The protest against Monday’s scheduled debut of “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer"--a flyweight UPN comedy about a shrewd black man who regularly outwits a sexually depraved White House during the Civil War--is demagogy, sheer showboating by a handful of local African American leaders who know an exploitable, hot-button issue when they see one.
And now the Los Angeles City Council, apparently with too much time on its hands, has joined in. On Tuesday, it unanimously adopted Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ motion calling for this comedy’s “appropriateness” for broadcast to be determined by the Human Relations Commission and the Days of Dialogue on Race Relations Project. And if they find it unfit for airing, what? The council will be really, really mad at UPN?
Here’s betting that most council members have not even seen any of the yet-to-air series they’ve condemned with their endorsement of the Ridley-Thomas motion. They must be getting their information through osmosis.
Ridley-Thomas, an African American who represents South Los Angeles, insisted in that motion that the comedy will “fan the flames of racial discord.” To say nothing of the flames of hyperbole and soapbox oratory. In addition, he claims the series is “rife with scenes that make light” of slavery.
When viewed from Neptune, perhaps.
Back on Earth, you knew that the show’s critics were all wet when they charged it with using humor to trivialize slavery and the suffering of blacks in the United States. In fact, there is no humor in the series pilot they claim to find so objectionable. Well, very little, anyway.
Right defendant, wrong charge.
It Plays Like a Bad ‘SNL’ Skit
If you’ve ever wondered what a nightmarishly bad “Saturday Night Live” sketch would be like as a prime-time series, this is it. “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” is guilty of being infantile, tenaciously raunchy and, with few exceptions, flagrantly unfunny, but not of the more serious crime of demeaning and distorting the black experience in the United States.
It’s a stupid farce, for heaven’s sake.
One that instead demeans the writers and producers who have their names on this hapless little number about a clever, highly literate and intelligent black English nobleman (“That’s P-Feiffer; the ‘P’ isn’t silent”) who becomes a respected butler-advisor to a cartoonish President Abraham Lincoln, who is oversexed, as is his gluttonous wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
Somehow, you suspect dramatic license.
Played by Chi McBride, Desmond is the only black character in the series. He’s smart, everyone else in the White House mentally challenged in the extreme, including the Lincolns (Dann Florek and Christine Estabrook) and Desmond’s minimally functioning Renfield of a servant, Nibblet (Max Baker).
Now back to the chest thumpers who got this snowball of a protest rolling.
The series “need not air,” Danny Bakewell, head of the Brotherhood Crusade, ruled flatly earlier this month. “We want our children to understand what happened, and that it [slavery] will never happen again.”
Like, sure, tykes are going to watch “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” for a history lesson. If this slapstick series becomes their primary, most credible source of knowledge about slavery and the Civil War, then their parents and the schools they attend are to blame, not Desmond and his band of white clowns.
Bowing to pressure after staunchly insisting it wouldn’t back down, nonetheless, UPN meekly announced this week that it would delay and “review” the much-maligned pilot and air another episode in its place Monday. If someone finds UPN’s misplaced backbone, please return it immediately.
Yet nothing short of total banishment will satisfy the show’s critics. Delaying of the pilot notwithstanding, Bakewell announced Tuesday that “a sleeping giant” had been awakened and that these critics “will not allow any comedic characterizations that trivialize our suffering and pain, distorts and exploits our history and denigrates the bones of our ancestors.”
And so Bakewell and his fellow crusaders, including the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP, went ahead with their scheduled protest demonstration Wednesday outside Paramount, which produces the series and is part owner of UPN. Another demonstration is scheduled for Monday.
Star, Cut Scenes Drawing Fire
The anti-Desmond crowd has also criticized the African American McBride for playing the lead, when in fact, he has much less to answer for than they do.
The pilot sparking the uproar had Desmond aboard a ship bound for “the southern-most part of America, the part where they grow cotton.” It also had a scene showing two hooded figures--whose race was not identified--on an English gallows after being hanged. P-phooey on that.
But those scenes were cut from the pilot before its critics went public with their protests. Knowing that--and they certainly did--hasn’t stopped them from continuing to cite and display the gallows footage as what they insist is an example of the show’s intent to make light of African American suffering. No sense letting facts interfere with a good photo op.
Not cut from the postponed pilot sent out for review, meanwhile, is Desmond being ordered to remove his feet from the kitchen table “because slavery isn’t over yet.” And Desmond tells a boozed-up Gen. Ulysses S. Grant: “With you at the helm, I better get my cotton-picking skills ready.” In Monday’s substitute episode, moreover, when Abe uses being busy with the Civil War as an excuse for not extinguishing her “love flame,” Mary complains: “The Civil War, the Civil War. What about my needs?”
It’s hardly art. Yet it’s also hardly anything earning this series a death penalty before UPN viewers--many being African American--get to decide for themselves whether its cheap jokes belittle slavery and suffering.
Would these critics of “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” totally segregate comedy from grim, even catastrophic historical settings? That would have stopped Mel Brooks, for example, from making “Springtime for Hitler” the hilarious centerpiece of his Broadway theater spoof “The Producers.” And the CBS comedy “Hogan’s Heroes” turned taste on its ear but also big profits in prime time and syndication by depicting a World War II POW camp operated by easily manipulated, bozo Nazis. As if they really existed.
If you’d expect anyone to be griping about “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” it would be (God forbid) James Carville, for instead of blacks and slavery, this series is about Bill Clinton.
With Abe as a surrogate, it grinds into dust one sophomoric gag after another ridiculing Clinton’s sexual proclivities, from introducing White House secretarial bimbos to mentioning a “horny hillbilly from Arkansas” Monday and having a highly aroused Abe engage in hot-and-heavy telegraph sex.
Dreadfully heavy-handed and mainly unfunny, yes. But nothing derogatory about blacks, nothing dismissive of slavery and certainly nothing worthy of organizing a protest and calling in the cameras.
* “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on UPN (Channel 13).