Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Everybody Hates Valentine's Day

by Odienator
(for all Mumf pieces, go here)

Happy Valentine’s Day!

(Editor's Note: Readers of Big Media Vandalism know I am no romantic. I’m a cynic. A cynic is a romantic whose ass has been shredded by life, and life has treated my ass the way White Dog treats Negroes. So, if you’re here looking for something warm and cozy, allow me to retort: My dear, you are Wookin’ Pa Nub in all the wrong places. If, however, you  are interested in showing a good time to a slightly used Odie, call me.

Everybody Hates Chris takes place between 1982 and 1986, the high school years of both its main character and your friendly neighborhood Odienator. Like Chris, I am the oldest child in a family with a popular younger brother and a tattletale sister. We both have parents with similar characteristics: a hard-working Pop and a take no prisoners mother. Chris’ plans and good intentions always went haywire, culminating with him looking at the camera in stunned surprise. My luck was consistent with Chris’, but at least he was on a sitcom. The laugh track was added in hindsight to my memories. Shit wasn’t funny when it was live.

The Chris in Everybody Hates Chris is Chris Rock, executive producer and narrator of the show. Presented as The Wonder Years in the Hood, Rock narrates stories from his adolescence growing up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn. In his stand-up, Rock talks about being one of the only Black kids in his school, a trait that got him in nothing but trouble. This is reflected on the show. The bullies call Chris racially insensitive names and his teachers get all glassy-eyed when they mention his life “in the ghet-TOE.” Life would have been easier for Chris had he done an exchange program trade-off with Howard Stern. Stern’s experiences as the only White kid in a Black school should be a sitcom on BET.

BET eventually got reruns of Everybody Hates Chris, but it originally aired on the dearly-departed You People’s Network. After polluting the airwaves with such questionable cullud fare as Homeboys in Outer Space (still the worst show ever aired), UPN put on a Black sitcom that made fun of racism rather than contributed to it. Is it a surprise that, the year Everybody Hates Chris appeared, UPN blew the fuck up? Intelligent Blackness will do that to a network. Ever wonder why TV shows never have more than one useful Negro on them? Now you know. Smart, relatable Black people = Burnt Up Network Transmitter. I’m surprised The Cosby Show didn’t cause the NBC Peacock to turn into a Kenny Rogers Roaster.

After UPN folded, Everybody Hates Chris wound up on the CW, where it ran three more years before a Sopranos-inspired finale. Of all the sitcoms to appear on TV, network or otherwise, this is the show I’d be on if Poltergeist sucked me into the TV. My teenage years felt like I’d done something to piss de Lawd off; He was burning me in effigy every day up in Heaven. Chris Rock must have felt the same way, as every episode of his show has a title that starts with “Everybody Hates...” from “Everybody Hates The Pilot” to “Everybody Hates the G.E.D.” In each, his onscreen alter-ego walks through life in a state of perpetual haplessness. I identified with him in so many ways.

Everybody Hates Chris follows Chris (Tyler James Williams) through his last two years in junior high and his first two in high school. At Corleone Junior High, he is hated by every kid except Greg (Vincent Martella). Corleone is 99.44% White, and Chris has to take three buses to get there. He gets clobbered on the buses, having to run from the dangers in both his neighborhood and the one surrounding Corleone Junior High. Once at school, Chris has to deal with bully Joey Caruso (Travis Flory). Caruso is huge, the king of the bullies, and enjoys calling Chris anything but his gov’ment name. Depending on mood, Caruso refers to Chris as “Cornbread”, ”Satchmo” and “Kareem.” Any of these monikers is usually followed by a beatdown. Greg tries to help, but is as much an outcast as Chris despite being the right color for popularity at Corleone.

Chris gets no help from his teachers either, a feeling I knew all too well. My sixth grade teacher told my classmates not to play with me because I “couldn’t take a punch.” After three years of getting my ass kicked, I finally snapped, broke a bottle and tried to kill my bully with the shards of glass. But that’s a story for another time. Everybody Hates Chris is a family show, so no one can get cut with anything but narrator Chris Rock’s verbal wit. Chris’ math teacher, and later high school principal, Mrs. Morello, is a racist who is prone to making false statements about Blacks in general and Chris in particular. She’s no help to him with Caruso, and Rock doesn’t miss a chance to counter Morello’s racially insensitive dialogue with commentary from his adult self.  Morello thinks Chris’ father is absent and his mother is a crack ho.

