A white person once asked comedian-activist Dick Gregory why African-Americans could use the "N" word among themselves with little fear of reprisal, while a Caucasian can't whisper it without igniting outrage. "Well," Gregory replied, "maybe we say it a little sweeter than y'all do."
If that explanation holds true today, then Comedy Central's Chocolate News, airing at 10:30 tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 22) and repeating throughout the week, must be the sweetest entertainment this side of Willy Wonka.
Or, to put it another way: Has David Alan Grier lost his damn mind?
On the plus side, the Detroit native and Cass Tech grad has constructed the most glittering showcase for his expansive comedic talents since his days on In Living Color, the show for which he's best known (until now). A late-time slot on Comedy Central, as lead-in to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, provides him acres more freedom and latitude than he ever enjoyed on FOX with the Wayans family in the 1990s. With freedom, however, comes responsibility. Just because you can get away with something doesn't mean you should. Oh, brutha, where art thou.
Chocolate News, a shameless parody of latter-day TV newsmagazines filtered through a kaleidoscope of black-based silliness ("with menthol," Grier cracks), premiered last week, so there's nothing I'm about to say that you can't see for yourself at comedycentral.com or in the show's numerous rebroadcasts. Grier's return to TV began with a scathingly funny commentary on the demise of hip-hop music as an agent of social change ("When did 'Fight the Power' become 'wait till you see my d—k?'") that managed to drop the "N" word, the "D" word, the "P" word and a few other disreputable letters from the alphabet. (They were bleeped out? Big deal. It's the thought that counts.)
Then there's the segment on the "'N' Word Peace Treaty" featuring Willie Garson from Sex and the City as president of "Caucasians for the Fair Usage of the 'N' Word Commission," the premise of the sketch suggesting that since white folks are going to use the word regardless, black people should be compensated for it. "Texas outlawed and Detroit buried it, but like genital herpes ... the 'N' word just will not go away," Grier declares. And the "interview" with mountainous rapper Phat Man, who performed his booty-bumpin' "No Child Left Behind" video live to a classroom full of dumbstruck kiddies? Without having seen the movie, I can guarantee there's nothing in the upcoming Zack and Miri Make a Porno that's as grossly sexual or deliberately raunchy as Phat Man's routine with his nubile dancers. Watching it performed in front of little children? Eewww.
In early returns, TV critics — almost all of them white — are praising Chocolate News. One wrote that it "delivers with irreverent muscle and courage." This is the kind of thing Caucasians typically say about a black production when they are terrified of offending anyone. While Chocolate News has both hilarious and impressive elements — Grier portrays Phat Man and most other interview subjects, even slipping into drag as Maya Angelou to reveal her original poem for the inauguration ("John McCain: Ain't that a bitch.") — it's also lewd, crude and intentionally objectionable. Grier knows it: Every now and then he'll set his face in a contemptuous smirk, the kind your granddad gets when he's just said something disgusting and is waiting for someone to challenge him.
Chocolate News gives too much of the African-American funny farm away. You almost get a sense that these punch lines are too personal — too vulgar, really — for mass consumption. And timing in television is never accidental. That this show should debut mere weeks before the election of the millennium, as Grier stands before a montage of Frederick Douglass juxtaposed with Barack Obama, is more than coincidence. Here's a thought: What if Chocolate News has the same effect on Sen. Obama that Saturday Night Live has had on Sarah Palin? That is, to make even a handful of voters think twice about the wisdom of their decision through parody? Don't let them play you, David!
When one has screened pilots for thousands of new shows, it's almost impossible to remember just one. Yet I recall distinctly the morning 18 years ago when FOX sent a collection of clips from a forthcoming series called In Living Color. After catching my breath and wiping away tears of laughter, I called my friend David.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"I'm at work! What do you think I'm doing?"
"Screw that. Drop whatever you're doing and come here. You have to see this."
Alas, we do not have the second coming of Color here. Chocolate News lacks the style, wit or subtlety of Grier's training ground. His transformations are amazing, but when he goes over the top, there's nothing to catch his fall.Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org