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Tuesday
Apr192011

Black and Gay Jokes Herald New TV Diversity?

Yes, Rachel Maddow, this is from iStockphoto“Friends” wasn’t the first show to feature a young ensemble cast dealing with relationship issues (ask “These Friends of Mine” like Ellen Degeneres, whose similar show debuted months earlier), but it was the juggernaut.  It was the show that Entertainment Weekly always gushed over and the one that left the air while still on top a decade later.

After its premiere, “Friends” spawned a plethora of imitations — but not one “Single Guy” has thus far has been able to live up to the reputation of the original.

It was also this show that the special-interest lobby regularly used for “Coupling” the networks with their civil rights angst over the past two decades (or lack thereof).  Why, they demanded to know, weren’t any of the “Friends” black?

These days, the NAACP loans out its reputation as a cudgel for the left to play the race card against advocates of smaller and more responsible government and to put the tea “Party Down.”  Before this newfound lease on life, one of the go-to issues used to resuscitate the nation’s oldest civil rights group’s relevance was to complain every few years that the broadcast television networks lacked enough black characters.

“It’s Like, You Know…,” the simplest form of bean-counting.  In 1999, for example, then-NAACP president and CEO Kweisi Mfume called the broadcast networks “either clueless, careless or both” after the Screen Actors Guild reported that only 14.1 percent of all roles in TV and movies were filled by black actors.  At the time, ABC and NBC signed agreements to “reaffirm [their] intent to enhance diversity.”

It’s not like researching “The Big Bang Theory,” but Mfume should have gone to the actual numbers because they didn’t make his case.  Demographic data puts blacks at around 12 percent of the population.  Networks were actually beating the mark.  But, in 2006, then-NAACP president Bruce Gordon changed the “Rules of Engagement” by complaining that it was “unconscionable” that there were no black leading actors in a broadcast network sit-com.  There were further complaints about a lack of insider status in 2008.

On “Friends,” Hollywood silenced critics with the equivalent of a Band-Aid by hiring black actress Aisha Tyler to play a character dating one of the “Unhitched” friends during the show’s penultimate season.

Not to be left out, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has also been counting the number of gay television characters for 15 years.  They are pleased right now that the current season had an all-time high of 23 regular gay characters at its beginning, but nonetheless lament there were still no black homosexuals or transgender characters in primetime.

Do these groups really need to do this?  Is simply adding a character of color or sexual orientation something that “Scrubs” a show or network clean of alleged past sin or makes them exemplary?  Commentators on the industry think otherwise.

Entertainment writer Jason Gay, for instance, pointed out amid the NAACP’s 2006 complaints that classic sit-coms with black casts such as “The Cosby Show” (a decade before “Friends”) and “The Jeffersons” (a decade before “The Cosby Show”) popularly portrayed black culture through storylines that appealed to a broader audience — something modern black-oriented shows fail to do.

Andrew Wallenstein, then at the Hollywood Reporter, added in 2008:

The NAACP is so focused on quantity that an appreciation of quality seems to have been lost.  Even if there are fewer black faces on TV, are all roles created equal?  Would the organization trade ten UPN sit-coms for one “Cosby Show”?  Surely, the NAACP has better things to do than make these head counts.  Maybe have a little faith in the free market, which dictates networks are going to cater to their diverse audiences for not other reason that it’s just good business.

But it appears that network executives do not have the “Will and Grace” to tell the special-interest lobby that they lack “The Class” to dictate the terms of how the networks will fill in the space between commercials for the rest of us “Townies.”   Thus, to our societal detriment, ABC offers “Happy Endings.”

While “Happy Endings” is not necessarily lacking in humor, its problem is that it is deliberate in making sure that the viewer knows that the show is hitting all the politically correct benchmarks.  It’s the quality-vs.-quantity dilemma that Wallenstein warned about in 2008.

“Happy Endings” has the successful Black Character (played by a member of the Wayans family, no less), the Gay Character, the girl with body issues, the girls with age issues, the biracial couple, yuppie fears of parenthood and suburban living — along with all the white characters, of course.

It’s the over-the-top, look-at-me attempts at being inclusive that stop the flow of the show like a “Traffic Light.”  But making these characters stand out because of their race and their sexual orientation turns it into little more than a politically correct minstrel show (think Spike Lee’s heavy-handed movie “Bamboozled,” which coincidentally starred the real-life father of the actor playing the show’s Black Character).

For example, consider this exchange of stereotypes in “Happy Endings” between the Black Character and the Gay Character (the names seem inconsequential):

Black Character: “I thought you were supposed to kick this guy’s ass or something?”

Gay Character: “You do it, you’re black.  He’s probably very scared of you.”

Black Character: “Yeah, but you’re gay and chubby.  No one will see it coming.”

Then there are the jokes solely at the expense of the Gay Character that seem alright because they have an official gay character:

Gay Character: “Even I think rollerblades are gay, and I had sex with a guy last night.”

And:

Female-With-Issues Character (to Gay Character): “You’re the worst gay husband ever.”

Also:

Gay Character: “I’m very happy for you, Kathy Griffin.”

Black Character: “Who’s Kathy Griffin?”

Gay Character: “OK, so you’re not gay.”

And let’s not overlook:

Gay Character: “Because I would like to think that, if this happened at my Massachusetts civil union and you were my best man — you’d be schlammered.”

But let’s not leave the Black Character out of the stereotypical humor category:

Black Character: “Hell, we’re all going to have to hang with whoever you choose, Al, so why don’t you pick someone fun like a fighter pilot or [NBA Hall of Famer] Scottie Pippen?”

ABC is currently burning off “Happy Endings” at a rate of two episodes a week, so it would seem that hopes for a fall pick-up aren’t all that high.  If it does end up being more than a mid-season replacement, however, what does this say about the future of network television?  Will casting directors now refer to a laundry list of stereotypes to be required for all ensemble shows?  Worse yet, will inclusion allow the depth of humor to sink even lower as writers pull out their “Bad Girl’s Guide” for jokes?

And, if that’s the case, how will a new era of allowable stereotypical black, gay and — someday — transgender jokes make society more civil?

Wallenstein, in his 2008 comments, also criticized the NAACP for focusing only on the broadcast network, noting that “there are dozens of cable channels with comparable audiences, and there [are] plenty of examples of programs featuring black leads.”  There are also plenty of shows with gay (or ambiguously gay) characters on basic cable right now who don’t prance around or exchange stereotypes with their Black Character counterparts.  By the way, they have done so with less government oversight by the Federal Communications Commission.

“Friends” may never be successfully duplicated, but “Perfect Couples” in life are rare.  Hollywood should just focus on making shows that entertain — adhering to a laundry list of expectations isn’t going to please anyone.

Author’s note: Thank you to Tim, Steve, Charles, Chris and Karen for their help in recalling all of the “Friends” imitators from over the years, and I’m sorry for not being able to find a way to slip in difficult titles such as “How I Met Your Mother,” “Californication,” “Emily’s Reasons Why Not” and “Samantha Who?” — among others.

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