9.01.2017

harry hoo, nick yemana, and the persistence of racism on mainstream tv

My "comedy before bed" TV watching -- the habit of a lifetime, and the surest way for me to fall asleep -- has gone retro again.* I watched "Get Smart" end-to-end and am now making my way through "Barney Miller".

Harry Hoo, Dr. Yes, and "Craw, not Craw!"

Get Smart was a TV comedy conceived by funny men Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, and piloted by the amazing Leonard Stern. It's part James Bond spoof and part Inspector Clouseau. Don Adams stars as Maxwell Smart. It was to be the one and only part Adams ever played well, but boy was he good. Barbara Feldon as "99" and Ed Platt as The Chief were both brilliant, but their characters were purely straight men for Adams. Get Smart ran from 1965 to 1970. I watched at least the last few seasons as a kid, and have seen a few re-runs over the years. Watching it straight through, I laughed out loud through the entire series. It was completely ridiculous and completely hilarious.

Except for one giant cringe factor: racism. This wasn't about African Americans. Indeed, people of colour rarely appeared in Get Smart, and when they did, they were not in racist situations or portrayed with racist overtones. The racism in Get Smart was almost fully reserved for Asians.

Don Adams as Maxwell Smart and Joey Forman
as Harry Hoo. Prepare to cringe.
In the show's early seasons, Asian people were played by non-Asian actors with facial hair meant to be read as Asian, crude eye makeup, and heavily accented speech. Unlike the comic Russian and German characters who belonged to KAOS, the international organization of evil, Asian characters might be good or evil. Either way, they were never Asian.

As the seasons progressed, a few Asian actors appeared playing Asian characters. I don't know if this was in response to complaints, or if an Asian actor had some influence on the show's producers, or something else. But whatever the background of the actors, the stereotypes persisted.

One "good guy" Asian character in Get Smart was Harry Hoo, a parody of Charlie Chan, who was a fictional Chinese detective of books, radio, television, and movies. Except for a brief period at the show's inception, Charlie Chan was played by white actors. Harry Hoo was no different, played by a white comic character actor named Joey Forman. (The use of white actors to play people of colour has a long history on both the small and large screens, not something I can explore in this post.)

Everything about Get Smart is spoofy, so there are plenty of ridiculous stereotypes and anti-stereotypes to go around. It's part of the show's brand of comedy. But only Chinese characters are dressed in old-world costumes, their entrance always heralded by "Oriental"-sounding music, ringing gongs in their laundry shops, speaking in accents played for laughs. The jokes are beyond cringe-inducing.

Nick Yemana and the dinosaurs

"Barney Miller," which ran from 1975 to 1982, was another animal entirely. I watched this show regularly in its early years, often with my father.

Barney Miller was an ensemble-cast workplace comedy, so perhaps the comparison with the zany Get Smart is unfair. Barney Miller had no catchphrases, no physical comedy, and almost no cringey insensitivities. There is even a gay character -- a minor but recurring role -- who is out and proud, if mincing, and sometimes has a partner in tow. Jokes in those episodes revolve around the detectives' varying degrees of homophobia, not the gay men themselves. The eponymous Captain Miller, played by Hal Linden, treats the gay couple with respect, unphased, and it's from that character that the baseline is established.

In the run-down station house in which the show is set, against a backdrop of New York City's dire years of cutbacks, crime, and decay, the detectives of the 12th Precinct are a snapshot of ethnic New York. Whether the real NYPD was ever this diverse is another story. The detectives are a picture of diversity in background, lifestyle, and worldview.

Jack Soo as Nick Yemana.
Soo started his career entertaining
his neighbours in a Japanese internment camp.
Which brings me to Sergeant Nick Yemana, played with wonderful understatement by Jack Soo. Both character and actor were Japanese-American. (Soo died during the show's fifth season, a shocking loss for loyal viewers.)

Yemana's character and actions seldom involved his ethnic background, but he was frequently a target for characters who were racist but trying to act like they weren't. The show's Inspector Frank Luger (James Gregory) was especially uncomfortable with Yemana's Asianness -- but the joke was at Luger's expense. The Inspector was a relic of an earlier era, a dinosaur who didn't understand diversity. He'd make embarrassing attempts at a "soul" handshake with Detective Harris (played by Ron Glass, known to Firefly and Serenity fans) and spout fake Spanish at Puerto Rican characters. The characters are all decent and sympathetic figures; it's the bigotry itself that's the joke. I wrote about a similar dynamic in the TV show "M*A*S*H," where only idiots and cowards glorify war, or hate and fear the Koreans.

