Baltimore Sun

'Whoopi' not afraid of edgy, ethnic humor

The very first image viewers of the new NBC sitcom Whoopi will see tonight is that of Mavis Rae (Whoopi Goldberg) lighting a cigarette and taking a drag as she stands behind the front desk of the small Manhattan Hotel she owns.

A guest standing nearby picks up a no-smoking sign and says, "Excuse me."

"Oh, you're right, sir. I'm sorry. Here, I'll just put it out," she says meekly, moving her hand toward an ash tray. But as soon as the guest turns his back and starts to walk away, she puts the cigarette back in her mouth.

The guest wheels on her and says, "You know, second-hand smoke kills."

"So do I, baby. So do I. So, just walk on," she says in an angry voice before taking another big, fat, satisfying drag.

The scene is followed a few seconds later by the first of many ethnic jokes when Nasim (Omid Djalili), the Iranian-American concierge, complains about Rae's brother, a nonpaying guest, following him around all day acting like his supervisor.

"I haven't felt so oppressed since the Ayatollah blew up my beach house," Nasim says.

It's a prelude to another punch line from Nasim about his having been a member of the "Iranian militia, trained to build missiles, which of course we don't have in Iran."

And the opening credits have yet to roll on this politically incorrect but culturally rich and edgy sitcom that showcases Goldberg in a way prime-time network television has never been able to do. Her character, a former R&B singer who took the money she made with her one hit and bought the small hotel, smokes, drinks and speaks her mind on everything from President Bush to African-American men who date white women, as her brother (Wren T. Brown) does.

And wait until you meet the woman (Elizabeth Regan) whom her brother adores. She's not only much younger, she has assumed an African-American cultural identity right down to the way she talks - and Rae finds it sooooooo annoying.

In recent interviews, Goldberg has compared her Mavis Rae to Archie Bunker, the cantankerous and politically incorrect lead character of the 1972 landmark sitcom All in the Family. In the early 1970s, television was awash with characters talking about ethnicity and ethnic differences.

It's a different climate today, with ethnic humor off-limits in most realms of mainstream popular culture. As a nation of immigrants that has used ethnic humor to symbolically address and often ease tensions among competing ethnic groups, we are the poorer for our new-found correctness.

Based on the first two episodes made available for preview, only a fool would call Whoopi a great sitcom. But it is one worth rooting for in terms of its potential to get viewers laughing again about ourselves, our differences and the diversity that makes America such a special place in the world.

Whoopi airs at 8 tonight on WBAL, Channel 11.

'Happy Family'

Happy Family is the first of many unhappy sitcoms this fall that feature adult children not quite making it to adulthood.

As the NBC promotional messages for this Boomerang Generation series puts it: "Their kids are grown. But not gone."

There are three grown children here. The pilot opens with the family about to attend graduation exercises for one of them at a local junior college.

But that passage is not to be.

As the exasperated parents Peter and Annie Brennan, John Larroquette and Christine Baranski are almost good enough to carry the dead weight of the rest of the cast - almost.

Happy Family airs at 8:30 tonight on WBAL, Channel 11.