This section is by far the most enjoyable I’ve come across. DFW addresses a highly interesting concept that has been tickling my brain for weeks: why sitcoms and black rap are necessarily playing off each other and impossible to fuse. It’s gold.
Buy a copy for yourself.
It’s not that shit-talking blacks were barred from shows like Bewitched and The Munsters . . . rather, blacks never made it to the ‘60s sitcom because…what would they do there? The ‘60s sitcom was a overworld of witches, genies, Martians,ghosts, talking horses, thinking pigs, campy P.O.W. camps, patented mayhem as seemingly ruleless as a drama without genre. But ask yourself: is it more far-fetched that Jim Brown would guest-spot on I Dream of Jeannie, or that a show about an astronaut living with a bottled sexpot, one that made no reference to sex, much less racial strife, would rivet America’s attention in the summer of ‘67, when riots erupted in every major city? Which is weirder: an I Dream of Jeannie with blacks or without the,? Answer: they’re equally weird. Yet the second has haunted syndicated airwaves for two decades, while the first would punch a hole in the walls of rerun worlds as familiar to us as the little screen itself.
This division of experience into ‘weird’ and ‘normal, Them and Us, Terrorist and Freedom Fighter, voodoo and Roman Catholicism, is at the heart of white ambivalence about rap music. Just as N.W.A tell interviewers that their controversially violent Straight Outta Compton shocks only those who don’t live with violence every day, so I Dream of Jeannie’s mix of erotic chastity / magical science could only seem like ‘normal’ prime-time fare for suburbanites raised on sitcoms. Every travelogue is somebody else’s home movie. Every audience is two: that rapt because it finally hears its stories being told, and that rapt because it finally hears a story so utterly divorced from its own as to seem weird. These two groups—united nowhere else in life—share, in mass popular art, one audienceship, an illusion of union.
An episode [of I Dream of Jeannie] initially aired on June 12, 1967, features Tony, the space-age American, idly wishing aloud that he could live in the Old West, where men were Men. Jeannie, eager, all-powerful, and literal-minded (a deadly sit-combo), sends him and us back to Gopher Gulch, an old Rawhide set terrorized by rustlers led by veteran B-movie cowboy crooner Hoyt Axton. A High Noon spoof ensues, with Tony in good-guy white shooting his own foot but refusing Jeannie’s help: he must face Hoyt Axton alone. Tony finally ‘wins’ their burlesque gunfight, and he and Jeannie return to Cocoa Beach with a minute or so left in the episode (like suburbanites back from vacation the night before a workday) and just enough script left to savor, with an interrupting Roger Healey, their ended adventure.
Did anyone on the evening of June 12, 1967, snap off the set as the pseudo-Bedouin closing played to the roll of credits, turn to her hubby, and say, ‘What the hell was that’? The High Noon spoof certainly is a freaky premise for fantasy: Tony’s unwanted peril follows from getting his wish; but it turns out that this peril, this wish-gone-awry, is what he had craved without knowing it. All in a fantasy Florida never to be confused with the actual Florida of Walter Cronkite, itself the scene of some distinctly unfunny race riots in Tampa, which began the night before Tony Nelson went back to the Old West and raged at their worst between 8 PM and midnight Eastern Time, Monday, June 12, 1967, as the High Noon spoof aired.
The Tampa riots began on a muggy Sunday night when the falsely rumored shooting of a black youth by Tampa police brought aimless crowds onto the streets. Fires were started. Cops (who no doubt fantasized, like fellow Floridian Tony Nelson, that they could be cowboys) arrived and shoved a few kids. That’s really all it took: liquor and appliance stores were looted along the main drag of Black Tampa, TV’s presumably stolen and plugged in, perhaps to NBC’s local affiliate, just in time to see Tony Nelson wishing idly aloud that he could return to when men were Men. Mayhem came next . . .
A world would end if the mob at the foot of that Tampa offramp spilled into the Cocoa Beach of I Dream of Jeannie. Not onto the set of the television show, but rather, mystically, into the June 12, 1967, episode itself, posing a genre challenge the ‘60s sitcom never faced: absorb our riot; prove that you’re real enough. The NBC writers would brainstorm as the angry mob milled around on Tony Nelson’s Cocoa Beach lawn. Panicky calls from network and White House come in every five minutes: ‘Have you thought of anything yet?’ Tony Nelson would be hastily scripted to handle Hoyt Axton in five minutes instead of 25, then hastily flown by prop to Cocoa Beach to broker an overnight truce between the mob and the all-white Tampa police force, presiding at a Coroner’s Inquest to prove that the rumored shootings that sparked the riots had in reality never happened. Jeannie, eager if inept, would try to help by blinking Martin Luther King (the gracious civil rights leader agreeing to play himself in the interests of ending the violence) from Atlanta to plead for everyone to go back to their homes. King, however, is written to believe that the entire tableau is a product of a covert LSD dosing by the CIA, and tells Jeannie she isn’t real. ‘Oh, and I bet you’re Tommy Nelson, the famous astronaut,’ King says, pointing at Nelson. ‘That’s Tony,’ Larry Hagman corrects. (Laughter.)
The network, seeing that King has been scripted to refuse to help on the grounds that none of this is really happening, calls up the writers: ‘What the hell are you bastards doing down there? Have King speak to the goddamn rioters!’
But the writers cannot. This is a sitcom, after all, and they can no more violate genre than God can create something more perfect than Himself. THere must be a situation that is comedic, and they have resorted to that oldest situation: disbelief. Meanwhile, back within the episode, the Florida National Guard, pelted with rocks and epithets, are fixing bayonets. Tomy Nelson orders Jeannie to blink their rifles into cellos. (Laughter.) Malcolm X (portrayed by the versatile Nipsey Russell) is blinked back from Muslim Heaven, which looks suspiciously like the set used for scenes inside Jeannie’s bottle; and King and X argue about whose faults these riots (which King still maintains aren’t happening) are, until Jeannie intervenes. She pleads sweetly, looking straight at the camera (Barbara Eden smelling her first Emmy)
We must come together. Why can’t we come together? Come on, why the long faces?
[She tickles Malcolm X, who, in spite of himself, grins.] That’s right, Mr. X. And you, Dr. King? Can’t you give us a smile?
If this were an MGM musical, now might be an excellent moment for Barbara Eden to break into song, leading everybody … in rings around the Chryslers in the carport. Instead, the civil rivals are scripted to see the folly of their feud. Uniting, they placate the rioters. Order is restored, and a chastised Tampa Police Chief vows that in future things will be more just. His attack dog barks in cheerful agreement, prompting the inevitable sitcom close: ‘That makes it unanimous!’ (Uneasy Laughter. Applause.)
Rap’s sampling of I Dream of Jeannie blends homage and rampage, celebrating the open-ended transferability of shared cultured and attacking the segregation of the icon by mock-integrating it. – 69-73