A New-Old Kind of Comedy Is Heard at 704 Hauser
A YOUNG man named Joey Stivic knocks on the door of 704 Hauser and asks if he may come in and look around. He says it's the house where his mother was raised and where he was born.
An explosive argument about racial attitudes flares up between the black father and son living there. As Joey wanders about, he overhears the father assert, ``A black man can't be a bigot, son,'' and the son answer, ``Tell that to a Korean!''
``Yeah,'' Joey concludes, ``It's the same house all right.''
That line gets one of the biggest laughs in ``704 Hauser,'' the new CBS series premiering Monday night, 8:30-9 p.m. It's a laugh of recognition and expectation. Ah, it seems to say, those intergenerational zingers! That ideological bluntness! It's like Archie Bunker all over again clashing with his son-in-law, ``Meathead,'' (Joey's father) in the very same house.
In this new show, the Norman Lear comedy magic is unmistakably at work once more, just as it was in the series' historic predecessor, ``All in the Family,'' which he co-created. That ground-breaking program premiered in January, 1971, and ran - in various forms - until 1983, continuing in reruns. Lear and his partner, Mark E. Pollack, created the new series, and Lear has directed the opening episode from a script he wrote with Kevin Heelan.
Yet has Joey really returned to ``the same house''?
Well, yes and no.
Physically, yes - the new show's lead-in uses the same kind of exterior shot of the modest building, though it has changed, and you hear a gospel-like music background in place of ``Those Were the Days.'' The living room is the same (with new furniture), and the script rings with hilarious, sometimes farcical feuding among family members. Ethnic and social attitudes still feed the comedy and build to wild exchanges. The dialogue bristles with the same outspoken personal views. And at the center of it all is Ernie Cumberbatch, a lovably cantankerous ``dominant'' male who stomps around making sarcastic remarks in an effort to squash the theories of his educated son with real-life experience.
But no, the ideological lines are no longer simplistically drawn. They are crisscrossed among characters who pointedly reverse stereotypes.
Archie was a white, middle-aged mouthpiece for blue-collar bigotry. Ernie (John Amos), a veteran of the 1960s civil-rights movement, is a black, middle-aged mouthpiece for what his son calls bigotry against whites. Archie constantly fumed at his daughter and son-in-law's ``bleeding heart'' ideas. Ernie battles with his son, Goodie, over the latter's traitorously conservative notions about blacks being responsible for their own economic problems.
The son (T.E. Russell) was hopefully named Thurgood Marshall Cumberbatch but is turning out, in his father's eyes, to be another Clarence Thomas - an Oreo, as Ernie calls him (black on the outside, white inside). Goodie's head is shaved, as if in symbolic contrast to Meathead's long liberal locks. He is scheduled, in fact, to appear that morning as a right-wing spokesman on ``Face the Nation'' (a CBS show, of course).
Meanwhile, Goodie finds himself fending off the sexual overtures of his Jewish girlfriend, Cherlyn (Maura Tierney). Her religion and his color - as well as his celibacy - offer the couple no end of black-man-Jewish-girl gags. Her religion also offers Ernie plenty of Archie-like jabs. Unlike Archie's wife, Ernie's wife, Rose (played by Lynnie Godfrey), is a self-confident woman who doesn't mind mind forcefully standing up for her own beliefs - especially when it comes to defending her church.
Despite these crucial differences, the jokes on both shows are a means to a serious end: comedy that reveals people trying tumultuously to live together. Viewers who see that same human chemistry at work with totally different characters will sense the superficiality of racial and ideological differences in the face of ancient human relationships.
What viewers will not sense is that shock of recognition that ``All in the Family'' created. It's hard to convey how startling it was, at the premiere of ``All in the Family,'' to hear Archie talk openly - at times outrageously - about touchy issues like abortion and prejudice. That was a revolution, and revolutions tend to be more compelling than their aftermaths.
So ``704 Hauser'' has an extremely tough act to follow. But as pure comedy and as a timely social metaphor, it has made a truly promising start.