Is Osama Bin Laden Responsible for the Failure of Emeril Lagasse's Sitcom? Case File 125/My Year of Flops II #22 Emeril
If you’ve ever lied awake at night wondering why the early aughts sitcom where Emeril Lagasse played himself was not a television dynamo on par with Seinfeld, Friends or The Sopranos, as I often have, some very convincing answers can be found on Wikipedia.
In a passage on the show’s Wikipedia page that reads suspiciously like it was written by creator Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, or at least a crazed super-fan of the Designing Women co-creator and BFF of the Bill and Hillary Clinton, “NBC had high hopes for (Emeril), as it was created by Bloodworth-Thomason, however the show was savaged by many critics, one calling it a train wreck. Lagasse was said to be hesitant to participate in the project. The show was in the middle of filming when the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred; the show was scheduled to premiere on September 18, a week after the attacks, but was delayed by a week. Despite this, the opening sequence still featured the World Trade Center towers standing. The show was never able to find much of an audience and the sitcom quietly went off the air by November 2001.”
On Bloodworth-Thomason’s own Wikipedia page this claim is repeated with a different date given for the show’s ill-fated debut episode: “(Bloodworth-Thomason and husband’s Mozark Productions) also created and produced Evening Shade, Hearts Afire, Women of the House (a short-lived Designing Women spin-off starring Burke), and Emeril (a short-lived sitcom featuring chef Emeril Lagasse). Unfortunately, Emeril was to premiere on September 11, 2001 but was preempted by continuous coverage of the aftermath of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. The premiere of Emeril was delayed by two weeks and was never able to find an audience due to the premiere occurring so close to the attacks, leaving the air after only seven aired episodes after November 2001.[
So there you have it, folks, on Wikipedia, the ultimate repository for all wisdom and information, the failure of this singularly misbegotten abomination was laid squarely at the feet of Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban and the terrorists who changed American life forever by steering planes into the World Trade Center.
What I love about these Wikipedia entries is that they do not say that having a premiere set air around September 11th was one of a series of factors leading to the failure of the show, alongside equally important factors like, I dunno, IT BEING A FUCKING SITCOM FOR CELEBRITY CHEF EMERIL LAGASSE, a man who cannot act or do scripted comedy or effectively portray the character of celebrity chef and television star Emeril Lagasse.
Nope. That apparently had nothing to do with it. Emeril’s Wikipedia page claims that the “show was never able to find much of an audience as a result” of its debut falling so close to 9/11 while Bloodworth-Thomason’s page argues Emeril “was never able to find an audience due to the premiere occurring so close to the attacks.”
There are a lot of crazy conspiracy theories surrounding The Thomasons’ good buddies the Clintons. But Pizzagate is downright reasonable compared to the demented conspiracy theory that one of the things the Taliban took from the American people was the opportunity to see Emeril Lagasse grow and evolve as an actor and leading man over the course of a dazzling, decade-long run for his eponymous show that would reintroduce the Food Network’s catchphrase king to the American people as a contemporary Dick Van Dyke as comfortable delivering a deft pratfall or heart-breaking monologue as he is whipping up a tasty crawfish etouffee for a hungry crowd.
Bin Laden didn’t just change the tone and tenor of American life, he sadistically snatched away Lagasse’s opportunity to develop his instrument as a thespian over a period of years, even decades until he’s ready to play Hamlet on Broadway.
But that was not to be. Nope. Osama Bin Laden took that away from us. I will NEVER forgive him for that. I’m sorry if that sounds harsh but I take these things very seriously.
Ah, but Emeril had problems beyond airing in the gloomy aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, starring a rank amateur with no talent as an actor and being terrible. Emeril’s original pilot was so poorly received that the show was extensively retooled before it made it to air. Robin Riker, Chris Elliott’s foil in Get a Life was uncermoniously dropped as Emeril’s improbably hot wife in favor of the even more attractive Mary Page Keller. Robert Urich was added to the cast as Lagasse’s horndog agent sidekick and the focus of the show shifted from Emeril’s struggles to balance work, family life and massive fame to the workplace almost exclusively.
You would imagine that giving a dude his own sitcom built around his career and his skills and his world when he has no background as an actor or comedian would be a big enough ego boost for Lagasse. You would be wrong. The never-aired pilot episode of Emeril never stops reminding us what a wonderful guy Emeril is and how thoroughly beloved he is by everyone.
