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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

When Is a Comedy as Funny as a Car Wreck? Ask UPN

October 02, 1998|MIKE DOWNEY

I haven't seen "The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer," and I don't know when or if I will.

First of all, it's a TV show that hasn't been on TV yet.

Second, it's a TV show that a number of people don't want ever to be on TV.

An estimated 300 protesters came to Paramount Studios this week to express their opinion to UPN that "Desmond Pfeiffer" isn't funny.

A lot of them haven't seen it. They don't care. They don't find the whole idea of "Desmond Pfeiffer" funny. They don't care if it's a laugh a minute.

They think a TV show about a black servant who works in the White House during the laugh-a-minute Abe Lincoln administration is not a fit subject for a comedy.

Call them crazy, but these people were under the impression that being an African American during the pre-Emancipation Proclamation mid-1800s was not a lot of laughs.

I do believe they're right.

However, UPN's president crosses his heart and promises that the series--which premieres Monday--is not racially insensitive in any way.

Especially since they cut out the funny scene with the two people being lynched.


I have been trying to remember the last time a TV comedy series caused this kind of consternation.

"All in the Family" was a troublemaker from the start, with people objecting to Archie Bunker's bigotry and abuse of the English language.

Now, 27 years after its first telecast on CBS, "All in the Family" is about to be seen nightly on Nick at Nite . . . the cute family channel.

There was also a show called "Maude" that spun off from "All in the Family," which ran an episode in which Maude has an abortion.

"Maude" aired for six years.

An ABC comedy that made its debut in 1977 featured a household full of wacky white people, who had a smart black butler named Benson.

That show, "Soap," spun off into a series that ran until 1986. The character of Benson went from butler to state budget director to lieutenant governor to campaign opponent of the governor.

So, see, you never know.

I can see it now. If UPN's new show just can stay on the air for a few years, I guess Desmond Pfeiffer can go from being Abe Lincoln's butler to running against Ulysses S. Grant for president in 1868.

Until then, I guess we're supposed to guffaw and grin over all those madcap devil-may-care days when slaves were being emancipated and a smart black butler could work for all those wacky white people at the White House.

What a funny subject.

I am already busting a gut laughing--as are all those protesters outside Paramount Studios, I'm sure--at the scene (already cut out of the pilot episode) in which a white dude orders Desmond Pfeiffer to take his feet off a table because "slavery isn't over yet."

Now that's funny!

And I'm sure those people who were carrying picket signs at Paramount the other day were holding their sides from laughter at the scene (already cut out of the pilot) in which Desmond Pfeiffer is aboard a ship traveling toward the part of America "where they grow cotton."

Funny, wild stuff!

And you can bet your bottom dollar that those Paramount protest marchers were really howling with joy over that scene (already cut out of the pilot) in which a couple of hooded corpses are found hanged.

Must-see comedy TV!

UPN's president was quoted as calling the protest "political correctness . . . gone haywire" and believing a protest organizer should have "something better to do with his time than worrying about what UPN is putting on its fall schedule."

Oh, sure.

Why on earth would the president of the Brotherhood Crusade, the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP and busy city councilmen such as Mark Ridley-Thomas give a damn if UPN runs a TV comedy about those 1860s Happy Days? Why, UPN has already cut out gags about slavery being abolished, cotton-picking and lynching! Hey, UPN's show is as cuddly as Barney the dinosaur now.


I see where UPN has decided to postpone the pilot and go directly to episode No. 2, in which Abe Lincoln and a woman have telegraph sex.

I have three things to say:

1. I'd like to join those protesters.

2. Let's launch a second protest--on Lincoln's behalf.

3. Which channel IS UPN, anyway?

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to him at Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053, or e-mail

* HOWARD ROSENBERG: 'Secret Diary' is raunchy and flagrantly unfunny, but not racist. F1

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