Poster: Stuck In The '70's
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"Low rent high-rise, ya'll."
The PJs aired from January 1999 until June 2001 on Fox and the WB.
Thurgood was the blustery building super in this visually unusual inner-city sitcom whose characters were " foamation" puppets. The setting was the Hilton-Jacobs projects ( the PJs") of an unnamed city. Thurgood ( voice of Eddie Murphy) may have sounded like George Jefferson but he really cared about the building and its tenants, and he often let a couple of the tenant kids -Calvin ( Crystal Scales), whom he treated like a son, and Juicy ( Michael Morgan), the fat kid who could barely get through doorways-help him with maintenance around the building. Muriel ( Loretta Devine), his loving wife, was the calming influence in his life, able to reason with him when he started on one of his tirades. The tenants included Mrs. Avery ( Ja'net DuBois ) , a cranky old woman who hated Thurgood; Haiti Lady ( Cheryl Francis Harrington) , the building's fortune teller, who kept sticking pins in the Thurgood voodoo doll she had made; Muriel's sister Bebe and her Korean husband Jimmy ( Jennifer Lewis, Michael Paul Chan); and Sanchez ( Pepe Serna), Thurgood's chess-playing friend.
There were lots of stereotypical lines about warefare , medicare, drugs, and other aspects of slum living. Most of the tenants complained about their rent, the noise level from the boom boxes could be deafening, the neighborhood was filthy, and there were roaches everywhere. Even though a prominent black performer, Eddie Murphy, was the creator of The PJs, there were many in the black community, including filmmaker Spike Lee who resented its negative portrayal of minorities and the poor.
A Review from Variety
(Stop-motion Animation Series -- Fox; Sun. Jan. 10, 8:30 p.m.)
By RAY RICHMOND
Filmed in Portland, Ore., and Los Angeles by Imagine TV, Eddie Murphy Prods. and the Will Vinton Studios in association with Touchstone TV. Executive producers, Larry Wilmore, Steve Tompkins, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Tony Krantz, Eddie Murphy, Will Vinton, Tom Turpin; producers, Mike Mendel, Michael Price; supervising director, Mark Gustafson; writer, Don Beck.
Thurgood Stubbs - Eddie Murphy
Muriel Stubbs - Loretta Devine
Tarnell - James Black
Jimmy H Michael - Paul Chan
Mrs. Avery - Ja'net DuBois
Haiti Lady - Cheryl Francis Harrington
Smokey - Shawn Michael Howard
Bebe - Jenifer Lewis
Sanchez - Pepe Serna
Calvin - Crystal Scales
The first of Fox's ballyhooed trio of midseason animated comedies, "The PJs" looks pretty incredible. Its oddly configured characters blend flawlessly with a proportionately scaled environment, creating a bracingly textured, fluid look that legitimately ups the stop-motion ante. Clay-animation vet Will Vinton has outdone himself here in generating a world that gives his original technology the equivalent of a spit-shine, in tandem with his fellow producers (including Eddie Murphy, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer) and a talented group of animators. This is visually bold territory. Kudos all around.
That, however, would qualify as the good news. Here's the bad: the pilot suffers from scribe Don Beck's punchless opening script that stains all of those trailblazing graphics with a collection of doltish black stereotypes. None of the characters' voices are particularly memorable, all of them overwhelmed by painfully hyperactive pacing.
It's a familiar refrain, really. The only broadcast network primetime animated comedies to understand that visuals embody perhaps 10% of the equation -- with writing and execution requiring 90% -- have been "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill." If you are clever, they will come. If you aren't, they will not, no matter how spiffy your presentation.
This show features Murphy's voice as Thurgood Stubbs, the irascible building superintendent of the Hilton-Jacobs Projects (where "PJs" is set).
The dysfunctional bunch also includes Thurgood's terminally sunny wife Muriel (Loretta Devine); the scamming, stroke-prone grifter Mrs. Avery (Ja'net DuBois); the voodoo-obsessed Haiti Lady (Cheryl Francis Harrington); Muriel's sex-mad older sister Bebe (Jenifer Lewis); Bebe's culturally confused Korean husband Jimmy Ho (Michael Paul Chan); precocious 10-year-old Calvin (Crystal Scales); and Sanchez (Pepe Serna), Thurgood's chess buddy who speaks with the aid of a voice box thanks to the ravages of smoking.
In the opener, everybody basically gets on Thurgood's bad side all the time. The poor guy gets no respect and probably never will. But it is clear in the kickoff seg that this concept is not aided by the "foamation" gambit. "The PJs" could have been produced as a live-action comedy and been fairly close to identical.
