The PJs was an animated television sitcom series that unfortunately ran for only three seasons, from 1999 to 2001. Shockingly by today’s standards, the series focused on lampooning inner-city blacks, depicting them as buffoons in a way that would only be acceptable today if the subjects were white. It was not so long ago that humor which today would ruin the careers of everyone involved was popular with both audiences and critics.
It should be emphasized that this was largely a matter of blacks mocking their own people; two of the show’s three creators were black — Eddie Murphy and Larry Wilmore — as were almost all of the voice actors. Perhaps this made the show’s “racist stereotypes” more palatable, but in any case, they were able to address issues that are not openly discussed today outside of the Dissident Right.
These people were not “canceled”; they continued to be two of the most successful black comedians. Larry Wilmore went on to work on John Stewart’s Daily Show from 2006 to 2014 as the “senior black correspondent,” wrote for The Office, and was the creator of The Bernie Mac Show. He hosted The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore on Comedy Central, and currently hosts another late-night talk show called Wilmore on a new streaming service. Eddie Murphy has since starred in too many movies to name, but just won an Emmy Award this year for hosting Saturday Night Live, and is starring in a sequel to his 1988 film Coming to America, to be released in December.
The show takes its name from the fictional Hilton Jacobs project(s), a Chicago ghetto based on the real-world Cabrini-Green public housing project. The main protagonist is Thurgood Stubbs (Eddie Murphy and Phil Morris), the superintendent of his building, who is usually referred to as “Super.” Thurgood is a colorful character with a good sense of humor, but absurdly ignorant. At one point he misspells the name of local boy Calvin as “Clavin,” and when his error is pointed out, he repeats to himself, “A before L except after C,” as if he has absorbed a false spelling rule from his limited public school education. His building’s tenants consider him incompetent, but he generally has an inflated view of himself.
The paranoia of blacks towards the government is another target of fun. Thurgood puts the moon landing on the same level of credibility as the legend of Paul Bunyan. When a black van suddenly drives up and addresses the ghetto denizens through a loudspeaker, offering them free flu shots, Thurgood stops them, warning that “the government uses the projects to test all kind of poisons — syphilis, crack, the McChittlins.” Although his wife tries to argue that the government can be trusted, he does not give up, explaining, “flu — F-L-U. Fool — F-U-L. Coincidence? I don’t think so!”
However, Thurgood’s fears are not entirely unfounded. As the van drives off in frustration, the loudspeaker declares, “alright, we’ll just find another way to get your DNA.”
The show does not shy away from one of the most embarrassing facts about blacks — their propensity for crime. An elderly retired con artist known as Mrs. Avery seems to be perpetually hostile to every other resident of the building, often brandishing a loaded shotgun and sometimes firing it. She never manages to kill anyone, but not for lack of will. The other residents form an angry mob with obvious violent intent more than once.
Along with violence, theft is another common theme. In one episode, Thurgood discovers a penthouse owned by the eponymous late builder of the Hilton Jacobs projects. He announces to the assembled residents that his will simply leaves his possessions to whoever finds it first, and Mrs. Avery responds with “it’s a lootenanny!” This is apparently a black custom with which everyone is familiar, because they immediately begin seizing Mr. Jacobs’ possessions. Thurgood himself admits to trading 40 pairs of stolen sneakers for a television which local crack addict Smokey had stolen during the 1992 riots.
Another subject of humor is obesity, which is far more common among blacks than whites. Both Thurgood and his wife Muriel are far from fit, but more importantly, there is a young boy named Juicy Hudson who is expected to wear a “do not feed” sign around his neck when he leaves the house. His parents are so fat that they normally do not leave the apartment, with his father weighing over 1,000 pounds. Papa Hudson is so fat that we normally do not see his face, only his enormous torso and flabby arm which he waves out the window or door when speaking.
One of the most intelligent characters on the show is a crack addict named Elister, commonly known as Smokey. Despite having strange delusions, tremors, and memory lapses presumably caused by his drug habit, we learn in one episode that he is actually more educated than Thurgood. He graduated from high school, and as he puts it, he was “highest in his class.” Smokey thus serves as Thurgood’s tutor in an episode where the latter is studying for his GED, and has a larger vocabulary than many other characters.
Smokey’s unexpected intelligence should not necessarily be taken as a serious statement that homeless drug addicts are a good source of knowledge. It could just as well be taken as a parody of such beliefs. This educated crack addict could be a reference to the ethnonarcissism of many blacks; from hearing the rhetoric of black activists, one might think they believe that even the lowest of their race are fit to educate others.
The same could be said for Juicy, who displays inexplicable skill in car repair and gourmet cooking despite being otherwise slow-witted. He is able to identify every ingredient in a stew simply by tasting it, and somehow manages to come up with sentences like “I think you’ll find it insouciant without being recherche.” How does a 10-year-old whose main focus in life is eating know such words? It comes across as a satire of narcissistic fantasies, similar to the grandiose self-image expressed by characters such as Thurgood or Mambo Garcelle.
