Outlandish? Yes, and a Hit

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As the TV season draws to a close, several comedy teams are toasting their ratings triumphs: Will and Grace. Dharma and Greg. Frasier and Niles. Drew and Kate. And the newest team on the block, Nikki and Kim.

Doesn’t ring a bell?

Nikki and Kim are the mother-and-daughter combo of Nikki and Kim Parker, the outrageous duo at the center of “The Parkers,” UPN’s first-year comedy that has quietly emerged as one of the new season’s few sitcom successes.

The series, which features a predominantly minority cast and stars a comedian with no previous acting experience, is nudging the bottom of the ratings when it comes to white viewers and is low-rated among crossover mainstream audiences as well. But it is not only the No. 1 comedy on the fledgling UPN network, it has elbowed its way ahead of the WB’s “The Steve Harvey Show,” long the most popular show among black audiences, a position “The Parkers” now claims.


“The Parkers,” which initially faced pointed reviews from critics who decried its outlandish, over-the-top characters, has attracted more black viewers with its mix of broad comedy and character-driven stories than the lower-key, more sophisticated suburban-themed comedy of ABC’s “The Hughleys” and the WB’s “For Your Love,” which many saw as a formula that might broaden the appeal of ethnic comedies.

While “The Parkers” has already been renewed for a second year, the verdict is still out on whether “The Hughleys” or “For Your Love” will be back next season. Ratings for the two suburban comedies, which received far more critical praise, are also affected by scheduling. They compete against each other Friday at 9:30 p.m., in essence splitting the potential audience.

Some industry veterans suggest that “The Parkers” has connected more with younger black viewers than “For Your Love” and “The Hughleys” in part because its humor is more reminiscent of other popular sitcoms such as “Martin” and “The Wayans Bros.”

“When you look at the last five years of black representation on TV, the shows that tend to be the most outrageous also tend to be the shows that draw the most audiences,” said Todd Boyd, a USC professor of cinema. “ ‘The Parkers’ has that same sort of humor that would appeal to those audiences, while ‘The Hughleys’ and ‘For Your Love’ take place in an environment that is not entirely African American.”

Ann Brown, one of the editors of the A-List, an urban entertainment newsletter, added “The Hughleys” and “For Your Love” may fall through the cracks in the black audience demographic.

“Young black people relate to ‘The Parkers,’ and they wouldn’t relate as much to ‘The Hughleys’ or ‘For Your Love,’ ” Brown said. “On the other hand, those shows may not be edgy enough for black audiences, who are turning to comedies like ‘Sex and the City.’ That goes places ‘The Hughleys’ can’t. And ‘For Your Love’ doesn’t take as many risks as ‘Will & Grace’ or ‘Frasier.’ That comedy is much sharper.”


‘Not a Profile of What the Black Viewer Prefers’

As for “The Parkers,” Doug Alligood, senior vice president of special markets for the New York-based advertising firm BBDO Worldwide, said that while “The Parkers” was indeed top-ranked with black audiences watching television, less than 20% of the total black audience is tuning in to the show. “Most of the black audience is doing something else,” he said. “It is not a profile of what the black viewer prefers.”

Indeed the success of “The Parkers” comes amid the continuing controversy over ethnic images on network television. The mother-and-daughter team of Nikki and Kim are physically large, and are loud in their outrageously colorful wardrobes, makeup ensembles and extremely animated conversations. Kim is boy-crazy, while Nikki, who decides to attend Santa Monica College along with her daughter because she never got her degree, has her sights set on Professor Ogletree (Dorian Wilson), who is clearly uninterested in her advances. When the series debuted, many critics noted its stereotypical characters.

Said one prominent producer in the wake of the show’s success, “ ‘The Parkers’ is a dumber, more in-your-face show than the others, which are more sophisticated. Yet all of a sudden, it’s become this hit at UPN.”

Larry Lyttle, president of Big Ticket Television, which developed “The Parkers” and “Moesha,” counters that notion. “Yes, the characters are not sophisticated, but that’s by design. There are a lot of real people who are not sophisticated but possess sophisticated dreams and themes. They are very real, very blue-collar. This is a mother who has raised her child and now decides to better herself by going back to college. They have a very loving relationship, and it’s also very funny.”

Sara Finney, one of the creators and executive producers of “The Parkers,” always believed the show would connect with all audiences. Finney, who created “The Parkers” along with Vida Spears and Ralph Farquhar, said: “We have a funny show, but we’re also doing stories that are important. A lot of people have said they’ve found the characters very relatable, and they feel very comfortable with them. And a lot of women have said it’s great to have a big and beautiful role model in Mo’nique.”

She added that she does not see the other shows as competition. “It’s great to have choices, and there’s room for everyone.”


Yvette Lee Bowser, on the other hand, is remaining cautiously optimistic about the fate of “For Your Love,” which she created and of which she continues to serve as executive producer. With its core of three couples--two black, one white--the show was designed as an integrated comedy that could appeal to whites and blacks. The veteran producer, whose “Living Single” was top-ranked among black viewers during its five-year run on Fox, is frustrated that other WB shows such as “The Steve Harvey Show” and “The Jamie Foxx Show” have been picked up for another season while the future of her show is up in the air.

“It’s quite surprising to find ourselves on the ropes when the other shows have been picked up,” said Bowser, who is also developing a pilot for NBC. “There is a lack of logic behind where we find ourselves right now. We thought they were happy with the show creatively. The ethnic and creative diversity speaks for itself. I am optimistic they will look at their development and see the show for the quality comedy it is.”

Bob Greenblatt, one of the executive producers of “The Hughleys,” believes there are other reasons the series has had trouble getting traction with audiences. “The Hughleys” has “gotten lost in a sea of white shows on Friday nights,” he said. “We’re also competing against a huge concentration of black viewers on the WB. ‘The Hughleys’ is on an island all by itself.”

Pairing Unknown With Spinoff Character

Still, the series, along with “Malcolm in the Middle” and “Titus,” is one of the few successful new comedies in a season littered with numerous failed comedies such as “Oh Grow Up!,” “Work With Me,” “Love or Money” and “Action!” It has topped “Moesha” as the most popular comedy on the fledgling UPN.

The success of “The Parkers” is even more surprising considering it lacks marquee value. Mo’nique, a comedian who plays the outlandish Nikki, had never acted before. Countess Vaughn’s character, Kim, had been the best friend of the title character on “Moesha.” Although the character was a favorite among “Moesha” fans, Vaughn and “Moesha” star Brandy battled off-screen, and it was agreed that she would leave the show to star in a spinoff.

UPN Entertainment President Tom Nunan said he did not find the success of “The Parkers” surprising, even with its lack of star power.


“If there was any show we felt confident about, it was ‘The Parkers,’ ” Nunan said. “The chemistry between Mo’nique and Countess was apparent from the first rehearsal. And it’s a much more emotional show than what people expected. Both women have dating lives, fears and hopes. It’s one of the most honest shows on television, and the show is not afraid to have characters that are not picture-perfect.”

As for the charges that the characters are less than positive, Nunan said, “This show is a spinoff of ‘Moesha.’ Few people have ever criticized that show for being degrading. And it’s created by those same people who gave us that show. Anyone who would call it demeaning hasn’t seen the show.”