What is the point, then, in all of this visual innovation? Perhaps one of the eight exec producers might have an answer.
A Review from The New York Times
Fox, Sunday night at 8:30
(Channel 5 in New York)
By CARYN JAMES
Published: January 8, 1999
The title of this animated comedy series refers to ''the projects,'' a crumbling, low-income high-rise where Thurgood Stubbs (the voice of Eddie Murphy, also one of the producers) works as the super. With puffy cheeks and mouths that seem pasted on, the characters in ''The PJs'' are made of foam and animated in a stop-motion technique. They look similar to the California raisins, though they are not nearly as entertaining.
The show takes advantage of the way animation can exaggerate for effect, though that often turns out to be nothing more than stereotyping. Thurgood has graying foot-high hair, a big belly and denim overalls. His wife, Muriel (Loretta Devine), is kind, maternal and has a prominent rear end. Calvin (Crystal Scales) is a good boy in the building who idolizes Thurgood. Juicy (Michele Morgan) is a fat boy who wears a sign saying, ''Please do not feed me.''
There may have been potential here, but the first episode is deadening in its lame comedy and obvious reach for good lessons. Thurgood teaches Calvin that he should go to school and not grow up to be a super. The humor relies on jokes about Thurgood's head landing in a toilet. ''I'm goin' in,'' he tells Calvin, holding a plunger aloft. ''If I don't make it, tell Muriel I died with my dignity.''
After its preview on Sunday, the show moves to its regular slot on Tuesdays at 8:30 P.M., following the established but floundering ''King of the Hill.'' If ''King of the Hill'' proves that audiences can relate to cartoon characters, ''The PJs'' shows that animation can breed bad comedy just as easily as live action can.
An Article from Time Magazine
Fox Gets Superanimated
Monday, Jan. 11, 1999
By MICHAEL KRANTZ
In the pilot episode of the Fox network's new animated sitcom The PJs, Thurgood Orenthal ("Goody") Stubbs, the superintendent of an inner-city housing project, tries to chase a swarm of vagrants out of his embattled building. "Well, I'd love to stay and chat," says one, a series regular named Smokey, "but crack don't smoke itself."
Is this the future of network television? Fox is sure hoping it is. One of the few breakout shows last year was Comedy Central's scabrous South Park, and the year before, Fox had its own success with that animated paean to redneck Texas, King of the Hill. Now the genre that seems to offer the quickest shortcut to countercultural chic is becoming more popular than ever. The three start-up networks (Fox, UPN and the WB) have scheduled seven new prime-time cartoon series for this year, and more are in the works. "Animated shows stand out from the pack," says Tony Krantz, CEO of Imagine Television, one of the producers of The PJs. "They look extraordinary, and the brand of humor can be quite striking."
No one is showing more gusto than Bart Simpson's home network. Between now and March, Fox will launch three high-profile animated sitcoms: The PJs, newcomer Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy, and the long-awaited Futurama, from Simpsons creator Matt Groening. "People expect us to be different," says Mike Darnell, the wire-haired programming impresario responsible for Fox's "shockumentaries" (World's Deadliest Swarms, When Good Pets Go Bad). "They can find live-action sitcoms everywhere else. They don't have to come here for them."
The problem for Fox is that viewers haven't been coming for much at all. The fall season was a disaster for the network, which swiftly shelved three of its five new series. Only That '70s Show and Brimstone have a shot at renewal. That dismal record cost entertainment president Peter Roth his job. Doug Herzog, the executive who brought the South Park gang to Comedy Central, was named his replacement in November but is only just now taking the reins.
In the interim Fox has literally gone back to the drawing board. Darnell and Fox chairman David Hill insist they didn't set out to become the Animation Network, that the confluence of three new cartoon programs is sheer serendipity. Groening has been developing the millennium-timed Futurama for years, and The PJs was signed up months before MacFarlane arrived with Family Guy. But it's also true that The Simpsons, King of the Hill and Darnell's shockumentaries score best with young male viewers, who are much coveted by advertisers but increasingly hard to tear away from their Sony PlayStations. Fox is betting that an even more aggressive cartoon slate will increase its appeal to that demographic mother lode.
