August 3, 2020

"But Black people have never been nonexistent, or invisible, in the white sitcom."

"They have been invisible only in the way that Black people who service the margins of white world-making must be. In a genre whose conventions (and hilarity) thrive on white ridiculousness, Black people, relegated to the smallest of parts, exist to rein in the free play of whites, reminding viewers how safely deviant the main cast can be.... Black people on Seinfeld play a very particular role, defining the social edges of 'very,' or too much.... All the bombast, wackiness, and camp belong in the domain of the four protagonists — Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, plus a rotating circle of co-conspirators.... [T]he group is selfish and deranged, delicious micromenaces to normalcy and etiquette who nonetheless enter and leave each episode with their worlds intact. When white characters run wild on Seinfeld, Black people are cops. They exist as agents of public decency next to whom our main characters appear all the more indecent.... Friends, the sitcom most frequently judged for its lack of black characters, stations its black actors on the mundane edges of urban life.... [B]lack characters play a significant role precisely because they are true strangers — estranged by city planning and the color line — for these main casts to bump up against...."

From "When Black People Appear on Seinfeld" by Lauren Michele Jackson (New York Magazine).

Example of what the author is talking about:

48 comments:

Fernandinande said...

Now do Amerindians, Mestizos and Asians.

5M said...

Wasn't Kramers lawyer black? I think one has to move to the Larry David show to get real.

YoungHegelian said...

THAT'S what the writer noticed about Seinfeld? Really?

How about the fact that all four of the main characters are in real life ethnic Jews & only one of them is identified as Jewish on the show? To quote Jerry Seinfeld What's with that? Every other ethnic group is a prop on Seinfeld for a NYC Jewish ethnic outlook. NTTAWWT.

The other aspect of Seinfeld that's overlooked until it smacks you upside the head in the last episode is that the main characters are deeply flawed & actually not very moral people.

Now do the role of white people on the last season of Dave Chappelle's Show. I double dog dare ya! You want to see interracial nastiness?! Luckily, I think Chappelle has moved on past that animus, to all our advantages.

rehajm said...

Sadly revisionist. Maybe try Welcome Back, Kotter?

Francisco D said...

Althouse,

Why do you torture yourself with this claptrap?

I would think that after retirement, you were done with essays from feverishly ideological minds.

Do I detect a masochistic streak? Maybe you just have a much stronger stomach for bullshit than I do.

Nonapod said...

I always loved Krammer's interactions with Jackie Chiles.

rhhardin said...

Unstoppable (2010), Denzel Washington, has black people playing white people roles, which I suppose is the opposite fault in this world of fault finding. The only way to avoid being other is to be white.

Except it's PC in having the blacks all good (no development) and the whites changing in the story.

So the blacks are actually out of the narrative by being made good from start to finish.

That's probably a better criticism.

roadgeek said...

I don't know. Jackie Chiles always seemed bombastic, wacky and camp.

Jon Ericson said...

*Insert stupid Barbara Billingsley reference here*

Not Sure said...

That flight attendant so white, being all polite 'n' shit while enforcing property rights. Not a proper role for a Blactress.

Unknown said...

All the bombast, wackiness, and camp belong in the domain of the four protagonists — Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, plus a rotating circle of co-conspirators.

How could she skip over Jackie Chiles? He steals the show every time he's on. Reduces Kramer to the straight man.

Birkel said...

We stopped keeping score for childhood sports.
And started keeping score for this type of stuff.

What is the goal?

Retail Lawyer said...

"The other aspect of Seinfeld that's overlooked until it smacks you upside the head in the last episode is that the main characters are deeply flawed & actually not very moral people."

Who overlooked that? That's what made it (and Cheers) so darn good.

Blair said...

Why does a show about Jewish New Yorkers have to have meaningful black roles? If there were white people on the Cosby show,or the Fresh Prince of Bel Air,I sure can't remember them.

If you're a star bellied sneetch, and you want art that reflects your group, why is it the job of someone in another group to make that art just for you? Do it yourself!

Michael K said...

Why do you torture yourself with this claptrap?

It's what middle aged suburban white women do. Other than grandchildren.

rhhardin said...

The black attorney was a role set out by Kingfish.

