Does CBS' Rob and 2 Broke Girls prove stereotypes are back in primetime, long as you're not black?
The first thing Rob Schneider's character says upon meeting his new Mexican-American wife's relatives in the CBS comedy Rob:
"This is a big family. Now I know what's going on during all those siestas."
Later, he tries to bond with his new father-in-law by telling him he loves Mexican culture, especially the guacamole dip they are eating. And then the father-in-law, played by comic Cheech Marin, tells Rob his chain of car washes employs so many illegal immigrants, among a crowd of 100 employees "they have, like, three Social Security numbers."
This is the new comedy frontier CBS is mining on Rob, which debuts tonight on CBS; a land where ethnic jokes seem to be okay, as long as they are not aimed at African Americans.
"I feel like I'm at a Julio Iglesias concert or something," Schneider's character later tells his new wife, who he married after six weeks of courtship. Later in the show, he will be caught in his underwear grinding against her grandmother in one of those bursts of physical absurdity only sitcoms can produce.
And this is TV comedy in the 21st Century?
Michael Patrick King, co-creator and executive producer of CBS' hit 2 Broke Girls, should be basking in the success of a new comedy which has surpassed most ratings expectations and won a People's Choice award as Best New Comedy.
Instead, he spent much of a press conference on Wednesday defensively insisting that the Asian diner owner on his show isn't a stereotype -- despite jokes which sometimes hing on the character's poor grasp of English or stunted social skills.
"I like the fact that in the last three episodes, we haven't made an Asian joke...we've only made short jokes," said King, who had previously noted "every character when it is born is a stereotype." Later, he would say "I find it comic to take everybody down. That's what we're doing."
King seemed to raise the anger of TV critics at the press conference by denying any problem and sidestepping questions, something he also did as executive producer of Sex and the City, when people wondered why there was no ethnic diversity on that Manhattan-set show.
The truth is, there's a fine line between jokes about culture difference and stereotypes, but the crass humor filling Rob and 2 Broke Girls is easy to see.
It is a bit astounding, that even in 2012, critics must explain why it is worse to offer jokes echoing damaging stereotypes about people of color than to make the occasional blondes-are-dumb wisecrack. But when a producer as powerful and experienced as King compares the two, sometimes you have no choice.
At a time when network TV outlets are trying hard to decide how to meet the challenge of an increasingly diverse audience, does it really make sense to offer a new sitcom where the lead character's new brother-in-law is an illegal alien trying to trick him out of $7,200?
It seems TV networks are so wary of controversy, the rarely cast African Americans -- the only new show this season starring a black character, ABC's Kerry Washington show Scandal, debuts April 5 -- so the load of stereotypical humor has fallen on Asians and Latinos.
But when will producers learn? It doesn't matter who the stereotype is aimed at; the damage remains the same.