This week, the blog takes a bittersweet - and sadly more culturally relevant than ever - look back at one of my all time favourite comedies, and without a doubt one of the best TV episodes of the 2000s. If I had an audience and allowed comments, this might be a CRAZY week because today's episode is all about race and isn't that controversial? But I don't, and it won't be, which is frankly all the better. It wouldn't be that controversial at all, actually. I would have a hard time liking anyone who didn't like this week's show. Anyway, everyone* loves when I use a new "Top 25" picture right? (*Few to none.)
After the break: Only two seasons and 26 episodes, but they can walk away tall. Walk away. Tall.
Better Off Ted, "Racial Sensitivity"
First aired on ABC Wednesday, April 8, 2009
“My door is always open to you. Please, close it on the way out.” – Veronica Palmer
If you’re a fan of “television” in general and follow this world as closely as I do, likely the worst fall comedy pilot you’ll see this upcoming season is Fox’s “Dads,” a low brow and lower-minded show about two man-children video game testers whose lives are turned upside down when their fathers, played by Martin Mull and Peter Riegert, decide to move in with them. Sure sounds wacky, doesn’t it? Sadly predictable from a sitcom these days is “Dads’” over reliance on ethnic stereotypes, including an entire sequence where regular cast member Brenda Song is relegated to an embarrassing and objective role of enticing Asian businessmen by wearing a schoolgirl outfit and giggling.
But hey, I’m being unfair. After all, “Dads” itself isn’t racist. The show’s cast told us that themselves at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour last week, despite the fact that the question coming up at all probably supports the “if it looks like a duck” test. We don’t laugh at racism on television – we laugh at racist characters for being so stupid! You see the braying laugh track of “Dads” is actually picking up on the show’s subtle examination of how prevalent the role of race is in the generational gap. The audience responding to Song’s first appearance in the Asian schoolgirl costume with the kind of hooting and hollering not heard since characters kissed on early 90s TNBC sitcoms also supports their argument, to the point I feel ridiculous for even asking.
After all, I’m just a privileged white dude. And “Dads” star Seth Green assures us that the show is an equal opportunity offender considering white dudes are also the butt of jokes on the show. As a result, it’s actually okay for white people to make fun of non-white people. Take this disgusting and reprehensible season of “Big Brother” for example: it’s totally okay that Aaryn, the pretty blonde white girl from Texas who just likes to have fun y’all, told the other mean girls that Korean-American housemate Helen should “shut up, go make some rice” because now she’s lost her job and her modeling contract in the real world and the entire viewing audience hates her. Take THAT, Caucasians!
Though I’m not firmly in the camp of “I want so badly to be able to support a really good multi-cam sitcom” like some critics are (mostly because I didn’t really grow up with the good ones like “Cheers” or “Mary Tyler Moore”), I don’t root for the format’s termination in any way. After all, the problem of laughing at vs. laughing with is in no way exclusive to traditional sitcoms like “Two and a Half Men” and “The Big Bang Theory,” even if they’re two of the worst offenders when it comes to trafficking in offensive stereotypes and trying to mine humour out of characters being sad and pathetic wastes of space (if Stuart the comic shop owner shows up one more time on “Big Bang” so that the studio audience can laugh at him being literally suicidal, I swear to God I will never watch the show again). I’ve turned on single camera “Modern Family” for a similar reason – not that the characters themselves are particularly sad, but because they all really seem to hate each other and we’re supposed to react to this like “Oh Mitchell and Cam, such a couple!” or “Boy, Phil really got Claire there!” Annoying, overly loud laughter in response to lazy and offensive writing certainly doesn’t help an unfunny comedy, and it will only drag “Dads” to its inevitably fiery crash and burn all the sooner, but I don’t think it’s the only reason that we can’t have nice things on TV when it comes to how they sort through cultural taboos that exist in the real world.
Other than some of the timing and use of voiceover, “Racial Sensitivity,” the fourth episode of the criminally under-watched “Better Off Ted,” could have absolutely been shot in front of four cameras and a live studio audience and nothing about it really would have changed. I’m still happy it wasn’t because the lack of laughter leaves more time for jokes in an episode packed with them (see an extensive list at the end of this entry), but nothing about a Jay Harington or Portia de Rossi voiceover saying “Better Off Ted is filmed before a live studio audience” would have given me reason to wince at the start of an episode whose title very clearly states what we’re in for.
Then again, is it so clear? Perhaps what actually makes “Racial Sensitivity” so terrific is that it’s not really about race, or at least not below the surface. Sure, there are important themes about workplace diversity and making your presence known, but even those are much more broadly dealt with than only with regards to skin colour. Like everything with “Better Off Ted,” the ultimate punchline at work is “Look at the stupid corporation and their ridiculous disregard for humans and their emotions”. When “Ted” premiered in 2009, nothing about the idea of workplace satire seemed new or original, but creator Victor Fresco (who for some disappointing reason is responsible for the new fall comedy “Sean Saves The World”) managed a fresh take on it with a very sharp, very funny script and a superb cast that was always able to ground the hyperbolic insanity of Veridian Dynamics. It’s rare and special when a predictable premise subverts expectations – for everything else, there’s “Episodes”.
