Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin,
And The Flourishing Of Racial Humor
If the wide approval of Flip Wilson and his self-deprecating style of comedy suggested the acceptability of exploitive racial humor, the programs created by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin turned this suggestion into an industry. In so doing, the "new" comedy they produced in the 1970s radically altered the boundaries of permissible expression in American television.
Working together as Tandem Productions, Lear and Yorkin developed several successful series which included All in the Family, Maude, and Sanford and Son. Even in their own separate production companies each continued to enjoy prosperity. Lear and his T.A.T. Communications developed such acclaimed situation comedies as Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Yorkin, as part of TOY Productions, produced What's Happening!!, Carter Country, and One in a Million.
The comedic formula developed by Lear and Yorkin was a microcosm of that historic synthesis achieved during the 1970s with regard to blacks in TV. On the one hand, there was exposure of black actors—more roles, more employment, more black-centered programs than in the past. Yet, there was an almost total relegation of blacks to comedies. Just as African Americans had been playing the clowns and buffoons of American entertainment since the early nineteenth century, they appeared in the 1970s as the latest embodiment of a format traditionally acceptable to white audiences.
Whatever quantitative achievement there was for blacks in such programming, it was compromised by the quality of humor in the shows. By content and characterization, African Americans in television comedy entered what might be called the Age of the New Minstrelsy. Here was the coon character, that rascalish, loud, pushy, and conniving stereotype, strongly achieved in types such as Sherman Hemsley's boisterous George Jefferson, Jimmie Walker's grinning J. J. Evans on Good Times, and Whitman Mayo's lethargic Grady Wilson on Sanford and Son and Grady. Here, too, was the resurrection of the loud-but-lovable mammy, its roundest modern embodiments being Isabel Sanford's shrill Louise Jefferson, LaWanda Page's overbearing, purse-swinging Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son, and Marla Gibbs' caustic character, Florence, the wisecracking maid on The Jeffersons, and later in her own short-lived show, Checking In.
Unlike Amos ‘n’ Andy and Beulah, the comedies of the New Minstrelsy presented more than simple clichés. The element which, in the minds of Lear and Yorkin, redeemed their use of questionable images was the involvement of their series with pressing social issues.
Unlike the facile plots of earlier situation comedies featuring blacks, the story lines in Lear-Yorkin shows tested controversial national concerns. Where in American television had situation comedy ever handled such problems as venereal disease, abortion, alcoholism, rape, mastectomy, and black bigotry toward whites? Yet, these were themes on episodes of Good Times, Maude, All in the Family, and Sanford and Son.
Politics, poverty, welfare, black ambitions, sexual conduct, and sexual preference were projected now as legitimate topics for jokes and plots. It was a bold gesture by the two producers. And its success restructured the content of situation comedy and redefined the medium as a vehicle of family entertainment. In the words of the prominent media critic Michael Arlen, the works of Lear and Yorkin were "our first true 'media' dramas," presentations which
are probably new in that they seem to depend mainly neither on jokes nor on funny stories, nor even on family—although they often give the appearance of depending on all three—but on the new contemporary consciousness of "media." By this I mean that the base of Lear's programs is not so much the family and its problems as it is the commonality that seems to have been created largely by television itself, with its outpouring of casual worldliness and its ability to propel—as with some giant, invisible electric-utility feeder line—vast, undifferentiated quantities of topical information, problem discussion, psychiatric terminology, and surface political and social involvement through the national bloodstream.
The program which launched the Lear-Yorkin revolution in video comedy was All in the Family. It premiered on CBS on January 12, 1971. Perceiving the time to be ripe for confrontational humor, the two producers adapted to American realities a popular British TV series about a bigoted cockney. For the first time on network television, Americans found their comedy laced with words like "spic," "dago," "coon," "jig," "jungle bunny," "spade," "Hebe," "Polack," and "Chink," all spewing from the mouth of a "lovable" central character, Archie Bunker.
It is interesting, however, that All in the Family avoided some racial epithets—specifically "kike," "sheeny," and "nigger." Lear explained this omission as a conscious policy, since he felt these words were "from another decade," and they were "words that connote real hatred, and Archie ... is not motivated by hatred but by fear." Once, however, Lear broke his own rule and caused Archie to use the word "nigger." In an episode entitled, "Two's a Crowd," aired February 5, 1978, an inebriated Archie explained to Mike—while the two were locked overnight in a tavern storeroom—how as a boy a black youngster had beaten him up because he called the black child a nigger. Sensitively recalling his painful childhood, Archie explained that, "That's what all them people was called in them days. I mean everybody we knew called them people 'niggers.' That's all my old man ever called them, there."
