If television is a barometer of the culture, last season indicates that there now are only very few permissible racial, ethnic or sexual stereotypes allowed the average viewer and, therefore, the average American. Gays, for example, are portrayed in counterstereotypical ways, and in a favorable light. Ellen, of course, is the eminent example. Indeed, one of the last acceptable bigotries on television is the portrayal of Italian-Americans. Italian-American males almost invariably are handsome and studly and as dumb as the rivets in their tight blue jeans. Arthur Fonzarelli, or "the Fonz," is one of the best-known progenitors of this television caricature. Tony, the handsome, brainless would-be boxer of Taxi fame is another of the classics.
In the past TV season and among the top-rated shows, we find Joey a regular on Friends. If you are among the few who do not know the show, guess which characteristics describe him: a) handsome; b) studly; c) passionate about dinosaur fossils; d) dumb as a dinosaur fossil. Ordinarily, I respond to such politically correct prejudice with a scornful and grudging acceptance, but one recent episode of Mad About You was so egregious as to get my Italian blood, well, at least simmering. Jaime (Helen Hunt) is trying to get her husband Paul (Paul Reiser) to see a homeless man as an individual rather than as a stereotype of homelessness. In the course of his friendly overtures to the homeless man, Paul invites the man to his gym, where we meet the proprietor, Dante, who is -- well, can you guess? (The gym, by the way, is called Dante's Inferno.)
The writers of this episode were so self-satisfied with their politically correct message about the homeless that they were, ironically, oblivious to the acceptable bigotry of presenting us yet again with an insulting version of the Italian-American male -- and then naming him after the great Italian poet.
Imagine the outrage from all quarters if in an episode Paul met a very stingy and rich Jewish banker -- one so clever at dealing illegal loans that he was called "Einstein." Or, an episode featuring a lazy, shuffling African-American named "Martin Luther." Writers' heads, heads of producers, program directors -- head would roll! Peter Jennings would do a story, leading it with his best wrinkled-brow-of-the-sensitive-liberal soulful look: "Can a sitcom be a hate crime?... That's the question harried executives at NBC are pondering today following a controversial and some would say anti-Semitic episode of MadAbout You. Time would feature a "Mad About Mad About You!" cover.
Clearly, the appearance of such abhorrent ethnic or racial stereotypes on any current television sitcom literally is unimaginable -- except for the Italian-American travesties. …