Neither assessment is true. Chris’ father, Julius (Terry Crews) is home every night and his mother, Rochelle (played by Pam from Martin herself, Tichina Arnold), is drug-free. Rochelle is not drama-free, however, and spends a good amount of the show chewing out her kids Chris, Drew (Tequan Richmond) and Tonya (Imani Hakim). If Rochelle had the mouth Chris Rock does in his stand-up, my mother could sue for copyright infringement. Both she and Rochelle are the disciplinarians of the family, and their threats of violence were worse than the occasional ass-beatings they dispensed. My mother’s sayings are well known to my readers—stuff like “I’ma beat the Calhoun Shit out of you,” “I’ll beat you ‘til you shit blue ink,” and my personal favorite: “I’ll stomp a mudhole in your ass!” In one episode, Rochelle threatens to slap Chris into another race, then hits Williams so hard  he turns Asian. I couldn’t breathe from laughing so hard.

Julius’ quirks are also entertaining. He’s cheap as hell, wants to keep Rochelle happy so she won’t take out her anger on him, and like my Pops, is a workaholic. Also like my Pops, he’s always scolding the kids when they piss off Rochelle. “Now I have to put up with her!” he tells them. Julius gets hooked on his “stories” during his sick days off, and lectures the kids for hours as a deterrent whenever they ask him for money. Regarding the stories: Don’t laugh—a lot of bruvas watch the soaps. I loved me some Erica Kane back in the day. Julius is the original coupon master, and like the father from Rock’s stand-up, buys cheap store brands nobody has ever heard of before. (“I didn’t know Lou Rawls made string beans!”)

I have more siblings than the two that appeared on Everybody Hates Chris. But the similarities are still there for me. Drew is everything Chris is not, tall, popular, a  chick magnet, and great at almost everything he does. This is my middle brother to a T, the lothario of my family. Chris’ only sister Tonya is, like my only sister, a tattletale who loves to get her oldest brother in trouble. Being the only girl, she is spoiled by Julius but at odds with Rochelle on numerous occasions. Drew likes to torment her and tries to get her in trouble. Blackmail is not out of the question for either Drew or Tonya. In one episode, they both blackmail each other over something Julius shouldn’t know. I thought of the time my brother tried to blackmail my sister after he accidentally recorded her saying “Michael J. Fox is a dick!” with his tape recorder. I have no idea why she said it, but it was on Memorex. How that turned out is also a story for another time.

The casting director of Everybody Hates Chris wants to bring not only 80’s nostalgia to the show but  Black TV nostalgia  as well. The sitcom is populated with familiar faces, from Ernest Thomas (Roger from What’s Happening) as a shady funeral director to Jackee Harry (Sondra from 227) as the owner of the beauty shop Rochelle frequents. Arnold’s Martin co-conspirator Tisha Campbell appears as the mother of a girl Chris has a crush on (Whoopi Goldberg plays Campbell’s mother). Todd Bridges (the Willis in “Whatchu Talkin’ ‘Bout Willis?”) is a paranoid Vietnam vet full of conspiracy theories. And the owner of the corner store Chris eventually starts working in is played by Huggy Bear. If you don’t know who Huggy Bear is by now, there’s just no telling you. (Don’t you dare cheat by clicking on that link. It might not go where you’re expecting.)

There’s also a character, Risky, who sells things that fall off a truck, and a robber named Jerome who’s always hitting Chris up for money. “Lemme hold a dollar,” is his catchphrase, and he’s always calling Chris “little dude from across the street.” In my ‘hood, Jerome was a crack head who lived next door to us. Jerome breaks into Chris’ apartment in one episode, attempting to steal items he can sell. My Jerome successfully stole our VCR and then had the nerve to try to sell it back to me for 10 dollars. I offered Jerome something better than $10 for my VCR. What that was, and whether it got me back my VCR, is yet another story for another time.

Though Crews and Arnold are seasoned professionals who create two fleshed out, chemistry-laden characters, Everybody Hates Chris belongs to Tyler James Williams. He brings genuine pathos to the show’s humor. You really feel sorry for him, even when he’s being a butthole as in the Everybody Hates Big Bird episode. Everything about the characters feels accurate and just right, from Rochelle’s rocky relationship with her mother (played by the great Loretta Devine) to the sibling dynamics between the three kid actors to Joey Caruso’s bullying tactics. Rock’s narration is never intrusive, and at times saves a scene or the entire show from becoming too sitcom-saccharine. Rock himself appears as a guidance counselor who gives crappy advice to his alter ego, advice that manifests itself in the last episode, Everybody Hates the G.E.D.