The effusive flattery begins with Emeril returning to his hit show from a trip to his home town of New Orleans, where he was mobbed like a one-man Beatles of cooking. When Emeril’s warm-up act, producer and writer Cassandra (Lisa Ann Walter) is asked if Emeril is as nice as everyone says he is by a member of his audience she fires back, with robotic sass, “Absolutely! He’s like Martha Stewart with friends!”
Then this preeminent family man goes from a studio where he’s worshipped and adored to his fake family. To the accompaniment of heartstrings-tugging piano, Emeril lovingly tucks in his make-pretend sleeping children. It was at this point that I came to a horrifying realization: this incarnation of Emeril didn’t just expect me to laugh at the hilarious antics of a fictionalized Emeril Lagasse: it wants me to be moved by him as well, to see him as a tender figure of pathos and drama as well as a funnyman whose shenanigans I’ll want to check out week after week after week.
I then made an even more horrifying discovery. Since Emeril’s next stop is to the bedroom and he tells his wife, “All I want to do is get in bed and wrap myself around you, and, well, maybe that’s not all, babe”, delivered with a lascivious gleam, we’re then forced to think of Emeril as a sexual creature as well. This is one of many bridges too far, the first being Emeril starring in a fucking sitcom.
Emeril says of his fuck style and insatiable, outsized flesh cannoli, “That happens to be my other specialty besides cooking” but he’s not going to be treating his wife to marathon sex sessions, on her birthday or any other day, if he keeps coming home at midnight every evening, giving his family the short shrift in favor of his thriving, impossibly demanding career.
Emeril ends up making it up to his wife by cooking her an elaborate meal on his show, and sputtering about his love for her in a rambling monologue about how you gotta do nice things for the ladies and “I know feminists pooh pooh (treating wives nicely on their birthday) but I’m telling you guys, chicks, they dig this stuff!”
I’m not really sure where Emeril picked up the idea that feminists take a strong stance against men being nice to their wives. I suppose he’s arguing that the idea of corny, traditional romance has fallen out of favor with third wave feminists but if you have any doubts about the kind of man the fake Emeril Lagasse is they should be cleared up when he ends the show by turning down the network’s offer to increase the show’s production schedule by twenty episodes and offering to take a pay cut AND give pay raises to every member of his staff in the process out of his own pocket.
What pretend nobility! What a meta-mensch! Emeril was worried that the pressure of his astonishing success as the king of cooking shows would tear him away from a family we would almost never see again over the course of the show so he engages in an epic act of self-sacrifice.
In the pilot, and show that followed, Emeril was at once the star attraction and a straight man overshadowed at every turn by more dynamic performers. Unfortunately these slick professionals are stuck playing retrograde stereotypes that were antiquated and regressive even at the time of the show’s release.
Sherri Shepherd plays the show-within-a-show’s brash and opinionated location manager, Melva LeBlanc. In one of her first lines, Melva motivates her co-workers and/or the show’s audience by screaming at the top of her lungs, “There are two ways you do not want to see me, and that’s naked and mad! So get in gear before I get to stripping and whipping!” What YOU looking at?” with a broadness befitting Madea or the monster who made Loqueesha.
What’s fascinating and sad to me is that this dialogue, where a larger, dark-skinned African American woman uses the threat of seeing a naked body that does not conform to society’s conception of how women should look as a horror to be avoided at all costs wasn’t just written for a show from the creator of Designing Women and not cut during what I imagine was an extensive series of re-writes. These lines somehow even made it into both versions of the pilot while a lot of others things were cut for either not fitting the new conception of the show or being egregiously terrible even for an innately doomed project like Emeril.
Melva’s threat to expose her naked body fits in all too snugly with the show’s weird, creepy obsession with the bodies of its female and male cast members. In “Fat”, the first episode that aired, Emeril, who earlier offered to take a huge pay cut so that all of his many employees could get raises becomes so excited by the prospect of winning a hundred thousand dollar prize for being the show on his network whose cast and crew collectively lose the most weight that he has everyone who works with him, even his agent, go on a diet so that they can win a contest that in real wife would be both illegal and wildly unethical.
In another appallingly tone-deaf episode, Emeril tires of hearing Melva and the even brassier, even more man-hungry Cassandra complain about not having men in their lives so he cooks up (pun DEFINITELY intended) a scheme where he’ll make a gourmet meal for men willing to date these women even though they are louder and larger than society angrily demands women their age to be.
