12:01am

Fri February 24, 2012
Television

For Asians And Latinos, Stereotypes Persist In Sitcoms

Originally published on Fri February 24, 2012 4:50 am

I was flipping around TV channels one evening, and I noticed something amazing. There was a glorious absence of black actors playing maids, sassy, streetwise pimps or bug-eyed buffoons.

And then I saw Han Lee.

On CBS' hit comedy 2 Broke Girls, he owns the diner in Brooklyn where the show's sassy heroines just happen to work. He's a walking bundle of stereotypes: Broken English. Socially awkward. Mostly asexual. His heavy accent is always good for a laugh or two.

And I'm left to wonder: Why are we still discussing this? TV producers got this memo years ago about black characters. But Asians like Han Lee — and Latinos — haven't been so lucky.

Consider this scene from ABC's quickly-canceled sitcom Work It — a comedy where one pal explains to his buddy that he's not sure the friend has what it takes to fit in at the pharmaceutical company where they're hoping to land a job.

"I'm not sure you'd be up for everything this job requires," says Guy A.

"What, I'm Puerto Rican — I'll be great at selling drugs," says Guy B.

And then there's Rob. Rob is a new CBS comedy starring ex-Saturday Night Live star Rob Schneider, based on his real-life marriage into a Latino family. But his character, also named Rob, doesn't do well in his first meeting with his new wife's relatives. First Schneider cracks that his new relatives looks like the audience at a Julio Iglesias concert. Then his undocumented uncle-in-law tries to borrow $7,200. There were gags about siestas, and how they lead to big families.

Lately, Rob just looks like a badly written show, told from the perspective of its white star, surrounded by thinly developed Latino supporting players. But still.

It's taken a long time to wean writers off the easy jokes provided by stereotypes of black people. It shouldn't take nearly as long to travel that road for Latino and Asian characters.

I say it's time for writers and producers to remember the lessons taught by The Cosby Show, Chappelle's Show and Treme — sometimes landmark success comes not from echoing stereotypes, but helping talented performers of color transcend them.

Eric Deggans is the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some of the biggest new hits of the TV season have been sitcoms, including "2 Broke Girls" and "Rob." TV critic Eric Deggans says the shows also highlight what he considers an insulting trend.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: I was flipping around TV channels one evening and I noticed something amazing. There was a glorious absence of black actors playing maids, sassy, streetwise pimps or bug-eyed buffoons. And then I saw this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "2 BROKE GIRLS")

MATTHEW MOY: (As Han Lee) Welcome everyone, thanks for coming to very important first official diner meeting.

DEGGANS: That's Han Lee, on CBS's hit comedy "2 Broke Girls." He owns the diner in Brooklyn where the show's sassy heroines just happen to work. And though he's trying to lead a staff meeting, it isn't going very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "2 BROKE GIRLS")

MOY: (As Han Lee) Well, this is how I roll.

KAT DENNINGS: (As Max Black) Yeah, short and slow.

MOY: (As Han Lee) No, I roll fast and furious, Tokyo Drift style.

DEGGANS: Broken English, socially awkward, mostly asexual - these are the unfortunate qualities which seem to define Han Lee, a collection of stereotypes whose heavy accent is always good for a laugh or two.

Why are we still discussing this? TV producers got this memo years ago about black characters. Rarely do we see stereotypical roles such as Beulah the maid or Rooster, the streetwise black pimp who always helped Baretta get out of a jam in the '70s. But Asians and Latinos, well they haven't been so lucky. Consider this scene from ABC's quickly-canceled sitcom "Work It," a comedy where one pal must explain to his buddy that to get hired at a good job, they have to dress like women.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WORK IT")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: If you're working, I'm working.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Well, I'm not sure you'd be up for everything this job requires.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm Puerto Rican. I'll be great at selling drugs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's not what I mean.

DEGGANS: I hope that's not what he means. Because I thought I heard a character imply that Puerto Ricans are particularly good at selling drugs. And then there's "Rob."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROB")

ROB SCHNEIDER: (As Rob) This is a big family. Now I know what's going on during all those siestas.

DEGGANS: "Rob" is a new CBS sitcom starring ex-Saturday Night Live star Rob Schneider, based on his real-life marriage into a Latino family. But his character, also named Rob, doesn't do so well in his first meeting with his new wife's relatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROB")

SCHNEIDER: (As Rob) I mean, of course this is a big family because you're all Catholic. You don't use protection.

DEGGANS: "Rob" kicked off its first episode with a barrage of questionable jokes. First, Schneider cracked that his new relatives looked like the audience at a Julio Iglesias concert, then his illegal alien uncle-in-law tried to borrow $7,200. But lately "Rob" just looks like a badly written show, told from the perspective of its white star, surrounded by thinly-developed Latino supporting players.

It's taken a long time to wean writers off the easy jokes provided by stereotypes of black people. It shouldn't take nearly as long to travel that road for Latino and Asian characters. I say it's time for TV writers and producers to remember the lessons taught by "The Cosby Show," Chappelle's Show and "Treme" – the shows are better when the characters are better. And the characters are best when they transcend stereotypes instead of echoing them.

INSKEEP: Eric Deggans is a regular commentator on this program, and also the TV and media critic for the Tampa Bay Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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