Char Char Binks, Esq. said...

"How about the fact that all four of the main characters are in real life ethnic Jews & only one of them is identified as Jewish on the show?"

Is Michael Richards an "ethnic Jew"? Maybe he's only ethnic Jew-ish. I thought he just played the J card when he got in trouble for saying the N word, a weak play, and a losing one.

Have you seen "The Goldbergs"? It's very much G-rated, edging ever so slightly to PG-13 at times, but hilarious. It's interesting, possibly to some, that only two of the main main actors are Jewish. I don't even think their ethnicity/religion is ever explicitly mentioned on the show. I assume they're supposed to be Jewish, but the only Goldberg child who looks at all Jewish is played by an actor named Gentile.

eddie willers said...

A good place to voice my gripe about the burial of Amos 'n' Andy. (and by burying, depriving generations of black people from seeing some of the great comedic actors of all time)

As a young white boy in Atlanta, this was my favorite show. And you'd best believe I was laughing with them and not at them. The show made black people normal (and not frightful) to me because I could see they were as silly as my other favorites on TV.

Tim Moore's George "Kingfish" Stevens was as wacky and conniving as Sgt. Bilko or Ralph Kramden. His wife, Sapphire, doing all she can to straighten him out, and loving him through all frustrations. HER mother giving the Kingfish the stink eye he often deserved. And Andrew H. Brown, the poor foil of most of the Kingfish's schemes, but sometimes getting the best of him. (and all the audience cheers! As they did one time when The Kingfish chiseled a white man who was trying to chisel him). Amos, a fine family man who had his own business and went to church regularly.

But when these wacky (except Amos) would react with people in the outside world, they would interact with serious black policemen, or realtors, or judges. We never mistook the funny guys as being the "real" negroes. The funniness pretty much ended when we left "The Mystic Knights Of The Sea Lodge", just as it ended outside Bilko's barracks or Ralph and Ed's apartment building.

Such a shame. I remember working in the student lounge at college in the early 70s. (pool and foosball tables and a color TV). So I am watching with my black coworker and Sanford and Son comes on. He shouts out, "Look...that's the actress who played Sapphire's Mama!"

Now this was after the NAACP and CBS had put it down the memory hole, but he remember the show as fondly as I did. Now we had new things to talk about in a very boring job.

n.n said...

Watching them watching you watching them... a veritable ouroboros.

Jupiter said...

I like the idea that she has to go back because the seats are very expensive.

PM said...

The '80s Cosby Show was about a normal middle-class family and...oops...I said Cosby.

rcocean said...

Yeah, that's sorta been standard ever since the 1960s. If you don't a loable or "wacky" black character, you have black characters that are judges, policemen, doctors, etc.

South Park satirized that by having its black character called "Token", while the Simpsons had Dr. Hibbert, Lou the policeman and Carl, the rarely stupid co-worker. MASH has a black doctors for a while. TOS got into act by having Dr. Danstrum (SP?) the computer genius who designs an automated USS Enterprise be black.

The only time I can remember black characters being painted as flawed was on All in the Family. Mike and Mrs Jefferson were more or less perfect, but George Jefferson was more or less a black Archie bunker in his selfishness and emotions. Of George was also 10x smarter than Archie and ended up in a "Penthouse in the Sky".

rcocean said...

Jackie Chiles was the perfect take off on Johnny Cochran.

Bilwick said...

Unknown wrote: "How could she skip over Jackie Chiles? He steals the show every time he's on. Reduces Kramer to the straight man."

Skipping over Jackie Chiles? That's outrageous, egregious and preposterous!

Joe Smith said...

Some people have soooo much time on their hands these days...this is what they think about?

We've made up for it in the past few years though...every TV commercial has at least one black person, and every couple is interracial.

If you were a Martian watching our broadcasts you'd think America was only 13% white...

John henry said...

It may have been Thomas Sowell or it may have been someone else but I remember a column or article in the 90s addressing this.

Of the 4 main characters, which one should have been black? he asked. Not Jerry because it is his show after all.

So George, Kramer or Elaine.

Make any one of them black and everyone will be up in arms because you are making fun of all blacks.

