Let’s talk about chicken and waffles.
When, in the intro to Disney’s The Proud Family, Oscar begins to chow down on a plate of chicken and waffles, I cried fowl. It’s impossible to not point out how this show came out along side Kim Possible in 2002. These two shows had different core premises, but ultimately focused on two young teen girls in a family that seemed oppressive but loveable. Kim, of course, had access to everything, enjoying a sense of privilege that Penny Proud did not. It’s wholly tempting to suggest that Disney, which always has its pulse on the attitudes of the nation’s youth, foreshadowed the cultural divide that took shape in early 2000 and created two similar but distinct shows to explicitly exploit the two different groups. Kim Possible enjoyed the top tier of talent, from animation and staff, while The Proud Family got the short stick, the BET-ening of Disney love and attention. So seeing Oscar chowing down on chicken and waffles seemed like Disney gearing its urban demo in the worst, most racially insensitive way, all on the cheap.
But then I watched a number of episodes. And I got to thinking about TV, about the golden age of TV and about the new, emerging interest in TV history and engaging in the past stable of television shows. Renewed interest in television’s past is a wonderful thing, but there’s a dearth on interest in what we’d probably would call black TV shows – shows with predominantly black casts. There’s a couple of things out there about The Jeffersons (which tends to be lumped into the Norman Lear opus, since it was a spin-off of All in the Family), but everything else is ignored or cast aside, like Roc or Living Single. Early goodwill about comedians Martin Lawrence, Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx ultimately became contempt, and their FOX/UPN shows didn’t help matters. Everyone Loves Chris, The Bernie Mac Show, and My Wife and Kids were critically great, but now its as if those shows never existed. And look what happened to The Cleveland Show. Are you surprised that finding all the episodes of The Proud Family is nigh impossible?
And so I looked at the chicken and waffles. Specifically, I looked at the scene that contains the chicken and waffles. Oscar is about to chow down on that plate of chicken and waffles as the theme song plays. Penny distracts him. As Oscar looks away, Penny gobbles up the chicken and waffles in a goofy, cartoony way. Oscar glares are her daughter. Penny returns a sheepish, “did I do that?” look of affection. It’s a scene that has been done to death millions upon millions of times in cartoons since the silent era. Here, they just happen to use chicken and waffles. And then I realize the show is trying to be “…funny.”
The Proud Family isn’t funny. But it’s not racist. At least, it’s not trying to be. It’s trying to be “…funny,” which is probably best explained as being comical in its own terms: in this case, through a specific, culturally black worldview. If we were to think about the most resonate black shows in the public conscious right now – The Chappelle Show, followed by The Boondocks (Key and Peele is getting there, but not quite there yet) – we could argue their success is couched in a direct engagement with the race issues they satire. They confronted race head on, which both critics and audiences loved; yet, oddly enough, not Dave (and, if the rumors are to be believed, nor Aaron McGruder). These shows had to punch audiences in the face with context, and still people didn’t get it, which caused Dave to leave the show and The Boondocks to remain an Adult Swim oddity.
All of this raises a question: can a black show stand on its own without being some sort of scathing satire? The Jeffersons, perhaps, but that was some thirty years ago, in an era of change and conflict. The Cosby Show? That’s an interesting case. Bill Cosby made it perfectly clear he wanted to make a show depicting a successful black family, which aggressively kept it in a upper-class position and distinctly kept itself at arms length away from ideas and concepts within middle or lower-class black communities. Maybe The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air? It’s depth and power has been overshadowed by its meme-ification and post-contempt of Will Smith (yet another black comedian pushed to the edges – although I will agree that a lot of this was spurred on my himself). Regardless, this show has been removed from the critical conversation as well. [Note: recently, it has been slowly propped up more and more, as a number of black people confided in me how this show helped them to confront their blackness in a world surrounded by whiteness, balancing a dangerous side of urban culture – the world where Smith’s character comes from – and the upper crust society in which he’s thrown into. The interplay and intersections of both worlds, of white and black, of upper and lower class, and the conflicts they create, may truly be something that is worth exploring in this show. That’s an issue to explore later.]
Fresh Prince might be the most analogous show to The Proud Family – as the Fresh Prince engages in its sitcom tropes, retooled to work in its more black social aspects, so too does The Proud Family engage (or more accurately, tries to engage) in its animation and cartoon tropes, as taken through a black lens. So it’s probably best to think of The Proud Family as Bebe Kids: The Show. It’s not racist, but it is racial – and the show exhibits a confidence in being both animated and black, despite the quality of the show being extremely lackluster. The Proud Family knows what it wants to do, and that kind of confidence is ambitious and admirable, even though the execution is questionable. Which goes to explain the chicken and waffles scene in a nutshell: a typical scene that has been done over and over again, retooled to fit in a black paradigm, which fails in the long run, but rather bold in its initial attempt.
