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There’s nothing wrong with UPN’s controversial sitcom Desmond Pfeiffer that a little more rewriting of history won’t fix.
The new TV season is under way, and I, for one, am stunned that neither Tony Danza nor Tom Arnold has been asked to carry a sitcom. In a random universe, what is there left to depend upon? Thank God for Brian Benben; that’s all I can say.
A couple of months back, as I was sifting through the tapes of the season’s pilotsworking-class barmaids, working-class Irish families, working-class Irish barmaids, L.A. docs and copsthere was one show that was so fall-down funny, so devil-may-care and irreverent, so perfectly acted, that I was determined to champion it with gusto come the fall: The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. Unfortunately, the laurel wreath turned out to be full of thorns. Anyone who fell for Desmond Pfeiffer’s screwball vaudeville now finds himself stuck all over and forced to explain himself.
The fledgling network UPN pulled the Desmond Pfeiffer pilot episode before broadcast thanks to the outcry from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Hollywood/Beverly Hills branch, also known as the Brotherhood Crusade. Even the Los Angeles City Council got all huffy, voting to have the city’s Human Relations Commission look into the showan act of meddling that could only take place in a city where protesting a sitcom gets more press than protesting the genuine outrages to which civil rights groups elsewhere respond. The protestersremember these are coalition heads, not normal people like the black test audiences that found the show empoweringhave not specified exactly what they find offensive about the show. Yet these same people let ads with discomfiting racial subtexts pass unnoticed, such as the Kahlua Mudslide spot that features “Brown Sugar” played over images of a light-skinned black woman carried on a literal tide of booze to a night out with a bunch of white guys.
Pfeiffer is an English landowner of “Moorish” descent run off his estate by “rival noblemen” who’s now trying out a new life working as President Lincoln’s butler and right arm. Around him, all the standard sitcom character slots make their standard sitcom points, although, unencumbered by historical fact or good taste, both the characters and the points are highly exaggerated. Pfeiffer (Chi McBride of Get on the Bus) has brought along his imbecilic manservant, Nibblet (Max Baker), to work in an administration for which Pfeiffer provides the only threads of sanity. The president (Dann Florek) is foggy, randy, and indecisive; Mary Todd Lincoln (Christine Estabrook) is a genteel nervous wreck barely able to keep her gluttony and nymphomania under wraps. Pfeiffer’s foreignness and gentility make him a stand-in for the exasperated judgment of the American Joe caught up in an administration of passing strangeness. For this is not any Lincoln administration Garry Wills would recognize, but a tawdry, scheming, ego-driven hotbed of incompetents in power and junior Machiavellis on the risethat is, the Clinton White House, in all its gooey glory, with bits of Kennedy, Nixon, and anyone else who’s left his handprints in this particular cement thrown in for yocks.
For the sticklers who didn’t see Desmond Pfeiffer’s pilot but to whom its premise sounds coarse enough to have earned righteous opprobrium, the episode’s two references to slavery are as follows: This being America, some of the White House inhabitants can’t see past Pfeiffer’s color, and, then as now, are most comfortable when they can imagine this stately backbone of the administration to be a jumped-up Stepin Fetchit. Pfeiffer is occasionally bedeviled by the supercilious press secretary, who at one point takes satisfaction in commenting that the slaves have not yet been emancipated, so Desmond had better take his boots off the table. That’s one joke. The other involves a long farcical sequence in which Pfeiffer has stationed himself outside Mr. Lincoln’s door to help facilitate the frisky president’s assignation; upon being surprised by the press secretary, he explains, absurdly: “I am here becauseI love my massa so.” He states it carefully, as if trying to remember where he has heard someone speaking this way before. The joke is that the white racist is a fool and a blackguard for expecting black folk to talk this way.
In the not-for-me-to-say sweepstakes, racism handily takes first prize, but comedy often bumps up against it because it too is driven by stereotypes, whether they’re being enforced or inversed. In Desmond Pfeiffer, the joke is on the status quothe premise of these scenes is that the status quo for white racists of the late 19th century was a blip in Americanand, the show argues, worldhistory. The racist’s assumptions are about to be upended; but he doesn’t know that as part of the Lincoln administration, he himself will have a hand in upending them. The inequalities that follow are another matter entirely, and whether they can be treated in sitcom format is a question answered by such garbled attempts as The Show and South Central, both short-lived, cringingly stereotypical sitcoms that raised not a peep from civil rights watchdogs.
Elsewhere in that episode, when Pfeiffer states, “We’re all equal,” and the press secretary responds, “Hel-lo! You’re in America,” it is a way of acknowledging that the fallout of the Emancipation Proclamation continues to be as traumatic as slavery itself. But even if this is a truth too dogged to deny, it is too discomfiting for many to admit. Television is a fantasy factory largely devoted to assuring the populace that nothing’s really wrong; inexplicably, to me, civil rights watchdog groups are happier believing that, too. If it is racist to say that 20th-century America posing as 19th-century America is racist, what’s the tolerant alternative?
