“Bewitched” Ethics: A Startling Lesson In How Increased Sensitivity To Other Cultures Constitutes Progress

The Sixties witchery sitcom “Bewitched” is a guilty pleasure, mostly because of the superb cast and unabashed silliness of the enterprise. (I do avoid the episodes with Darrin 2, Dick Sergeant, who took over the role of Samantha’s befuddled mortal husband—without any explanation in the series—after the Definitive Darrin, Dick York, became unable to perform.) A new cable channel is running the series in the morning, and today I saw an episode that delivered a series of shocks that never would have registered in 1968, when it first aired. Some of them should have, though.

The episode, “A Majority of Two” (the title evokes the stage and film comedy “A Majority of One,” about a romance between a middle-aged Japanese man and a Jewish widow from Brooklyn)  involves Darrin’s boss, the weaselly Larry Tate, conning Samantha into hosting a dinner for important advertising client Kensu Mishimoto, who is flying in from Japan. Sam agrees—after all, a nose twitch or two is all it takes—but asks Larry what to serve, Japanese or Western cuisine. Larry is prepared: he gives Samantha a note with the name of what Mishimoto’s secretary told Tate was the businessman’s favorite  dish: Hung Ai Wan Goo Rash. There being no internet, Sam worries about how she will get the recipe.

Let’s count the insensitivity jolts here:

1. Larry refers to his foreign client as “oriental.” There’s nothing really wrong with the word, but “Asian” has now taken its place as the appropriate term, and to contemporary ears “oriental” is as jarring as “negro.”

2. Hung Ai Wan Goo Rash is obviously a nonsense name, but it is also a obviously a fake Chinese name. Eh, Chinese, Japanese, what’s the difference? They’re all orientals, right? I can imagine something like this driving a Japanese-American crazy, and annoying Chinese-Americans as well, in 1968. Clearly, there was no sensitivity to this issue at all…not in the writer’s room, and not on the set, one of the most liberal in TV land, according to lore.

It gets worse, though:

3. When Kensu Mishimoto appears, he is played by Richard Haydn—you know, Max in “The Sound Of Music”?

Max

Haydn, even with  really cheap and lazy make-up consisting of mascara on his eyelids to make them look sort of Asian if you’ve never seen a real Asian in your life, made as convincing a Japanese businessman as Ving Rames. There were Japanese-American actors in Hollywood in 1968; there was no excuse for this.  As I have written on this subject before, there is nothing wrong with having actors play characters of races and ethnic backgrounds that they do not share, if they can do so convincingly. Haydn, normally an excellent character actor, didn’t come close…

4. …in part because he used an accent cribbed from Warner Oland when he played Charlie Chan in the 1940s. Charlie was supposed be Chinese. As Mishimoto, Haydn used every stock fake Chinese accent trick in the book. I kept expecting him to say “Ah so!”

5. Finally, it turned out that “Hung Ai Wan Goo Rash” wasn’t a Japanese dish, nor was it a Chinese delicacy. It was Hungarian Goulash! Get it? Goo Rash?

Complaints about political correctness hypersensitivity today are valid, and the current “gotcha!” environment is oppressive and threatens freedom of expression. This episode of “Bewitched,” however, shows the positive side of being carefully respectful of other cultures, and how rude and ugly casual ignorance can be. As an American, I found “A Majority of One” embarrassing. None of those offensive gaffes would make it to the screen today, and that is progress, ethically and culturally.

Hungarian Goo-Rash…

(You can see the entire episode here)

21 thoughts on ““Bewitched” Ethics: A Startling Lesson In How Increased Sensitivity To Other Cultures Constitutes Progress

  1. This was a great episode. They went further, culturally, with Kensu needing to “save face” out of embarrassment. Sam blanks out her face periodically when they meet at the airport.

  2. Thees ees Meester Moto…Meester I.A. Moto…who was played by Peter Lorre, an Austro-Hungarian Jew. To his credit Moto actually talked effectively when he was himself, but often resorted to the smiling, obsequious, not-too-bright guy who always mixed up the “l” and the “r” when he was undercover. I think, I say I THINK that some of the bad accent work used for ethnic characters was to some degree a carryover from the days of radio plays and shows, where the voice alone established the character, so a gangster had to sound suitably Italian (you wan’ I should-a break-a his legs?), a Chinese fortune-teller sufficiently so (Ah, so, you will meet two blothers who rook exactry arike…) a native sufficiently native (Captain sir, gun make no boom-boom!), and a hero suitably so (On King! On, you huskies!). Also, Bewitched was a low-grade sitcom, meant to be laughed at while half paid attention to, not a serious drama.

    • Bewitched was a low-grade sitcom, meant to be laughed at while half paid attention to, not a serious drama.

      I had to check that one out. Bewitched was, in fact, the last on the list … the “last” being #50 on TV Guide’s 2002 list of “50 Best Shows of All-Time” and rated first by all three networks of its day, and most popular of all “supernatural” or “magic” themed sitcoms all the way through the 70s. People did pay attention to i,t and the reruns, I understand, still run or remain popular with adults as well as children on streaming sites. Which means that the weird lessons about bosses and marriages and doing business, and nosy neighbors (well, that one’s pretty accurate, though I tend to feel a bit differently about Gladys Kravitz these days since I found out she took the role and followed through on it — did we notice that she was replaced as well as Darrin? — silently, with terminal ovarian cancer) still stick around. There was an episode done in black-face too, I believe. If so, I’m sure it hasn’t appeared on any reruns in the last few decades!

    • It was a high-grade sitcom for the era, and witty in comparison to its competition, which were mostly the CBS hillbilly shows. It also had perhaps the most upscale supporting cast for a comedy ever, in Agnes Moorhead, Maurice Evans, Paul Lynde, Alice Ghostly and Marion Lorne.

    • There are worse offenders. Game of Thrones has had three Gregor Cleganes, two Daario Naharis’, two Night’s Kings, two Myrcella and Tommen Baratheons.

        • At least most of the those people have armor and/or sigils you can use to tell who they are. House Clegane has three hounds on a field of yellow, and all of Cersei’s children use the crowned stag on a gold field of house Barathoen combatant with the gold lion on a field of crimson of house Lannister. The Night’s King has distinctive makeup and armor. Daario though, I think you just need to pretend he’s a faceless man or a time lord or something.

    • Marlon was in his showboat stage, and was in the process of proving that he could play anything and anyone. I think leeway has to given to great actors: Judith Anderson was allowed to try to play Hamlet. Albert Finney gave Hercule Poirot a shot. The film makers knew that the gimmick of watching the US’s greatest actor play another race was box office, and more so than casting the part traditionally. Richard Haydn could not make that argument.

      • And there’s Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau — so funny in the role of bumbling, exaggerated accent Frenchman that his character took over all the subsequent films. The original had been built around the English Phantom/Sir Charles Lytton, the David Niven lead.

  3. Jack, do you think a show like “All in the Family” would be accepted today? Archie Bunker’s character was meant to be ignorant and his comments about “colored” people and constantly calling Mike Stivic a “dumb Polack” etc.

    • No, absolutely not. I have to confess that I thought the show was heavy-handed and condescending, like all Norman Lear shows—Maude, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons. Unwatchable then, cultural history research now..

      • Did Norman Lear EVER have a sympathetic conservative character in any of his shows? James and Florida Evans were the closest thing to it, in the sense of “family” people who weren’t idiots, but of course John Amos was sacked when he objected to too much use of JJ and “dyn-o-mite!”

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