And there goes your show. Down the shitter.

Blacks get special treatment on TV comedies as characters. You can showcase a child abuser but you have to show them as a sympathetic child abuser and the child abuse has to look funny. At least to certain sick people but there's enough out there to form a respectable audience.

John Henry

John henry said...

Eddie Willers,

I liked Amos and Andy too as a kid. On the TV they were actual blacks. All the writers and most everyone offscreen on the TV show was white as I recall

On the radio program, they were whites in blackface (Blackvoice?) and I think that is what made Amos and Andy unforgivable.

John Henry

Rory said...

"A good place to voice my gripe about the burial of Amos 'n' Andy"

Life with Luigi, also from radio to primitive TV, was very similar to Andy 'n Andy. Luigi, the bewildered immigrant, was always being bamboozled by Pascuale, who had been in the country a few years. It suffered some protests, too, and left TV as Amos 'n Andy did.

I guess it's technically right that blacks were always on sitcoms, but they were really rare for...maybe 15 years? Dick van Dyke had Greg Morris a couple times, Godfrey Cambridge. Car 54 Where Are You? was shot in New York and had several recurring black officers - Nipsey Russell, Mel Stewart, Ossie Davis.

But they couldn't be funny, because in wiping out the ethnic shows they established the principle that you couldn't make fun of the ethnics. So they ended up in drab, respectable roles. Unfortunately, it's the mentally ill who make for comedy.

You had some deterioration of that in the 70s, but by the 90s wokism starts creeping back. Friends has a lesbian couple, but they're dull as dirt. David Schwimmer has said that he requested relationships with minority characters, first a dull Asian girl, then a dull black girl. The characters brought nothing, and left no footprints.

Of, all of this was brought about by whatever progressive elements we had at the time. Cancel Amos? Okay. Don't make fun of blacks? Okay. Parcel jobs out by demographics, but make every show a 21st century morality play? Okay. They're always guessing how to change, because they've been told forever that they have to be at the leading edge in everything, and they're mostly guessing wrong.

Temujin said...

Jackie Chiles

Wince said...

George Costanza was always inadvertently screwing-over the black guy.

"Mr. Ross said this was okay?"

"Well, you screwed me again Constanza."

James Pawlak said...

"Frankly dear, I don't give a dam!"

Limited Perspective said...

The Chicana character in 1970s sitcoms is one of opaque reflexive distance. She is both the hovering unanswered lure of the universal sunglow and unbaked otherness to the white trans-dystopian world of small shoes and large breasts.

Chanie said...

Criticizing Seinfeld for this is unfair given it is 30 years old. But a worse offender is The Big Bang Theory -- a show from the last decade that I recently watched for the first time. I marveled a t how long (multiple seasons?) passed before even the first black guest character. And even then, more or less empty one offs. By the later seasons there was a recurring or two -- a dean? A dry cleaner? On the biggest show on TV during the 2010s!

Biotrekker said...

There was a lot of Black comedy that I (a white dude), and my white friends, watched quite a bit:

Sitcoms:
The Jeffersons, in which the two white guys were a doofus (the Brit) and a stuffed shirt straight man married to a black woman.
Sanford and Son - pretty much no whites.
Goodtimes - pretty much no whites.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air - not many whites
The Cosby Show - not many whites

Let us not forget "In Living Color" produced, directed and starring mostly black people with a few token whites (including early Jim Carrey!) and the Fly Girls - a mix of blacks white, Latinas (including Jennifer Lopez!!).

Earnest Prole said...

How could she skip over Jackie Chiles?

If you, you know, read the piece, you'd see she says he's the exception that proves the rule.

dgstock said...

“They’re real and they’re spectacular” Jackie sticks it to The Man.

eddie willers said...

The black attorney was a role set out by Kingfish.

Correction. The Kingfish never had a job. The "lawyer", Algonquin J. Calhoun, was played by Johnnie Lee.

"Yo honor, just how much ground did we lose while our lawyer was defend'n us?"

Jonathan said...

George Jefferson ended up in a "De-luxe apartment in the Sky".

doctrev said...

