‘The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer’: Historically Awful
Sometimes TV shows drag their unfunny, uninteresting, yet highly rated feet across our living rooms for years. “Who let this happen?” we ponder as our foreheads turn red from frequent smacks. Other times, the powers that be get things right. That’s where “Brilliantly Canceled” comes in, looking at the shows that didn’t make it past their first season and saved us all a ton of grief.
Terrible events in history and controversial subjects in general have always been used for comedic fodder, but in order to make it legitimately funny and not offensive to the majority of the people, comedy writers have to walk a very, very fine line. As Jerry Seinfeld put it on the stand-up comedian roundtable Talking Funny, when Louis C.K. went up on stage and said that you should rape a woman if she doesn’t want to have sex with you, he was “tap dancing around eight laser beams” to not get booed to submission and get kicked out of society, let alone elicit laughter from both genders. Mel Brooks was able to mine comedy from Hitler in The Producers, and was not crucified for his writing in History of the World Part 1, which has Gregory Hines playing an Ethiopian slave. The Pythons gave us Life of Brian. It can be done, but you need to know what you’re doing, and perform a song and dance that is nothing short of magic.
Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie – Django Unchained – is nominated for Best Picture at the 2013 Oscars, but fell short of successfully avoiding all of the lasers. It is set two years before the Civil War and is about a slave, that with the help of Christoph Waltz, colorblind horses, and lots of guns, gets Tarantino-y (really bloody) revenge on a bunch of slave owners, one of whom was directly responsible for taking his wife away from him. The film was engaging, at times funny. But it was still uncomfortable to some when Tarantino, playing an Australian slave owner, dropped the N-bomb a couple of times. Maybe he assumed that it was okay because he was saying it like someone who lives in the vicinity of kangaroos and Foster’s beer, or he was suddenly Chevy Chase and believed that Richard Pryor had given him permission to use it, mistakenly not getting the permission written down, notarized and laminated. And it was perceived by some to be making light of slavery. Some movie critics, Spike Lee, and others were not fans of the film, and voiced their displeasure. But from what I read, none of them referenced the show that spectacularly failed at trying to make the Civil War a laugh riot fifteen years ago.
In October of 1998, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer premiered on UPN, a broadcast television network in its fourth year of operation that had found some humble success targeting the at times neglected African American viewing audience. Pfeiffer starred Chi McBride as the titular character, a black man banished from England and sent to the United States during the American Civil War that manages to get work as Abraham Lincoln’s butler.
It was a comedy.
Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan were two men that thought they could make magic. The two had worked together on The Golden Girls (heard of it!), and co-created the 1995 UPN sitcom Platypus Man (not so much!), a Richard Jeni vehicle based on his stand-up special that only lasted 13 episodes. Fanaro and Nathan picked themselves up and wrote the screenplay to the Farrelly brothers movie Kingpin the next year. Their next project was an attempt to find humor during the time of slavery. Naturally, when the basic premise of the show was heard, the absolute worst was thought about it before a single second of the program appeared on television. There was a protest, led by the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP outside of Paramount Studios a week and a half prior to the premiere, which led to the network pulling the pilot episode. To this day, that episode has never been seen by anyone who wasn’t a critic, and details about how racist it initially was are a little sketchy. This is IMDB’s claim:
“Word of mouth spread quickly that the show was demeaning to African Americans and an untrue rumor circulated that a scene in the establishing pilot included hooded black men being executed.”
An article from a weekly San Jose newspaper called Metro in 1998 pops up on the first page of a Google search and is more specific about what supposedly was in the episode.
In the original opening sequence, two British horsemen munch on snacks while watching a double hanging in what is identified onscreen as “Merry Olde England.”
Doreene Hamilton saw one of those initial screenings and was aghast. “Dark humor on darkies is not my idea of a good time,” says the president of the L.A.-based Organization of Black Screenwriters.
That hanging scene was cut from the pilot, and since the race of the hanged individuals was never identified it became an “untrue” rumor. But the writer of the article, J. Douglas Allen-Taylor saw the edited version, and it didn’t sound that much better.
Kilbourne, Lincoln’s chief of staff in the program, walks into the kitchen to find Pfeiffer sitting with his legs stretched out among the breakfast dishes. “The slaves haven’t been emancipated yet,” Kilbourne barks. “Get your feet off the table, Pfeiffer.”
Pfeiffer stands and, with all the dignity he can muster in his British colonial accent, replies, “Sir, you may be chief of staff and my immediate superior, but I must remind you that we are both men, both human beings, both equals.”
