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.
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.
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.