We gave it a B
Recently, I caught a rerun of The Jack Benny Show. In this episode from the 1950-65 series, the deadpan cheapskate goes to the barbershop, where none of the haircutters want to serve him because Benny is such a poor tipper. Then Benny decides he wants a shoeshine. Unlike the white barbers, both of the men who shine shoes are black. Benny asks one of them for a shine. Also disinclined to serve the penurious comedian, the black man gestures to his partner and says with impeccable, quiet dignity, ”I yield to the gentleman from Alabama.”
This was a funny, prickly joke from any angle. The mock-senatorial reference to one of the South’s poorest, historically most segregated states was subtextually perfect, and for that era, the surprising lack of stereotypical obsequiousness in the black actor’s delivery was entirely in keeping with the rest of The Jack Benny Show. As Donald Bogle points out in his new book, Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television, the Benny program showcased wonderful, nervy work by Eddie ”Rochester” Anderson, who played Benny’s wily valet. ”There was nothing servile or submissive about [Rochester],” Bogle writes. ”Cocky and confident, always resourceful and witty, Rochester seemed his own man and usually behaved as if he were the boss in the Jack Benny household; an idea that the scriptwriters played with time and again.”
Eddie Anderson’s equal-status standing is much the exception to the rules Bogle lays out in his thorough, engagingly opinionated history of blacks on TV. Most often, even when they are the stars of a show, African Americans are denied the range of emotion and experience that whites are granted. And Bogle finds this is as true of one of the first shows starring a black character, the ’50s sitcom Beulah — the title character a maid to whom ”it never occurred … she might be overworked or underpaid. Nor did she question the system that had designated her a servant” — as of recent fare like Martin Lawrence’s Martin, whose race-based buffoonery Bogle finds ”pernicious and poisonous.”
Bogle brings a fresh eye to many TV touchstones, pointing out, for example, that Seinfeld‘s huckster lawyer Jackie Chiles (played by Phil Morris, son of the only black cast member of Mission: Impossible, Greg Morris) may have been modeled on Johnnie Cochran, but his ”thick dialect and broad, stagy double-takes harked back to Kingfish on Amos ‘n’ Andy,” the most reviled TV depiction of shuck-‘n’-jive black life. ”Seeing [Chiles]’s antics,” Bogle writes with heavy sadness, ”many viewers might have felt television images had not progressed at all.”
Indeed, the provocative notion that Bogle pursues throughout Primetime Blues is that television, commonly considered the pop-culture medium most responsive to societal trends, consistently lags behind movies and music in reflecting the minds and moods of blacks. As its title suggests, Primetime Blues is ultimately a despairing work. Again and again, blacks make small pop-cultural breakthroughs only to find those triumphs either canceled (as in the case of Tim Reid’s daringly lapidary New Orleans comedy Frank’s Place) or the victims of TV’s relentless production schedule, a factory pace that dulls even the best show’s sharp edges (I think of the slow fade of In Living Color).
Bogle avoids the usual trap of this kind of cultural criticism — praising earnest, ”serious” work over the truly subversive stuff (he ultimately rates The Jack Benny Show a bolder effort than, say, a mawkish Emmy-winner like TV’s In the Heat of the Night). But the structure of Primetime Blues — describe a show’s premise and stars, note its success or failure as a depiction of the black experience — becomes repetitive quickly.
Bogle nails the appeal of the Norman Lear issue-oriented squawk comedies like All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons, praising Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson as a character who ”appealed to the African-American audience in [an] intensely personal way” because he was ”a middle-class black man who asserted … his racial identity at every opportunity.” But he sometimes misses the boat: He dismisses the hardheaded, superlatively acted I’ll Fly Away as ”safe, even self-congratulatory,” and he unaccountably praises Michael Michele’s bland performance in Homicide while ignoring the more subtle one Clark Johnson turned in as the porkpie-hatted Meldrick Lewis. And he has surprisingly few original thoughts on such important phenomena as Michael Jackson’s music videos or Bill Cosby’s varied career (from stand-up comic to I Spy dramatic actor to sitcom savior with The Cosby Show). Still, in a field filled with hack hagiography and flimsy fan-books, Bogle’s rigorous history is a valuable one for the depth of its research and its refusal to patronize either TV or its audience. B
Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television
BY DONALD BOGLE $30 FARRAR, STRAUS & GIROUX