Some of my favorite plotlines include:

  • Caruso meeting his match in an Asian guy who Bruce Lees his ass to a pulp. The resulting beatdown costs Caruso his bully self-esteem and throws off the entire high school bully-nerd dynamic. 
  • Julius and Chris losing all the family’s travel money in a three card monte game in Port Authority. The episode showcases a heretofore unknown skill of Rochelle’s, one she learned from her late father (Jimmie Walker in a Dyn-O-Mite cameo). 
  • The Kwanzaa episode, where cheap-ass Julian decides it’s better to celebrate Kwanzaa because it costs less than Christmas.
  • Chris gets in trouble after telling Redd Foxx jokes at school. He learned them after listening to Foxx’s album on the sneak tip. (I have a personal tie to this one, as I can recite every joke from that album.)
  • Rochelle turns out to be The Wicked Witch of the West of tutors. Her berating of Chris is so bad, no wonder he wound up taking the G.E.D.!
  • Drew reveals he’s a terrible singer, but decides to go on Showtime at the Apollo armed with the one thing the finicky Apollo crowd can’t boo: God. Drew’s performance, and the way he features God, had me rolling around on the floor.
That last plotline is in the series finale, Everybody Hates the G.E.D. It ends the same way as The Sopranos’ series finale did, with the family singing Don’t Stop Believing at a restaurant and the screen going black just as something is about to be revealed. For Everybody Hates Chris, it’s the results of Chris’ G.E.D. After having to repeat the 10th grade due to 30 absences, Chris decides to take the G.E.D. so he can get out of school and pursue a career in stand-up. As the envelope containing the grade is opened, the screen goes black. I had the same initial reaction  I did to The Sopranos, but unlike that show, I knew the answer to Everybody Hates Chris’ question. Instead of cursing, I started to laugh. Every show had ended with poor Chris suffering some sort of comic downer that ruined any success he had during the episode. The show couldn’t break that running joke by giving you a happy ending for Chris, so the screen went black.

In reality, we know from Rock’s standup what the results of that G.E.D. exam were. The rest is history, as they say, and so is Everybody Hates Chris. I still watch it from time to time, and it holds up as an amusing show. The writing, by Rock, Ali LeRoi, Alyson Fouse and sitcom vets like Don Reo is always first-rate and true to the characters. It’s the youngest show on Nick at Nite and probably the most award-nominated show to ever spring from the ashes of UPN.

Like Rock, as an adult I eventually learned that adolescence only felt like Everybody Hates Odie. It was just mostly everybody.

Your homework assignment:

Think about high school and see if you overreacted about how bad it was.


J. John Aquino said...

Great post about this underappreciated show. Thanks to cable, Everybody Hates Chris is more popular now than when it first aired on UPN/The CW/The WC.

Besides the aforementioned "She slapped me so hard I changed nationalities" sight gag, my favorite Everybody Hates Chris moments include:

- the awesome Prince costume put together by Rochelle for Chris during Halloween and the fantasy sequence where he lip-synchs Rick James' "Ebony Eyes" to a girl he's dancing with in the same episode (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90M94btXPYU)
- Julius turning into a stammering and nervous dork every time he's around Rochelle's hot best friend/neighbor (that's a dorky side of Terry Crews we don't see, other than when he unashamedly sang along to Vanessa Carlton's "A Thousand Miles" in the car in White Chicks)
- Rochelle's final line in "Everybody Hates the Babysitter": "I'ma kick her ass. Hold my weave."
- when Chris briefly dabbles in junior high basketball despite sucking at it and he wins some female fans, including a wannabe groupie who carries around a sign that says "Try a white girl"
- any peek into racist Ms. Morello's personal life (four words: "She's got jungle fever…")
- Tonya's inexplicable obsession with Billy Ocean

odienator said...

Jimmy, how could I forget the Prince outfit?!! That's a great episode!

You have some memorable choices too. And Ms. Morello was way too concerned about Chris' Blackness, so I knew she was gonna wind up having Jungle Fever! When you're that wound up about something, it usually means you want it!