Watching the comedian D.L. Hughley making the talk-show rounds to promote his new sitcom, The Hughleys, it’s easy to see why ABC and a group of executive producers including Chris Rock were eager to go into business with him. The guy is funny as hell: fast and loose, able to riff ad-libs and fold what is obviously well-honed stand-up material into the conversational exchanges on even so rigidly formatted a show as Live With Regis & Kathie Lee. (It was most amusing to notice, in fact, that the studio audience was getting more of Hughley’s speedy jokes than Gifford was.)

Hughley’s brash, winning personality makes him a TV natural, but so far, The Hughleys isn’t the proper showcase for it. The show is a trite fish-out-of-water variation: Upwardly mobile black family moves into white neighborhood, and the show has already acknowledged its debt to The Jeffersons, but the self-awareness doesn’t necessarily make for better comedy. D.L. stars as family man and vending-machine entrepreneur Darryl Hughley, and like George Jefferson, he’s more prickly and suspicious when it comes to his affluent new white neighbors than is his calm, sensible wife, Yvonne (Scream 2‘s Elise Neal).

D.L. Hughley tells any interviewer who’ll listen that this premise is based on his own experiences as an up-and-coming comic who moved into a white area of his native Los Angeles, but that still doesn’t make the standard-issue yuk lines (”I’m as hungry as a hostage!”) any funnier. For one thing, Hughley the actor doesn’t seem comfortable portraying the grumpiness of Hughley the character. What comes across most naturally when you see Hughley do his stand-up is just the opposite quality — his sunny, if devilish, demeanor.

Then, too, Neal’s Yvonne is, so far, little more than long-suffering, and the couple’s kids (Ashley Monique Clark and Dee Jay Daniels) are squeaky-voiced ciphers. Darryl’s buddy Milsap (Living Single‘s John Henton) serves primarily as the best friend from the ‘hood who’s ”keepin’ it real,” a stance that is rapidly hardening into a sitcom cliche. But the real sign that The Hughleys hasn’t found — and may never find — its voice is that the most vividly drawn characters are Darryl’s white neighbors, bluff and hearty Dave and Sally Rogers (Eric Allan Kramer and Marietta DePrima). It’s as if the writers said, ”D.L. knows what he wants his persona to be and he’ll improvise half his lines anyhow; let’s concentrate on the funny neighbors.” (And I’m taking bets as to what percentage of that writing staff is white, too.)

Last season, two promising sitcoms with black stars, CBS’ The Gregory Hines Show and NBC’s Built to Last, flopped with good intentions, bad time periods, and poor early ratings that got them labeled as losers too quickly. ABC should look at the example of UPN’s warm yet hip Moesha, a show that found its distinctive comic rhythm only after one full season. ABC will probably stick with The Hughleys anyway; its initial post-Home Improvement ratings have been decent, and in addition to the classiness of Rock, another of its exec producers, David Janollari, helped develop the network’s hit The Drew Carey Show, which was also a slow starter that eventually took off.

Some early reviewers of The Hughleys found offense in a joke in the pilot when Darryl is teased about ”becoming white” because he pays his bills on time. But rather than discourage Hughley from invoking racial stereotypes, these criticisms should enjoin him to dig deeper into them; as Chris Rock has proven in his stand-up act, black comedians joking publicly about things that some blacks joke about privately can be tremendously liberating — and, not at all by the way, very funny and provocative. If D.L. Hughley will start insisting that Darryl Hughley be less crossly defensive and more agreeably aggressive, The Hughleys might have hope.

Utterly without hope is the similarly themed but far more obnoxious Fox sitcom Living in Captivity. Here too, a black couple, the Cooks (Dondre T. Whitfield and Kira Arne), move into a white neighborhood. But, as presented by Murphy Brown exec producers Diane English and Joel Shukovsky, they are mere bland wimps, surrounded by neighbors such as a racist creep called Carmine (Lenny Venito) and a liberal creep named Will (Matthew Letscher). Fox just pulled Captivity, but it may return later in the season. So the show’s creators have some time to try investing its characters with both humor and humanity. The Hughleys: C+ Living in Captivity: D

The Hughleys
  • TV Show