I did say "almost"

The bad ethnic jokes of Get Smart were almost entirely reserved for Asians, but not completely. In the first season, there's an episode called "Washington 4, Indians 3" featuring "Indians" -- feathers, teepees, an inability to use contractions -- the works. After all, this was Mel Brooks, a comedy writer from a generation that thought it was hilarious to have "Indians" or "Nips" use Yiddish phrases. But to the Get Smart writers' credit, the jokes focus on the stupidity of the war-happy Pentagon, and how we're all on stolen land in the first place.

The "almost" on Barney Miller is really strange. Rape jokes? Really? That warrants its own post.

* Old TV shows watched: Bewitched, MASH (pulled from Netflix when I was up to Season 9!), Get Smart, Barney Miller (currently watching). To come: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show. Those last four I'm watching on DVD.

13 comments:

Amy said...

Barney Miller was after my time (I was in law school and then working), and even Get Smart was on when I was already a cool teen, but I did watch it somewhat. My brother (five years younger) was a bigger fan. I thought it was pretty funny, but I am not tempted to watch it again. I love how you do that---watching an entire series from start to finish. There are very few shows I enjoyed enough to do that with---MASH was one. I've watched old reruns of Lassie, Leave it to Beaver, Friends, Seinfeld, and a few others, but randomly, never a whole season of a show, let alone all the seasons.

It's interesting to compare the two shows, given the years they were on. It's encouraging to think that by the 60s, blatant racism against African Americans was no longer acceptable and that perhaps ten years later prejudice against Asians and homophobia were waning in acceptability. So by the 80s were there fewer sexist stereotypes? Are you noticing any differences in how women are portrayed between Get Smart and Barney Miller? I am sure MTM will highlight that issue.

laura k said...

Hi Amy :)

First part: Teens definitely watched Get Smart. It was hugely popular, and there wasn't a lot of teen-specific programs in those days. You're really the perfect demographic to have watched it, but you might not (probably would not) find it funny.

Binge watching, remember I don't have or watch regular TV. Random episodes don't exist in my world, I have to choose anything I watch. Everything I watch is on Netflix or from a DVD boxed set -- making it very easy to go end-to-end. I find it much more satisfying. I'm only watching one episode a night. Depending on how quickly I fall asleep, it may take 2 or 3 nights to get through one ep!

laura k said...

Second part: Denigrating African Americans on national TV was definitely not done during Get Smart's time on the air. But I didn't mean to imply that Asian stereotyping had gone the same way in the time from GS to BMiller. Asians are still badly stereotyped on TV.

Sexist stereotypes. On Get Smart, the main character duo was Max and 99. 99 was smarter, braver, stronger, and more athletic than Max. He took credit for her ideas, and she rolled her eyes. She wore gorgeous mod clothes and carried a little red handgun in her purse. She was modeled after Mrs. Peel from the old show The Avengers (which I LOVED and would love to re-watch), so she was every bit a spy in her own right, and way cooler than her bumbling male partner.

Other female characters on Get Smart were usually spies or doctors/scientists. All were gorgeous. One recurring character was one of the world's top scientists, and her cover job was stripping in a burlesque house.

BMiller's world is almost entirely male. The wives of two detectives have minor roles in the early seasons. There is a succession of female detectives -- the first played by Linda Lavin. They are very competent, very eager to prove their worth, as good or better than most of the men -- also hyper-emotional/passionate. The only other women on the show are either sex workers being arrested -- portrayed as smart, sassy women who do this for a living and are not ashamed -- or women pressing charges against someone, or looking for help in some way. They are often kind of unstrung, but so are the male characters that are brought in for arrest. The public that the cops see are usually "off" in some way.

Amy said...

I think I found Get Smart funny, just not funny enough to watch again. I do think of the show sometimes when I look at people with cell phones and remember Maxwell talking into his shoe. Little did we know that 50 years later such things would be a reality---a mobile phone!

The shows I watched as a child---like Leave it to Beaver and Lassie and Bonanza---all depicted women as stay at home mothers, except for the schoolmarm, who was always depicted as a spinster and often as harsh. It wasn't a pretty world for a girl growing up although some of those mothers were the smartest ones in their families. Things changed somewhat with shows like That Girl and MTM where women were depicted with careers---but again, not usually women who were married or had children. I can't remember the first show I watched where a woman was married, a mother, and had a career. People probably would list One Day at a Time or Julia---but those were both divorced mothers who had to work to support their families. I will have to think about it. I just know that at 18 despite being a "smart girl," I still believed that women could not be both a mother and have a career. It wasn't until 1973-1974, my senior year in college, that I started thinking that maybe I could have both a career and children. And I hadn't been watching much TV in four years in between.

laura k said...