First out of the blocks (it debuts this Sunday before settling in on Tuesday night following King of the Hill) is The PJs (shorthand for "the projects"), the brainchild of Eddie Murphy and perhaps the riskiest of Fox's new cartoon ventures. Murphy sold Imagine on his idea two years ago. The result is a visual tour de force. The puppeteers of the Will Vinton Studios, best known for the California Raisins, have created a colorful 3-D universe of intricately animated clay figures expressive enough to almost pop off the screen. Making sure they land in viewers' hearts is the mission of a writing staff led by executive producers Larry Wilmore and Steve Tompkins (two former stand-ups who met while writing for In Living Color). They've made Goody, voiced by Murphy, a gruff but endearing tour guide through a community of eccentric black and Latino characters. Their stories, from the attempted rehabilitation of a local porn theater to Goody's battle to save his beloved new front door from the ravages of spray-paint-wielding gang-bangers, take a warmhearted but hard-eyed look at contemporary urban life. The show looks gorgeous. The milieu is fresh. The scripts are funny. Oh, and did we mention Eddie Murphy?
Yet The PJs isn't even the hottest new show on Fox's January animation schedule. The honor of debuting in the post-Super Bowl slot goes to Family Guy, the creation of Seth MacFarlane, a hitherto unknown artist who was just a year out of the Rhode Island School of Design when Fox shrewdly plucked him from the Hanna-Barbera animation stables. "Stunningly clever" is the way Darnell describes MacFarlane's initial pitch, at which the wunderkind performed all the voices himself. "Two weeks later we ordered 13 episodes, and Seth became a star," says Darnell. A seven-minute presentation reel the network took to last May's "up-front" screenings for advertisers, he adds, "was far and away the funniest thing we showed."
Network executives are supposed to say things like that, but an early 50-page script for the Family Guy pilot makes it clear that MacFarlane, at just 25, is a prodigiously talented writer. Family Guy, which is set in a sleepy Rhode Island city, falls squarely within the medium's venerable archetype of familial dysfunction, which is to say that Mom, Lois, is a saint; Dad, Peter, is a boob; the kids are mutants (baby Stewie, for instance, is an evil genius plotting world domination); and the voice of reason is Brian, the family's talking dog. The early plots are standard-issue situation comedy (Dad gets laid off, Mom mounts a chaotic production of The King and I), but in the pilot script, at least, MacFarlane's pell-mell wit recalls The Simpsons' fevered early-'90s creative peak. Punch lines spill out furiously as the show spirals into multilayered flashbacks and inventive fantasies (when Peter wonders whether to lie to his wife, for instance, the angel and the devil that duel cunningly over his shoulders turn out to have angels and devils dueling over theirs).
Still, the most anticipated of Fox's new trinity may be Groening's Futurama, now scheduled to arrive in March. Fox has waited 10 years for a new show from the Simpsons auteur. Here's the pitch: on New Year's Eve 1999, a pizza-delivery guy named Fry falls into a cryogenics vat. He defrosts 1,000 years later in "New New York," befriends an alcoholic robot named Bender and a one-eyed cyclops chick named Leela, and resumes semi-gainful employment at Planet Express, delivering packages throughout the galaxy.
We'll buy that. Groening describes the show as "a science-fiction epic history disguised as a weekly cartoon." Says Fox's Darnell: "It was the only time that we ordered 13 episodes of a show without even a presentation." The series' bug-eyed characters and knowing satire should be comfortingly familiar, but it remains to be seen whether Futurama will be a brilliant new comic vision or, well, a warmed-over version of The Simpsons, which is now in its 10th season and still going strong.
That kind of longevity won't be easy for the newcomers to achieve. Once a novelty, the animation genre is at risk for oversaturation. The briefly mighty King of the Hill saw its ratings plummet when Fox moved it from its cushy post-Simpsons berth. The PJs in particular could be a tough sell to a public conditioned to the white-bread worlds of The Simpsons and King of the Hill. Last week a New York Times article delineated network programming's increasing racial stratification--ER and Friends vs. the Steve Harvey and Jamie Foxx shows. Will whites respond to The PJs' gritty inner-city vision? For that matter, will blacks and Hispanics embrace a show whose regulars include the voodoo-obsessed Haiti Lady, a homeless crackhead named Smokey and, in Goody, a hero who is rarely without a trusty malt liquor "40" in hand? The PJs is "high risk in all ways," admits Darnell. "But it's innovative and interesting."
It's a measure of the networks' growing desperation that they suddenly find "innovative" and "interesting" to be so desirable. A typical PJs moment shows Goody approaching a forbidding fortress labeled HUD: KEEPING YOU IN THE PROJECTS SINCE 1963. And while the Family Guy pilot offers the sort of traditional laugh-track lines that lifted Tim Allen and (soon) Ray Romano into syndication heaven ("I am the man of this house, and as the man I order you to give me permission to go to this party"), it also depicts a scrawny Hitler in a gym seething at a buff rabbi, surrounded by hot babes, and God himself sitting shamefaced in a pew while a minister details his abuse of Job. "Whoa! Is that really the blood of Christ?" asks Peter after sipping from the Communion goblet. "Yes," says the reverend. "Man!" Peter exclaims. "That guy musta been wasted 24 hours a day!"
