By Michael E. Ross Reporter
msnbc.com

Sept. 19, 2003 — “Comedy is tragedy plus time,” goes the old saying. One show in particular from the fall TV season has taken that to heart, taking creative license with recent events.

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It’s early yet, but NBC’s “Whoopi” has so far defied some of the laws of television, thumbing its nose at advertisers’ traditional sanctities, working to make the fallout from Sept. 11 less radioactive, and gaining unusually strong viewer response. So far.

In post-9/11 America, making jocular mention of Saddam Hussein or raising the prospect of an undiscovered Iranian missile system might seem to be a sitcom’s kiss of death. You'd think it unlikely, even impossible, for a show like that to be a presumptive fall-season hit.

But that’s what’s developing with “Whoopi,” NBC’s new Tuesday-night sitcom on at 8 p.m., the primest of prime times. The show’s pilot averaged 15.1 million viewers when it aired on Sept. 9, gaining the biggest audience of the night and more than twice the season average of “Just Shoot Me,” its dear departed time-slot predecessor last year, according to Nielsen Media Research. “Whoopi” also had the best showing in the 8 p.m. Tuesday time slot for regular programing since a telecast of the network’s “Mad About You” in January 1998. (MSNBC is a Microsoft-NBC joint venture.)

Two telling scenes
In the show, Goldberg plays Mavis Rae, an irascible Manhattan hotelier who savors memories as a chart-topping R&B singer while dealing with family, friends and customers in today’s New York City.

Consider two scenes from the pilot:

Nasim, the hotel’s handyman-turned-concierge (played by the hilarious British comedian Omid Djalili), is an Iranian given to topical one-liners. At one point he offers a postmortem of one of the hotel’s television sets: it’s “more dead than Saddam’s first defense minister.”

In another scene, Mavis tells Nasim that “your people do scare me .... I mean, I see three or four of you guys on an airplane, and I’m off!

In other ways, too, “Whoopi” pushes the envelope on what’s acceptable on today’s network TV, so sensitive to the desires and tolerances of the advertisers that keep it alive. Goldberg’s Mavis Rae pokes fun at President Bush’s mispronounciation of “nuclear,” and isn’t afraid to harp on interracial relationships — that third rail of American life.

No (cough!) retreat
For another thing, Mavis Rae unapologetically smokes cigarettes (and not just sneaking one a day like Ted Danson’s “Becker” character on CBS).

In fact, the “Whoopi” pilot began with a cigarette joke. A hotel guest reminds Mavis that “secondhand smoke kills.” Her rapid-fire retort: “So do I, baby, walk on!”

Goldberg’s on-the-show smoking is an extension of a real-life habit — Cigar Aficionado magazine reported her affinity for Davidoff cigars years ago, and she puffs in several of her movies. It’s already outraged the Personal Conduct Police, but she hasn’t backed down.

“I think people are smart enough to be able to say to their kids, ‘Now, you see this is not the greatest behavior Whoopi could be having right now,”’ she told Reuters in an interview.

“This is a show about real people. And real people do have these flaws. Is [Mavis] going to have them forever? Maybe not, but she’s damn well going to start out with them. ... I mean, she’s not shooting dope. She’s not killing anybody.”

Happily running roughshod
These point to how much of an anomaly “Whoopi” is for mainstream TV: in a fractious, hypersensitive time when care is taken to stay on a relatively bland middle ground, “Whoopi” delights in running roughshod over sensibilities most shows won’t even brush up against.

Jumping the gun as it did — debuting two weeks before the official start of the fall TV season — “Whoopi” may be no more than the beneficiary of a boredom-linked buzz: with few new alternatives, viewers may have tuned in Sept. 9 just to see what all the shouting was about. It’s yet to be seen if the debut’s numbers hold up.

But for veteran television watcher Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, the show has possibilities.

“It’s funny and refreshing in that it’s flying in the face of all the things we consider seemly,” Thompson said. “It’s a little more contemporary than an episode of ‘Reba.’ It’s got an edgy feel to it, but it’s the first show out of the gate,” he said. “I’m yet to be convinced that this will be as big a hit around Christmas as it is now. We can’t really make a judgment yet. But no, two years ago you didn’t expect to see a character like that in a drama, much less a sitcom,” Thompson said of Djalili’s Nasim character.

Looking for the new laugh
Thompson observed the resilience of the national sense of humor. “Most of the forecasts on how Sept. 11 would affect American culture — the death of irony, a kindler and gentler America — were hyperbolic. Our appetites for [the outrageous] were on hold, but they’re back on again.”

One aspect of that “appetite” for humor is the constant hunt for the new laugh.

“We remember when a comic could go on stage, say some bad words and get laughs automatically,” Thompson said. “What the show does recognize is that automatically trying to get a rise out of people doesn’t do it. We’ve made jokes about sex, language. Making fun of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s run for governor isn’t funny anymore. Now the one thing you can do that gets a shock, and a laugh, out of people is ... this.”

For Thompson, the willingness of “Whoopi” to push the envelope on propriety and taste is an indication of the keeness of the pursuit of ratings and ad dollars in today’s television landscape.

“There’s so much competition to simply get an audience,” he said. “The stuff that plays now on MTV and Comedy Central is stuff that advertisers wouldn’t have dreamed of being part of, not long ago. Now they see it as their dream demographic.”

Wave of the future?
For Thompson, who is now at work on a history of television, “Whoopi” may be a wave of the future. “I think we’re going to see more of the post-PC stuff, more breaking of the consensus rules,” he said.

“You’re already seeing it on the fringes, in places like Comedy Central. The test kitchens of cable have ideas, and the networks start to pick them up two or three years later.”

Thompson lamented the fact that the advantage for minority representation on the small screen doesn’t seem to extend much beyond the proven purveyors of the minority experience according to TV, such as Bill Cosby or the Wayans brothers.

The “Whoopi” show, he said, “doesn’t mean there’s a renaissance or a new age of diversity on television.” For him, the medium is still enamored of stopgap ethnicity — “Band-Aid approaches” such as the recently-integrated “Friends” series (now in its final season).

Still, he said, “Whoopi Goldberg having her own series is better than Whoopi Goldberg not having her own series.”

Reuters contributed to this story.

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