Slave TV

Defending Pfeiffer Is the Most Offensive Sitcom of All

Though the network's official statements about Pfeiffer reeked of damage control, president Dean Valentine's comments told another story. UPN has the largest African American viewership of all six networks, yet Valentine has come across as perfectly willing to discount black viewers. He's called efforts to block the pilot "insanity," and assured the Los Angeles Times he had no plans to pull the show: "We have nothing to feel bad about, and we're not going to feel bad about it. They can march up and down the street all they want to."

What other group would UPN depend on as its primary audience, but feel so comfortable insulting? Imagine if Jews were to charge that a sitcom downplayed the Holocaust. (Anyone who actually remembers Hogan's Heroes, which Pfeiffer producers like to compare to their show, knows it hardly qualifies.) No question UPN wouldn't be as cavalier if the community protesting had more political and economic clout than African Americans.

Despite the fracas over Pfeiffer even before it aired, advertisers like Campbell's, Glade, and MCI did not shy away. In fact, more came on board for the second episode, which managed to be even more offensive than the first. When Lincoln and his butler are caught in Confederate territory, Pfeiffer— without a mask— pretends to be a white man. A Rebel officer tells Pfeiffer if he didn't know better, he'd mistake him for a "genuine, simple-minded Negro."

A minstrel show circa 1998: UPN's ill-fated The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer
A minstrel show circa 1998: UPN's ill-fated The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer

The day UPN put Pfeiffer on hold, Danny Bakewell, head of the coalition of black groups protesting the sitcom, announced that at least five major advertisers— including M & M Mars, Pep Boys, and Kmart— responding to appeals from black viewers, withdrew their sponsorship. Bakewell, president of the L.A.-based Brotherhood Crusade, expects more advertisers to follow with pledges not to back the show if it airs again. When asked to comment on the defection, Paul McGuire, UPN's senior vice president for media relations, was barely able to swallow his fury. The network, said McGuire, "does not and will not let special-interest groups dictate its programming." McGuire questioned the credibility of the Crusade, going so far as to call it a "mosquito." In what reads like an effort to save face, UPN intends to finish production on all 13 episodes of Pfeiffer, despite having no immediate broadcast plans.

By objecting to Pfeiffer, blacks have been chided for "overreacting" and being too "sensitive." How predictable. Los Angeles Times critic Howard Rosenberg, for instance, spent his entire review scolding blacks who insist on being offended as if he were eminently more qualified to judge Pfeiffer's racist content than any of us could ever be. This raises old questions of what is racism and who is qualified to decide. In Rosenberg's limited purview, racism is an antique corridor of segregated drinking fountains, not an enigmatic field of institutional racism and regurgitated stereotypes as prime-time entertainment.

Indeed complaints about our "hypersensitivity" have become a familiar means of invalidating African American critical opinion. The inference here is we should get over it already— hate crimes, discrimination, redlining, educational inequities— because they are tried of hearing about them, not because such outrages no longer exist. Anyone who thinks that African Americans— or any Americans— don't have the right to get queasy over darky jokes as sitcom fodder circa 1998, must have slept through Jasper, Texas, and Broad Channel.

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