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Television's Black Humor.

I have a rather ugly confession to make, and what better place to do it than in a public forum? OK, here goes: Sometimes I wake up in the wee hours of the morning and watch San ford and Son. It's a pretty funny show, even though I saw all the episodes in the 1970s. To be sure, the tale of Fred, Lamont, Grady, Aunt Esther, and Rollo is an egregious--nay, hideous--stereotype of the black working class in Watts. And yet, despite my attempts to lead a good humanist life, I find myself laughing in the living room, while the rest of Chicago sleeps.

This brings me to one of the most talked-about new series on television, The PJs (Fox, Tuesdays at 8:30 P.M. Eastern), and Hollywood's obsessive belief that poor black folks make for good comedy.

Here's a little background for those not in the know: This new show sprang from the fertile mind of Eddie Murphy, with the backing of claymation genius Will Vinton (whose anthropomorphized raisins sing to be eaten), and Hollywood gurus Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. The story is set in the Hilton-Jacobs housing project ("PJs" refers to the projects) in an unnamed city. Murphy is the voice of Thurgood Stubbs, the unappreciated building superintendent, who finds himself the center of oh so many whimsical mishaps.

The PJs has all the stereotypical minority characters you can put in one show, and they cavort in ways that harken back to Amos `n' Andy. There's the voodoo woman who is prone to sticking dolls with pins; the old woman who is hard of hearing and eats dog food; the philosophical crackhead; the kid who is so obese that his parents put a sign around his neck asking people not to feed him.

How has America taken to Eddie Murphy's new comedy? Well, the show seems to be gaining a following, after a rough start. But this is not to say that it hasn't drawn the ire of blacks, especially filmmaker Spike Lee. In January, Lee, who said he was speaking for himself and not an entire race, told the Television Critics Association that he believed the show to be "really hateful towards blacks." He also said The PJs showed no love for black culture. The media web site Channel 4000 posted a few responses to the show. One viewer said it was "degrading, embarrassing, humiliating material being pushed into the mainstream. This show will negatively influence people's perceptions of black people, period." Another viewer, however, found The PJs to be "a funny, unique comedy that teaches lessons, morals, and how to unclog a toilet."

There are perpetual problems with shows that depict folks who live in the ghetto. First, it's tough enough trying to get a show with a minority cast on the air. Second, when this type of show does find its way into prime time, the community is divided between those who find it humorous and those who find it offensive.

Usually, after much grousing, someone will say that those brothers and sisters need to eat, and the white man isn't coming down with good roles, so cut them some slack. But what everybody is afraid of is that people secretly enjoy these shows. That's My Momma, Good Times, What's Happening!!, and Sanford and Son paved the way for The PJs. They all share the premise that poor black folks can be a source of humor.

The first question is, are these shows really funny? Given their success, I think the answer is an obvious yes. So what about the guilty pleasures of watching? Eddie Murphy doing Thurgood Stubbs is hysterical, the gags have gotten better as the weeks pass, and the frequent attacks on HUD give it the sort of cryptopolitical feel that passes for social commentary.

The problem is one of balance. For every Thurgood Stubbs running afoul of his tenants, I'd like to see a character who doesn't clown around in the ghetto.

Whenever a show about black people blasts its way out of the projects, there is much grumbling about its authenticity. The Cosby Show--a complete reversal of the 1970s black television sitcoms--was frequently dissed for being fake. People wrote to their newspapers to complain that it was unimaginable that African-Americans might live in a situation where the kids are smart and nurtured, Mom and Dad are gainfully employed, and their friends and neighbors represent the rich racial and ethnic tapestry that is America.

Cosby didn't "keep it real." Will Smith, however, kept it real when he played the fly Philly brother who invades the stiff, buppy home of his relatives in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Yes, he attended prep school and lived in a mansion with a butler, but he didn't forget his roots, which means he knew how to kick it old school and chill with the fellas. For all of their sophisticated attitudes, his relatives were put in their place because they had no street credibility.

While Hollywood thinks poor black people are funny, the general feeling you get from movies and TV is that the black middle class is bipolar.

Take The Hughleys (ABC, Tuesdays 8:30 P.M. Eastern), one of the funnier shows to debut this season. The executive producer of the show is Chris Rock, who, like Murphy, got his start as a standup comedian and a cast member on Saturday Night Live. In The Hughleys, comedian D.L. Hughley plays, well, D.L. Hughley. The story does what Lorraine Hansberry didn't do with A Raisin in the Sun. It tells what it's like for a black family to move in where the only thing of color is the lawn jockey. This is the road The Jeffersons went down.

D.L., a self-made man, moves from the 'hood to the land of well-trimmed lawns and minivans. His goal is to try to stay black and real in an environment that he finds as foreign as Jakarta. His wife and children, however, seem to fit in quite well, which is disturbing. Are they losing their blackness and assimilating? D.L.'s pal Milsap (played by John Henton of Living Single) is the voice of the community he left behind, always there to remind him that he is, after all, still black and shouldn't forget from whence he came. Conveniently, D.L. has various opportunities to realize that white people aren't all that bad, while Milsap keeps him in line so he doesn't become an Uncle Tom. All is well in suburbia.

The show entertains and it's occasionally poignant. But ultimately the disingenuous nature of network television taints it. The Hughleys, much to its detriment, still plays by the strange rule that forces black characters to confront what white characters normally don't: flight from the cities to the suburbs.

Nobody visited Jed Clampett after he loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly Hills and said, "Jed, you need to keep it real." No, Jed was untroubled by life in a house with a big cement pond.

Thurgood Stubbs can't live in a nice neighborhood. D.L. Hughley is castigated when he does.

Oh, to be a hillbilly.

Fred McKissack, a writer based in Chicago, covers pop culture for The Progressive.
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Title Annotation:portrayals of African Americans on TV
Author:McKissack, Fred
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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