The Potato Eaters

The Potato Eaters

The Potato Eaters

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Nov. 8 1998 3:30 AM

The Potato Eaters

It's hip to hate the Irish.

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Because I am a highly trained TV writer and have sources throughout Hollywood, I can now bring you, verbatim, the pitch meeting in which the now-canceled Fox Network sitcom Costello was first proposed--

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Fox Executive No. 1: OK, give us the high concept.

Writer: Right, Costello is Good Will Hunting meets, well, Good Will Hunting, but with a chick instead of Matt Damon.

Fox Executive No. 2: All right, but what's the concept, what's the theme?

Writer: Oh, right. The theme is, Irish people are retards.

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Fox Executive No. 2: [thoughtfully] Yeah, I can work with that, but there's got to be something more ...

Writer: OK, how about this: Irish people are loud retards.

Fox Executive No. 1: That sounds like a winner to me!

Writer: One more thing: We'll call the father Spud. Get it, like potato?

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Fox Executive No. 2: I get it! Irish people eat potatoes!

While we're talking potatoes, let it be noted that in the opening scene of the first episode of Trinity, which is NBC's contribution to the belittlement of the Irish, Jill Clayburgh, who plays the matriarch of the impossibly dysfunctional though very handsome McCallister family (they all look like Aidan Quinn), screams out the window: "Hurry up! The potatoes are getting cold!"

Get it? Irish people eat potatoes!

Costello, which was, until it became the first show canceled this season, the dumbest show on television--dumber, possibly, than When Good Pets Go Bad--centered on a Southie waitress (played by the comedian Sue Costello) and her working-class Irish family (what we Sons of Eire call "shanty" Irish). Each character was dumber than the next, but all were brutal drunkards. And this was a comedy.

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On Trinity, the McCallisters--a drunk, a cop, a priest, etc.--get into all manner of hotheaded trouble, in between meals of potatoes and beer.

On CBS's To Have and to Hold, which rates merely a five on the Paddymeter--Costello being a 10--a sullen family of, yes, Boston Irish (a cop, a fireman, another cop, etc.) drink beer and say mean things to each other.

These three shows prove, of course, that this season, the political-entertainment complex is engaged in an elaborate anti-Irish conspiracy. Proof comes not only from the West Coast but from the East as well. Hollywood's descent into Irish bashing finds its echo in the recent outbursts of such eminent commentators as Gay Talese and Eric Alterman. For those of you who missed Talese's contribution to the anti-Irish cause, here is an excerpt, as reported in Washingtonian magazine:

The Irish have been in the forefront of sexual repression for centuries. They drove James Joyce out of Ireland, and every other creative soul who might be dealing with erotica. ... Irishmen always want to be policemen, and the Irish media want the President to climb up the hill on bloody knees like the Stations of the Cross. ... Ireland is a very female country run by suffering nuns.

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Talese is responding to the threat he sees posed by the strident anti-Clintonism of a powerful group of pundits, including Michael Kelly, Christopher Matthews, and Maureen Dowd, who obviously--to Talese--write under the spell of the prudish and absolutist Irish church. The Clintonistas believe this op-ed "tribe"--to borrow a word from my fellow Irishman Bill Powers, who first suggested the existence of the Irish cabal in a National Journal report--is a danger to free society because it takes seriously at least the majority of the Ten Commandments. (Full disclosure: Powers and Kelly are friends of mine. Also, I am not, technically speaking, Irish.)

In Alterman's view, recently expressed in The Nation, these columnists comprise a "Catholic mafia," whose "moral absolutism ... compels its members to pass out moral judgments the way Michael Corleone issued death sentences." Alterman, extending his mixed ethnic metaphor (I would have used IRA imagery myself, and not only to avoid showing contempt for all Catholics simultaneously), writes that Kelly "is this mafia's 'capo di tutti capi.' "

Costello and The Nation are very different creatures (for starters, The Nation is funnier than Costello), but they are linked by one thing: contempt for the hopelessly reactionary, closed-minded, and brutish Irish.

This is why it is acceptable for the cultural elite to beat up the Irish: because the Irish are all Republicans. Even if they're Democrats, they're still Republicans in spirit, except for Sen. Kennedy.

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Here is Hollywood's first rule of ethnic stereotyping: It's permissible to mock an ethnic group so long as that ethnic group opposed busing. Which is why so many brick-headed Carmines and beer-soaked Seamuses are popping up in today's sitcoms.

But Goldberg, I hear you saying, you're wrong: The primary victims of ethnic stereotyping on television, especially on those fetid, little junior networks, are African-Americans, and they don't oppose busing, or at least at one point in the past they didn't oppose busing.

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I t is true, of course, that African-Americans are made to look the fools on shows too numerous to mention, but--and this is, as they might say on one of those black burlesque comedies, a very big but--on every one of these shows, the Willis Rule applies. The Willis Rule, named after the original stupid white man of The Jeffersons fame, holds that TV blacks can be made to look stupid as long as a white man on the same show is made to look more stupid. (Sanford and Son is the exception that proves the rule, but even that show added a dumb white man late in its run, after it was just Sanford.) Hence, the NAACP-coordinated uproar this fall over the hysterically bad and unfortunately canceled UPN show The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer was terribly off base. Desmond Pfeiffer, for those viewers who missed its brief run, focused on the adventures of Abraham Lincoln's black valet. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was offended because the show denigrated the memory of a venerated president, but the NAACP was taking television far too seriously. In fact, the Willis Rule was so fully enforced on Desmond Pfeiffer that no blacks, in fact, were made to look the fool. Lincoln, his wife, and Gen. Grant were made out to be horny and drunk and sexually confused. The only character with half a brain was Desmond Pfeiffer himself.

The Willis Rule also applies on the ABC situation comedy The Hughleys, one of the 83 additions to the fall TV lineup that feature the high jinks associated with a black family's move to the suburbs. Darryl Hughley, played by the ordinarily very funny D.L. Hughley, is given such lines as this one, delivered after he and his wife return from dinner: "Why are they always putting bushes on your plate in restaurants out here in the suburbs?"

Those aren't bushes, his kindly wife replies, "they're parsley." Get it? The black guy doesn't even know from parsley! (I bet Irish people don't know from parsley, either!)

Luckily for Hughley, though, his white neighbor (who might in fact be the original Willis, brought out of deep freeze for the occasion) is exponentially more stupid and--surprise--not nearly as cool as the black guy.

The problem with The Hughleys is the problem with this year's bursting crop of ethnically fueled TV series: They're not funny or at all original.

The Irish bashing wouldn't be so egregious (and so obviously fueled by the animus of the cultural elite) if it actually entertained. This is not a brief for the Irish nation, nor is it a condemnation of stereotyping. (I think I'm not supposed to say this, but I like Sanford and Son.) This is a TV review by a TV reviewer who in the past has defended Hollywood's forays into ethnic stereotyping, particularly as it concerns the portrayal of his own personal race. And here's what I learned from The Nanny: If you're going to traffic in dangerous stereotypes, at least be funny about it.