Years ago I vowed not to waste any more brain cells critiquing Hollywood versions of the black experience, but the sitcom, or better yet, “slave-com,” The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer (UPN), has had me foaming at the mouth. After keeping the series afloat despite several weeks of rock-bottom ratings, UPN bowed to pressure from affiliates and, as of November 2, put Pfeiffer on hiatus— or as the Post aptly called it, “forced vacation.”
And none too soon. This period farce, if you hadn’t heard, starred Chi McBride, in a performance reminiscent of Bert Williams, the “noble minstrel” of the early 1900s. Pfeiffer was a black Brit who fashions himself an aristocrat and, dodging gambling debts, managed to wash up in Civil Wartime America as Abe Lincoln’s butler. Meant as a lampoon of the Clinton White House, the show instead drew the ire of black groups who had labeled it— and rightly so— a send-up of slavery.
Here, Civil War America was nothing but Play-Doh for the Beavis and Butthead generation; the war became a polite skirmish, slavery barely rated a mention, and the only black character, Pfeiffer, was a coddled butler who crossed the Atlantic on his own terms. Pfeiffer‘s Currier and Ivesstyle opening sequence, which showed nary a black face, said it all. The South was remembered as a peaceful fairytale, largely absent racial animus, and a prime setting to revisit good old-fashioned racist humor. On a network like UPN, whose young viewership is likely to possess a skeletal knowledge of history, this type of amusement seemed more than a trace irresponsible.
It’s hard to recall TV fare slimier than Pfeiffer, with its Animal House digs about race and boorish disregard for what, to many Americans, is still a painful, all-too-recent history. (To think of my great-great-grandmother, a former slave whom I’m named after, alongside Desmond makes my teeth grind.) But the defense of the show, by TV critics and UPN, has become a sitcom even more demeaning than Pfeiffer.
First, the scuffle over the pilot. UPN bowed to protests and replaced the controversial pilot with another premiere episode. A gaggle of white critics chided UPN for pulling the pilot, called the protests laughable, and defended the series as harmless albeit leaden satire. Rumors circulated all summer that the scuttled pilot depicted a lynching. UPN insisted the so-called lynching was a hanging on British soil involving white characters. What the pilot definitely did include was a few tasteless darky jokes. (Trusted butler Pfeiffer is told to get back to work because “the slaves haven’t been emancipated yet.”)
Though it was lost on critics, Pfeiffer‘s chief offense was not dusting off racist jokes, but its bewildering supposition— that a Civil War story could be divorced from the atrocity of slavery, while treating race like a running gag. Yet to Caryn James at the Times, viewing slavery “glancingly” as a joke was “not malicious.” Pfeiffer‘s fatal flaw, James and others argued, was just not being witty enough. Does this mean if Pfeiffer, which relied on slapstick, had done a better job of generating laughs the premise of the show would have been any less noxious?
Meanwhile, here at the Voice, critic Tom Carson heaped praise on Pfeiffer. Maybe Carson would have found the show’s “cheerfully crass” treatment of history less palatable if he had watched the PBS survey Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, which premiered opposite the sitcom. (Pfeiffer may have pretended that Lincoln’s D.C. was a liberal oasis, but the documentary reminded us that it was the slave auction capital.) Carson makes even mainstream critics look good when he wrote that Pfeiffer‘s “racial issue” never crossed his mind. Unfortunately for many of us, there’s no way it couldn’t— we still live it every day. Side-stepping gruesome history hardly qualifies as postmod invention as much as it is minstrelsy in new clothes.
A large part of the Pfeiffer defense has been to point out that butler Desmond, who also served as Lincoln’s kitchen-cabinet advisor, is the show’s smartest character, therefore the sitcom can’t possibly be racist. Please, folks. This is the oldest trick in the book of black caricatures in Hollywood, from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson to Rochester to Benson: The servant who’s smarter than the master but, how cute, still happens to be a servant. Pfeiffer’s intelligence was an aberration, meant for our amusement, not to disturb the social order that placed him as lackey and Lincoln as head of state. That Hollywood can continue to present African Americans as the help— while blacks account for nearly one-quarter of American moviegoers— and dare call it innovative programming, is more unspoken conspiracy than charming coincidence.
Clearly the network’s behavior in the Pfeiffer affair has only made matters worse. It did the p.c. thing, as in shelving the pilot, at the same time it sought to profit from all the brouhaha. (Ads boasted that critics hate the show so audiences will love it; they never mention, of course, what sort of critics felt this way and why.) And UPN has even tried to disavow the controversy altogether. A week before the show aired, Jet ran a patronizing little “Open Letter to the African-American Community” from UPN defending Pfeiffer. It’s “simply untrue,” the letter stated, that the show makes light of slavery, again with no explanation why. Coming from UPN— mockingly called “U People’s Network” because of its simplistic portrayals of African Americans— should we have expected anything else?
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.”
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.