As well as being prejudiced, Bunker espoused every conservative-to-reactionary political opinion of the decade. He favored escalating the Vietnam war, segregated housing, the death penalty, and sexually and racially restricted private clubs. Bunker also opposed handgun registration, homosexual rights, free medical clinics, women's liberation, the sexual revolution, abortion, and busing for purposes of school integration.
Norman Lear argued that these views were effectively offset by the liberal values of Archie's son-in-law, Mike "Meathead" Stivic. In Lear's words, "Mike is always the one who is making sense. Archie at best will work out some kind of convoluted logic to make a point. But it's always foolish."
Nevertheless, the lovable quality of Bunker's personality seemed often to overshadow the anger and irrationality in his postures. Although Archie's creators did not share his political values, "Archie Bunker for President" bumper stickers and political buttons in 1972 and 1976 indicated that many viewers identified with his opinions. And the death of liberal politics in the early 1980s indicates that rather than an loud-mouthed right-wing lout, Archie Bunker was at the forefront of political change, a diviner of the political temper and a harbinger of future politics in the United States.
All in the Family was controversial before it was ever broadcast. Although it was developed for ABC, executives at that network shied away from accepting the series. At CBS, officials insisted on script changes in the premier broadcast. Even then, the network prefaced the first several programs with a statement from management assuring viewers that the show was not intentionally demeaning and was, instead, responsibly presented. CBS for several seasons would not broadcast the program before 9 P.M. (EST) because it deemed the show "adult."
In April 1972, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked readers if Bunker reflected the thinking of the average American blue-collar worker. More than 61 percent felt that he did. And the opinions regarding his character reflected the spectrum of intense feelings sparked by most Lear and Yorkin characters. Typical comments of readers ranged from "He expresses the opinions of all whites," and "I am prejudiced and proud of it, and I don't know anyone who acts like him," to "He is crude and should be taken off the air," and he is like most whites "except that when colored folks move next door, he doesn't move."
Archie Bunker was the first racial bigot to be taken to the collective heart of mass America. And by mid-1973 with the commercial rate of $120,000 per minute on All in the Family, he was also the most expensive racist on TV. Himself a stereotype of blue-collar social and political values, Bunker trumpeted all the derisive epithets whites have chronically used to label the black minority. He described how white missionaries Christianized the Africans, having "dragged them outta the trees and right down to the river." He marveled at how black religion had copied white Western faith, amazed at "the way you people worked yourselfs up from the snakes and the beads and the wooden idols, right up to our God." And when blacks threatened to move into his neighborhood in Queens, he argued, "What are they gonna do for recreation? There ain't a crap game or a pool hall in the whole neighborhood—there ain't a chicken shack or a rib joint within miles."
Certainly, Lear and Yorkin meant comments such as these as satirical barbs at white racism. In a television special saluting the broadcasting of two hundred episodes of the series, Lear flatly concluded that, "However much we may laugh at the way Archie expresses his outrageous prejudices, and however lovable he may be in other respects, we are content that American people know very well that Archie Bunker, the bigot, is basically a horse's ass!" But to many black families Archie Bunker was something else: the epitome of white racism. All in the Family was used in some minority families as a teaching tool whereby children were introduced by their parents to white racial hatred via Archie's tirades.
The acclaim given to All in the Family, with its mixture of prejudice and topicality, led to many new series from Lear and Yorkin. Several of these programs profitably placed African Americans in central roles. Included here were Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, What's Happening!!, Carter Country, and Diff’rent Strokes. Not all black-centered series from Lear and Yorkin succeeded. Among their failures were Grady, Sanford, The Sanford Arms, One in a Million, Checking In, and Hot l Baltimore. The latter program in 1975 co-starred Al Freeman, Jr. as a philosophical soul, the only black character living in a sleazy hotel filled with comedic prostitutes, a homosexual couple, a feeble-minded old man, an unemployed waitress, and other assorted types. The series, however, lasted only four months before being canceled.
Another unsuccessful Lear situation comedy was All's Fair. Although this politically oriented show featured white actor Richard Crenna as a United States senator, it also employed J. A. Preston as his black assistant, and Lee Chamberlain as Preston's girlfriend. The series, however was one of the most poorly rated of the 1976-1977 season.
