White, inbred doofuses have been a cherished staple of network television for decades. For every razor-sharp Gil Grissom cracking cases on CSI, for every math genius running the NUMB3RS, there’s always been a few Earls, some Barney Fifes, and a cadre of Family Guys defiling the gene pool.
In a less politically correct age, these unevolved Anglos had minority counterparts: e.g., Huggiebear on Starsky and Hutch, Redd Foxx on Sanford & Son, or Cheech Marin playing Azai, the convenience store owner on The Tracy Ullman Show. In those halcyon days, African Americans could take pratfalls, Latinos could act lazy (recall Freddie Prinze asserting: “Eees not my Yabbb!”), and Asians could be the butt of bad-driver jokes.
Now, in the age of enlightenment, network television doesn’t dare go there. Advertisers are even more skittish; their campaigns are P.C.-vetted and focus-grouped to death. However, in order to be funny, in order to drive home a point, television commercial writers desperately need a fall guy. They need an inbred doofus; a walking paragon of How Not To Eat…Smell…Dress…Consume. And in casting these doofus anti-dads, these hapless Herbs and Harveys, they are forced to revert to the one social class that won’t march on their offices, that won’t assail them at the annual stockholder’s meeting. Television’s dirty little secret has turned adult white men into the most clueless cretins in all of popular culture.
You think I doth exaggerate? Take, for instance, your average Carls Jr. opus; a restaurant chain that has focused its gazillion-dollar marketing budget on that segment of the population who can barely speak or dress themselves. Their admonition that “Without Us, Some Guys Would Starve,” is woefully on point. The ads typically depict some unshaven, kitchen-challenged single guy (single white guy) struggling with a can opener, looking like a chimpanzee probing an ant mound with a stick. Burger King made incursions into this Neanderthal market with its “Angry Whopper” ads. The doofus in those commercials crawls under the soda fountain and empties an ice dispenser into his mouth. He’s wild, he’s weird, and he’s whiter than Brigham Young’s dimpled ass.
Coincidence, you say? Turn on your television, surf the channels and see for yourself. There, in the tandem baby stroller, two grown men wearing frilly bonnets and pitching a hissy-fit about soft tacos. Waahhhh. Click, and you get a beer commercial with a guy bouncing off of a trampoline and crashing into a table of partygoers. Click again, and you get one of those “Wanna get away?” airline commercials where a guy hurls his game controller into a flat screen TV and knocks it off the wall. In order to qualify for that Southwest Airlines fugitive class, you're going to want to be really white, and really stupid.
Patient Zero in this epidemic of white imbeciles was probably the late Jim Varney, a horse-faced hayseed who parlayed his Ernest P. Worrell character (“KnowhatImean?”) into a pitchman’s empire. Varney ultimately ascended to B-move stardom (“Ernest Goes to Camp,” “Ernest in the Army”), but he was effective enough to spark a exodus—away from women, away from minorities of any stripe and headlong into the wide, white world of the functionally retarded.
In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I am biting a hand that fed me. Twenty years ago I was a professional actor working (intermittently) in television commercials. I broke into the trade as a college undergrad. I mostly auditioned for roles as clerks and fry cooks and gratified eaters of cereal. But as I neared my thirties, I noticed a sea change in the industry. I was reading for the hapless Herbs and Harveys, for the guys without a clue. I recall not getting one role as a restaurant patron wherein I would be knocked cold by a waitress swinging a tray. In my one national beer commercial, I played some après-bowling scenario wherein I got shut down by a female bartender. And the very last audition I went on, I don’t recall the product in play, but I recall that that I had to read my lines while standing on my head, with my shoes on my hands. At that point in my life, I had just won a Bush Foundation fellowship to write a novel. I seemed high time to cut my losses and pursue something with a shade more dignity.
Oh, and by the way: At the auditions for each of the roles cited above, my rivals included no people of color. Those green rooms were all whiter than NASCAR.