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Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2001 / 5 Teves, 5762

Steve Young

Steve Young
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Consumer Reports

Finally! Friends of Color -- THIS past Thursday night television was big. Historic, last decade speaking. So big you wonder why it wasn't saved for "Sweeps" or promoted more.

The NBC hit show Friends actually featured a guest star of the African-American persuasion!

Oh, they did have an African-American female who Ross helped move, but she disappeared as quick as you can say, "NBC stands for No Blacks Considered." This time it was a honest-to-gosh well-known African-American male: ex-heavyweight boxing champion, Evander Holyfield.... albeit a free-standing, life-sized poster of Evander. He didn't have any dialogue, but does that really matter. It's a start. You know, toes into the cold water. Soon the rest of the child will follow. I gotta say though, NBC missed a potential ratings bonanza here. Why they didn't get the Evander poster on the Today show for an interview with cutie-pie Katie Couric is beyond me. Tell me Katie wouldn't have made that piece just a-doooor-able. And having Entertainment Tonight following Evander poster through the week's preparation would have been a natural. Can a life-sized poster of Edward James Olmos be far behind? You'd have the cross-promotion with Univision pulling in boffo numbers.

I want to admit something. Something I don't know if I will tell my friends and family. So please keep this between you and me. I still watch Friends, the show built around six great looking twenty-somethings who, shock upon shock, are admitting to being thirty-somethings. I laugh at almost everything Chandler says. I think Joey nails the funny dumb jock mark every time. Ross is a little much but the girls, though lacking in anything that might resemble a waist, are all just darling. Thank G-d they (other than Lisa Kudrow) all stink in movies. That means the show should be around another few years.

The stories just miss dealing with the important issues of the day by about the distance between their coffee shop in Manhattan and a cafe in the 15th century...B.C.E., but still I tune in every Thursday because it makes me laugh.

This past Thursday's story surrounded Rachel's 4th month of pregnancy and attended "feelings." It seems that the faux Mr. Holyfield had helped Phoebe get through her "problem" month four. So, obviously, "mixed-dating" or "feeling-satisfying" with real white women and fake black boxers is acceptable on the show. So, why is casting an actual black male in a speaking role so objectionable to the producers? Is real black any more threatening to the viewer than cardboard black. African-Americans can be funny...Redd Foxx, Moms Mabley. There are definitely AA's just as attractive as any one of these Friends, Denzel W. would be hot. In fact, there are some funny people who are both funny and attractive...Robert Townsend, Eddie Murphy, MadTV 's Debra Wilson..

I know this has been discussed before. Certainly Al Sharpton must have fasted about it...or at least cut out a snack. But I think this week's Friends demonstrated just how absent a black face in the show has been. Evander looked so out of place. No wonder the producers have been so hesitant about crossing the color line.

But the point is, they tried. Of course it was unfair of the producers to make Evander's poster the Jackie Robinson test case. I understand you start slowly, but it would have been smarter to use the poster of an experienced African-American actor to break the color line. A poster of a less-threatening person of color. A poster of say, Denzel or even Jamie Foxx.

A poster of an actor who would have some sort of experience in the awkward and stressful difficulties that would surely follow. Hollywood is a pretty liberal place, but fans are fickle. "Hey, Evander-poster, why don't you go back to the promotions department with your own posters!" "Hey Evander-poster! Mike Tyson needs another ear sandwich!" Sure, it's mean, but in a vote of Swell Entertainment vs Civil Rights, CR will always come out a poor second. Thank Heaven Martin Luther King didn't have to get equal rights a 13 show pickup.

So NBC made a critical mistake, but at least they tried. Wasn't it Homer Simpson who said, "Trying is the first step towards failure"? Of course he did, but he's only an animated figure from Matt Groenig's imagination. Did Matt draw African-American cartoon figure, Dr. Hibbert, during the Tracey Ullman days? No. The fact is, it takes time with animation, just as it takes time with posters and live-action..

Some may ask, "Why have Friends producers and NBC been so reluctant, other than a pizza delivery guy here and there, to put a male face of color on the show? I mean they've used Asians, Italians, Gays, Elderly, Elderly Gays, Brits, Jews, Trailer Trash. What are they so afraid of?" I refuse to question either the producers or NBC. To those of you who want to ask "Why" and play the color card with Friends, I say, "No questions! No cards! Not even a spirited game of mah-jongg!" This is a process. Sometimes the process works quickly but most times change is slow. Remember, Legoland wasn't built overnight. It had to be snapped together over a period of many weeks.

Let's give Friends a little more time. Storylines will run dry. Almost every Friend has had a relationship with every other Friend. The old white-on-white-on-blonde-on brunette-on Jew-on Asian-on-Brit-on-Italian-on-anyone-not-of-color affairs will run their course. Let's let the professionals do their job.

Those executives down at NBC didn't get where they are because of some Ivy League degree or by sleeping with someone. These guys know what they're doing. There's no keeping lips on their boss's arse and echoing the network's edict here. These guys can think for themselves, can't they? Sure. Sure, they can. Let's not get in the way of the process. Let just let our Friends know that we're behind them and that hopefully the "transition" process will be achieved before Al Sharpton decides to take off a few pounds.

JWR contributor Steve Young, Prism Award winner and Humanitas Prize nominee for his television writing, is contributing editor at the Writers Guild of America's "Written By" magazine. He is the author of the forthcoming "Great Failures Of The Extremely Successful," Tallfellow Press, 2002 Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Steve Young