One Lear series, Mr. Dugan, was withdrawn in 1979 before CBS was able to televise even the premiere episode. This series concerned a black congressman, portrayed by Cleavon Little, whose characterization was so offensive that members of the actual Congressional Black Caucus advised Lear against airing the show. Lear later admitted that the series was withdrawn, "because in the context of comedy it just wasn't happening with the kind of importance and dignity that the first black Congressman on TV should have."
Many programs produced by Lear and/or Yorkin, however, were well received. Figure 14.1 illustrates the annual Nielsen rankings of their series since the emergence of All in the Family.
|Figure 14.1: |
Annual Nielsen Ratings/Ranking of Series
Produced by Norman Lear and/or Bud Yorkin, 1970-82
All in the Family 18.9 (#34)
All in the Family 33.4 (#1)
Sanford and Son 25.2 (#6)
All in the Family 33.1 (#1)
Sanford and Son 27.2 (#2)
Maude 24.6 (#4)
All in the Family 31.2 (#1)
Sanford and Son 27.6 (#3)
Maude 23.3 (#7)*
All in the Family 30.2 (#1)
Sanford and Son 29.8 (#2)
The Jeffersons 27.6 (#4)
Good Times 25.6 (#8)
Maude 24.9 (#9)
Hot 1 Baltimore 14.7 (#68)*
All in the Family 30.2 (#1)
Maude 25.0 (#4)
Sanford and Son 24.5 (#7)*
One Day at a Time 23.0 (#13)
The Jeffersons 21.5 (#21)
Good Times 21.0 (#24)
The Dumplings 13.6 (#76)*
Grady 12.2 (#88)
One Day at a Time 23.4 (#7)
All in the Family 22.6 (#11)*
The Jeffersons 21.0 (#22)
What's Happening!! 20.9 (#23)*
Good Times 20.9 (#23)*
Maude 20.0 (#30)
Nancy Walker Show 17.6 (#54)*
All's Fair 16.1 (#70)*
All in the Family 24.3 (#4)*
One Day at a Time 23.0 (#10)
Carter Country 19.6 (#29)*
What's Happening!! 18.4 (#44)*
Good Times 17.4 (#53)
The Jeffersons 17.1 (#56)
Maude 14.7 (#78)
Sanford Arms 13.0 (#100)
All in the Family 24.9 (#10)
One Day at a Time 21.6 (# 19)*
Diff'rent Strokes 19.9 (#29)*
What's Happening!! 19.8 (#31)
The Jeffersons 17.5 (#49)
Carter Country 14.9 (#78)
Good Times 14.4 (#84)
The Jeffersons 24.3 (#7)*
One Day at a Time 23.0(#10)
Archie Bunker's Place 22.9 (#11)
Diff'rent Strokes 20.3 (#27)
Palmerstown, U.S.A. 19.3 (#38)
Sanford 16.2 (#64)
One in a Million 15.4 (#71)*
The Jeffersons 23.4 (#7)
One Day at a Time 22.0 (#11)
Archie Bunker's Place 21.4 (#14)
Diff'rent Strokes 20.5 (#26)
Facts of Life 19.1 (#30)
Checking In 17.6 (#40)*
Palmerstown 14.0 (#75)
The Jeffersons 23.4 (#3)
One Day at a Time 22.0 (#11)
Archie Bunker's Place 21.6 (#13)
Facts of Life 19.1 (#25)*
Diff'rent Strokes 17.5 (#35) *
* Signifies a tie
African-American viewers particularly enjoyed the Lear-Yorkin comedy product. In the summer of 1976, the Arbitron market-research organization surveyed black viewers in the fifteen leading market areas. According to its findings listed in Figure 14.2, the top three programs with blacks were Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. The list also suggests that urban detectives as well as situation comedies, genres which usually employed African-American actors, were preferred.
|Figure 14.2 Arbitron Survey of TV Preferences of African Americans, Summer 1976|
|1||Sanford and Son||8||Welcome Back, Kotter|
|2||The Jeffersons||9||The Practice|
|4||Starsky and Hutch||11||Happy Days|
|5||The Bionic Man||12||Barney Miller|
|6||Kojak||13||All in the Family|
In all fairness to Lear and Yorkin, their comedic formula was not the product of reactionary writers and producers. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, for example, Lear was an outspoken champion of progressive political issues. Often his corporations donated time and money to causes supporting racial and gender justice. He also maintained an open door policy, in that he openly solicited scripts from minority writers, hoping to discover and groom young comedy writers for programs like Good Times and The Jeffersons. Similarly, Yorkin often used black writers and production personnel, especially on Sanford and Son.