Is the New Yorker sure they want us analyzing 90's comedy from a racial perspective? Oh, I laughed along with the comments above at the notion of how St. BlackPerson made including black people in sitcoms difficult, but then I grew thoughtful. Did Kauffman, Crane, Seinfeld and David all think it was too sensitive to feature black people in any real number on their shows? Or was it simply that they didn't actually know any, and saw them as outsiders to the world of liberal elites in New York?

From there, you end up watching Owen Benjamin videos as he describes Elaine Benes as a sort of parable, a career woman inevitably used like a whore before being abandoned by the men in her life. I don't remember Owen regarding the storyline as a warning against Jewish assimilation, particularly with the possibility of "redemption" being held out in the form of getting back together with Jerry, but then a lot of his videos are paywalled now. I actually appreciate both Seinfeld and David as artists: both for making me laugh decades ago, and for providing the very neat shock that allowed me to see their protagonists for the absolute monsters that they were. In the face of recent history and the criminal betrayals of Kristol, Vindman, Berman-Jackson, Frum, Weissman, Maxwell, and Epstein, I can only conclude that George Costanza was actually not psychopathic enough. And that he served more time behind bars than most of the people I mentioned above, despite deserving it less.

Is a lot of the reaction against the finale of Seinfeld because the elites were horrified, realizing that consequences for sociopathy would be like sunlight against their vampiric, twisted natures? At the time I simply thought it was a condemnation of the audience for thinking such cruelty was funny, but now I can look back and see the various film critics and elite tastemakers for what they are. It's really eye-opening.

wendybar said...

Birkel said...
We stopped keeping score for childhood sports.
And started keeping score for this type of stuff.

What is the goal?

8/3/20, 7:06 PM

Great question!! To divide us.

JAORE said...

I really need to set aside an hour per day to reflect upon and moan about my inherit racism.

Busy,busy, busy. There MUST be somewhere in my schedule.

Hmmmm.

Looks like there's an opening between 2:40and 3:40 am.

Problem solved.

Rory said...

"The Big Bang Theory -- a show from the last decade that I recently watched for the first time. I marveled a t how long (multiple seasons?) passed before even the first black guest character."

I've never sat down to catalogue the races of characters, but a quick scan of episode titles brings to mind a black character no later than in season one, episode six; a non-speaking character in episode seven; and a whacky nurse in episode 16.

The whacky black nurse, who's appeared in multiple Lorre shows, was in the first scene of the original pilot, but the show got massively rewritten after that pilot:

https://youtu.be/Q31GQ97RTao

Friends and Big Bang are very different from Seinfeld, in that they never really created a fictitious world. There was very little movement on the show, beyond a couple of sets, so there were very few characters used, of any race.

Attacks on funny shows are seldom about the content of the show. They're usually attacks on comedy itself.

Rory said...

"At the time I simply thought it was a condemnation of the audience for thinking such cruelty was funny...."

It was a reaction to the usual saccharine finales where characters get married or tearfully break up housekeeping.

Roger Sweeny said...

"There really should be a locking door."

Takes on a different meaning after 9/11.

Roger Sweeny said...

Indeed, The Big Bang Theory has almost no blacks. On could be impolite and say that Cal Tech has almost no blacks. Fittingly, the one recurring black character is in HR.

Martin said...

Rochester might have some thoughts on all this. And if yiu don't get the reference, Google "Jack Benny and Rochester".

RobinGoodfellow said...

“ Blogger JAORE said...
I really need to set aside an hour per day to reflect upon and moan about my inherit racism.

Busy,busy, busy. There MUST be somewhere in my schedule.”

The Grinch:
The nerve of those Whos. Inviting me down there... and on such short notice... Even if I wanted to go, my schedule wouldn't allow it!

"4:00, wallow in self pity.", "4:30, stare into the abyss.", "5:00, solve world hunger" - Tell no one. "5:30, jazzercize.", "6:30, dinner with me" - I can't cancel that again! "7:00, wrestle with my self-loathing." ...I'm booked. Of course, if I bump the loathing to 9 I could still be done in time to lay in bed, stare at the ceiling, and slip slowly into madness...

Bunkypotatohead said...

When both White sitcoms and black sitcoms have casts that are 87% White, then we'll have true racial equality. Quotas.