The two most buzzed-about new TV comedies this season are NBC’s My Name Is Earl, which I found unbearably stupid and tedious and premiered Sept. 20, and UPN’s Everybody Hates Chris, which begins tonight and is so good it actually exceeds expectations. I can’t think of any other sitcom with such a strong start right out of the gate; even Seinfeld, one of the smartest and most successful shows of all time, took a few episodes to really gel.
That’s pretty typical in comedy. “[Everybody Loves] Raymond didn’t start out being Raymond,” Ali LeRoi, who co-created Everybody Hates Chris with fellow writer and standup Chris Rock, said at the UPN press conference. “Seinfeld didn’t start out being Seinfeld. So in some fortunate way maybe we’re slipping into a little crack where people ran out of the usual ideas and said, ‘What the hell, let’s give it a shot.’ But comedy is never dead. It’s just that funny people usually aren’t in charge of comedy.”
But Everybody Hates Chris, inspired by comedian Chris Rock’s boyhood, goes the distance not only with laugh-out-loud funny lines but quite a bit of heart. Plus, it’s unapologeticaly politically incorrect. Chris Rock’s message–blacks should work hard and avoid ghetto culture–is basically the same one Bill Cosby got in so much trouble with recently. But with Rock, for some reason, it goes down easy.
As the series begins, Chris’s bossy mother has made him change schools from a mostly black section of Brooklyn to a mostly Italian and Irish one. This was, in fact, based on bitter experience. “They would beat me and the Jews up,” noted Rock at the press conference.
His mother wasn’t hoping for a Harvard-type education, recalls Rock in the show’s Wonder Years-style nostalgic narration, just not a sticking-up-the-liquor store kind of education. His hard-working father has little sympathy for Chris’s problems with bullies at the new school: “My dad went to school during the civil rights era,” recalls Rock in the show’s voiceover. “After hoses, tanks and dog bites on your ass, somehow Joey Caruso didn’t compare.”
Rock, who narrates but doesn’t appear in the autobiographical show, doesn’t spare his parents’ peccadilloes. The father character keeps a running tab of how much money his kids waste (“That’s 26-cents worth of milk you just spilled”) and the mother may shock upper-middleclass white parents with her relentlessly pro-spanking philosophy: “Boy, I will slap your name out of the phone book and call Ma Bell and tell her I did it.” Yet there’s no doubt he remains grateful for how they raised him.
“My father wasn’t the type to say ‘I love you,’” Rock recalls near the end of tonight’s episode. “But he was one of four fathers on the block. ‘I’ll see you in the morning’ meant he’d be coming home. And that was his way of saying ‘I love you.’”
The title Everybody Hates Chris, by the way, was the first one its creators thought of, although Rock joked that they really wanted Let’s Shoot Chris In the Head, “but we couldn’t get that one by the censors.” The name is obviously an inside-TV reference, but part of the reason the show is so good may be that Rock has actually taken a pretty dim view of most sitcoms from a very young age.
As a kid he liked The Odd Couple, The Bill Cosby Show, Newhart, and The Jeffersons. “But I would watch something like Three’s Company,” he added, “and go, yeah, [John] Ritter’s got some physical things going, but this sucks. And I was, like, seven.”
Much of the charm of Everybody Hates Chris is that the parents, played by Tichina Arnold (formerly of Martin) and ex-football player Terry Crews, are those rare TV parents who are actually in charge of their family. “With the exception of Cosby, every black father I see on TV, they’re not really masculine,” said Rock. “They’re like these theater-type guys–not gay, not straight, just theater.”
“I have five kids myself,” said Crews, “so when I say ‘Sit down,’ I mean it.”
And self-possessed young Tyler James Williams is completely believable as a 12-year-old Chris Rock. “I was at Michael Jackson’s house, and this kid came running out,” joked Rock, when asked how he found Williams.
“No,” responded Williams soberly when asked if he’d ever really been to Michael Jackson’s house, “and I don’t plan to.”
Much will probably be made of Everybody Hates Chris’s take on race. But according to its creators, that would be a mistake. “This is a classist society,” said LeRoi. “People talk about racism all the time, but after a certain number of dollars, that goes away. So we’re dealing with class issues much more than race issues. That will come along from time to time, but in terms of how we deal with it, it’s not black folks don’t get along with white folks–it’s really about which black folks don’t get along with which white folks and why.”
“It’s really about broke people,” LeRoi added, “trying to do the best they can with what they have. We’re not going to make a speech about it. We’re just going to show them doing it.”
Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.