In Paddy Chayefsky's biting screenplay about the television industry, Network, the author chided TV series as being formulaic in their perennial search for "crusty but benign" central characters. To a great degree, that personality typified the black series heroes created after the triumph of All in the Family. Crusty but benign Fred Sanford, played by Redd Foxx, was an irascible Watts junk dealer trying to cajole or outfox everyone, even his responsible son Lamont, played by Demond Wilson.
George Jefferson was crusty but benign as well. Although Lance Morrow in Time magazine described Sherman Hemsley's character more specifically—"entrepreneur, black bigot, a splenetic little whip of a man who bullies like a demented overseer, seldom speaks below a shriek and worships at the church of ostentation"—Jefferson shared his formulaic personality with Fred Sanford. The formula was found in uptown blacks like Grady Wilson, and downtown blacks like Gary Coleman's impish Arnold on Diff’rent Strokes. It was there, too, in middle-class urban blacks like Mabel King's "all business" character, Mama Thomas, on What's Happening!!
No Lear or Yorkin character, however, received as much criticism as J. J. Evans, the open-mouthed minstrel character on Good Times. Played by comedian Jimmie Walker, James Evans, Jr. (J. J.), was an unemployed eldest son of a black family struggling to survive—and even succeed—in Chicago's notorious CabriniGreen housing project. Within this serious setting, Lear introduced J. J., again in the words of Lance Morrow, as "a bug-eyed young comic of the ghetto with spasms of supercool blowing through his nervous system, a kind of ElectraGlide strut." J. J. was cut from the same pattern as George "Kingfish" Stevens decades earlier. His stock phrase, "Dyno-mite!," was reminiscent of the Kingfish's "Holy Mack’l" heard so often on Amos 'n' Andy. J. J. also displayed his large white eyeballs and wide and toothy grin. A womanizer, unintelligent, and always wisecracking or mugging for a laugh, this endman of the New Minstrelsy was ultimately related to Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones, those demeaning coon characters of another century.
As with most Lear and Yorkin situation comedies, however, the rank stereotypes of Good Times were blended with uncommon humanity and seriousness. The series presented a loving and commanding father played with restraint by John Amos. As quick with a hug for actions he approved as he was with a belt for those he condemned, James Evans, Sr., was a proud, strong and determined image of African-American fatherhood. Complementing him, was Esther Rolle's sensitive portrayal of Florida Evans, a loving mother respectful of her husband's familial prerogatives, a sympathetic parent but still not intimidated by her spouse's bluff manner.
The mix of racial exploitation and forceful role-modeling found in Lear-Yorkin comedy was a fragile one. An imbalance of the components could prove disastrous. Such was the case with Good Times. During its first seasons, 1974-1976, the series maintained its equilibrium and enjoyed enormous acceptance, reaching its highest rating as the eighth most popular program in the 1974-1975 season.
But as scripts increasingly pandered to J. J.'s buffoonery, Amos and then Rolle left the series. Interestingly, J. J. then was employed as a commercial artist and became the leading character on the deteriorating program. With no strong family values to redeem it, however, what had been a highly successful series in its first years degenerated into a boisterous racial farce. It was canceled in 1979, ending the season ranked eighty-fourth.
Seldom does one film production company berate another publicly, but in "The Outcast," an episode of Strike Force that aired January 8, 1982, a stinging rebuke of the Lear-Yorkin product emerged in a blunt conversation between a black police detective, played by Dorian Harewood, and his young son. The episode was written by T. J. Miles and Gene Hanson; it was produced by Aaron Spelling Productions, another of the industry's major program suppliers. In a scene arising from the child's use of the word "nigger," Harewood lectured the boy for his indiscretion. What followed constituted Spelling's critique of Lear and Yorkin.
Son: (looking into bedroom mirror menacingly) Watch out! This nigger's coming at you, man.
Father: Hey, hey. What's that talk?
Son: I saw you on the news last night.
Father: Well, I wasn't at my best, my friend.
Son: I was so proud of you, daddy.
Father: Yeah, well, I don't want that word in this house. You don't use it here or anywhere else.
Son: It's all right if we say it.
Father: No, it's not.
Son: I hear it all the time on television, daddy. I hear it on The Jeffersons and Good Times. If it's black people saying it, it's OK.
Father: No, it's wrong. That just keeps that word alive.
