LOS ANGELES - In the whirlwind of hype and spin that is the media's summer press tour, it felt like the rarest of things - an authentic moment. Not only that, it seemed like an authentic moment with reverberations of race and class and viewership as they're played out on television these days.
Eunetta T. Boone - the creator of One on One, a new sitcom joining UPN's Monday night lineup of African-American comedies in September - was being pushed during a press conference by a questioner who was not so delicately comparing such ethnic sitcoms to the ones satirized by Spike Lee in his film Bamboozled.
"What do you do when you even have black folks who will come to you and complain about the quality of shows on that Monday night on UPN?" she was asked.
Boone took a slow, deep breath before answering, and then said, "You know, the most rewarding and the most difficult thing in this town is to be a black comedy writer, because we sit at that table every day, hour upon hour, deciding what's acceptable and what's not. And ultimately what it comes down to is what's funny, and then defining funny in a way that's not demeaning."
She took another pause, and then dove a little deeper:
"The difficult thing is that you can take a character like Joey on Friends who is extremely buffoonish. It's hilarious, and I love him, but you put that person in a black face and suddenly it's a stereotype," she said. "I mean, because what's funny to me and stereotypical to you may not be to someone else who is black, and that's the issue. We are not a monolithic race, you know."
The juncture of race and television can be a controversial place. In the next season, the six networks combined are introducing only two series starring black characters in a leading role. They are The Bernie Mac Show on Fox and One on One, Boone's sitcom about a sportscaster in Baltimore who suddenly finds himself a single parent raising his 14-year-old daughter (Kyla Pratt).
Boone said she tries to remain positive in the face of criticism that a show like One on One might perpetuate stereotypes. "You try to put the best face on the show that you can," she said. "You call your mom up and say, 'Are you embarrassed that your daughter is the executive producer of this show?' And you go for it."
Boone, 46, has gone for it in a big way since leaving her job as a sports writer for The Evening Sun in 1990 and coming to Hollywood to try her hand at screenwriting. The career change came after she attended a workshop on screenwriting offered by the Maryland Film Commission. That led to acceptance in the Warner Bros. Writing Workshop here, which in turn led to story editor jobs on the staffs of Roc, starring Charles Dutton, and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, with Will Smith.
Her steady climb through the television industry since then has included producing jobs on Lush Life and Living Single. That was followed most recently by co-executive-producer positions on The Hughleys and My Wife and Kids.
While her resume reads like a Who's Who of African-American sitcoms in the 1990s, One on One is the first series she's created. Other than holding a winning Super Lottery ticket, creating a successful series for network television is one of the fastest ways in America of getting rich. "If you can get a show to stay on the air for five years, you never, ever, ever have to work again," is the way Boone put it Monday after the news conference.
But while the money in her second career may be better, in a way, Boone never totally left the first job she landed after receiving a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. "One on One is probably the third version of some show about a sports writer that I've done," she said.
The sportscaster in this show, Mark "Flex" Washington (played by Flex Alexander), may be perceived by some as buffoonish unless there are changes in the pilot before One on One premieres Sept. 3. He is a 33-year-old single dad with a very active sex drive. Much of the pilot is about his daughter cramping his style, and in some ways, Washington comes across as much a child as the girl. That's partly because the character is played so broadly by Alexander, who is still living down his role in the short-lived UPN series Homeboys in Outer Space.
That said, I had the same feeling talking to Boone about her new series that I had two years ago while talking with Baltimore native Mo'Nique backstage before a taping of her then-new sitcom, The Parkers. In the summer of 1999, most critics were raising the same kinds of questions about The Parkers that they're raising this summer about One on One, and Mo'Nique was saying the same kinds of things as Boone about staying positive and trying to do good work.
But the more time I spent backstage at The Parkers, the more I became convinced that audience reactions to such shows are more a matter of culture - social class, education, background, sense of ethnic identity - than this highly subjective thing we call "quality."
As I said of The Parkers, if NBC's Frasier is your idea of a great sitcom, you probably won't like One on One. The sensibility of Frasier is that of French farce.
On the other hand, The Parkers and One on One have a populist orientation and is similar to a brand of theater extremely popular with African-American audiences known as "urban circuit." (In fact, Countess Vaughn, co-star on The Parkers, often appears in one of the most successful plays on the circuit, Mama, I Want to Sing.)
The Parkers now is the No. 1 series on television with African-American viewers, and well on its way to that magical five-year run. When the new Monday night lineup makes its debut on Labor Day, One on One will lead into The Parkers. I don't know how the new show will do in the ratings, but I do know it shouldn't be judged solely on a culture-bound aesthetic that privileges European-based standards of comedy like French farce.
And I also know Boone won't let such criticism stop her from achieving her goals:
"I don't mind being on Monday night, on the night with the other African-American-centered comedies," she said. "I think I'm in good company. I feel, however, though that you don't hear that kind of statement when you are talking about Frasier and Friends and 'white' night. I mean, that kind of comment is never made. The bottom line is that the hardest thing to do in this business is get a show on any night at any time. ... If Monday night is your chance to shine, then you shine on Monday night."