Thursday, January 25, 2024

Classic TV Flashback: Chico and the Man (1974)

Chico and the Man
Debut: September 13, 1974
Created by: James Komack
Starring: Jack Alberston and Freddie Prinze
Synopsis: A cranky, old, white owner of a rundown garage gets a new partner and friend in the form of a twentysomething Chicano.

Trey: Chico and the Man ran on NBC for 4 seasons from 1974 to 1978. It survived the tragic death of one of its leads, Freddie Prinze by suicide in 1977. It was the creation of James Komack who also was responsible for The Courtship of Eddie's Father and Welcome Back, Kotter. It's been suggested that the idea was taken from a couple of Cheech and Chong sketches, something that Komack (at least according to wikipedia) doesn't seem to have entirely denied.

We watched episode 8 from the 2nd season, ""Mister Butterfly" on Tubi. In this one, George Takei guest stars as a Japanese businessman who arrives at the garage believing Ed ("the Man") to be his long-lost father.

Two things to me are notable about this episode (and really series because I also watched the first episode). Both are things I knew so they aren't surprised, but they bear repeating. One is that these older sitcoms are pretty unfunny by modern standards. They have moments of humor, sure, but at best they are relatively less "joke dense" than modern sitcoms and at worst they rely on the lamest sight gags or just general amusement at certain sorts of stock or stereotypical situations. This last I think is mostly a trait of the form. It's present to greater of lesser degrees in "trad" sitcoms up to this day--there just get to be fewer trad sitcoms post the 90s.

Jason: By chance, I also watched (most of) the first episode, after experiencing mild bewilderment with the second season episode we selected. Doing so provided a bit more clarity on the series' intent and the flavor of comedy we should expect. Without getting into it too deeply, I agree that it just wasn't that funny (anymore) and that this social and topical kind of humor is very much rooted to the era it attempts to reflect. Funny faces remain funny over the years, as physical comedy is pretty much eternal, but as cutting edge as C and the M was in its day, the jokes (a nebulous term with many meanings and subcategories) just haven't aged well. 

Trey: Going with "rooted in the era," there's the degree of casual racism and racial stereotypes. The 70s was, of course, getting more honest about these issues after the whitewashing of America common to earlier sitcoms, so it's a trait of things like The Jeffersons, All in the Family, etc. So, Ed's and (in the first episode) these two cops' prejudice and racial slurs in the first episodes are typical of the recognizing the problems and building understanding sorts of elements of these shows. 

Jason: The show was emblematic of what seems to have been an earnest attempt at addressing this whitewashing and lack of representation for the diverse groups that made up the American viewing audience but is clearly a baby step in this direction and likely wouldn't have had the success it did with a more radical approach. The lovely opening montage, depicting early 70's life in an East LA barrio, accompanied by Jose Feliciano's theme song, set my expectations too high. 

Trey: Undercutting its good intentions, perhaps, is Chico's casual stereotyping of Asians in S2 ep 8. Or the broad stereotypically Japanese portrayal Takei and Beulah Quo (as his mother Mariko) are required to give. 

Jason: This stuff set me reeling, as my expectations were thwarted. I expected that stuff from The Man, of course, but not Chico! I wondered if depicting the cultural bias of the ostensible hero of the series wasn't some coded way of excusing the likes of The Man. We're all bigots in some way, after all.

The long shadow of WW2 hangs over the episode, so I was relieved that the stereotyping was of a slightly less-malignant variety than it could have been, which may have been intentional. 

Trey: On the positive side, I think Prinze's charisma is apparent even in just the slim space of an episode. I don't know that it sells me on his standup, but I could see him having had a long career. Albertson is likewise good in his role, such as it is.

Jason: He is charming throughout and his star power shines through the rough material. It may be my imagination, but I thought he might have been struggling with barely concealed discomfort throughout his performance. Whether that be due to his well-known personal problems or a displeasure with the material is unknown to me of course.  

Albertson's embodiment of the Man was pretty much perfect.  

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