The first time I saw Whoopi Goldberg was in "The Color Purple"; the last time was when she was playing the on-site manager in that high-rise condominium of showbiz, "The Hollywood Squares."
Fran Drescher's career is easier to pin down. She was "The Nanny." Ah, the middle '90s.
Both comedians have new TV products out this week. Drescher's is called "Living With Fran," a sitcom. Goldberg's is "Whoopi: Back to Broadway -- The 20th Anniversary," an HBO film of the one-woman show Goldberg, returning to her stage roots, did in New York last winter.
Of the two, I would say Goldberg's is the more believable, mostly because she talks about President Bush and 9/11 and the war in Iraq. "Living With Fran," it turns out, has nothing to do with these things. In fact, watching the show, it's as if all of human history never happened, the species failing to evolve beyond Friday nights at 8:30 after "Reba."
In the absence of reinvention, both shows betray how Whoopi and Fran might still need us, need us more than we need them -- shhh -- if only as reassurance that they and their personas still have a place in the culture.
The title, or subtitle, of Goldberg's show is designed to stir the fires of our forgetful hearts. "Back to Broadway -- The 20th Anniversary." I'm sure if you caught "Whoopi" in 1984-85, at the Lyceum Theater, when character-based, one-woman shows were still considered fresh and audacious, she was something. But the HBO special, updated from the original show, is from the branded Whoopi, the one who fooled me into thinking she was on a more serious artistic journey. Now I just see her as post-"Ghost" (medium), post-Ted Danson in blackface (comedy gaffe by boyfriend), post-"The Whoopi Goldberg Show" (talk show), post-"Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit" (sequel), post-"Squares" (owner-occupant), post-"Whoopi" (NBC sitcom) Whoopi.
How long an attention span does she think I have?
She begins the HBO special by turning her contemporary black woman/old Jewish man sarcasm on the president. Politics make up the first third of the HBO special, with Goldberg, as her streetwise character Fontaine, riffing on familiar hell-in-a-handbasket political material that, for all its apparent alarm, has also become comforting singsong for anti-administration devotees, in the way that Monica was for the anti-Clintonistas. Within this there are several lines with true bite. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell's disappearance from the stage, for example, prompts her to liken him to a runaway slave. But mostly there's the jabbing at this president and this war. There's the failure to find Osama bin Laden. There's the conservative charges that "SpongeBob SquarePants" is a vehicle for pro-gay propaganda.
Robin Williams did a similar routine at the Oscars this year, which tells you how underground it is.
As Fontaine, a joint-puffing street dude who sees a lot on CNN that bugs him, she seems barely in character, the dark shades and bandana like a half-baked Halloween outfit. Behind the light mask it's fully Whoopi. She's giving you the straight dope, sister to the black community and half-sister to the white majority she first made feel Steven-Spielberg-guilty in "The Color Purple."
As with Spielberg, though, no matter where Goldberg takes us she eventually, like a therapist, tells us we're OK. Which is why America has often felt safe in her hands. The Fontaine section builds to a message of tolerance prompted by a trip to Amsterdam and the Anne Frank house. The other two character pieces in the show follow a similar world-weariness-to-sentimentality arc: Lurleen, a Southern lady flush with menopause, taking a trip down the memory lane of feminine hygiene, and the unnamed handicapped woman, again reprised from the original show, who finds that the love of a man melts her bitter self-regard.
It's in that last character that you're finally reminded: The woman can act. She can move us to feel things, even if she's spent much of her career as Whoopi, the borscht belt Toni Morrison.
There are a number of guises in there; Fran Drescher apparently only has one -- the whiny-Jewish-goddess-up-from-Queens routine that she contrived into a hit TV series, "The Nanny," and then a movie, called "The Beautician and the Beast."
Like Goldberg's blackness, Drescher's Jewishness is nonthreatening, a cliche stretched into light farce. She's also got Whoopi's gall. After a bout with cancer, she made a book out of the experience called "Cancer Schmancer."
Now Drescher returns to our living rooms in "Living With Fran," or as I like to think of it, "Sitcom Schmitcom."