Ethnicity is in the house
'Whoopi,' other shows put variety under one roof
Whoopi Goldberg stars on NBC as the owner of an ethnically diverse hotel. (NBC / September 4, 2003)
WB puts the formula center stage in the sitcom Like Family, which features two families - one white and one black - sharing the same small house. The premise has a middle-class African-American family of four opening their doors to a white single mom (Diane Farr) and her 16-year-old son (J Mack Slaughter).
The reason given for the move-in is that the single mom needs help raising her son, and the African-American mom (Holly Robinson Peete) is a longtime friend who feels she and her husband (Kevin Michael Richardson) can provide it. In the pilot, the father provides a strong male role model to the white teen-ager.
All About the Andersons, a boomerang sitcom about a black 30-year-old son (Anthony Anderson) returning to his parents' middle-class home, also has a multi-ethnic element - the father (John Amos) has rented the son's room to a Latina medical student (Aimee Garcia), and the son must sleep in the garage.
In the original version of this WB pilot, the room was rented to a white male medical student. But the scenes were re-shot with Garcia for the pilot that will air Sept. 11. In an interview last week, executive producer Marco Pennette said the change was made purely for dramatic reasons and had nothing to do with ethnic identity.
"It just worked better this way," Pennette said.
Fox, meanwhile, has veteran actor Luis Guzman as landlord of a small apartment building in Spanish Harlem in the sitcom Luis. One of his tenants is his adult daughter, who lives in the building with her boyfriend - yet another boomerang couple. She's Latina, he's Anglo. The boyfriend's ethnicity and lack of a job are constant sources of consternation to cranky Luis.
Luis, portrayed as a kind of Puerto Rican Archie Bunker, is constantly referencing race and ethnicity, especially in his verbal sparring with his ex-wife, who is Dominican. Such distinctions among Latin American ethnic groups are rarely made on network television.
NBC's Whoopi showcases Whoopi Goldberg as owner of a small Manhattan hotel that is wall-to-wall with multi-ethnic identity and humor. The concierge (Omid Djalili) is an Iranian ready to tear into anyone who refers to him as an Arab rather than a Persian. His life seems mostly dedicated to making that distinction - which is totally lost on his boss - over and over and over.
And then there's the hotel owner's brother (Wren T. Brown), a lawyer who comes to live with her after losing his job. His girlfriend (Elizabeth Regan) is white. Even worse, in his sister's view, is that the girlfriend insists on speaking in the kind of street dialect used by rap and hip-hop performers.
The first two episodes of Whoopi push ethnic humor as far as it's been pushed since the premiere of All in the Family. Goldberg herself wonders whether America is ready.
"I feel very fortunate to be able to put this out there and see whether it will fly," Goldberg said in a conference call last week. "We might all be blowing smoke, because maybe the public isn't ready. Personally, I believe they are, and I think NBC believes they are ready for something that's just a little different than the norm.
"I'm sure there will come a time when NBC will say, 'Well, that's a little farther than we are comfortable going.' But thus far, we have not abused the privilege of being able to be edgy."