“The stupid corporation and their disregard for human emotion” also makes “Racial Sensitivity” in no way mean spirited, which is always preferable to me in my comedy. Everything Veridian does is based on a lack of human empathy and a desire to get more money, which is why it doesn’t read as offensive on a particularly personal level that the company’s new motion sensors that work by reflecting light off human skin cannot see black people, and explains why higher-ups refuse to just spend more money to either fix the system or revert back to the old one. As Ted’s boss Veronica tells him, the company insists that the new system is “not targeting black people – the worst people could call it is indifferent” and she asks everyone to celebrate that the system does see Asians, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, and Jews.
Whether you subscribe to the doctrine of Sun Tzu, Rage Against The Machine, or Green Day, “know your enemy” is a bizarre but important lesson for comedy in any medium. “Racial Sensitivity” doesn’t technically even have one, at least not one with a face or any kind of personal stake in what’s happening. Even Veronica, always ready to defend the company’s insane policies (in a later episode, a memo that should read “Employees must NOT use offensive language in the workplace” is actually sent out as “Employees must NOW use offensive language in the workplace” and she insists on implementing the policy, refusing to believe Veridian would make such a mistake) isn’t targeting the black employees here – the worst people could call her is indifferent. But in this episode and the three that precede it, there’s no question as to who we’re supposed to be rooting for and against in “Ted”. After all, who can’t relate to the idea of working for a soul-crushing corporation? It reminds me of an old slogan used to promote “The Office” – “an NBC comedy not for everyone – just anyone that works.”
There’s also no question as to why the racial insensitivities for which this episode is named are funny – no one is laughing with Veridian Dynamics. When the “Manual Drinking Fountain (For Blacks)” appears out of nowhere as if Skynet generated it in the office, you can only slap your forehead and laugh at the total idiocy. Albeit funny total idiocy that rolls the ball of embarrassment and humiliation uphill, as “laugh at the idiot just to feel superior” is also one of the cheapest comedic constructs ever (Jay Leno has built an entire empire on this idea). Like with the drinking fountain, this episode contains a lot of references to ridiculous pre-civil rights ways of life that could be so tired decades later. But an excellent script from Michael Glouberman and the fantastic-as-usual cast propel “Racial Sensitivity” into the ranks of the greatest TV episodes of the last decade. I won’t hold my breath on “Dads” doing the same in this one.
As promised, just a sample of funny lines from this episode:
- Linda: “Ted, we didn’t go anywhere, this is the same floor” Ted: “I know, I like this one”
- Phil: “Coffee? I think there’s still some of that fancy stuff the company got us for Christmas instead of bonuses”
- Lem: “It gets dark whenever you leave the room” Phil: “Oh...how can I stay mad at you when you say things like that?”
- Linda: “Don, say something in French!” Don: “...Non.” Linda: “That was funny and French, and in one syllable which makes it smart.”
- Lem: “I have my dignity! Now will you PLEASE take me to the bathroom?”
- Lem: “We’re eight black men in an elevator, of course the white guy’s gonna get off.”
- Another great fake commercial for Veridian Dynamics: “Diversity – just the thought of it makes these white people smile! Just like we enjoy varieties of foods, we enjoy varieties of people...even though we can’t eat them.”
- Lem: “I have something prepared... ‘Veronica, you are a terrific boss-’” Veronica: “Thank you, Lem, I’ll take it from here.”
- Ted: “Separate drinking fountains?” Lem: “Thank God we don’t have a company bus”
- Linda: “Someone just told me the most incredible thing. Okay this isn’t a joke, eight black guys walk into an elevator...”
- Lem: “All they did was hire a bunch of minimum wage white guys to follow us around and activate things for us. This is Stu. He’s a huge idiot, but he was born with the God-given talent to trigger a light sensor, so...here we are.”
- Veronica: “This whole black thing has turned into a huge nightmare” Ted: “Really, there’s a problem with ‘Operation White Shadow’?”
- Veronica: “Human resources says it’s against the law to just hire a bunch of white people because that’s discrimination, so now we also have to hire black people to follow our black people around, which doesn’t make any sense because our system won’t see them either. So then, we’d have to hire more white people for those black people, which we can’t do without hiring more black people!”
- Veronica: “This isn’t about race, it’s about money. It’s always about money. ‘Money before people,’ that’s the company motto, engraved right there on the lobby floor. It just looks more heroic in Latin”
- Ted: “And so, if the company keeps hiring white people to follow black people to follow white people to follow black people, by...” Lem: “Thursday, June 27, 2013” Ted: “...every person on Earth will be working for us. And we don’t have the parking for that”
- Veronica: “Well that was a lovely invitation. Now you can walk away tall. Walk away. Tall.”
- This picture:
Next week: Not even Giles the Butler could tell you "whodunnit" in a classic season finale.