At which Kilbourne breaks out in a great horse laugh and bellows, “Both equals? Hello! You’re in Americaaaaa!”
There is more, including a minstrel blackface sequence and jokes about cotton-picking and black dialect.
Five days before the charming Kilbourne could grace America’s presence, the Los Angeles Times reported that UPN would be swapping out the pilot for a different, less blackface-centric episode. This part in the article was interesting:
The action is an apparent concession by UPN President Dean Valentine, who had said last week that he had no plans to yank the series and was “deeply puzzled” by the controversy over it. “We have nothing to feel bad about, and we’re not going to feel bad about it,” Valentine said in an interview last week.
Now, I am not a professional businessman, and maybe if I were running a network I would get upset if people were judging a show they had not seen yet, but “deeply puzzled”? Dean Valentine could not figure out why anybody would find offense to the premise? Really? And doubling down by saying they are not losing any sleep over it and they are going to totally high five each other at the office on the way to the bathroom to take a massive dump because their shoulders are free of any burden, so kindly go to hell and keep watching television, mindless drones? (Valentine stayed on for another four years.)
After all of that, on October 5, 1998 the American public were able to judge from themselves with “A.O.L. Abe On-Line.” Here are the first few minutes.
What they saw was that their suspicions were true: The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer was not a good show. It was a bawdy, lewd, dumb sitcom that relied on shock value, not just in the overall premise, but in constantly making stupid sexual innuendos. When it wasn’t about sex, it was about Mary Todd Lincoln being overweight, General Ulysses S. Grant being a drunkard, and Desmond’s assistant Nibblet being cartoonishly stupid. “A.O.L. Abe On-Line”‘s main plot was that Abraham Lincoln kept telegraphing sexually suggestive messages with an unidentified woman. Since Desmond was tasked by Honest Abe to be his Cyrano de Bergerac, he grew squeamish and said that the President was “acting no better than a horny hillbilly from Arkansas.” Zing. Bill Clinton jokes, along with the low hanging fruit jokes on the nascent internet, keeps the show stuck in 1998 forever, which is kind of cute in a time capsule, life was less terrible back then kind of way, but makes it almost as dated as Murphy Brown.
While most of the initial reviews were negative, longtime television critic Ken Tucker actually gave it a robust B-, and referred to the jokes as almost “Rabelasian,” as opposed to everyone else who used words like sophomoric, crass, and tasteless.
The second episode was “Up, Up and Away.” Synopsis: Desmond, Nibblet and the President wind up trapped behind enemy lines after a freak accident with an observation balloon, and President Lincoln must dress in drag to escape Southern territory. Meanwhile, General Grant tries sobriety.
Stephen Toblowsky guest starred as a Confederate who chases Abe Lincoln in drag because he is really attracted to him. It was all very silly and straight out of Looney Tunes. Curtis “Snot” Armstrong and Sherman Hemsley were also involved.
The third episode is lost to time unfortunately. After the fourth episode, UPN cancelled the show. The series finale was “Once Upon a Mistress.” It is my favorite of the three, because the YouTube uploader left the commercials in, letting me briefly live in a parallel universe where I watched Desmond Pfeiffer on October 26, 1998 instead of
Ally McBeal the Steelers/Chiefs MNF game.
By “Mistress” it seemed like Pfeiffer was embracing a more wacky, zanerific, absurd sensibility. In the B story, Nibblet accidentally concocted a potion that gave men breasts and women bigger ones, and it ends up affecting the Abe A story in an obvious but fluid way. Grant at one point broke the fourth wall and addressed the audience while a flashing graphic reading “PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT” appeared on the screen. Absurdity is a symptom of a show becoming self-aware and searching for its inner self-destruct button.
Barry Fanaro and Mort Nathan probably had all of the right intentions in mind. It’s likely that they and the UPN brass were hoping that viewers would be placated when they saw that Chi McBride’s character was both the only African American and only intelligent character on the show. It’s possible that in Fanaro and Nathan’s minds a Married…With Children set during the Civil War would be so odd that it would be intelligent and work on the pure strength of satire alone. Then they decided that a live action Merrie Melodies would provoke images of a smirking Abraham Lincoln plugging his ears with his fingers before discovering his Acme product malfunctioned and it would hang in a museum? I don’t know. What I do know is that the two had not worked together since, possibly due to a deserved indefinite suspension from the mayor of television.