Benson 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.
Although the 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 relief.
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.
The premise 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.
The critical 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.
This 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.
Guillaume 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.
Benson DuBois................................. Robert Guillaume
Gov. James Gatling................................. James Noble
Katie Gatling.............................................. Missy 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)................... Donna Laurie
Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, Susan Harris, Don Richetta
September 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
Bretz, Mark. "Robert Guillaume Keeps Rolling Along as TV's Smug, Cocky Benson." St. Louis (Missouri) Globe-Democrat, 24-25 July 1982.
Gelman, Steve. "Benson Soft-Soaps No One." TV Guide (Radnor, Pennsylvania), 15 September 1979.
Holsopple, Barbara. "Benson Moves Out and Up." Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Press, 22 July 1979.
Krupnick, Jerry. "Benson Butlers His Way Into a Sensational Spinoff." (Newark, New Jersey) Star-Ledger, 13 September 1979.
Miller, Ron. "Benson." San Jose (California) Mercury News, 24 January 1985.
Torrez, Frank. "ABC May Clean Up with Benson." Los Angeles (California) Herald Examiner, 13 September 1979.