BOOTLEG FILES 455: “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” (1998 TV sitcom starring Chi McBride).
LAST SEEN: Two episodes are on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Accusations of racial insensitivity have kept it out of circulation.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Very unlikely.
When asked to identify a Civil War-related comedy, most people immediately think of Buster Keaton’s landmark silent film “The General” or the classic spoof of “Gone with the Wind” (complete with the curtain rod dress) on “The Carol Burnett Show.” However, these gems are mostly cited by the default rather than design – the Civil War inspired very little in the way of mirthful comic diversions.
Back in 1998, an executive at the UPN television network decided to rectify that void by offering a sitcom that took place during the Civil War. Even more unusual was the notion of making the central character a black man working for President Lincoln.
The resulting production, “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer,” created a wave of controversy before it aired, but generated almost no attention once it was broadcast. Today, the show is remembered (barely) as a bizarre flop – but after watching a pair of episodes that are currently available for YouTube viewing, I would be bold enough to declare that “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” deserves a new consideration.
The title character in “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” (the “P” in his surname is not silent and is, thus, pronounce Pa-fifer) is a black English nobleman who racked up considerable gambling debts in his native country. Forced to cross the Atlantic with his dimwitted white manservant Nibblet, he winds up as a valet in the Lincoln White House. Desmond quickly takes over as the sole force of intelligence in this environment – the president is a sex-crazed buffoon with no carnal interest in First Lady Mary Lincoln. Mary, in turn, openly complains about her lack of sexual satisfaction. Lurking about the surroundings is a heavily inebriated Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and, occasionally, his buxom blonde assistant. Across the Potomac, the redneck Confederate generals manage to scheme and bicker without making very much progress in the war.
Thus, “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” plays like “Benson” meets “The Ropers” with thick doses of “Black Adder,” “Redneck Comedy Tour” and old-fashioned baggy-pants burlesque humor thrown in. The show was produced when the Clinton White House was undergoing its sex scandals, which enabled such obvious topical lines as: “The president is having sex with someone who works at the White House? Preposterous!”
Throughout the show, innuendo falls aggressively in nearly every dialogue exchange. At one point, Lincoln acknowledges his lack of experience by sheepishly admitting, “The First Lady is the first lady!” Mrs. Lincoln’s sexual hunger fuels much of the humor – in referring to her husband’s equipment, she makes references to the “Executive Branch” and the “old Lincoln log.” And Mrs. Lincoln is also the butt of too many jokes – when Nibblet remarks that her feet are quite beautiful, Desmond sneers, “Too bad it’s attached to everything else.”
“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” initially raised the ire of several civil rights groups who claimed the show made fun of slavery. Indeed, the pilot episode suggests that Desmond’s rivals in England packed him off to America on a slave ship. However, the show’s creators stressed repeatedly that Desmond’s character was not a slave and that there were no slavery jokes. Chi McBride, the African-American actor playing Desmond, told an interviewer that he considered this when joining the project. “I anticipated it because of the setting and time,” he said. “But if this were a comedy about slavery, I would not be involved.”
Indeed, the show addresses race in a subversive manner. When Lincoln asks Desmond to tap out a telegraph message for him, Desmond angrily replies, “Sure, make the black guy tap!” In an episode when Desmond, Lincoln and Nibblet wind up behind enemy lines, Desmond successfully fools his Confederate hosts into believing that he is really a white man in “Negro” disguise – and even goes one step further by comically assaulting a Confederate general who claims he could tell that Desmond was not really black. Desmond and his party manage to escape that predicament with the aid of a spy played in a shocking cameo by a certain African-American sitcom icon (I’d rather not say who this is or how he gets into the story – this gag truly comes out of nowhere and it is unfair to spoil it).
The real fun in “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” involves the anachronistic throwaway lines that bubble up unexpectedly. When Desmond inspects a bag of tobacco that once belonged to Thomas Jefferson, he sniffs the contents and happily declares, “ Smells like he also had some land in Mexico!” When Lincoln tries to make conversation with a woman in a tavern, he asks, “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” The woman gives him an exasperated look and replies, “I’m a w***e!” When Confederate Gen. Stonewall Jackson is measured for new clothing, his tailor examines the military leader and declares in a heavy Noo Yawk accent, “Ya got a nice tush!”
The show’s ensemble plays their scenes with all of the broad fury that one associates with slamming-door farce. McBride, despite an on-again/off-again accent, captains a hilarious team of scenery chewing mischief-makers including Dann Florek as Lincoln, Christine Estabrook as Mrs. Lincoln and Max Baker as the “evolutionary cul-de-sac” Nibblet.
A few people got the joke. Ken Tucker, reviewing the show for Entertainment Weekly, wrote that although it was “far more offensive than ‘South Park’ …it is also far funnier in its raucous slapstick. Coarsely energetic, there is something almost Rabelaisian about the vulgarity of ‘Desmond Pfeiffer.’ It is doing for TV what Howard Stern could only boast he would do.” Alas, more reviews were along the lines of Ray Richmond’s Variety write-up, which dismissed the show as a “misfire on all cylinders” and claimed offense at its “grossness, classlessness and leering.”
“The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” premiered on October 5, 1998. Its premiere registered a 1.6 Nielsen rating, ranking it as 116th out of the week’s 125 programs. Three more episodes were aired before UPN abruptly removed the series from its schedule. The show had four additional episodes that were not aired and remain unseen to this day.
Years after its disappearance, McBride would tell an interview that the program fell victim to “people who had a political agenda.” But to most individuals, the program was only known by it sour reputation. In 2002, TV Guide named it the eleventh worst television show of all time, and many people belatedly heard about the series as a vague punch line in Kevin Smith’s animated “Clerks” TV series.
To date, “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” has never been rebroadcast on television, nor has it ever been made available for a commercial home entertainment release. Two of the four episodes that aired – the aforementioned adventure behind Confederate lines and a romp with Lincoln engaging in “telegraph sex” transmissions – can be seen in unauthorized postings on YouTube.
My advice regarding “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer” is simple: forget the horror stories surrounding the program’s alleged reputation and seek out the two episodes on YouTube. If you have the patience for crass, innuendo-laced, no-taste bawdy comedy, you will certainly find yourself laughing out loud over this series. And if not…well, go see Daniel Day-Lewis wiggle his eyebrows on the big screen.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!