premiered in August 1979 on ABC, a spin-off of the popular program,
Soap, which ran from 1977 to 1981. Robert Guillaume resumed
the title role in the new series joining a new cast of characters
and moving from the home of a wealthy (if utterly absurd) family
to a butler's position in a governor's mansion. The series ran for
seven consecutive seasons with a few minor cast changes and with
Benson's promotions from his first assignment, to state budget director,
and finally, to lieutenant governor.
story lines and the character poke fun at the incompetence of those
in positions of wealth and power, the portrayal of an African American
man as a butler remains a strong stereotype that serves to uphold
racial power relations and reinforce social values in the neo-conservatist
1970s and 1980s America. Despite conscious efforts of writers and
actors, the main character's role remains a problem: Why in contemporary
television is an African American man still portrayed as a servant?
However light-hearted and fictitious Benson may be, its significance
in television history is both serious and real.
Comedy has long
been a way to represent characters of color in both American film
and television. Hollywood film picked up where minstrel shows left
off: using extreme stereotypes (and often white actors in "blackface"
makeup) to connote African American characters. One stereotype in
particular that became nearly omnipresent in many classic Hollywood
films is the figure of the Black servant, a remnant of the ante-bellum
American South. This stereotypical trope of the servant is seen
time and time again, subtly suggesting the superior status of whites
and simultaneously dictating to the viewing audience the position
of African Americans in society. Perhaps somewhat understandable
in such period films as Gone With the Wind, the persistence of such
representation in contemporary television demonstrates the continuing
use of characters of color for racial demarcation and for comic
Benson as a
source of humor is historically significant in television. Few American
programs featuring characters of color have been dramas. Instead,
beginning with Beulah and Amos 'n' Andy in the 1950s and
continuing into the present, this tradition has been continuously
practiced, and most programs have fallen into the genre of situation
comedy. Issues of race are to be dealt with, it seems, through laughter.
Although the character of Benson is indeed allowed to rise through
the occupational ladder, this advancement is carefully contained
within the realm of comedy. It is also controlled by the narrative,
as evidenced in a 1983 episode in which the ghost of Jessica Tate
comes back to haunt Benson and remind him of how far he has come.
in this half-hour situation comedy is that Benson, who worked for
the Tate household in the parodic Soap, has been "loaned" by Jessica
to her cousin, Governor James Gatling, after his wife has passed
away. This loan becomes permanent as Benson's utility becomes indispensable.
Through his service in the governor's mansion--saving the governor
from political blunders, managing both the political and domestic
staff, and helping to raise the governor's daughter, Katie--Benson
is seen not only as the source of composure and wisdom, but also
of warmth. At the same time, he is famous for his sharp wit, often
expressed at the expense of other characters on the show.
view of Benson has generally been positive and, moreover,
addresses the issue of Benson as a butler by arguing his is a "dignified"
portrayal. Nevertheless, the limitations of the role are clearly
set in the way in which he is characterized. For example, the headlines
of some reviews instruct their readers in specific ways: "Benson
Moves Out and Up," "Benson Butlers His Way Into a Sensational Spinoff,"
"ABC May Clean Up With Benson." One critic describes Benson
as the "smug, cocky and perennially bored black butler." These descriptions
and plays on words only emphasize the position that Benson
is expected to occupy--his rise "out and up" are deemed unusual,
irreverent, and ultimately funny. In this light, a "cocky" servant
who is smarter than his masters is not a subversive portrayal as
some may wish to believe, but rather, is exactly the opposite. The
often overdetermined praise of Benson's independence and sophistication
perhaps reveals the effort on the part of critics to compensate
for the fact that Benson is a servant. Unfortunately, arguing that
these characteristics of an African American man/butler are exceptional
only further dictates what his place is supposed to be. To be uppity
or insolent, as Benson is sometimes described, implies that he must
somehow be put back down where he belongs.
contradiction--Benson as the defiant yet also stereotypical character--seemed
to have confused audiences as well. Although Benson was not
among the top 10 shows (it was in the top 25 in its first year only),
the program lasted for seven seasons. And although Robert Guillaume
was nominated several times for an Emmy Award for Best Leading Actor,
he won only in the category of Best Supporting Actor for his work
in Soap. While the producers and writers of the show worked
consciously with Benson's character in light of the strides in civil
rights that were made in the previous decades, they still chose
to use the stereotype of the Black servant. Hence, though far lower-rated,
the fact that Benson far outlasted such programs as Taxi and even
its parent program, Soap, might suggest that American television
audiences were ultimately sustaining and supporting the status quo.
has taken a critical stance toward his own role, saying variously,
"I will not go back to 1936"; "This is not going to be one of those
plantation-darky roles"; "It was employer-employee, not master-servant."
Still, despite Guillaume's talent and his determined attempts to
bring substance and accuracy to his role, the long-standing cultural
connotations of an African American servant predominate. Benson
is not derogatory or inflammatory and, in fact, can be quite
entertaining. Nevertheless, the program stands as part of an on-going
practice of representing people of color in subordinate positions.
Though liberal, the television industry is by no means revolutionary.
Accordingly, Benson attempts to portray the life of an African
American in a progressive and "dignified" manner, yet cannot escape
the trappings of a deeply embedded cultural classification.
DuBois................................. Robert Guillaume Gov.
James Gatling................................. James Noble Katie
Gold Gretchen Kraus......................................
Inga Swenson Marcy Hill (1979-81)...................... Caroline
McWilliams John Taylor (1979-80)..........................
Lewis J. Stadlen Clayton Endicott III (1980-88).............
Rene Auberjonois Pete Downey (1980-35)...........................
Ethan Phillips Frankie (1980-81)....................................
Jerry Seinfeld Denise Stevens Downey (1981-85).................
Didi Conn Mrs. Cassidy (1984-88).................................
Billie Bird Sen. Diane Hartford (1985-88)...................
Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, Susan Harris, Don Richetta
1979-July 1980 Thursday 8:30-9:00 August 1980-March 1983 Friday
8:00-8:30 March 1983-April 1983 Thursday 8:00-8:30 May 1983-March
1985 Friday 8:00-8:30 March 1985-September 1985 Friday 9:00-9:30
October 1985-January 1988 Friday 9:30-10:00 January 1986-August
1986 Saturday 8:30-9:00
Mark. "Robert Guillaume Keeps Rolling Along as TV's Smug, Cocky
Benson." St. Louis (Missouri) Globe-Democrat, 24-25 July
Steve. "Benson Soft-Soaps No One." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania),
15 September 1979.
Barbara. "Benson Moves Out and Up." Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania)
Press, 22 July 1979.
Jerry. "Benson Butlers His Way Into a Sensational Spinoff." (Newark,
New Jersey) Star-Ledger, 13 September 1979.
Ron. "Benson." San Jose (California) Mercury News, 24 January
Frank. "ABC May Clean Up with Benson." Los Angeles (California)
Herald Examiner, 13 September 1979.
See also Racism,
Ethnicity and Television; Soap