Garcelle, commonly known as “Haiti lady,” serves to lampoon the superstition common among Africans. A voodoo priestess from the Caribbean, she often claims to have great magical powers. When her toilet is clogged because she has flushed a goat’s head down it, she offers to remedy the situation by sacrificing a rooster, but Thurgood fails to appreciate her folk wisdom. At one point she warns Thurgood that a storm is coming, and he mocks her — “let me guess, you crawled out of your hole and saw your shadow?” She rejects this as “superstition,” explaining that she prefers “science.” Throwing chicken entrails onto the door, she reads a prediction of the weather, and Thurgood stops her from continuing with a traffic forecast based on monkey brains. In another episode she curses Thurgood, vowing that everything he touches will wither and die. The other project residents take the curse seriously, with his wife Muriel even wearing garlic and horseshoes to bed to protect herself.
The show even mocks blacks’ desire for public recognition, regardless of what form the recognition takes. When a group of the project residents learns of a coming snowstorm named El Negro, Super triumphantly exclaims “alright, they finally named one after us!” The radio announcer explains that the storm will break records for destructiveness, and far from being embarrassed by being associated with such a thing, they respond with “go, storm!”
Blacks’ tendency to give their children bizarre names is mocked in the character of the “HUD lady,” a receptionist at the office of Housing and Urban Development who is notoriously unhelpful. The HUD lady has a son named Chevron and a daughter by the name of Lasagna. The latter has children of her own with even more absurd monikers, mostly brand names: Rwanda, Dorito, Rolex, Nutragena, Teflon, DKNY, Lexus, Dyslexus, Dentyne, and Absorbine Jr.
The impoverished speech of the ghetto is also not beyond mockery. One colorful character by the name of Tarnell usually speaks in obscure slang which even other blacks cannot understand. Thurgood has a similar problem with a black door guard in an upper-class neighborhood who is expected by his employer to avoid “jive-talking,” but does so regardless. Smokey at one point encounters another crack addict who seems to be babbling unintelligibly, but explains that “I speak crack,” and manages to communicate with him in the same gibbering argot, translating it into standard English for Thurgood’s benefit.
Another episode focuses on Sharique, the black daughter of crooked stockbrokers who were imprisoned for financial crimes. Now homeless, she has taken shelter in Thurgood’s building after having wandered into “the hood,” inspired by her late grandmother’s tales of the colorful life there. She speaks in proper English which is so foreign to the ghetto that Thurgood initially thinks she has a British accent. A strange teenage girl suddenly appearing in their building attracts negative attention from the HUD authorities, so Thurgood, Juicy, and Calvin collaborate to give her lessons on speaking in a blacker manner, hoping that they can pass her off as Thurgood’s daughter. Soon she learns how to authentically pronounce key illiterate phrases such as “da mack on crack is sho’ ‘nuff whack.”
There is an interesting statement on the confused ethnic identity of modern people in the character of Jimmy Ho. Jimmy is married to a black woman and often claims he is black, believing that his absent father was a black American soldier in the Korean War, but Thurgood insists he is Korean. In one episode he has genetic testing done which concludes that on his father’s side he is part Chinese and part Native American. He decides to identify with his Indian side since, like being black, this allows him to consider himself a victim of The Man.
Jimmy starts a casino, which is patronized by his neighbors and naturally leads to them losing what to them is a great deal of money. They are soon unable to pay their rent, and Thurgood asks him to give up this predatory source of income. But the wannabe brave rejects his pleas, complaining that “once the red man finally gets a leg up, you try to take it all away!” Upon finding that they have started cheating to regain their lost funds, he declares that this is a repetition of his people’s historical victimization — “the trusting Indian welcomes you into his home, gives you nourishment, smokes the peace pipe with you in his celebrity cigar lounge, and you break the treaty!”
While sitting in his makeshift sweat lodge afterward, Jimmy has a vision of Peter Minuit, a Belgian North American colonist who supposedly bought Manhattan Island from the local Indians for “$24 worth of trinkets.” Mr. Minuit explains that though the two of them are ethnically distinct, he is Jimmy’s spiritual ancestor; they share the same plundering spirit. Jimmy finally feels ashamed of his endeavor and shuts down the casino, returning his neighbors’ money and property. He declares that he no longer belongs in the projects, being neither black nor truly Indian. But Mrs. Avery insists that he is part of their “tribe — the Hilton Jacobs.”
The PJs is a clear example of how absurd and capricious the contemporary rules of political correctness around blacks are. Creator Larry Wilmore suggested that some character types condemned as “stereotypes” are simply “taken from real life,” and racially conscious whites would surely agree. While some activists complained of the series being “hateful toward black people,” audiences loved it. Blacks themselves were not only willing participants but largely in charge of it. Today we are expected to be offended at such content, but one wonders how many people honestly are. Hopefully, within our lifetimes it will again become uncontroversial to make such observations, both in comedy and in a more serious context.
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