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Is being funny enough?

It's a sticky question when dealing with a show like Fox's Banzai, which hinges on racial stereotypes. But when it comes to mocking the daughters of privilege in The Simple Life, things get, well, simpler.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Television Critic
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2003

LOS ANGELES - For TV critics these days, it's the $64,000 question: Can a TV show be considered offensive, even when many who may bear the brunt of the joke seem okay with it?

That's the question that has emerged over the past two days, as executives from the Fox network have faced the semiannual gathering of TV critics here with an unabashed show of support for their new summer series Banzai.

They say Banzai, which first appeared in Britain, is a spoof of the extreme game shows that clutter the dial in Japan. (Living there years ago, I saw one where men were challenged to sit on a block of ice drinking beer with no bathroom breaks. Really.) In Fox's version, a narrator with a thick accent introduces stunts set up by the show, encouraging viewers to bet each other on the outcomes.

The stunts are often side-splitting: One Japanese guy named "Mr. Shake Hands Man" (Fox doesn't release their real names) addressed Frasier star Kelsey Grammer in heavily accented English, shaking his hand continuously until the star pulls away. (Viewers bet on how long Grammer will stand there.)

Another stunt involves a bizarre bit of "umbrella roulette" in which two guys face each other, each picking a small umbrella from a pile to point it at his face and push the button to release it. (Only one in the pile will extend, smacking the unlucky picker in the chops.) It's silly situational humor a 5-year-old could appreciate.

But it's also undoubtedly made funnier by the attitudes of the show's cast, who are all Japanese and speak in heavy accents. (Word is they often have to record multiple takes to produce understandable dialogue.) There's also lots of splashy graphics in fake Japanese characters.

In other words, much of the humor springs from laughing at the culture and mannerisms of foreigners who don't speak English very well.

On Thursday, a group of about 20 people stood outside the TV critics meeting at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel to protest the program, which debuted to strong ratings Sunday, calling it an "Asian minstrel show."

But Fox entertainment president Gail Berman swore the network has received few or no protests since the show's debut Sunday.

"We're basically talking about no response (from viewers) at the network," said Berman, noting that one of the executives who developed the show is Asian-American. "This did not resonate with most of the viewers, it didn't resonate with the critical community, or the Asian-American community. I have a lot of evidence that shows we're on the right track with this one."

I couldn't help feeling Berman missed the point.

Shows such as Amos 'N Andy in the 1950s proved stereotypes can be funny, and they can be enjoyed by many people from the minority group that is stereotyped. But just because the network has cobbled together a funny series doesn't mean it isn't also perpetuating awful stereotypes.

Part of the problem is the TV landscape: There are no series starring Asian casts but this one - which shows them jumping around and shouting like extras from a bad Hong Kong martial arts film. And with Asians virtually invisible in prime time, seeing a white-owned TV network bankrolling a show filled with backward images of Asian culture is what makes this all so distasteful.

For this African-American, watching Banzai felt like looking back in time to the 1950s, when black actors filled demeaning (if entertaining) roles just to get on TV at all. If Hispanics are treated on TV now the way black characters were in the 1970s - underrepresented, but with a few shows and key roles - then Asians have even further to go for equality on the dial.

Far better to exploit those who are already on top, the way Fox's midseason reality series The Simple Life will do: transporting "celebutantes" (Fox's word, not mine) Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie to a farm in Arkansas for five weeks.

Even before Hilton and Richie faced journalists here Friday to promote the show, executives were buzzing over how clueless the girls were. True to form, Hilton disavowed footage showing her asking if Wal-Mart was a place where "Like, they sell walls?" and admitting they had never held a real job.

"I was playing dumb," said Hilton, who had trouble pronouncing the word "underestimate." Later, she noted, "I missed my cell phone most."

Cruel as it was, this was something I could get behind. Lampooning those with inherited privilege feels so much better - less like kicking someone when they're down and more like evening the playing field.

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