Scott's World -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By VERNON SCOTT, United Press International  |  Dec. 4, 2001 at 11:12 PM
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HOLLYWOOD, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- In an unfortunate sense television, the dominating mass media of our time, contributes to an old evil, apartheid.

The vast majority of TV entertainment fare is white-oriented as a natural consequence of racial proportions in this country. There are virtually no English-speaking national Asian-American shows, nor a plethora of Hispanic-oriented comedy and dramatic programs and few fully ethnic integrated shows, again reflecting the social order.

One supposes the TV spectrum reflects the racial imbalance in the general population and the fact that the medium is, by and large, a commercial enterprise catering to majority pocketbooks.

Profits rely on ratings and ratings reflect viewership. And inasmuch as the overwhelming number of viewers in the United States are Caucasians, it follows that to attract the highest viewing audience programmers go with the population flow. It makes sense: dollars and cents.

There are exceptions to be sure.

African-Americans fare better than most minorities -- in part because there is such a large population of gifted black performers. No list of outstanding black performers would be complete without Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, Sidney Poitier, Alfre Woodard, John Amos, Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, Yaphet Kotto, Phylicia Rashad and Denzel Washington. But no current major entertainment TV series is based on these performers who have turned to movies and occasional TV dramatic films.

Today cynical programmers provide "black shows" for African-Americans, most of which are mediocre, or worse, sitcoms featuring stereotypical black characters; cliches not unlike "Sanford and Son." Some are not far removed from Stepin Fetchit caricatures.

The WB network has become a minstrel show in its search for ratings from African-American viewers. Ergo: few other minorities and whites can relate to the high decibel rantings in which loud voices and slapstick comedy are mistaken for humor. Among the best of past long-running TV sitcoms was "Benson," a white-oriented show with a black star, Robert Guillaume who had played Benson in the ground-breaking comedy series "Soap."

Benson, who rose from butler to lieutenant governor, reflected the character, wit and dignity of Guillaume, an outstanding actor and gentleman. This week Guillaume can be heard but not seen in Universal's home video "The Land Before Time: The Big Freeze," in which he provides the voice of Big Nose, a comic dinosaur.

"The Big Freeze" has come to VHS and DVD in time the for the holidays.

"Big Nose is stuffy and full of himself," Guillaume says. "He takes himself too seriously, but in the end he admits his faults and asks forgiveness.

"I believe most people are struggling to keep their demons at bay and failing. And comedy comes out of that. That's what Big Nose is about.

"I think people might recognize my voice. That happens. People will hear me talk and say, 'You're Benson!'

"I dislike the false aspect of so-called 'black shows. It's unfortunate we can't break out of it.

"I don't have an agenda but I don't understand racial bifurcation because humor is humor. Yet I like to think a certain style of comedy does come from black people.

"And I've traded on that. Like Jewish comedy.

"So-called black shows come out of the old comedie del arte tradition of very low comedy. I relate to it and understand it. Much of it is humorous.

"I look back at black comedians in settings where I would prefer not to have seen them -- Mantan Moreland in 40s and 50s movies, and Willie Best, people like that who they called 'comic relief.'

"I look beyond the stereotype into what I thought was the very essence of their comedy, which was securely grounded in the aspect of Buster Keaton, the stone face and making people laugh from that point of view.

"A lot of Benson was based on the ability to look at someone and make an audience laugh.

"But I don't want to dismiss black shows out of hand. Benson stood out because he was in a white setting.

"I always insisted what I was doing was firmly grounded in reaction of black people to the society."

What Guillaume failed to add, is that Benson unfailingly reacted with dignity, as does Guillaume.

"I played Benson for nine years and I enjoyed it all."

Guillaume lives in the San Fernando Valley and works steadily if not in spectacular roles in highly publicized projects.

But wherever he goes, Guillaume brings quality with him, as he did providing the voice of Rafiki in "The Lion King."

"Whenever I do a voice for a character I see a drawing of the individual creature and try to give him a voice that suits his personality as I see him, including Big Nose."

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