I don't look forward to much on TV these days, but I must admit to experiencing more than an idle curiosity when I heard that Eddie Murphy was returning to the small screen. After his early tenure as an original cast member of Saturday Night Live, Murphy signed a big bucks deal with Paramount to produce and star in several movies. While some of these have been disappointing, Eddie is always good for a few belly laughs so most of his flicks have been financial successes. And unlike Steve Martin, Dan Ackroyd, and other comics who should know better, he's resisted the temptation to do serious dramatic roles.
Murphy's new venture is The PJ's, an animated half-hour for the FOX Network. The central character is a hypertensive guy named Thurgood who's the superintendent at a roach-infested housing project where old women eat dog food and crack addicts lurk in the hallway. One of the tenants is a self-proclaimed voodoo priestess who sacrifices goats and periodically clogs the plumbing when she tries to flush a severed head down the toilet. This annoys Thurgood who has to get up from his breakfast of fried chittlin's or interrupt his mid-morning malt liquor chug-a-lug with the homeys to do some work for a change.
The PJ's is produced in an animation style best described as digital eugenics. Working with the latest 3-D modeling technology, the animators go a step beyond caricature to accentuate the lips, noses, buttocks and other Negroid features. I'm surprised that there's not at least one in blackface.
I'm all for self-deprecating humor. Internal inconsistencies and personal hypocrisies make most humans comical. We'd all feel better if we could occasionally look in the mirror and chuckle at what we see. Are you listening, Elizabeth Dole? So I guess The PJ's is funny, but it's hard to laugh when confronted with grotesque stereotypes portrayed insensitively.
A half century ago, the NAACP protested so long and loud that CBS pulled Amos 'n' Andy, the first African American sitcom, off the air. The complaint was that this program, though arguably funny, promulgated a negative image of African Americans and their behavior. The cancellation was particularly devastating to Spencer Williams, Jr., the Eddie Murphy of his era. Williams was familiar to black audiences as the producer, director, writer and star of popular "race" movies of the 1940's. He wanted to do Amos 'n' Andy to expose his brand of African American humor to a broader audience, but was aware of the image-building power of the mass media. To get Williams and other cast members to participate, the producers agreed to his demand that Amos 'n' Andy move out of the shanties and tenements and into middle-class America where the characters had jobs, wore neat clothes, and lived in decent homes. He took the program's failure personally, and rarely worked again.
By contrast, Eddie Murphy seems to be looking for a quick buck from crude jokes at anyone's expense. If the producer were white, The PJ's would be widely condemned as vulgar racism. Maybe this is a good time to be colorblind.