Somehow, someway, somewhy, in the fall of 1998, a now-defunct station called UPN aired a half-hour sitcom about Abraham Lincoln’s White House(!), whose inhabitants include a drunken Ulysses S. Grant, a bipolar, sometimes-seemingly murderous Mary Todd Lincoln(!!), and Lincoln’s African American valet, who functioned, essentially, as the Mr. Belvedere/Charles in Charge of the show (!!!). If this show wasn’t created under the influence of serious quantities of highly illegal drugs I’ll be frankly disappointed. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the heck out of the episodes I watched, though much of that enjoyment was of the rubbernecking-at-the-scene-of-the-accident variety. The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer is not good television. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t weirdly fascinating.
At various points over the course of these episodes I bore witness to a tonic that gave Mrs. Lincoln and an “inbred” white male manservant both enormous breasts, to zesty bouts of “telegraph sex,” to two confederate soldiers peeing on Ulysses S. Grant, to a succession of stunningly lead-footed weed jokes, and to a bowling competition between Lincoln and the French for money to fund the Civil War. Did I mention that Lincoln is a transparent stand-in for then-President Bill Clinton? That there are plenty of winking references to Clinton’s libido and to his relationship with Hilary Clinton?
This is epically-strange TV. Viewing it feels like catching a glimpse of some rare and hideous animal – a genetic dead end that invites fascination and/or revulsion. In terms of its gleeful disregard for boundaries and good taste, the show is basically Married With Children on acid and in breeches (in the White House). The Secret Diary is chockablock with TERRIBLE comedy dialogue, but when set against the absurdity of the pseudo-historical setting and the stunningly odd plots the whole thing feels weirdly subversive, and a precursor for television yet to come. You can watch the first episode that aired (titled “AOL: Abe On Line,” which endearingly dates the whole enterprise irrevocably) by clicking here.
I’m four paragraphs in and I haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room: Desmond Pfeiffer, a black man, is Abraham Lincoln’s personal valet (Random fact: Peter Brown, a former slave, worked for Abraham Lincoln as a butler). This aspect of the show managed to tick off a whole lotta people. Before the show aired the LA branch of the NAACP held a protest and issued a statement to the press that “slavery is never funny.” I’m in no position to argue, but I’m guessing the person who made that comment had never seen Blazing Saddles. The character of Desmond springs from the same pool as Sheriff Bart, and the majority of the show feels like a throwback to that film’s broad, vaudevillian, anything-goes humor. The problem is that The Secret Diary can’t come close to the comic genius/insanity if Brooks’ film. It’s simply not that funny. What it is is shameless, and if I’m honest there’s something weirdly admirable about that. The show may be in poor taste but I don’t think its racist or demeaning toward black people. If anything, somewhat ironically, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer doesn’t think much of its white characters. Every single white person on this show is a boor, a buffoon, a bastard or a bigot and all of them horny, stupid and/or crazy. By contrast, the character of Desmond is intelligent, sensible, sane and self-aware. Supposedly the pilot episode of the show contains some questionable racial humor but that episode was never aired, and the episodes I watched contained little to no humor that felt truly “objectionable.” The instances where race reared it’s head were always couched in the same essential context: dumb/crazy/horny white person is ignorant about/racist toward black people and receives a fitting comeuppance for his/her idiocy. But really, what’s most interesting to me about The Secret Diary is how uninterested the show is in being politically correct, or even political at all. Its chief political goal appears to be ratifying the right to party on, dudes. Black or white, Red or Blue, that’s a message that Americans have never had a problem embracing.