Put material like this in a live-action sitcom, and you've got the quickly canceled likes of UPN's slave-era would-be satire The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. But as The Simpsons has long since proved, the cartoon format lets you slip some piquant zingers under the cultural radar. "Eddie Murphy's central reason for doing this show," says PJs producer Wilmore, "is that puppets can say things that we can't say." This spring Fox will learn just how much America wants to hear.
WITH REPORTING BY JEANNE MCDOWELL/LOS ANGELES
An Article from The New York Times
TELEVISION/RADIO; A New Neighborhood For the Black Sitcom
By JEFF Z. KLEIN
Published: August 27, 2000
SINCE the days of Norman Lear, the sitcom had offered two choices in its portrayal of black life in America: there were families thriving amid upper-middle-class plenty while ever-mindful of their roots, a la ''Cosby,'' or families jovially striving to work their way out of an extremely mild form of urban poverty, a la ''Good Times.'' Both came with a generous portion of sugar coating.
Then, in January 1999, came ''The PJs,'' a fast-moving animated comedy set in the projects (the ''PJs'' of the title), with a dim-bulb building superintendent as its hero and a supporting cast that includes a Haitian voodoo priestess and a crackhead who lives in a cardboard box. The series opened with the super battling a rogue cockroach in an elderly woman's apartment, where huge stacks of cat food were cached. It has since moved on to other inner-city scenarios. In one, two boys audition for a rap mogul and are told: ''No matter what happens, just remember that you're proud young black men. Now go in there and sing and dance for the Man.'' You're not watching ''The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air'' anymore.
''The PJs,'' which is moving to WB this fall after two seasons on Fox, is the brainchild of Eddie Murphy, who wanted to do a raw animated comedy about black inner-city life and sold the idea to Ron Howard's Imagine Television and the Fox network. Mr. Murphy does the voice of the irascible superintendent, Thurgood Stubbs, who looks after a building in the Hilton-Jacobs projects, a blighted urban-renewal development in an unnamed big city (though you might recognize the projects' name as a homage to Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs, the black actor who appeared in such 1970's TV landmarks as ''Roots'' and ''Welcome Back, Kotter''). The first episode drew an impressive 22 million viewers, the second largest audience for a premiere in Fox history after ''The Simpsons,'' and ratings remained high for Fox, an average of 11.4 million viewers, once ''The PJs'' settled into its Tuesday time slot.
Most of the program's rapid-fire jokes involve subjects rarely treated in sitcoms: staples of ''The PJs'' include shtick involving police brutality, random crime, race war, the failed promise of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty and, without doubt the unlikeliest running gag in TV history, the unresponsiveness of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In one early episode Thurgood's wife foils a robber, but Thurgood tries to take the credit, asking the assembled tenants of Hilton-Jacobs, ''What are you always going to find behind every strong black man?'' His neighbors' replies, shot back with the show's trademark speed, cover a gamut of takes on race: ''A slower white athlete?'' ''A curious white girl?'' ''A Korean grocer yelling, 'Come back with that apple'?'' ''Don King taking 90 percent!''
Despite the good ratings, Fox yanked the show from its schedule twice and all but stopped promoting it in favor of ''King of the Hill,'' ''Futurama,'' ''Family Guy'' and other less inventive animated sitcoms with predominantly white characters. This summer, first-run episodes of the program have averaged 5.34 million viewers, 29 percent of them black.
''The PJs'' achieved some notoriety soon after its debut in the form of censure from a few influential black critics. Spike Lee called ''The PJs'' ''very demeaning.''
''I kind of scratch my head why Eddie Murphy's doing this,'' Mr. Lee told television writers two weeks after the program's premiere, ''because it shows no love for black people. I'm not saying we're above being made fun of and stuff like that, but it's really hateful, I think, toward black people, plain and simple.''
The critic Stanley Crouch called it ''a third-rate update of 'Amos 'n' Andy.' ''
But as ''The PJs'' moves to Sunday nights on WB this fall, its first regular time slot since early 1999, the criticism has abated. ''I try to make sure the jokes come from the right as well as from the left,'' said Larry Wilmore, who was an executive producer and one of the two head writers during the first two seasons. ''In the pilot, we had one where you see a sign that says 'HUD: Keeping you in the projects since 1965.' It's one of my favorites because it really, really is the kind of joke you just don't see. It's a joke coming from the other direction: they really did keep you in the projects since 1965. Even Thurgood's that way. Just his name -- Thurgood Orenthal Stubbs -- represents the highest and lowest points in African-American culture.''
