Keep It Real
In the early ‘90s, Fox had a hit with the edgy series, In Living Color. Powered by Keenan Ivory Wayans (who had grabbed the network’s attention after the success of I’m Gonna Git You Sucka), as well as talents who have since become big name stars (Jim Carrey, Jamie Foxx), the show brought the funk and more than a little controversy to sketch comedy.
It appears that the folks at Fox hope they will rekindle that old school vibe with Cedric the Entertainer Presents. After all, the head funny man, Cedric, was a part of the hit tour and movie, The Original Kings of Comedy, which also starred Steve Harvey, D.L. Hughley, and Bernie Mac. Add to that success Cedric’s beer commercials and his role in the recent box office hit, Barbershop, and he seems like the right guy to bring laughs to America’s living rooms. And it fits into the formula Fox found with Wayans: comedian + hit movie = hit variety show.
But, while Cedric might be comic royalty on the big screen, he’s not yet ascended on the small screen. The first outing of his show, billed as taking its “cue from the big comedy variety shows of the 1950s” falls short. In our media-saturated culture, there are scores of stories and characters ripe for comic picking; up to now, however, Cedric the Entertainer Presents shies away from topical subjects. If that holds true for subsequent episodes, the potential of the show’s multi-ethnic cast will be underused. The writers offer up some gems, but not enough to carry the entire half hour.
One of those gems is “The Cafeteria Lady,” who, like coffee, is “hot, black and strong.” Cedric in drag here gives an inkling of what the show might become: peppered with one-liners that viewers can’t help quoting in the days and weeks after watching. Such was the case with In Living Color. Perhaps the Cafeteria Lady’s putdowns will become familiar phrases. She scores repeatedly in the unbalanced game of the dozens with students and teachers. And, as she told one student, “That’s Mrs. Cafeteria Lady, Nathaniel. Unlike your mama, some of us know how to keep a husband.” This segment works because Cedric’s comic skills are so tight. You can’t help but laugh when the Cafeteria Lady threatens, “I’m a bicycle with the seat off—I’ll get in your ass.”
Another memorable, though gentler, segment features the Love Doctor, who arrives late because “I was making love to a beautiful woman, not once, not twice, but three times.” Cedric does a decent Barry White impression as he counsels a young couple in trouble. He doesn’t solve their problem, but they do find a way to work it out with the help of his crooning. The doctor has advice for everyone, including the audience: “If you’re at home alone, love yourself” (wink wink).
While the Love Doctor and Cafeteria Lady are distinct and lively enough to carry a segment, the Que Hora Es sketch isn’t as sharp. Que Hora Es is a Mexican soap opera for people who only had three weeks of Spanish in the fourth grade: the characters run around saying things like “¿Dónde está la biblioteca?” and “Cinco de Mayo.” The premise is amusing, but after the first few lines, it feels worn out. You might say the same for the skit about a local television newscast, on a take-your-kids-to-work day. The anchorwoman, Wendy Raquel Robinson, snatches off her belt before leaving the set to beat her children. While the physical humor is funny, the “kids are bad, parents get no respect” idea hardly breaks new ground.
The show gets closer to cultural commentary and astute juxtapositions with the Velvet Anderson apple juice audition. Velvet, a curly-kit-coifed crooner, and his every-kind-of-white girl sidekick crash an audition for juice jingles and run through contemporary music parodies. They call themselves Jingle Fever. Velvet tries to sell the company on one of their pop-folk act, saying, “If it’s one thing I know white folks love more than apple juice, it’s skinny girls singing about pain.” When that doesn’t hit, they try a little hiphop flavor: “Granny, I think you’re tasty. / Wanna drink your juice, / Make a brother crazy. / Put a slap all on my apple, uh” (this last as the white half of Jingle Fever slaps her own jingling butt). The skit is more ridiculous than hilarious. Still, Amy Brassette deserves props for being able to go from crunchy singer to hiphopper to teen pop diva in under two minutes.
The show’s main saving grace is that it doesn’t rely on black caricatures. If the writers can sharpen the jokes, we might have a comic gem that doesn’t rely on modern-day buffoonery. There’s far too much of that on the dial already. But so far, the writing is tepid, perhaps resulting from efforts to create inoffensive comedy. That’s not going to appeal to viewers who are young, hip, and hyped on “urban” (read: black) culture. Instead of being safe, Cedric the Entertainer Presents needs to keep it real—real sharp, real topical and real controversial.