This Is a Thing: The Civil War Sitcom ‘The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer’

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Welcome to “This Is a Thing,” a monthly feature where your humble film editor will examine a piece of popular culture — a film, an album, a television special, whatever — that I wouldn’t believe existed, had I not laid my own eyes upon it. This month: in the spirit of the forthcoming (and hopefully slightly more tasteful) The Butler, consider the controversial and short-lived Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, the story of a black valet in the Lincoln White House.

The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer opens with the following quote by Shelby Foote: “The Civil War defined America, both the good and the bad. It was the crossroads of our being, and it was a hell of a crossroads.” Those words are read by a solemn narrator, whose voice then transforms into what one can only presume is his lighter, “wackier” variation to pose the follow-up question: “Who would have thought there was a comedy in that?” The answer: no one, and Desmond Pfeiffer does nothing to prove them wrong.

The premise of this sitcom, which aired on the netlet UPN (remember them?) for exactly four episodes in the fall of 1998, was as follows: Desmond Pfeiffer was an English nobleman, exiled to America (along with his faithful manservant), where he became Lincoln’s personal valet and kept the eponymous diary, an “extraordinary historical document.” That’s the long version: the short version, which heated up immediately after the series was announced and burned through its short run, was that this was a network comedy about slavery. Awesome idea, eh?

Not especially. The Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP and several other African-American groups mounted protests. The Los Angeles City Council insisted on a community screening of the pilot episode. UPN demurred, instead pulling the original pilot (which ultimately never aired) and replacing it with a later show. And that first broadcast episode, “A.O.L: Abe On Line,” is what we’ll look at today.

The episode, in true sitcom form, has two running plotlines. The first concerns the president’s sex life. Dissatisfied with Mary and longing for some “strange” (that’s what they call it, honest to God), he’s taken to exchanging obscene telegraph messages with an unknown tootsie. The B-plot concerns a valuable ring that Desmond and his idiot manservant Nibblet discover via a treasure map left by Thomas Jefferson — a ring that is confiscated by Mary, which Nibblet attempts to recover via terrible slapstick.

At first glance, what’s most surprising about Desmond Pfeiffer is how afraid it is of its premise. It’s not that you can blame them — but it seems that if you’re going to make a sitcom about the Civil War and slavery and so on, y’know, do it then. Yet Desmond’s race is mentioned exactly once in the episode, when Abe (his hands burned by a fallen kerosene lamp) asks him to take over tapping out his dirty messages. “Sure, make the black guy tap!” Desmond snorts. It gets a big laugh.

So does everything, frankly. Aside from a tasteless premise, Desmond Pfeiffer has in common with previous “This Is a Thing” subject Heil Honey I’m Home a shrieking laugh track, creakily obvious “jokes,” and the tendency to go for the cheapest, easiest sitcom tropes; the difference is, at least the loathsome Heil Honey fancied itself a parody of those conventions. No such luck with Pfeiffer, whose writers mostly seem to just think it’s funny to turn Abe and Mary Lincoln into Al and Peg Bundy:

And if that wasn’t enough to give you the shivers, consider the scene in which we discover that President Lincoln was a foot fetishist:

The payoff, as anyone who’s ever seen a sitcom or a movie or anything else can tell you, is that of course his secret love is, in fact, Mrs. Lincoln herself:

That yelled-in-unison closing line gives you a pretty good idea of the sub-mental level of humor on display here. Other giant laughs are generated by Nibblet’s inability to tell left from right (“Your other left!” Desmond berates him), General Grant’s fumbling of the words “new” and “nude,” a reference to “the little President’s room,” and the zany double entendre of Stonewall Jackson insisting, “the last communication we intercepted from Lincoln said he was going to take me from the rear!”

But the loudest hoots and cheers from the audience come from the many, many painfully labored references to the man who was in the White House when Desmond Pfeiffer first aired. “Mr. President, you don’t have to explain,” Desmond says, when Lincoln offers up the reasons for his wandering eye. “This isn’t the grand jury.” But later, when he loses his patience, Desmond explodes, “You’re acting no better than a horny hillbilly from Arkansas!” And when Desmond mentions the consequences of getting caught in the act, Lincoln is livid: “Apologize to the entire nation? I’d look like a complete ass!” And just in case the genuinely stupid still didn’t get it, the big closing gag is a button of Hillary discovering that old ring, going to Bill’s door to tell him it can pay for his legal defense, and him pleading with her not to come in. Y’know, BECAUSE OF SEX.

Despite all the controversy, The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer didn’t attract viewers — it came in 116th out of 125 shows in its first airing, and stayed in the rating cellar for the next month before UPN pulled the plug. (Five of the nine produced episodes never aired.) Star Chi McBride luckily went on to better things like Boston Public and Pushing Daisies. And Steven Spielberg failed to mention either Desmond Pfeiffer or Lincoln’s foot fetish in that big-screen biopic last year.

Three of the show’s four episodes can be viewed on YouTube here, if you’re a real glutton for punishment.