meticulously unearthing black actors
who starred in long-forgotten sitcoms
and television movies, he doesn’t quite
know what to make of the 1990s.
Zook doesn’t seem to like television
any more than Bogle does, though she,
too, has a favorite program: Roc, a socially
conscious sitcom about an African
American garbage man, portrayed by
Charles S. Dutton. She writes that “Dutton
set out to portray a working-class
black family with all the love and the devotion
of the Huxtables, minus the
wealth.” Unlike so many segregated sitcoms
before it, Roc presented a black culture
that was thoroughly political.
As Zook tells it, the sitcom’s innovative
conception was the direct result of
its unusual genesis. Dutton was working
on a stage production of August Wilson’s
The Piano Lesson when he was offered
the opportunity to produce and star in
Roc. Zook writes:
Because the vast majority of Roc’s creative
team—its writers, producers, cast members,
and even one executive—were single mindedly
committed to the social vision of Charles
Dutton . . . this staff was unusually coherent
in both its goals and its sensibilities.
Unfortunately, a unified “social vision”
isn’t always a recipe for a great sitcom.
Roc had a pronounced tendency toward
triteness, and—if you haven’t already
guessed—it wasn’t very funny. The
show’s commitment to racial uplift often
found voice in hokey platitudes, and Roc
had to deliver great gobs of boilerplate.
One monologue ended, “It’s up to the
people of this community to take personal
responsibility to clean this neighborhood
up.” For goodness sake, bring
on the Kingfish!
Of course, Roc was the exception
rather than the rule. The most-popular
black sitcom of the 1990s was an irrepressibly
funny, doggedly offensive show
on the Fox Network called Martin. Martin
Lawrence, its jug-eared star, had made
his name with lewd routines on the
stand-up comedy circuit, and week after
week,Martin pushed the bounds of good...