Judging from the reports of my TV-journalist brethren at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, yesterday was Casual Racism Day, brought to you by CBS. First, a panel for new hit 2 Broke Girls devolved into a tense, awkward standoff between showrunner Michael Patrick King and critics asking about the one-note ethnic caricatures that staff the show’s diner. (Todd VanDerWerff has a fantastic takedown of King’s defensive response, which included sexually insulting a questioner for being Irish. I smell spinoff!)
Then the network presented its newest sitcom, ¡Rob!, starring Rob Schneider, who plays a man who marries into a Mexican American family, upon which “hilarity”—which is to say a bunch of leaf-blower and illegal-immigrant jokes—ensues. The network spin on this one: Schneider’s character is the new Archie Bunker. It’s true, in the sense that both characters are or were on CBS sitcoms. It’s true, that is, in the same sense that Julie Chen is the new Walter Cronkite.
To be fair to ¡Rob!, the show also stinks for reasons that have little to do with racial caricatures. The premise—Rob (Schneider) elopes in Las Vegas with his hot new girlfriend Maggie (Claudia Bassols), then has to meet her huge family—practically begs for a half-hour of wacky misunderstandings and hamhanded character introductions. And then the Mexican jokes pile up. A nervous Rob stumbles through cultural faux pas—at one point he says, “I feel like I’m at a Julio Iglesias concert”—culminating in a slapstick scene in which Rob ends up appearing to be trying to rape Maggie’s grandmother. (The real crime is what the show does with the excellent Lupe Ontiveros, leaving her to mutely gesture as a non-English-speaking little-old-abuelita cartoon.) Rob, of course, struggles to ingratiate himself to the new in-laws: Maggie’s controlling mom Rosa (Diana Maria Riva), her brusque businessman dad Fernando (Cheech Marin) and her shiftless cousin from Mexico, Hector (Eugenio Derbez), who says things like “So you Maggie’s new hombre?”
¡Rob! has the perfect defense against being called racist, since much of its humor derives not from stereotypes—though there are plenty—but from Rob’s ineptly using them. See, it’s not funny for the show to say that Mexicans have big families because they’re Catholic and don’t use birth control—it’s funny that Rob is clueless enough to say it! You could say that was what All in the Family did too, but that’s simplistic; All in the Family didn’t surround Archie with characters who were as one-dimensional as his understanding of the world. ¡Rob! is playing at a meta game in which it transmutes lame jokes about Hispanics into clever commentary by putting them in Rob’s mouth, but that kind of strategy only works when the sitcom’s world outside the lead character is not equally lame.
I’m not arguing that TV should never use race, ethnic differences or culture clashes for comedy. It’s possible to do it well—it’s even necessary, in that joking about these differences is one of the ways people come to terms with them. A comedy that took the approach that “everyone’s the same,” regardless of culture or gender or background would be boring and feel bogus.
But if you’re going to go there in a sitcom, you need to do the real work of making your characters into people, not types, and making an effort to understand where America is today instead of ransacking old joke books. One of my favorite examples about how to do ethnic clashes on a sitcom remains Mike Judge’s King of the Hill, which used broad types of brown, red and white characters—from John Redcorn to Dale Gribble—but worked in nuance and an up-to-date sensibility. Maybe its best example was Hank Hill’s Laotian-immigrant neighbor Khan Souphanousinphone, who was materialistic, success-driven and distrustful of “hillbillies” like Hank. Khan was drawn from some broad ethnic types, as was good old boy Hank, but he was also a person; his focus on his daughter’s success, for instance, was as much about him being a certain kind of status-conscious suburbanite as an education-obsessed immigrant. Where the show could have fallen on familiar east-meets-west jokes, it instead drew a picture of what suburban America was like at that particular time. Today, NBC’s Community is very much about race and how people (especially at a college) see and feel it everywhere, but it makes that self-consciousness the subject of the humor, not black-people-like-this-and-white-people-like-that.
When a show like ¡Rob! makes gardener jokes or 2 Broke Girls makes its Asian manager a nerd who mangles English, on the other hand, they’re not drawing on any real experience of life as it exists today. In fact, they’re going out of their way not to: the whole point of this kind of easy, hack-y joke is that you write them so that a viewer can get the jokes without knowing anything about another culture beyond decades-old clichés, based on other TV shows. You don’t have to know anything about what’s changed in America since All in the Family; you don’t have to have any awareness of Latinos since Chico and the Man.
The approach may work, but it’s as insulting to the implied audience as it is to the characters. I’m not saying that the makers of ¡Rob! are racist; I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re decent, well-intentioned people. And it’s not even that the characters themselves are racial insults; they’re stereotypes—the shiftless Uncle Hector character, for instance, and the grandmother with a shrine in her bedroom—but there are worse directions the show could have gone in. The real problem—like with 2 Broke Girls’ supporting characters—is that they assume an ignorant audience, that they’re written so that you can get the jokes even if your entire awareness of other cultures is based on past dumb sitcom gags.
And the sad thing is, ¡Rob! didn’t have to be a bad sitcom. I mean, yes, it probably would have been, anyway. I’m not going to pretend Schneider is capable of a layered comic performance. But it has a good supporting cast, including Marin, and Maggie’s mother and father show signs of being distinct characters when they’re not totally defined as Mexican Mom and Mexican Dad. When they’re in scenes together, you can see a glimpse of an in-law comedy about two people dealing with their comfortable world suddenly being changed: she would like to be more of a force in her daughter’s life, and he just wants to go on with his routine. Resisting a make-up visit to Rob and Maggie’s home, Fernando says, “Let’s get this over with. There’s a show I want to see on tonight. They make a bunch of hoarders live in the same house!”
It was the first time I felt like I had a connection with one of the characters on ¡Rob! I wish I were watching that hoarders show too, Fernando. I wish I were watching it too.