It took me a while to note the connection between both Bebe’s Kids and The Proud Family – after all, Bruce W. Smith was the head man in charge of them both. Bruce Smith is a capable animator, but I’m not sure I could quite categorize him as a capable director. Bebe’s Kids pulls a lot of strings to stretch out the late Robin Harris’ comedy routine about four mischievous kids from a mysterious, notorious figure named Bebe. The hidden theme about neglect and lack of role models in Harris’ routine seems lost to the film, save for an ending that emphasizes Harris’s transformation instead of the kids’ comprehension of the truth of their situation (yet another black issue misconstrued by cultural and executive forces at large). As a result, Bebe’s Kids is random and wild, stretching out the film with inane love stories and unearned musical cues. In other words, the perfect precursor to The Proud Family.
Here’s the thing: there is a distinct difference between a show knowing what it wants to be, and a show knowing what it wants to be about. The latter point is about the premise; the former is about the approach, tone, and execution. Smith, both in Bebe’s Kids and The Proud Family, know what he wants his works to be about, but struggles mightily to explain what he wants his works to be. Like, do you want to do something that’s really just a slightly-exaggerated vision of realistic characters, somewhat like Recess, Hey Arnold, or Rugrats? Do you want something slightly over-the-top and with an snappy edge, like Powerpuff Girls or Gravity Falls? Or maybe you’re looking for something loose and free enough to really be wacky, emphasizing physicality and meta, self-aware comedy, akin to Phineas and Ferb or the Grim Adventures of Billy and Mandy? Neither Bebe’s Kids nor The Proud Family knows, so they both take a personal approach, grabbing an assortment of everything and ultimately doing it’s own thing in a “throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” manner. It’s an admirable idea, but it’s also a wildly flawed approach.
It’s hard to fully describe what I mean. The Proud Family just wiggles itself into its own niche and direction, seemingly unfettered by any Disney notes to broaden itself. It wallows in its black trappings with a smile on its face. It embraces its “sassiness,” enjoying its urban style of dialogue and black, witty references, rarely loosening itself up for younger audiences. When a character says, “Look, JJ, the good times are over,” I chuckle, more surprised that the show was allowed to let a joke like that go. Likewise, when an effeminate character named Michael dresses up like Luther Vandross for Halloween, but is quick to mention he’s dressed like “skinny Luther,” I laugh, not only at the joke itself but the gall to spout a gag like that, in 2002 no less. Sometimes, that snappiness can reach some inspired moments, such as letting guest star Kobe Bryant speak fluent Italian, since he grew up there. No show, animated or live-action, would engage in that.
Yet, those kinds of references (among other issues I will get to shortly) make it hard to really advocate for The Proud Family. If my sources are correct, Disney was more or less letting Smith and his team do their own thing – a creator-driven approach – which isn’t necessarily a good idea if the creator is too scatterbrained to focus on one, single direction. Let’s look at the pilot, “Bring it On,” where Penny Proud first meets her new neighbors and oncoming antagonist, Lacienega Boulevardez. Already we have to slow the fuck down. I mean, we have a character here named after a major road in Los Angeles, which seems like the kind of joke that might have been tossed around early in pre-production, but the fact that they kept it in the show is bizarre. But here we are, introducing the new kid as a stuck up, self-centered, manipulative jerk, the perfect conflict for Penny to go up against.
The pilot, in its own, insular way, defines the kind of show we’re watching, which, again, revels in its own comedy, its own worldview and approach, completely indifferent to its audience. There’s a scene where Lacienega sniffs the air in Proud’s kitchen, asking aloud, “What’s that wonderful smell?” To which Penny replies, coldly, “Chitlins.” Okay, we need to slow the fuck down here again. First, how many people (kids) even know what chitlins are? Second, a black middle-upper class family (who frequently mention that they’re Republicans, which opens up so many bizarre observations and commentaries that it’s worthy of its own separate essay) making chitlins for dinner is highly unlikely, so it’s the kind of joke that’s less character-based, and more social-based, because it would be funny if “that smell” was “chitlins,” cause “chitlins” is a funny black word, right? Thirdly, chitlins don’t really have a smell, so Lacienega shouldn’t be smelling anything! See? Like, if that chicken and waffles opening scene was confusing, perhaps the chitlins joke would give it more context?
The show dives into gags like that with nary a concern. It doesn’t bother to ease its audience into its worldview, its approach, its references. Which, to be fair, is something that many critics and audiences want more studios to do – let creators do their own thing. However – would this approach be appreciated and acknowledged by the critical and/or the mainstream media at large? Like, could a black showrunner create a “black show” of its own design, sans explicit satire, and hope to appear in any critic’s or lay person’s top twenty favorite TV shows?
This is why I find The Proud Family more fascinating as an idea than the actual show itself. In watching it, it’s clear that, while the show was given carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, it wasn’t under Disney’s Eye of Mordor. The Proud Family wouldn’t have been allowed to reference Marion Barry, the Washington DC mayor arrested for illicit sexual behavior. And it wouldn’t have allowed for the really sloppy, tonally random episode “A Hero For Halloween.” It starts off well enough, with Penny giving up on Halloween because she believes she’s too old for it. Then it gets wildly off-track when a ghost arrives to repossess the Proud house, and somehow Penny gets superpowers and fights him off, which causes Penny to realize she… isn’t too old for Halloween? The episode doesn’t connect these two threads at all:
(Oh, and that animation. Not every episode is as stiff and listless as that – I mean, look at those walk cycles! – but this gets into the budgetary constraints I alluded to earlier. The sound design, in particular, is atrocious. While the clip above sounds terrible due to the Youtube copy, Luis’ laugh has been an auditory sore point in the entire run. It’s clearly a different voice, but it’s so goddamn loud and scratchy and completely unconnected to the final mix, and they don’t actually fix this until late into season three. It’s clear that the show isn’t working with the same resources as Kim Possible.)
