PASADENA, Calif. -- From the early returns, it would appear that Fox might just have a hit on its hands with its new animated series "The PJs." And not just the network's competitors are a bit peeved by that.
The show, which depicts life for the mainly black residents of what used to be called the ghetto, has inspired protests from various groups and individuals. And one of "The PJs' " main detractors is filmmaker Spike Lee."I'm not a big fan of 'The PJs," Lee understated while addressing TV critics. "And I kind of scratch my head why Eddie Murphy's doing this because it shows no love at all for black people."
(Murphy is one of the show's creators and executive producers and provides the voice of the main character.)
"I'm not saying that we're above being made fun of and stuff like that, but it's really hateful, I think, toward black people -- plain and simple," Lee said.
While Lee argued that "The PJs" is "very demeaning," the show's executive producers and several voice actors -- who are also black -- not surprisingly see things rather differently.
"Because Spike Lee said it, it doesn't make it so," said Shawn Michael Howard, who voices the crackhead on "The PJs."
Not that anyone associated with the show is exactly surprised that it has been the subject of criticism.
"I think from the beginning we expected, because of the backdrop of the show, there probably would be controversy," said executive producer Larry Wilmore. "It's happened with many shows that have taken risks, from 'All In the Family' to 'In Living Color.' And, over time, people have realized that it's just entertainment.
"And many of them actually made very great satirical points and socially relevant points in the course of the series. It's really hard to judge a satire by one episode, and I think that's what kind of happened in this instance."
(For the record, Lee continued his criticisms even after he'd seen the second episode of the series.)
"We're just trying to have some fun here. Make some money," Dubois said.
But not fun at the expense of the downtrodden.
"We're not ever trying to make fun of poverty or anything like that," said executive producer Steve Tompkins. "We're trying to satirize the bureaucracy and the social injustice and hypocrisy that keeps people in poverty."
Those involved with "The PJs" don't dismiss the criticism they've received, but they do openly question whether that criticism represents a majority of African-Americans.
"What is the black community?" Howard asked rhetorically. "Because one guy, one groups says that 'The PJs' represents this or that, does it mean that it's so? I mean, it's not. It would be my opinion or Larry's opinion, and we all have varied opinions. That's what makes it beautiful -- makes it art. And that's what we're all doing. We're all artists, from the writers to the actors."
"It's funny that as African-Americans, we fought for years to be treated as individuals by all people," Wilmore said. "And then we put on a show which we hoped would be judged as (an) individual and many African-Americans say, 'Well, how come you're representing the whole?' And it's like, well, who said we were doing that?' "
And he maintains that "The PJs" makes no such attempt.
"These people are individuals," Wilmore said of the characters. "Just in the same way you wouldn't say 'Seinfeld' represents all Jews -- that would be silly to say that."
He also pointed out that there are many different types of black people depicted on network television -- and that those portrayals are always under the scrutiny of black viewers.
"Black groups have always been vocal," Wilmore said. "Black groups got 'Amos 'n' Andy' off the air in the '50s, mainly because there wasn't balance. And balance was always the big argument.
"But at the same time 'The PJs' is on, 'The Hughleys,' which shows a middle-class black family, is on ABC. To suggest that there's not balance today is a bit disingenuous, too."
(Of course, it's at least a bit disingenuous to suggest that "Amos 'n' Andy" was chased off the air over the issue of balance. The show fell because the racial stereotypes it included couldn't be counter-balanced by a dozen shows with positive portrayals of blacks.)
Another line of defense for "The PJs" is that the show isn't really breaking any new ground in terms of its content.
"Another huge point that I think a lot of people miss is that this is not new territory," Wilmore said. "It's all been done before. Richard Pryor did every one of these characters in all of his routines. Every single one of them, and he has always been applauded for it and cherished for it.
"The poverty aspect was done in 'Good Times,' and 'Good Times' ran for many years. It was done on 'Sanford and Son.' It was done way before us."
And he suggested that the show is, in a sense, being discriminated against because it is a comedy.
"What gets me is that because we bring up an issue in comedy it's always attacked, but when it's done dramatically it never is," Wilmore said. "If Shawn played a crackhead on 'NYPD Blue,' he'd get an Emmy."
"One of the biggest films this year is a parody of the Holocaust," Howard said. " 'Life is Beautiful' is a parody of the Holocaust." (Actually, the Italian film is a dramatic satire set during the Holocaust, and the second half takes place in a Nazi death camp.)
And the scrutiny of ethnic comedies extends to shows other than "The PJs." The other notable recent example was "The Secret Diaries of Desmond Pfeiffer," which focused on a black servant in the Lincoln White House.
"It's amazing to me how anyone in this world could think that you can make a sitcom about a holocaust -- and slavery was a holocaust," Lee said. "And I'll bet you for sure, you will not see a network sitcom about the Holocaust that took place during the 1940s."
Again, the "PJs" producers disagreed.
"People bring up 'Desmond Pfeiffer.' They say, 'How dare you make fun of slavery?' But a couple of years earlier, the Colored Museum did sketches about slavery on a show on PBS. But because it was on PBS, no one said a thing about it," Wilmore said.
And they defend the characters on "The PJs" as exaggerated versions of actual people.
"If you've ever been to the projects you know you've got crackheads, you've got hot chicks, you've got old cronies, you've got lots of people," Dubois said.
Wilmore readily admits that "The PJs" isn't a perfect show.
"We don't always do the right thing or hit the right mark. And I think people have every right to their opinion," he said. "If they feel it's offensive, they're probably right that it offends them.
"But we always take offense when someone tries to speak for everyone. That's the only problem I have with any kind of talk about protests or that kind of thing."
Lee said he's done no such thing.
"I'm not speaking as a spokesperson for 35 million African Americans," he said. "This is the opinion of Spike Lee."
Even if you buy their arguments -- and they make some perfectly valid points -- it's hard not to feel that the producers of "The PJs" are a little bit carried away with themselves and are taking the whole thing considerably more seriously than just creating entertainment.
"At the heart of the controversy, there really is no controversy," Tompkins insisted. "Because the various groups that are protesting the show really want the same thing that we did -- to shed light on social hypocrisy and injustice. They do it through the political machine, and we do it through satire. And satire is a long-standing tradition of political change, and it's a good one. It's what the country is founded on, and I hope that we don't ever shy away from using it effectively."