The table reading for the latest script of Fox's "Living Single" was under way, and the mood among the cast, producers and writers of the situation comedy was jubilant, almost celebratory.
For a while, at least, the fact that a prominent news magazine had just singled out "Living Single" as a prime example of the flood of urban-oriented shows that perpetuate negative stereotypes didn't seem to matter.
As the cast, producers and writers read the script in a large room at the Warner Bros. Studio Ranch, every punch line was greeted with laughter, and dialogue about a male character's physical attributes--"His butt's so hard you could bounce a quarter off it"--was met with a particularly loud response. At the conclusion of the reading, everyone at the table applauded their approval of the episode, which dealt with male sexual harassment in the workplace.
Sitting at the head of the table and leading the party-like mood was Yvette Denise Lee, creator of the show, which follows four "upwardly mobile" single African American women living in New York as they deal with men, their lives and their careers.
Lee has plenty of reasons to smile. Although the overall ratings for "Living Single," which airs Sundays at 8:30 p.m., would classify it as a moderate hit at best, it has stood its ground by attracting a significant audience within the 8 to 9 p.m. Sunday time period, the most competitive hour on the network prime-time schedule.
Even more surprisingly, "Living Single" in its first season has consistently scored better ratings than its 8 p.m. lead-in, "Martin," which is now in its second season. The show has become the fourth most popular show on Fox behind "The Simpsons," "Beverly Hills, 90210" and "Married . . . With Children."
But despite the success and the bouncy mood, Lee was still troubled. She feels that "Living Single" has gotten a bad rap from some television writers ever since its premiere. Critics said the characters were too obsessed with male-bashing or with viewing men as sex objects. Some of the characters were described as being stupid and shuffling.
Lee's frustration was heightened by a Newsweek article last week that rubbed more critical salt in her creative wound.
The Dec. 6 article blasted "Living Single" and other Fox comedies featuring largely black casts for following in the tradition of "Good Times" and "That's My Mama" of turning minorities into racial stereotypes. The story said that "top black entertainers" felt that young black men on the shows were being portrayed as "oversexed wha's-up, man buffoons, and young black women as booty-shaking sugar mamas."
One of those entertainers was Bill Cosby, who said in a separate interview in the magazine: "In the comedies (women) are usually there to talk about men. Suppose I did a sitcom about four African-American women like Fox's 'Living Single'? In my show, two of them might be sitting around discussing men all the time. But the other two women are going someplace, something else is happening in their lives. Is that too much to ask?"
In targeting "Living Single," the article said, "This comedy . . . is supposed to be a black 'Designing Women,' but it's got quadruple the sex drive and none of the smarts. Though all the roommates have college degrees and upscale jobs, they behave like man-crazed Fly Girls. The men fare no better: The pair who live next door like to drop in by announcing, 'We hungry.' The rest of the hilarity runs to big-butt jokes, nappy-hair jokes, even long, er, male-member jokes."
What galled Lee most was the article's praise of Fox's upcoming situation comedy "South Central," about an unemployed single mother raising three kids in riot-torn South-Central Los Angeles. Newsweek said the show's gritty situations involving gangs, financial difficulty and family problems were more realistic than the stories presented on "Living Single."
Lee was so bothered by the article that she had difficulty sleeping the night after she read it.
"What I took away from that story is that images of young, upwardly mobile people who can pay their bills are not real, but images of a black family who can't pay their bills and are living in poverty are real," Lee said. "It's very disheartening and very sad."
She continued, "Yes, those realities shown in 'South Central' do exist, but so does this one. We're very proud of what we're doing. People who find negative things to say about the show are really looking. There's something evil in their hearts. They're comparing us to a show that isn't even on the air. "
Kim Fields, one of the show's stars, also said she was angered by the criticism. "It seems that whenever there's a black show, someone has to get the hairs on the back of their neck all up about something. I'm really tired of it."
She added: "I mean, we have a woman who owns her own magazine. We have a female lawyer, we have a male stockbroker and one who owns his own business. Don't we get brownie points for any of that?"
On the show, rapper Queen Latifah plays Khadijah James, the founder and editor of urban-oriented Flavor Magazine. Kim Coles is her "naive" cousin Synclaire, who also works at the magazine. Fields plays a materialistic social climber whose main goal in life is to marry a rich hunk. Erika Alexander is an outspoken divorce attorney who frequents the brownstone the other three share.
The male neighbors who continually drop in on the women are a conceited stockbroker (T.C. Carson) and another "naive" character, the slow-talking handyman Overton (John Henton).
Lee and other members of the cast said the show's female fans have related to the teasing but affectionate friendship between the women, while the male fans have enjoyed getting a glimpse at what women talk about when they're among themselves.
Fields said, "People like seeing four black women who aren't into cutting each other down. It's all in the name of sisterhood."
"Living Single" has fought, however, to address some of the negative criticism it received after its premiere.
When Queen Latifah's character was asked in the pilot what the world would be like without men, she responded, "A bunch of fat, happy women and no crime." Lee now says much of the humor directed at men has been toned down.
The Overton character was also dismissed by many critics as an updated "Amos 'n' Andy" figure. Carson said, "People didn't get that he is innocent. He owns his own business. The male characters have gotten to be much stronger men. We do have a responsibility to the male image."
Said Lee: "The show has grown by leaps and bounds, and the writing has matured. It will continue to do so. I refuse to be limited by criticism or to allow the level of our standards to diminish."