Imagine for a moment a television sitcom about an all-white radio station that hires a new disc jockey, sight unseen.
When the deejay shows up for work, the station's staff is stunned to discover that the new employee is black."I can't believe it. I hired a black man," says the white female station owner.
"Sounds like a horror movie," says the white sales manager.
Later in the half hour, the white station owner explains her objections to hiring a black man: "I don't have anything against him. There are a lot of black stations out there. Let him work at one of them."
And when a white advertiser drops by the station, the mortified owner quickly locks the black deejay in a closet to keep him out of sight.
This is the sort of outrageous bigotry that would never appear on network television in 1992, right?
Take the above descriptions and turn them around. Make it an all-black station that inadvertently hires a white deejay, and you've got NBC's "Rhythm & Blues," which premieres tonight at 7:30 p.m. on Ch. 2.
Apparently, while white bigotry is socially unacceptable on network television, black bigotry isn't such a problem.
The executive producer and stars of "Rhythm & Blues" see absolutely nothing wrong with using reverse racism as the stuff of comedy.
"I think that's what makes the show interesting," said executive producer Jordan Moffet, who is white. "I mean, you're turning it on its ear. There are so many sitcoms that have had one black in a sea of white. . . . I mean, it's actually done a lot."
Of course, the difference is that when there is one black character in the midst of an otherwise all-white cast, that black character is invariably treated with sensitivity and respect. He's not made the butt of racial jokes.
Even Moffet acknowledges that a black character would never be treated the way the white Bobby Soul (comedian Roger Kabler) is treated on "Rhythm & Blues."
"You could never do this show flipping it around. It would be offensive," he said. "And I think what makes it is . . . looking at it from the other point of view and seeing how things change and hopefully will be an honest look at racial relations in the '90s."
All of which sounds very high-minded and altruistic, but we're talking about a situation comedy here. Despite all the high-blown rhetoric, tonight's pilot is played strictly for laughs - laughs based on bigotry and insensitivity.
Anna Maria Horsford, who spent five years on "Amen" and stars as the station owner in "Rhythm & Blues," compared the blatant bigotry on the new show to white bigotry she's seen on other shows.
"Well, I tell you, I turn on the TV and see a white man spitting on a black man and saying, `Nigger,' " she said.
When it was pointed out that scenes like that are not played as comedy, Horsford said, "Well, comedy or drama. If we're going to talk about that, I don't consider that entertainment either, because it's very painful to me. And, you know, it's supposedly sensitive and this and that, and going, `whose feelings we're trying to hurt or mend.' "
While it seems hard to believe that Horsford could actually compare a drama in which bigotry is portrayed as evil and a comedy in which bigotry is played for laughs, she did just that again. She inaccurately compared the scene in which she locks Kabler in the closet to a scene on ABC's "Homefront" last season in which a black man was locked in a storage room at a factory by a pair of his white co-workers.
"They did it on `Homefront.' They put that boy in a refrigerator and left him there the entire hour," she said. "I was totally offended because I said he's going to die. I was. And nobody . . . I mean, it was OK because he came back next week."
What Horsford failed to realize is that "Homefront" sequence pointed out just how terrible bigotry is. And nobody laughed.
Actually, there is concern in the black community about "Rhythm & Blues" as well. The pilot makes it appear that this white deejay is going to come in and save a struggling black radio station.
"I think that's the concern of a lot of black people in radio, saying, `Is this the Great White Hope, and that's not it. It's not going to be it," Horsford said.
And Moffet is quick to assure, "My feeling is that it's not about him saving the station. It's really about the station saving him. . . . It's really about a fish out of water."
The point is that it's offensive to see bigotry played for laughs on television, whether it's anti-black or anti-white. Humor like this has no place in our society, let alone on a major broadcast network.