping score at home, that means that, yes, Blanks Jr. is married to Fun Girl, and the two of them have come up with a home-exercise system called cardioke that combines karaoke and cardiovascular activity. If you've been reading this column for more than two weeks, you can imagine the joy that writing that sentence brought me--almost as much joy at the fact that, after a decade together, I've managed to bring my brilliant, educated, urbane, cosmopolitan wife so deeply into my foolishness that she can, within moments, spot an actress that appeared on one episode of Good Times 30 years ago. Oh, but it gets better.

Not to take away from her ability to convey the pathos and texture required to play the complicated character of Fun Girl, but the future Mrs. Blanks already had an in toward getting a role on Good Times because her father is Johnny Brown, most famous for his role as Bookman on the classic show. All together now: Billy Blanks Jr., the son of Billy Blanks--who, let's not forget, pre-Tae Bo had a huge career in staple Cinemax karate films like Bloodfist and The King of the Kickboxers--married Sharon "Fun Girl" Brown, the daughter of Johnny "Bookman" Brown, and together the duo invented an exercise system that combines karaoke and cardiovascular activity into cardioke. 1970s sitcoms, '80s karate films, infomercials, trendy exercise programs: Just bask in the gooey deliciousness of this multilayered black pop-culture lasagna.

What does it all mean? Do you really need more than that? I would argue that the innate beauty of cardioke's very existence justifies itself. OK, how about this: The manner in which the mainstream usually fetishizes black popular culture is not only vaguely racist but often reductive and limited in its scope. The Tarantino-esque practice of simply focusing on hypersexualized images, Afros, and violence misses a great deal of the nuance and complexity that makes the culture transcendent. The point of the previous exercise, focusing on cardioke, was to demonstrate how there is a huge vector of black popular culture that is ignored and . . . oh, I can't do this with a straight face. If you can't marvel at the pure spectacle that is Billy Blanks Jr. and Fun Girl joining forces to help us lose weight through the power of cardioke, then you, my friend, have no joy in your heart and there's nothing I can do to help you. Even if you sing along with me.

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