As well as providing success for their own production companies, Lear and Yorkin offered a model for others in video comedy to emulate. Above all, the Lear-Yorkin formula brought relevancy back into television. Their programs clearly illustrated that when placed in humorous contexts, issue-oriented themes were agreeable to viewers. And developments of the mid-1970s provided TV writers with a rich source of material.
This was the period of the Watergate scandal and its compromising of governmental politics. The war in Southeast Asia became an American military defeat. Steep interest rates, rapid inflation, and mounting unemployment also marked the era. For the first time in many memories, citizens paid high fees for a dwindling supply of gasoline, heating oil, and natural gas. More personally, the time was also marked by reevaluations of traditional professional, moral, and sexual mores.
TV comedy series approached these national problems with unprecedented frankness. With its premier in the fall of 1972, M.A.S.H. was almost as antiwar as it was humorous. Barney Miller, beginning in 1975, treated social issues within the framework of a New York City police station. Chico and the Man, beginning in 1974, was the first series to deal with problems emulating from the Latino inner city, the barrio. Themes of women's liberation were integrated in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-offs, Phyllis and Rhoda. Certainly, there continued to be new programs without topical humor—from the nostalgic Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley to the variety-format of the Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and the adult, middle-class Bob Newhart Show—but these were now countered by more moralistic, relevant comedy such as in Eight Is Enough.
As comedy flourished in the mid-1970s, so, too, did black actors. Among those appearing in hit programs were Ron Glass as detective Ron Harris in Barney Miller, Scatman Crothers and later Della Reese in Chico and the Man, and Robert Guillaume as Benson the savvy butler on Soap. Throughout the last half of the decade, moreover, Garrett Morris was cast as the sole black regular on Saturday Night Live. While these were all supporting parts, Clifton Davis and Theresa Merritt, plus a group of other black character actors, were the central figures on That's My Mama.
There were roles for blacks in less successful comedies. Hal Williams portrayed an inmate, and Mel Stewart a hard-nosed correctional officer, at the Alamesa Minimum Security Prison in the one season of On the Rocks. During its three versions, Cleavon Little played a jive medical intern—as good with booking bets on the horses as he was with pulling pranks in the hospital—on Temperatures Rising (later called The New Temperatures Rising Show). William Elliott was a regular on Bridget Loves Bernie. Joe Keyes portrayed a "liberated" cook on The Corner Bar. And Harrison Page, although cast as a naval officer, was still a foil for Don Rickles' racial barbs on C.P.O. Sharkey. Among those African-American actors in more quickly canceled series in the mid-1970s were Ren Woods in We've Got Each Other, Richard Ward in Beacon Hill, Ted Ross in Sirota's Court, and Harrison Page and Janet MacLachlan in Love Thy Neighbor. Ralph Wilcox suffered this fate twice in Busting Loose and Big Eddie.
One of the most disappointing black-centered failures of the period was Roll Out. It lasted only three months on CBS in the fall of 1973. Produced by Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart as an African-American version of their hit series, M.A.S.H., the program concerned the men of the Army's 5050th Quartermaster Trucking Company in World War II, the predominantly black "Red Ball Express." Instead of sensitive comedy or inventive characterization, however, Roll Out presented a noisy and stereotyped scenario with a screaming top sergeant (Mel Stewart), a jive-talking urban corporal (Stu Gilliam), and naive rural private (Hilly Hicks). This was all accompanied by the din of growling ignition systems, roaring truck engines, and backfiring carburetors. Although it gave supporting roles to many black actors, including Darrow Igus, Garrett Morris, Theodore Wilson, and Sam Laws, the series was, in the words of one critic, "out of gas before it cleared the starting gate.”
As much the victims of unpopular formats as of their own performances were those African-American entertainers who failed in comedy-variety shows. Typical was The New Bill Cosby Show in the 1972-1973 season. Although headlined by one of the most accomplished TV stars in recent years, even Cosby could not generate viewer interest in the traditional format of monologues, a few skits, and a little singing and dancing. Cosby was also unsuccessful four years later with a similar format. With Cos the idea was to produce a comedy-variety program in prime time for preteens. Cos was canceled by ABC after less than two months in the fall of 1976.
But Bill Cosby had company. Also failing to survive in shows with comedy-variety formats were Diahann Carroll, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Redd Foxx, The Jackson Five, Melba Moore and Clifton Davis, Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr., and Ben Vereen. A noteworthy exception to this pattern was the popularity of Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, two halves of the singing group Dawn, who appeared for two seasons on the CBS program, Tony Orlando and Dawn.