This actually happens again in “Camping Trip,” where the kids (consisting of Penny, Dijoney, Zoey, and Lacienega, who is suddenly hanging out with them because…?) complain excessively while on a camping trip. Suddenly, there’s a disaster, which basically turns into an Oscar and Felix (those names though) cartoon, the two falling into wacky shenanigans while searching for help and food – which include being fed by a pterodactyl. By the end of the episode, the kids learn to appreciate nature, but they didn’t earn that appreciation. Or take “Adventures in Babysitting,” where Dijoney tricks Penny into babysitting her siblings (all named after spices, seasonings, and condiments, because black names are funny I guess). The lesson Penny learns is while she can’t trust Dijoney, she can still be her best friend, which is the most absurd, tonally-off kids lesson in the entire world, to the point that it’s almost like a parody or subversion of such lessons.
And yet… there’s a sad truth to it. I have to admit that my mom has “friends” that she hangs out with, yet you couldn’t trust with your life. There’s a certain lower-class social paradigm that The Proud Family gets, whether getting the tone of a Soul Train show right (called Hip-Hop Helicopter) or overplaying a post-Michael-Jordon-like hold on corporate enterprises (Wizard Kelly, voiced by a consistently-underused Aries Spiers). There’s an episode where Sticky joins a gang of singers called The Altos, which is ridiculous but comes from a understandable place – Sticky’s parents are divorcing. The show doesn’t delve deeply into the struggle of young people from complex homes who fall into dangerous crowds, but it understands that, which is something you wouldn’t see in animation, really.
To be fair, the characters at an individual level work, but their interplay rarely do. Sugar Mama’s sassiness is funny although it’s odd that she hates Oscar so much and prefers his brother, Bobby, who is basically the show’s best character, the epitome of 70s funk music. The mother, Trudy, starts off as the put-upon nag, but later on she breaks out and becomes an aggressive, take-no-bullshit female (too bad her voice actress can’t really handle the change all too well). Sticky seems to be some kind of nerd/inventor, but they don’t make him into a social outcast with a whiny voice (but they also don’t commit to his inventor side, which is weird but on par with the show). In fact, The Proud Family’s approach to nerd characters is wildly refreshing. When a rumor implies that Penny is dating a nerd character named Myron, Myron doesn’t shell up or grow uncomfortably obsessive over her. He becomes a miniature pimp, a confident little lady’s man. I want desperately to watch “Who You Callin’ a Sissy,” where Michael, who’s always been portrayed effeminate, tries to be more manly. I’m wildly curious how the show would approach the idea of black men not fitting the tough-guy role. Sadly, this episode is impossible to find.
As of finishing this, only five episodes are accessible on Youtube, four of which are on the official Disney Youtube channel (the least offensive ones, of course). If possible, though, at least try to get your hands on The Proud Family movie, which represents everything great and terrible about this show. It has its references (Bessie Coleman!) and its commitments to loving your family, but it also struggles with its wackier plot involving a peanut-controlling, clone-creating mad scientist named Dr. Marcus Garvey Carver (of course, everyone gets the George Washington Carver reference but miss the Marcus Garvey one). The film, like the show, bounces wildly all over the place, never able to focus on one single theme or narrative thread. (A random dance-off with a few peanut clones exemplifies this – since black people love dance-offs? – but the show makes fun of this, yet doesn’t? So frustrating!)
That’s just it, though: Bruce Smith, through both the movie and the entire show, uses its black tropes (like dance-offs) to subvert, even break, animation cliches; unfortunately, both lacks cohesion and focus to make those broken cliches significant or meaningful in anyway. It fails to be self-aware of its narrative manipulations, taking its subversions in stride, which makes everything seem like a random mess. The Proud Family can’t decide on what it wants to be. It wants to be everything – familial, social, subversive, clever, referential, absurdist, wacky, musical, and so on – but it ends up being none of those things. Sad, too: with a little more focus, this show could have been something of which Disney could truly be proud.
[PS: “Why are the Gross Sisters blue?” The Gross Sisters are kind of a strange group. They’re bullies but inconsistent. Sometimes everyone scared of them. Sometimes everyone stands up to them. They’re used in whatever fashion needed to fit the narrative. Their blue color, I think, is due to the limitation of the animation and color palette. In the pilot, Sticky mentions the Gross Sisters being “very ashy,” which is something most (white kids) wouldn’t get. I assume it’s the animators way of portraying the “dry flakes on black skin” distinction, making a quirky weird blue color.]