When making comparative value judgments about the quality of television, comfort trumps truth even at degrading expense; how else to explain the success of The Cosby Show? In the ’80s, when everyone was supposed to be rich in the same way (who is this “everyone,” and why didn’t I get a cut?), money gave the Huxtables a race-free ride. The show suggested that in America, anyone can buy his way out of repressionfor a very steep priceand it was lauded for crafting this simplistic parallel universe of capitalism gone mad. The Cosby Show’s success engendered something like relief: Thank God Cliff and Claire have enough money that they don’t have to address race. 1970s sitcoms that took place in what used to be called the ghetto may have been funny, but they were so…not rich.
Lincoln scholars, a touchy crew, are also up in arms over the show. This is particularly hilarious considering that no one expects schoolchildren to crib off a sitcom for their history quizzes. (In light of historical fact, Desmond Pfeiffer actually lets Mary Todd Lincoln off the hook; she was really butt-ugly and barking mad.) The idea of playing fast and loose with history as a way of scoring points against contemporary life is a sitcom staple of nobler lineage than Irish barmaids. The beloved M*A*S*H was, by reputation, the apotheosis of cultural commentary draped in camouflage. As long as it’s thinly disguised, everything’s fair game. Only Mad magazine dared to suggest that Hogan’s Heroes was offensiveLarry Siegel’s 1967 parody carried the show’s premise to its logical conclusion, proposing a spinoff featuring shaven-headed Buchenwald prisoners laughing it up over champagne in their bunks: “Wait’ll you see the latest gag we’re gonna pull on the guards over at the Crematorium! Boy, it’s a hot one!” exclaims one prisoner. Where were the rapacious Hollywood-ruling Jews during Bob Crane’s heyday?
Desmond Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Lincoln as a hoop-skirt-chasing, absent-minded oaf is a classic farcical trope: politicians bolstered by their exasperated hirees (cf. Spin City andhey!Benson). The fuming scholars don’t like the way Lincoln is portrayed, but this is not really Lincoln. Desmond Pfeiffer’s writers aren’t concerned with embalming history or staying true to its facts; their attitude allows the Great Emancipator to become a sitcom MacGuffina name, a beard, and a hat standing in for every clueless bigfoot in the Oval Office, governor’s mansion, or CEO suite for whom smart subordinates have had to cover.
It isn’t the just disposability of their hero or the show’s free-range way with the past that gets the scholars’ and the Brotherhood Crusade’s goat. The Crusade’s spokesman has been quoted as saying, “The show distorts and trivializes history,” which is not a charge of racial offensiveness. But Desmond Pfeiffer’s very context has always been an American sore spot. It takes place during the period in which, for the first time, the practice of slavery was called into question on a grand scale, and Americans were slaughtering each other in one ill-advised bloodbath after another. Desmond Pfeiffer uses these weighty issues as premises, as wellthe crumbling of slavery as a means to talk about how the country has institutionalized racism since, and the war as way of showing up American recklessness and aggression as foolishness and vanity.
It’s interesting that the show’s denigrators cite its lowbrow slapstick humor as the real outrage, since other historical periods during which the practice of American slavery was not discussed at all or rationalized away are up for comic grabs. A rollicking musical about 18th-century civil unrest (1776) got away with justifying the Founding Fathers’ wimpish capitulation on slavery in a song, “Molasses to Rum,” thrown in to prove that New England was too invested in the slave trade to risk sacrificing a break with England at its expense. (Now that’s comedy.)
But the Lincoln administration, even blatantly posing as a petticoated version of the Clinton one, demands reverenceotherwise viewers might be reminded that the Civil War was our mistake. Spend two hours a day in front of the History Channel and you’ll see which version of history Americans want played back at them: endless retreads of World War II (we win!), splayed out in full glory (we win again!) or compartmentalized into documentaries on the major players (we beat his ass!) or battles (whoo-hoo!). World history takes the form of gullible “in search of” docudramas on such imposing historical questions as whether there is a Loch Ness monster. The Civil War will never be so simplistic or ego-satisfying (we beat…our asses), in spite of Ted Turner’s efforts.
After three episodes, Desmond Pfeiffer’s creators (Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan) have shown that they aren’t interested in self-aggrandizing mythology. Between pratfalls and horrible puns, they rip the skivvies off racial hypocrisy, sexual puritanism, and misplaced historical solemnity. But try to suggest that the one individual who sees through these simplistic untruths is a black man, and you reach the place where comforting TV history gives way to the kind that steps on American toes.Arion Berger