''The PJs'' stirs controversy -- Eddie Murphy's new show has the NAACP, Spike Lee and others talking
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Spike Lee has called it ”hateful towards black people.”

Stanley Crouch, prominent African-American essayist, labels it ”mediocre…a third-rate update of Amos ‘n’ Andy and The Honeymooners.”

The director of the Los Angeles organization Project Islamic H.O.P.E. has said it ”does not have one positive character in it.”

”It” is The PJs, the new Fox ”foamation” series, which has been attracting ratings that, since its Jan. 12 debut, not only improve upon those of its Tuesday night lead-in, King of the Hill, but regularly drive a stake through The WB’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even NBC’s NewsRadio.

The PJs centers on Thurgood Stubbs, beleaguered superintendent of the run-down Hilton-Jacobs projects. As voiced by cocreator Eddie Murphy, he’s an irascible grump prone to Afrocentric expletives like ”What the h’Eldridge Cleaver is goin’ on here?” and ”I’m gettin’ Cuba Goodin’ ready to kick yo’ butt!” A modern-day Job with a tough j-o-b, Thurgood’s forever plagued by his tenants’ complaints on one side and a callous government (the Department of Housing and Urban Development) on the other.

So far so good. But Thurgood and his project neighbors also quaff jumbo bottles of malt liquor, joke about Korean grocers, and hang around with a skeletal (albeit recovering) crack addict named Smokey. And that’s got some black cultural leaders accusing Murphy & Co. of racial stereotyping.

”We met with the NAACP,” says Larry Wilmore, PJs‘ co-creator along with Murphy and Steve Tompkins. ”They have no problem with the show now, but when we first showed them a scene with characters drinking 40s [malt liquor], they couldn’t even hear the jokes being made all around that scene — namely, that it’s stupid to sit around drinking all that liquor.” NAACP branch president Billie Green confirms the group’s concerns. ”We thought the show was emphasizing the negative, especially in showing African-American men drinking 40s. They’ve agreed that after the first 13 episodes they’ve completed have aired, Thurgood will stop drinking.”

Wilmore, who is black and a former In Living Color writer, and Tompkins, who is white and a Simpsons vet, agreed to the Thurgood change — even welcomed the NAACP’s input. But they continue to be frustrated by criticism. ”These characters come from my life,” says Wilmore. ”I’m not allowed the same autobiographical options that a white writer would have?” Adds Tompkins: ”There’s a double standard. If a black actor played Smokey on a drama like NYPD Blue, he might get an Emmy nod for portraying a victim of addiction. But we’re condemned because our addict’s a cartoon character depicted as a multifaceted person? I don’t get it.”

Former NYPD Blue writer David Mills — one of the few blacks regularly writing for major-network dramas — gets it: ”There’s a long tradition of black comedy that satirizes black life, [and] the hell with what whites think. If you grew up in the ghetto, you’re going to make jokes about winos on the corner…. Murphy’s been poking fun at James Brown, Little Richard, pimps (his Saturday Night Live character Velvet Jones) and layabouts (SNL‘s Mr. Robinson) since the start of his career. This is what American black humor is.”

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