In October 1993, Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg were a couple.
Danson, in the biggest public misstep of his life (the only one really) accepted his partner's dare and, at a Friars Club dinner celebrating Goldberg's birthday, emceed the event in blackface.
It doesn't end there. He reportedly threw in some N-words.
In the audience were roughneck show business folks who have long been accustomed to Friars Club "roasts" going as far into comedic bad taste as they can get away with. See, for instance, the movie "The Aristocrats," which began at the moment in a roast where Gilbert Gottfried reacted to his frustration at an unreceptive audience by redoubling many times and telling the filthiest and most disgusting joke in backstage showbiz – an exercise that always changes according to the teller and requires that teller to make it up as he goes along.
Neither Danson nor Goldberg were thought to be racists. They were, in public perception, lovers. You can picture them in private hoping to laugh archaic American racism out of existence.
They failed for obvious reasons. The old sensitivities weren't quite dead. It was, as the comics like to say, "too soon." Way too soon.
You can understand Danson and Goldberg imagining differently. "Saturday Night Live" began in 1975 and had America howling at the breathtaking boldness of Chevy Chase and Richard Pryor exchanging escalating racial epithets for laughs.
In that extreme method, Danson thought he could put American racism into public detox by giving it the Mel Brooks' "Springtime for Hitler" treatment.
Danson wasn't clever enough. When a bold joke fails, it fails abysmally.
I interviewed Danson on the phone before "Three Men and a Baby" came out in 1987. He's an easy, breezy charmer, as likable as Sam Malone on "Cheers" and 10 times smarter. The real Danson is still full of the jock self-deprecation that we Americans have long since learned to enjoy and trust.
At one point, he described himself in passing as "a big dumb white guy," a tiny little phrase of no significance, which is why it gave me pause later. The idea a beloved white actor, in public, could so breezily acknowledge the rainbow of skin colors in American show business when there was no real reason to impressed me.
No, of course, he was no jock like Sam "Mayday" Malone on "Cheers," but he was a guy who had indeed played high school basketball. Jock trash talk, racial variety, came easily to a fellow who grew up in a world where "white men can't jump" is a basic locker room joke.
What no one could have predicted back then is that blackface – which is so obviously a ridiculous relic of an old racist era – would actually endanger and end careers in the 21st century.
In its initial post-minstrel, post-vaudeville existence, blackface fascinated some of the most interesting analytic minds I ever knew. Two UB critic/professors I knew well both admitted they'd wished they'd written about the subject. Leslie Fiedler wanted to write a piece about it but never did; David Bazelon considered a book about the subject for a while. I was happy to donate a book I owned to Bazelon's cause – the superb "Blacking Up," by Robert C. Toll.
An idiotic insensitivity from Megyn Kelly about the subject was the last straw in her time at NBC. Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, is being assailed from all possible directions because of a med school yearbook picture of someone in blackface next to someone in full Ku Klux Klan mufti – hood, sheet and all.
It got even worse when the governor tried to explain it. First came an apology. Then came a denial he was in the picture and, in fact, of all knowledge of the picture. He'd never seen that yearbook, he said, because he was out of the country when it was published. In other words, the picture on "his" yearbook page came from the yearbook editor and buddies.
Northam admitted that, around that time, he had won a Michael Jackson dance contest after applying black shoe polish to his cheek.
Even if what he was saying in denial were completely true – that he had nothing to do with that yearbook page – it didn't take a genius to guess the yearbook editor threw the picture up there on "his" page to remind their class "this is the idiot who wore shoe polish to win a moonwalk dance contest." It seems to indicate his own classmates thought his brainpower on racial matters more than a little suspect, nine years after "SNL" was born.
There were no serious consequences for Danson and Goldberg.
In 2019, all the idyllic "post-racial" fantasies we had have been horrifically dashed and revealed, tragically, to be fictions.