And his shoe phone was rotary! The shoe phone was the most famous, but (as I found out recently) there were all kinds of other silly phones. One was a huge rotary dial on his car's steering wheel. The show was full of crazy devices that Max always botched up, nearly killing himself and others in the process, or destroying incredibly priceless, one-of-a-kind technology as he was testing it out. I am a James Bond fan, so I really got the spoof.

Re working women, I remember in comments at some point we were chatting about That Girl (your generation) and MTM (mine). For women who were married, had kids, and had careers, you'd have to go way later, or out of the sitcom world. Sitcom families changed a lot, to -- the Father Knows Best and Leave It To Beaver families disappeared from television, and good riddance.

25 Most Memorable Working Mothers in TV History according to Working Mother magazine, November 2016.

laura k said...

Of all the TV working moms, some of the most realistic were Roseanne and Lois from Malcolm in the Middle -- working crappy part-time jobs, often out of work, family in chaos. Alicia Florick seems reaonsably realistic, too, for career women on their own.

Award for least realistic everything must always go to the Huxtable family, the updated version of Father Knows Best.

Amy said...

Looking at the list, the earliest one was Shirley Partridge in the 1970s. Not my personal role model! A show I never once watched.

In the 80s they list Maggie Seaver of Growing Pains and Elise Keaton from Family Ties. I watched both of those, and by then I was a working mother myself. Hard to believe that it wasn't until the 1980s that sitcoms actually depicted families where mothers worked. And in Growing Pains, the dad stayed home. How realistic was that....

Roseanne wasn't until the 90s, as well as Cosby and many of the others on that list. No wonder I was so confused back in the early 1970s! My own mother didn't work outside of the home until I was 13, and that was part time. None of my friends' mothers had jobs when I was growing up. It was a different world.

impudent strumpet said...

I've been re-watching Monty Python, and I've noticed similar with Chinese and "Indian" characters (as well as using white actors in blackface to portray African characters). It does not stand up to time well! (Which is unfortunate, because I've been a major fan of Monty Python, but because of this I can no longer recommend it unreservedly.)

The African characters were somewhat plot-driven (e.g. it's a sketch about British explorers in pith helmets in an African jungle), but the Chinese and "Indian" characters seemed to be intended as the joke itself. Which makes me surprised it got through, because before we get into the appropriateness of racial humour, "That guy's Chinese" just isn't particularly funny.

As for the Huxtables, they would have been far more interesting if the show had been set 20 years previous. I did the math once and calculated that they were still in school when they started having kids - and this was in the 1960s. A black couple trying to finish medical and law school while having a baby in 1960s America is way more interesting! Where did they live? What did they do about child care? How did Clair's law school react to her pregnancy? Was family planning even an option?

laura k said...

Oh wow, ick! That's disappointing to hear about Monty Python.

I'm pretty sure Claire and Cliff's experience would not have made a good sitcom. But one thing you're never supposed to do in sitcom world is the math. At least now people grow up in sitcoms. The Huxtable kids, the Malcolm in the Middle crew, they all grew up on the show. In older sitcoms and TV dramas, you were supposed to suspend disbelief on all ages, and if the show ran long enough, new actors would appear in the roles.

laura k said...

Also, a note: a subhead said "Dr No", which is the name of the actual James Bond character. I changed it to the Get Smart spoof name, Dr Yes.

johngoldfine said...

This post and the comments have helped clarify for me that there are really two issues: stereotyping races; and actors of the 'wrong' race playing against their ethnicity.

The stereotyping is always ugly and wrong, period.

But the wrong ethnicity actors...may have to do with prejudice in the industry. But that's not always clear. I doubt anyone reading your blog would have a problem with a black Hamlet or a Sarah Bernhardt Hamlet or--I don't know, hell--an eventual biopic of the life of Woody Allen starring a non-Jew. As always, when it's done well and right, we suspend disbelief while the footlights are up.

laura k said...

A thorough examination of mainstream TV and Hollywood casting would reveal an extreme reluctance to hire people of colour in anything not marketed specifically to an ethnic community. It is well documented, from Natalie Wood playing Maria in West Side Story, to the pathetic roles available to Dorothy Dandridge, to the white Charlie Chans, and beyond. The same is true for non-disabled people playing people with disabilities.

"Who is available" is always used the excuse. But do the casting directors go into other theatre and film communities for auditions? Do young actors of colour get smaller opportunities in soap operas, commercials, industrials, and other less expensive parts so they can develop?

In other words, did anyone try to find a Chinese Charlie Chan? I can all but guarantee the answer is no.

This is not down to availability. It's down to bigotry and stereotypes.

A similar excuse has been used with women in sports. But when girls get equal opportunity to develop as athletes from the youngest ages and all through their educations, female athletes blossom and their sports are worth paying attention to.

laura k said...

Thanks for bringing it up, John. It gave me an opportunity to trot out my well-worn soapbox. :)