The television character that intrigues me more than any other is Homey the Clown, of the Fox television network comedy series "In Living Color."
Asked by children at a party if he would slip on a banana peel and make them laugh, the cantankerous clown responds, "And bust my skull and spill my brains and blood all over the floor? I don't think so . . . . Homey don't play that."
"Can I smash a pie in your face?" another child asks.
"I think you got that backwards, bud," Homey replies as he lets a pie fly into the kid's face.
I watch this show regularly, and laugh against my will. More often than not, I end up feeling like the kid Homey beats on the head with a sock filled with sawdust, only to show up at Homey's next party, asking for more.
The show depicts embarrassing scenes of black people picking their noses, scratching their groins, passing gas, slugging down wine, selling stolen goods, being ignorant and, yes, funny.
Its popularity among blacks is as fascinating as Homey's contradictory contention that "Homey may be a clown, but he don't make a fool outta himself."
Of course, not everybody thinks so.
Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard University Medical School, says "In Living Color" is just another example of "the white media playing on old stereotypes about black incompetence."
In the October issue of New York magazine, Keenen Ivory Wayans, the show's creator, who is black, responded: "I don't think the criticisms really apply. It's a sketch-variety show. If you look at any sketch-variety show, it's cliches and stereotypes. They are grounds for comedy. The word stereotype is only applied because it's black art. It's never used to describe John Hughes or Carol Burnett."
Wayans is up against some heavy hitters on this matter, including Jannette L. Dates and William Barlow, authors of the book "Split Images," an in-depth critique of African Americans in the mass media.
"Stereotypes are especially effective in conveying ideological messages because they are so laden with ritual and myth, particularly in the case of African Americans," they write. "But invariably, these black representations are totally at odds with the reality of African Americans as individual people. The end results, a series of sharply conflicting black images in the mass media, have grave implications for American society as a whole."
Nevertheless, Calvin Holder, director of the African American studies program at the College of Staten Island, says "In Living Color" represents "a healthy development when black satirists can be critical of important blacks," according to New York magazine.
The black representations on the show, Holder maintains, are not at odds with the reality of black Americans, but merely spoof attitudes that are already prevalent in the black community.
There are valid points on both sides, and it's an awfully tough call for someone like myself, who is desperately seeking a good laugh in these not-so-funny times.
Racially impolitic or not, Homey fills the bill. Like many of the characters on the show, there is more to the clown than meets the eye -- including his valiant though misguided efforts to maintain a morsel of dignity against all odds.
Homey, we are told, is on a five-year work release program to make amends for assaulting the maitre d' of "Chez Whitey," a restaurant where male customers are required to wear neckties.
Homey didn't play that.
Not too surprisingly, I suppose, white viewers appear to like Homey too. He is, after all, a clown. According to Nielsen ratings, the show is especially popular among teens and preteens, and this year it won an Emmy Award for best new comedy series.
The problem, as I see it, is not that "In Living Color" cashes in on black stereotypes, which it so unabashedly does. Rather, it is the dearth in the media of more wide-ranging images of black people that makes this program stand out as fearless and innovative.
If only the mass media would be as receptive to serious works about blacks as they are about those in which we lightheartedly make fools of ourselves . . . .
Television is such a powerful medium. It should make us laugh. But it should also help to inform and empower black Americans, make us feel better as a people.
Wouldn't white America go for that as much as it does "In Living Color"?
I can already hear Homey's response to that one: "I don't think so . . . . Whitey don't play that."