I read a story today about the sad demise of the African-American sitcom. There are only two left, and both are on the little-watched CW. One of those "Everybody Hates Chris," based on the boyhood of Chris Rock, was brilliant and inspiring, but had the Wonder Years curse of a once-cute, now gangly teen star.
The gist of the story was that the absence of African-American sitcoms was some sort of racism on behalf of Hollywood. While not unthinkable, it strikes me as unlikely. The African-American sitcom was once a staple of American television, enjoyed by black and white alike. Norman Lear, the liberal genius with a gift for bringing a social message wrapped in a funny package, was responsible for both Good Times --about a struggling but intact black family in the projects, and The Jeffersons --a black urban family that had far exceeded the achievements of their racist white neighbor, Archie Bunker. One can add to that number What's Happenin', Different Strokes, The Cosby Show, A Different World, and the cleaned-up comedic talents of Red Foxx via Sanford and Son.
I could not speak to how authentic such shows were to the black audience, but there is no question that they, to a greater or lesser extent, were cleverly-written, well-acted, and captured a wide market share.
So, why would Hollywood turn away from them? It seems more likely that what is involved is the soft racism of perceived economics. Hollywood aims at the coveted 18-35 majority bracket. This gives us coarse comedy for males (I dare not say men) and Desperate Housewives for women. The problem is not that Hollywood is racist, it is because they have forgotten that the chief criterion of a sitcom is that the show ought to be funny --that humor has a way of unifying people regardless of race. A white man can enjoy The Barbershop, and be moved by the strong picture of community it portrays, even as he laughs along with the main characters.
Today's shows are not funny, with rare exception. Not one current show, with perhaps the exception of The Office, will occupy anyone's humor pantheon. We have no equivalent of Mash or Seinfeld or I Love Lucy or Dick Van Dyke or All in the Family. And, I humbly submit that this is not a function of anything to do with race. It has to do with focus groups. The focus group is writing by committee. It militates against the success of the one comedic genius: the Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball or Bill Cosby.
The focus group fails the sitcom for the same reason a committee could not write a novel. In trying to be all things to all men, it misses all. Humor happens. It can't be scientifically studied. It is the product of individual genius flourishing. I predict that, not only will we not see another well-done black sitcom, we will likely never see another smartly-written comedy like Frasier. The Office, itself, almost did not survive a focus group. Arrested Development, the most clever and original comedy since Seinfeld, if not Mash, was tossed about, mistreated, and finally canned after 3 truncated seasons.
We see a similar phenomenon at the movies, though, thankfully, the diversity of movies does allow for a breakthrough independently produced movie like Juno to capture an audience.
Most sitcoms today, like most comedy movies, simply are not funny. I trust this is not simply old coot talk. Just like most pop and country music, most comedy has a manufactured feel. The only lasting category of humor appears to be gutter humor, but even this must exhaust its run when all has been said that can be said --nothing will shock any more.
Humor has a great power to reach across generations, cultural gaps, political divisions, and certainly the racial divide. It is a tragedy we don't have more of it.