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Sitcom about a black man in the Lincoln White House draws fire for bad taste

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

SOMETIME LAST SUMMER, the United Paramount Network (UPN) began test-showing The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, a situation comedy about a black butler in the Lincoln White House. In the original opening sequence, two British horsemen munch on snacks while watching a double hanging in what is identified onscreen as "Merry Olde England."

The racial identity of the hanged men is concealed by bags tied over their heads. Chuckling at the sight, one of the horsemen asks, "Why is it that warm chestnuts never taste so good as when you're watching a man take his last gasp and then urinating it back?" In the next scene, according to people who observed that first tape, a black British nobleman named Pfeiffer finds himself kidnapped by his enemies and thrown into the bottom of a slave ship crossing the Atlantic to America.

Doreene Hamilton saw one of those initial screenings and was aghast. "Dark humor on darkies is not my idea of a good time," says the president of the L.A.-based Organization of Black Screenwriters.

Apparently reacting to criticism by early viewers, UPN cut that initial hanging and slave-ship sequences from the pilot. But the network gave the go-ahead to include Desmond Pfeiffer in its fall lineup, with the premiere running last Monday (Oct. 5). As word began spreading first across L.A.'s black community and then through African American Internet newsgroups, UPN started feeling the heat. Several hundred demonstrators showed up in UPN's parking lot, demanding that the series be canceled.

In response, UPN posted a message on its Web site stating that "the United Paramount Network boasts more Black viewers than any other network, and our track record of employing minorities--particularly African Americans--at any network in key positions, as well as the diverse array of on-air talent on our fall schedule, is unmatched by any broadcast television network." UPN also insisted that the new series "does not find humor in slavery."

That, by the way, was a flat-out lie. In the opening scene of the pilot, Kilbourne, Lincoln's chief of staff in the program, walks into the kitchen to find Pfeiffer sitting with his legs stretched out among the breakfast dishes. "The slaves haven't been emancipated yet," Kilbourne barks. "Get your feet off the table, Pfeiffer."

Pfeiffer stands and, with all the dignity he can muster in his British colonial accent, replies, "Sir, you may be chief of staff and my immediate superior, but I must remind you that we are both men, both human beings, both equals."

At which Kilbourne breaks out in a great horse laugh and bellows, "Both equals? Hello! You're in Americaaaaa!"

There is more, including a minstrel blackface sequence and jokes about cotton-picking and black dialect.

The L.A. Times quoted UPN president and CEO Dean Valentine as saying he was "deeply puzzled" that African Americans would be offended by the show. He was also adamant in refusing to be guilt-tripped. "We have nothing to feel bad about, and we're not going to feel bad about it," he told the Times.

Some African Americans said that the problems stem from the fact that the show has no black writers, but Hamilton of the Organization of Black Screenwriters says that is not the case. "There actually is one black screenwriter working on Pfeiffer," she explains, "but on shows like this, where the executive producer and most of the writers are white, they don't pay any attention to you. In fact, most of the white writers are trying to tell you what black people say and what they think."

UPN REPRESENTATIVES insist that Desmond Pfeiffer is not about slavery at all, stating that the show is really a takeoff on the sexual improprieties of the Clinton White House. And in fact, the first two episodes supply more than enough of the tasteless sexual humor that has become a permanent fixture of nightly news broadcasts.

Mary Lincoln accuses the president of having an affair with a secretary. Ulysses S. Grant hangs around the White House getting sloshed on brandy and hitting on the same secretary. Lincoln has phone sex via the telegraph with an unknown woman.

Danny Bakewell, president of the Brotherhood Crusade and a leader of the anti-Pfeiffer protests, says that the period of African slavery in America is too painful to allow comedic treatment. That's debatable. A good creative team--such as was once assembled for shows like M*A*S*H and All in the Family--could give us an insightful look at slavery from the point of view of the captive Africans themselves, whose tales full of rich, wry humor survive in narrative collections. But even though UPN regularly presents one of the most positive and well-rounded black images on television (Captain Sisko on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), an intelligent comedy about slavery is probably a little bit out of its league.

Reaction from African Americans in Silicon Valley was negative. Cobie Harris, chairman of the African American studies department at San Jose State University, said he didn't even want to take a look at a tape of the show. "We don't need to criticize UPN, because we've opened the door ourselves," Harris said, citing the fact that black comics and rappers have been publicly denigrating African Americans.

Steve Pinkston, diversity coordinator at Bellarmine College Preparatory Academy in San Jose, dropped his head during a showing of the program tape and seemed at a loss for words. "The material is disgusting," he said. "It's beyond bad. Television should not be misinforming people. Should it entertain? Yes. Inform people? Yes. Challenge? Yes. Should there be a lighter side? I hope so. But make a mockery of people? No."

A showing of the Desmond Pfeiffer pilot to a group of Bellarmine students demonstrated the potential damage the series could cause. In a discussion following the viewing, most of the students were disturbed by the racial jokes. "It made me uncomfortable," one white student said. And a black student said that "the show makes it look like slavery wasn't as bad as we think--you know, everybody at that time could sit around and laugh about it." But during the program itself, the students broke out in loud laughter at the sexual jokes.

One student explained, "Yeah, we laughed at the sex, but we knew the racial stuff was wrong. But there's a lot of people out there who won't know. They'll think it's the truth."

UPN officials are apparently hoping that the adolescent sexual tastes of the American viewing public will win out and that Desmond Pfeiffer can survive the storm.

The pilot episode, however, did not. Earlier this week, UPN announced that it was pulling the pilot and will "review [the episode] before putting it on the air." In its place, UPN broadcast a second episode that contained no racial jokes, just bad sex.

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From the October 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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