Sunday, November 20, 2005

Truth in Jest

I'm a big fan of pop culture, especially television. T.V. was a big thing in my house as a kid, and to this day, my parents have a t.v. in almost every room in the house. T.V. was so important that my mom used to encourage us to watch game shows because she said they made us smart.

It's no secret that I have several guilty t.v. pleasures. I was reminded of one of my childhood favorites, "What's Happening." TV Land has brought back the show, and it's a reminder of how race relations in America were then, and how similar they are now. The three main characters are teen buddies, sharing their different experiences of being young, Black, and male in the Los Angeles community of Watts, famous for its late 60's race riots. Funny how nice the neighborhood is less than ten years later, as shown in the opening sequence. Roger, or Raj, as he's known, is raised by his divorced mother, who works as a maid for two different households. Rerun is the popular fat guy (fat guys are always more popular than fat girls, as evidenced by the barbs exchanged by equally as fat auxiliary character, Shirley). We don't really know much about his family except that Rerun is the one who hasn't spent time in jail. And Dwayne, who was the cute one, lives with both of his parents, almost unheard of in ghetto life, according to Pat Moynihan's controversial mid-60's study in which he found that a quarter of Black children were born to single mothers.

At the same time, the show "Good Times," also living on in syndication on TV Land, portrayed a Black family living in the projects. Again, the family was an atypical one, with married parents, including a father who actually lives with his family. The Evans family matriarch, Florida, didn't work until the final seasons of the show, but father James, worked a series of menial jobs, having only a junior high school education (both parents eventually studied together for their G.E.D.).

In both shows, several elements are used and played to the hilt, including urban greetings, such as Rerun's "what's happening," Dwayne's famous "hey, hey,hey," J.J.'s phone greeting "chello," and the eventual scream inducing "dyn-oh-mite," pejoratives like "turkey," "shut, up fool,"and my favorite element, the uncomfortable White person. In one episode of "What's Happening," Raj's mother, is fired from her job as a Monday, Wednesday, Friday maid after a diamond ring owned by her boss is missing (someone turns up dead, blame the butler, something turns up missing, blame the maid). Raj and company track down the culprit of the crime, who turns out to be the boss, with a nasty gambling habit. Out of cash in his regular poker game with two other White guys, and one Black guy (there's always a token middle class Black person just to show America that not all Blacks are losers), he's lost the ring in a previous game to the Black guy. Raj confronts the White boss, tries to hold his, er, losing ground, with the Black guy taking the side of the kids. And, with predictability, Mr. Whitefolks gets all nervous because the Blacks have raised their voices.

Similarly, in an episode of "Good Times," Thelma earns a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, and is promptly pursued by a White sorority girl who wants to add Thelma to her ethinc collection as the sorority has an "Oriental, Indian, and Chicana." Again, Miss Whitegirl, outnumbered, and out voiced, gets jumpy. In future episodes of both shows, yet another element is introduced, that of the White person who understands life in the ghetto, complete with "coll-ahrd greens, fat backs," and "what it is'es."

What I love about these peeks into race in America thirty years ago, is that they show us how things aren't so different today. America loved watching the antics of Bobby Brown and Whitney Houston -- they behaved the way we expected them to behave. Bobby's a bad boy, "keepin' it real." America also loved watching Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey live their all-American lives. Jessica has made it well known that she pledged to her father to maintain her virginity (yeah, I thought it was creepy too) until she married, and she married Nick Lachey, one of the lead singers of a one-hit wonder boy band. Nick's a bad boy too, showing up in tabloid photos with beer in hand (just like Bobby), surrounded by strippers (like Bobby). Nick's never labeled as a bad boy though. How could he possibly be, since he married a woman who supposedly wouldn't have sex with him until after they married?

Pop culture's portrayal of Black life, even when created by Black producers (Michael Evans, one of the producers of "Good Times" was the first Lionel Jefferson on "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons") purported to tell the "real" side of Black life. But, visit TV Land for the backstory on the show, and you'll find that not everyone thought the one-note song of Black life was all that real. Eventually, "Good Times" crashed and burned with the increasing clowning of J.J. Evans. The actors portraying Florida and James Evans left the show. "What's Happening" co-creator Eric Monte was responsible for the classic film "Cooley High," whom the Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne characters are loosely (very loosely) based on. And, even though we appreciated the growing up and moving on of Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne, Dee only became an older, taller, fatter, pain in the butt baby sister, still quick with the insults.

Yes, shows like "Good Times" and "What's Happening" and "Julia," which I'm too young to have seen, were seminal in t.v.'s mainstream portrayal of Blacks . So, what will be the new pop culture hit? What will define it? Why did Blacks complain about the "reality" of "The Cosby Show?" Was it because no one got shot, White people were comfortable with the upper middle-class Huxtables, even friends with them? The problem with shows that set themselves up to be the voice of or representation of a group of people (see "Queer As Folk," "The L Word," "Will & Grace") is that they don't speak for that group. They show a couple of non-stereotypical elements for variety and to be able to claim cutting edge status, but rely heavily on stereotypes to sell advertising time. Even though we knew J.J. Evans was a talented artist, "Good Times" viewers weren't interested in his career as a graphic artist unless he was clowning (although the jheri (sp?) curl he sported toward the end of the series was laughable). Ultimately, the jest was more compelling than the truth, and will always be.

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