Several black talents found it more profitable to bypass network television. They produced their own musical-variety series and syndicated them directly to local stations. Among these productions were The Rosey Grier Show and The Barbara McNair Show, both created in the early 1970s. Half the George Kirby Comedy Hour was a half-hour series featuring the noted black comedian with musical guests in 1972-1973. Perhaps the best received first-run syndicated program hosted by an African American was Sammy Davis, Jr.'s venture in 1975, Sammy and Company.
It is interesting, however, that the most inventive black comedian of the decade hosted one of the most disastrous comedy-variety programs in TV history. When Richard Pryor debuted on his own NBC show in the fall of 1977, he brought to television an amalgam of bawdy ethnic comedy—not unlike the nightclub humor for which Redd Foxx was famous before he entered TV—and youthful black rage, channeled into a singular style of delivery. Still, Pryor had merited his own TV show due to a burgeoning motion picture career—Car Wash being released in 1976 and Silver Streak and Greased Lightning in 1977—and because of his moderately successful NBC special, the Richard Pryor Special?, which was broadcast in May 1977.
Pryor's television series failed for several reasons. Scheduled for Tuesdays at 8:00 P.M. (EST), the network had placed Pryor and his adult, politicized comedy in the early-evening hour reserved for family viewing. It was difficult for NBC to tone down Pryor's aggressive humor to fit the needs of this time slot. It was also difficult to compete with the ABC nostalgic sitcom Happy Days, the top ranked series of the previous season.
Furthermore, Pryor had problems with censorship. On the premier program, he had planned to appear in simulated nudity—actually naked from the waist up, wearing skin-colored tights with no sexual definition, giving, thereby, the illusion of nakedness and emasculation—to suggest what he had to surrender to NBC in order to get his own series. The skit was edited from the show by network censors. Still, two NBC affiliates (in Winston-Salem and Grand Rapids) refused to carry the program, and two delayed its telecast. The following week the show was preempted in Winston-Salem and Detroit. Many stations also demanded to preview the programs before airing them.
As if these matters were not contentious enough, Richard Pryor called a press conference to denounce his network for thwarting artistic creativity and for improperly scheduling the show. Despite positive reviews from critics, with a recalcitrant host and a fearful network, The Richard Pryor Show lasted only five telecasts—one of them being a rerun of The Richard Pryor Special? (a show again rerun in prime time by NBC five years later on May 11, 1982). In terms of ratings, moreover, the series failed to command viewer interest. It was the ninety-fifth most popular series (out of 109 shows) of the 1977-1978 season."
There was, however, another dimension of The Richard Pryor Show which mitigated against its mass acceptance. As seductive and popular as Pryor was with live audiences, his humor possessed a racially-political quality which was foreign to network television. In one skit, Pryor gazed at three attractive white women and then reflected—with the help of six beautiful African-American models—on the beauty of black women in all skin hues, from peach, honey gold, caramel, and persimmon, to chocolate, molasses toffee, and blackberry. More politically, he portrayed the first black president of the United States at a press conference. Here he admitted, after an announcement filled with political double-talk, that he was considering appointing Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton as director of the FBI; he also announced his intention to continue dating white women now that he was in the White House. Before a racial brawl disrupted the conference, he ignored white reporters and showed favoritism to black questioners.
Pryor had the ability to satirize black culture without elevating white society as a model to be emulated. He played a corrupt TV evangelist whose motivation was to raise as much money as white television preachers. He played a stereotyped black drunk returning home to a scornful wife (played by Maya Angelou) who, after he collapsed on the sofa, delivered a soliloquy filled with anguish about her deeply felt love for her husband.
At his political best, Pryor played Ugandan dictator Idi Amin Dada, delivering a rebuttal to a TV editorial. Here he captured Amin's brutal disregard for life, complete with blazing pistols and machine guns. But he also used Amin to mock self-congratulating whites, reminding them that as bad as his country was, "Uganda is not Cleveland—you cannot apply Cleveland principles to Uganda;" that "in Africa nobody call you 'nigger;'" and that "V.D. stand for, in my country, victory dance—someday all over the world black man do victory dance." For all its inventiveness, Pryor's type of comedy and the mass audiences consistently sought by broadcast television were incompatible.
Canceled or not, African-American programs were quantitatively an important dimension of TV in the mid-1970s. Clearly, however, when blacks were employed, they were cast overwhelmingly as comedians. Nonetheless, even in this age of the New Minstrelsy it would be incorrect to conclude that blacks were totally absent from noncomedic programming.