What woman WOULDN’T want their boss to interfere in their romantic lives, and on national television, better yet, where the pressure to say yes and play ball is unrelenting?
Emeril tries to convince what appears to be his only other black employee to date Melva. The man’s first question, alas, is “Would I have to sleep with her?” Before his boss can answer he follows up the question with, “Don’t get me wrong.I mean, I wouldn’t mind but she is my boss and that would just be weird and I don’t know if I could actually, you know (subtly mimes performing sexually), because you know how she is if someone is "not doing their job!”
I’m not sure whether this earnest young man seemingly being pressured to go on a date/and or pursue a romantic relationship with his boss by one of his other bosses is saying he may not be able to perform sexually because he is not physically attracted to Melva or because her personality and aggressiveness seem like total boner-killers. Either way, it’s pretty damn sexist and also distressingly in keeping with its treatment of future The View co-host Shepherd, who is so much better than dialogue like “Black people, we don’t like The Sopranos. We don’t go for all that drama about honor and betrayal. Somebody does something to somebody in my neighborhood, we just say, “Fool!” or settle it with a good bitch slap. Or, we take into the next level, which is Jerry Springer!”
I’m not really sure what Urich is doing here beyond some of the worst work of his career.
If I were Robert Urich and my agent offered me the chance to play Emeril Lagasse’s gross sidekick on a sure-to-fail sitcom after starring in a series of hit shows over the decades, I wouldn’t just give the hardest of hard passes: I would physically assault him as well for such effrontery. No jury on earth would convict me.
Urich lends the show testosterone, star-power and a deceptive air of professionalism but he’s stuck playing a repellent knockoff of the iconic creep John Larroquette played brilliantly on Night Court. Urich’s Jerry McKenney is the show’s resident misogynist, a spotlight-craving womanizer who favors the gang with bon mots like “Unfortunately, I committed myself to a cocktail party for those Barbi Twins. You know, they wrote that book about the pain of bulimia. And they have really huge breasts. So they’re being honored.”
Emeril offers a perversely retrograde Battle of the Sexes pitting a trio of Bush League wannabe designing women (Melva, Cassandra and flighty Southern-fried eccentric B.D Benson (Carrie Preston), the show-within-a-show’s food dresser) against seventies-style chauvinist pig Jerry and faultless family man and consummate mensch Emeril Lagasse.
In another example of the show’s peculiar sexual and gender politics, during the bottle episode “Snow Day”, Emeril is so worried that his wife’s gay friend is actually a straight man pretending to be gay to get closer to her that he and the rest of the cast travel through potentially dangerous, deadly conditions so that Emeril can “warn” his wife about her friend’s actual intentions in time. Of course the gay friend turns out to be gay after all and Emeril’s paranoia is seen as a loving act of devotion and not an unfortunate display of sexual insecurity.
Elsewhere, in the episode where Emeril very unproblematically tries to get his employees laid by bribing potential suitors with free food the only man who Cassandra connects with is a “recovering homosexual” who is obviously still gay.
As a battle of the sexes comedy, Emeril is an absolute bust. It works better as a half irresistible, half-disgusting food porn and catchphrase delivery machine.
I am not too proud to admit that the first time Emeril yelled BAM!!! and kicked things up a notch, it was kind of exciting. As dumb catchphrases and stupid shtick goes, hollering BAM! like it’s the secret word on You Bet Your Life and constantly kicking things up a notch is mindless fun.
The first few times Emeril kicked things up a notch it’s guilty enjoyable but it gets old quickly. VERY quickly. The thirty or forty subsequent times Emeril yells “BAM!” and promises to kick things up a notch it’s less charming. At a certain point, it becomes fucking annoying.
The big gimmick of Emeril, other than having a celebrity chef with no acting talent or experience star in a singularly misconceived sitcom, involved closing each episode with a long, lingering shot of the food that had been prepared for that week’s episode. Viewers were also encouraged to visit Emeril’s website to find recipes for all of the insanely rich dishes Emeril cooked on the show.
It wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough. Emeril only lasted seven episodes before NBC pulled the plug on a show that was simultaneously half-baked and ridiculous over-cooked.
Some might say that 9/11 was responsible for the show’s demise. Those people are insane. The truth is that Emeril never should have made it beyond “terrible idea” phase but thanks to the magic of Youtube anyone morbidly interested in one of the most ridiculously misconceived television shows of all time can feast, and feast heartily on this overflowing buffet of idiotic, impossible ideas terribly executed.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco
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