The sensibilities of Wilmore and of Steve Tompkins, the other head writer during the show's tenure at Fox, informed the show in its first two seasons. Mr. Tompkins came from ''The Simpsons'' and Wilmore had an extended stint at ''In Living Color,'' and the social satire of ''The PJs'' can definitely be seen as a hybrid of those shows.
''We had a very diverse writing staff,'' Wilmore said of ''The PJs.'' ''We not only had black writers, we had an Orthodox Jew, two gay people, two people who had had transplants'' -- which may account for the many gags involving the high incidence of cancer, obesity and heart disease in the inner city -- ''we had women; anyone you can think of was writing for the show. The important thing in hiring writers is not whether they're black or white, but rather what kind of life experience they bring. I'm black myself, but it's not like a lot of shows, where they think only a black writer can write this kind of thing.''
ANOTHER way in which ''The PJs'' stands out is its remarkable look, a stop-motion form of animation that Will Vinton Studios, the Portland, Ore., company that films the show and that created the technique, calls foamation. The characters are actually foam puppets, photographed 24 times for each second of film -- a ratio used in only a handful of feature films and never before in television -- enabling them to achieve a high degree of expressiveness. And the sets are extraordinarily realistic renditions of a rundown housing project in all its dreariness: run-down, cookie-cutter high-rises; shattered glass; graffiti-covered walls; trashcan fires in vacant lots.
Tom Turpin, president of Will Vinton Studios, said the animators had two goals in creating the world of the series: ''One was to make the puppets really comical, so that everything visually says it's a joke. And the other was to make the world seem very real and gritty, with interesting real-life textures.''
The technical effort alone -- ''The PJs'' won an Emmy for art direction in 1999 -- is impressive. ''It's far and away the biggest show in the history of stop-motion animation in terms of the number of animators working on it,'' Mr. Turpin said. ''We counted up the amount of output we had done for the 35 episodes we'd shot for Fox, and it came to the equivalent of eight feature films.''
For all its visual and sonic appeal -- the theme song is written and performed by George Clinton -- the program's breakneck speed comes from its cast. Each character's personality is sharply drawn according to type or stereotype (depending on your point of view), from Michael Paul Chan's Jimmy Ho (Michael Paul Chan), a Korean tenant and militant supporter of the black cause, to Mrs. Avery (Ja'net Dubois), a crochety, stroke-prone, gun-toting senior citizen. Ms. Dubois, the veteran character actress who appeared in ''Good Times'' and the blaxploitation spoof ''I'm Gonna Git You Sucka,'' won a 1999 Emmy. While the cast records its performances together, Murphy's performance as Thurgood is usually supplied separately, from the sets of his films. The final result is seamless, the dialogue percolating with the speed of a 30's screwball comedy.
The new season on WB, which begins on Sept. 8 and Sept. 10, will include several episodes filmed for but not shown on Fox, with new episodes coming later. Mr. Wilmore and Mr. Tompkins will only consult on the new episodes. The executive producer of the program for WB, Warren Bell -- whose sitcom resume includes stints on ''Ellen'' and ''Coach'' -- promises that the program's sensibility will be retained, despite a large turnover of the writing staff. One change that has already been announced should make fans of the original wary: Smoky, the emaciated, wisdom-dispensing crack addict, will become a former crack addict, though Mr. Bell is quick to say that Smoky will remain as addled as before. Mr. Bell promises that ''The PJs'' will remain fundamentally the same.
''The show works,'' Mr. Bell said. ''I can honestly say that you won't see any differences between the way I'm doing the show from the way Larry and Steve did it. We're still going for big, interesting stories that are rooted in a projects consciousness.''
WB is making ''The PJs'' the centerpiece of its Sunday night lineup, and the show's renewed high profile could lead to renewed criticism. ''I don't think about, 'Is this the kind of joke that will raise protests?' '' Mr. Bell said. ''I think about whether it's funny. We have a pretty solid contingent of minority writers on the show, and then of course we have the cast, so we're pretty well policed in terms of not crossing an actual line of offensiveness.''
If Mr. Bell is able to keep it funny, ''The PJs'' should thrive after switching networks. If it doesn't, well, as Thurgood once said -- while losing consciousness after being gassed by HUD security -- ''And then, like a public school, everything turned black."
For more on the PJs go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_PJs
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Keywords: PJs: Thurgood