Why ABC's African-American 'Uncle Buck' pilot shouldn't be titled 'Uncle Buck'
At this moment, in the world of TV comedy, nobody is doing diversity better than ABC.
"Fresh Off The Boat" is one of the best new comedies of the spring, maintaining its creative momentum from a strong pilot and generating a consistently solid audience in a time period that has caused ABC nothing but trouble in recent years.
"Black-ish" was one of the fall's better new comedies and after the usual out-of-the-blocks maturation, it has become reliably smart and perceptive, doing a reasonably good job of holding onto that fickle "Modern Family" audience.
I didn't have any use for "Cristela," but people I respect have been aggressively and demonstrably on-board for it since Day 1.
ABC also has comedies celebrating families from The Heartland ("The Middle"), conservatives ("Last Man Standing"), secular Jews ("The Goldbergs"), intimacy-free gay marriage ("Modern Family") and wealthy snobs in the Hamptons ("Revenge").
As much as I've hated a certain subset of the ABC comedy brand – a subset that has recently included "Work It," "Mixology" and "Manhattan Love Story," – I have only the highest respect for the diverse family comedy brand that ABC is building.
That's why it's important to get out ahead of the game on this one: ABC is doing a new comedy pilot based on the John Hughes film "Uncle Buck." Sure. Why not? Everybody's adapting movies as TV pilots and "Uncle Buck" is neither the movie property most deserving of a TV version this spring, nor the movie property least deserving of a TV version of this spring. [Give me 10 “Uncle Buck” shows before I need a “Marley & Me.”] And I fully endorse that ABC's instinct is to do this pilot with an African-American cast led by Mike Epps and Nia Long.
So it's here that I have to address a statement to ABC, a question I already asked on Twitter: You know your African-American-centric "Uncle Buck" can’t be called "Uncle Buck," right? Or maybe I should rephrase that and say that you know your African-American-centric "Uncle Buck" shouldn't be called "Uncle Buck," right?
I worry that I may need to spell this out for ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee, who deserves much credit for the aforementioned diverse ABC comedy brand and also turning Thursday nights over to Shonda Rhimes and, starting this week, John Ridley. But just as Paul Lee attributed his amusement at "Work It" to his Britishness, I wonder if he has a clear sense of the history of the word "buck" as a racial slur. Actually, seeing the confusion on my Twitter feed earlier -- not much confusion, but some confusion -- I'd guess that most people don't know the history of the word "buck" as a racial slur.
The term came into use in the post-Reconstruction South and it was applied as a caricature of African-American men who were long on strength, short on intelligence and possessed of a sexual appetite usually involving white women. You scan representations of the "black buck" and you're going to find a lot of white actors in blackface and you're going to find a lot of references to the character of Gus from D.W. Griffith's repugnant cinematic landmark "Birth of a Nation." In "Birth of a Nation," Gus is the horrifyingly stereotyped "freedman" who announces that his new rights involve running off with the innocent Flora. Gus is lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in an action that the film’s cinematic grammar presents as heroic.
If you look at the terms typically associated with "buck" in the pantheon of post-Civil War slurs, you'd get things like coon, tom, pickaninny, mammy, sambo, jigaboo, buckwheat and the word that polite society has dubbed "The N-Word." In short, you'd get a selection of words that you'd never put in the title of your African-American comedy.
[As an added bonus, "buck" is also well-established as a slur against Native American males, so you're getting two pejoratives for the price of one, when what you want is "none."]
Much to our societal credit, both the slur "buck" and the stereotype of the "black buck" have become either erased or, sadly, institutionalized enough into our culture that more than a few people either don't know the word, don't know its origins or accept that theoretically the term has been reappropriated through hip-hop, where David Brown has been successful under the name Young Buck, a nickname that allegedly stems from his youthful notoriety as a drug-pushing, money-earning prodigy. [Negro Leagues baseball legend Walter "Buck" Leonard got his nickname from a brother who mispronounced another nickname, "Buddy."]
ABC wants to capitalize on the "Uncle Buck" brand name and I guess that's fine. "Uncle Buck" was one of the Top 20 movies at the box office in 1989, but despite the immediate proximity to the theatrical release, a 1990 CBS sitcom based on "Uncle Buck" aired only 16 episodes and was cancelled. Maybe, you might say, that name had value then, but it also had close ties to both the movie and to John Candy, and that Kevin Meaney was no substitute. Maybe 25 years have built up nostalgia for the brand. Maybe ABC reckons that it'll simultaneously be able to capitalize on the brand while boosting a star who absolutely nobody would compare to John Candy.
And maybe nobody at ABC is especially worried that by changing the property's racial dynamic, they network has also -- entirely innocently -- turned the title into a racial slur.
It is a racial slur, however outmoded. And if ABC actually orders "Uncle Buck" to series -- it's still just a pilot, remember -- and goes to air with the title "Uncle Buck," ABC is basically saying "The brand is worth more to us than 150 years of often horrifying racial connotations that we hope people don't know about."
And I could probably accept that, except that as we've established, ABC has a great recent history of diverse comedies and an questionable recent history of titles for its diverse comedies. I get the thought process behind both "Black-ish" and "Fresh Off the Boat" as titles, but I also think that both shows have succeeded despite the titles, not because of the titles. And, in both cases, the shows have been an active commentary on the racial dynamics in the title. If ABC wants to tell me that the new African-American "Uncle Buck" is going to be commenting on newly strained connection between title and race, I guess I can cross my fingers and be hopeful. Nobody associated with the show has any track record that suggests a likelihood of that kind of commentary, but what do I know?
[Sepinwall informed me about a "Captain America" arc in the '80s in which there's a replacement Cap and a replacement Bucky, who happens to be African-American. New Bucky has to be told why he shouldn't call himself that, so he goes with Battlestar. Check out this panel. It's awesome. ABC's "Uncle Buck" has my permission to take the name "Battlestar."]
But here's how I look at it: If ABC's "Uncle Buck" follows the framework of the Hughes movie, it will be about a loud, childlike man with boisterous appetites and no sense of responsibility who has no business being a parent, setting up hilarious hijinks, now with an African-American lead. And if you'd made comedy with that set-up in 1875 and took it on the road through the Deep South, you know what that show would have been called? "Uncle Buck."
This is just a pilot and nobody has filmed a single second. So let's get out ahead of the curve on this one, ABC! If you like the premise of "Uncle Buck"? Thumbs up! Mike Epps? Thumbs up! How about... "Uncle Mike."
That was easy. This isn't PC. This is simple: Why stumble into a racial slur if you don't need to stumble into a racial slur?