Q & A: The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer; Whodunnit?

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about television shows, made-for-TV movies or miniseries they remember from years or decades past. I try to answer each question as best I can. Every now and then I like to dig through my inbox and pull out a few choice e-mails to answer here at Television Obscurities for everyone to read. Keep reading for today’s questions and answers.

I think in the 90’s a short lived series black butler to Abe Lincoln. What was it called?? Honest Abe?? where can I get the vhs or dvd?

The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer has never been officially released on any format. The sitcom, set during the Civil War, ran for just four episodes during October 1998 on UPN, with several more episodes produced but never aired. Chi McBride starred as Desmond Pfeiffer (the P was pronounced), a black Englishman who becomes President Abraham Lincoln’s butler. Dann Florek played Lincoln, Christine Estabrook played his wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and Max Baker played Pfeiffer’s asssitant Nibblet.

From the moment UPN announced its fall lineup in May 1998, controversy surrounded the series. Chicago Tribune critic Steve Johnson, reviewing the network’s fall schedules in late May, hoped the “premise turns out to be more edgy than creepy” [1]. Reviewing the series in September, Entertainment Weekly called it “this season’s winner of the what-drug-were-they-smoking-when-they-created-this-show award” [2].

By mid-September there were several groups protesting the series, including the Beverly Hills/Hollywood chapter of the NAACP, the Los Angeles Emmanuel AME Church and the Brotherhood Crusade [3]. McBride compared the series to Hogan’s Heroes and said of the controversy “I anticipated it because of the setting and time. But if this were a comedy about slavery, I would not be involved. I wanted to make sure when I took the project that if I had any objections, that it would be a climate where I would be able to address them and they would be dealt with” [4].

On Thursday, September 24th a protest was held outside the Paramount Studios in Hollywood that drew some 150 people [5]. On September 29th, UPN released the following statement:

UPN has decided to change the air order of “The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.”

Due to concerns raised by some members of the African American community, we have delayed airing of the “pilot” episode to a later date. While we do not believe the series’ premise or any of the program episodes are racially insensitive, we respect our African American viewers and will review the pilot episode again before putting it on the air.

In its place, the series will premiere with the “Abe Online” episode, which features President Abraham Lincoln engaging in an amorous telegraph relationship with a mystery woman while Desmond Pfeiffer discovers a secret treasure hidden inside the White House by Thomas Jefferson.

UPN respects and appreciates all our viewers, and we especially wish to respond to feedback from our loyal African American audience. [6]

The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer premiered on Monday, October 5th, 1998 and pulled a measly 1.6 Nielsen rating, ranking 116th out of 125 programs for the week [7]. UPN pulled the series from its schedule on October 24th but indicated it would return later in the season [8]. It didn’t.

I write a pop-culture blog and many of the entries revolve around old TV shows and movies. One that I’m curious about and can barely find any information about is “Whodunnit,” which aired on NBC for about the blink of an eye in 1979. I found a little on IMDB, but the reason I’m curious about it is that I remember seeing it as a 4-year-old.

The only part I remember is Erik Estrada grabbing a microphone and being electrocuted. For some reason that image has permanently embedded itself in my brain.

NBC’s Whodunnit? ran for five weeks on Thursdays during the spring of 1979, from April 26th through May 17th. A total of six episodes were aired, however, due to a special Monday broadcast on May 7th. Ed McMahon served as host. Each week, three contestants competed for $10,000 against three celebrity panelists. They would watch a crime unfold on video and then have the opportunity to interview the characters, who were played by actors who also didn’t know the identity of the characters.

Howard Rosenberg, writing in The Los Angeles Times, had this to say about the show: “Purposely corny and melodramatic, the show has a 1950s feel and is not at all compelling. However, at least it presents an alternative to the silly comedies that pollute early primetime” [9].

The panelists on the premiere episode were Jim Conway (a private detective), Yvonne Brathwaite Burke (a former Representative) and F. Lee Bailey (an attorney). The crime was a murder aboard a jetliner. Jack Klugman played the murder victim who died after drinking some coffee and a beer. All three panelists were able to solve the murder but only one of the contestants, who received a $2,500 prize [10].

Advertisement for the Premiere of Whodunnit?

Advertisement for the Premiere of Whodunnit? – April 15th, 1979
Copyright © The Chicago Tribune, 1979 [1]

Ratings were abysmal. The series ranked in the bottom five each week and it was soon cancelled. It was planned as a five week spring tryout but had it performed better it likely would have returned at a later date. Erik Estrada must have been one of the murder victims in a later episode.

Works Cited:

1 Johnson, Steve. “Growing Pains as They Trot Out Their Fall Lineups, Small Networks Hope to Get Bigger.” Chicago Tribune. 25 May 1998: 3.
2 Snierson, Dan. “Monday: The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer.” Entertainment Weekly. 11 Sep. 1998: 38.
3 Braxton, Greg. “A Controversial ‘Diary’.” Los Angeles Times. 19 Sep. 1998: 1.
4 Ibid.
5 de Moraes, Lisa. “Protesters Don’t Think the Slavery Era Is Anything to Joke About.” Washington Post. 28 Sep. 1998: C.07.
6 Entertainment Editors. “UPN Statement Regarding ‘The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer’.” Business Wire. 29 Sep. 1998.
7 “Primetime Nielsen Ratings.” Associated Press. 13 Oct. 1998: AM Cycle.
8 “News Lite Justice Rips TV’s Influence on Kids.” Daily News. 24 Oct. 1998: N.2.
9 Rosenberg, Howard. “‘Whodunnit’ on NBC.” Los Angeles Times. 12 Apr. 1979: F32.
10 Buckley, Tom. “TV: A Game and Dark Dreams.” New York Times. 12 Apr. 1979: C24.

Image Credits:

1 From The Chicago Tribune, April 15th, 1979, Page G19.

4 Replies to “Q & A: The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer; Whodunnit?”

  1. “Television’s first mystery game show”? What about “QUICK AS A FLASH” on ABC in the early ’50s, based a popular RADIO mystery quiz? How about DuMont “converting” its 17 episodes [17 minutes apiece] of Jerry Fairbanks’ “PUBLIC PROSECUTOR”, originally produced in 1947-’48, into a quasi-mystery quiz, “CRAWFORD MYSTERY THEATER”, in 1951-’52?

    See, Fred Silverman, who was running NBC at the time, was SO desperate for ANY kind of a “flash hit” for the network, he gave the green light to ‘WHODUNNIT?”. And when it failed to attract an audience, it vanished just a few weeks later, without even giving it a chance to FIND one! I don’t even know if videotapes of the series exist…

    If you didn’t see “THE SECRET DIARY OF DESMOND PFEIFFER”- you didn’t miss anything.

  2. “Desmond Pfeiffer” is a sad example of people protesting without checking the facts. It steers clear of the whole issue. But once the accusation has been made, there can apparently be no acquittal.
    The only thing “Pfeiffer” was guilty of, was that it tried to create a US version of the popular British “Blackadder” series. There are worse things they could do! Too bad the remaining episodes have never been aired inside or outside the USA.

  3. Completely agree with Spiny Norman.. i just re-watched the four episodes that were aired in October of 1998, and found it to be refreshingly hilarious! Chi McBride should have garnered an Emmy, as should Dann Florek. The problem with this show was that it didn’t have typical American comedic sensibilities. It feels more like the Brit comedies i like, and it relished in references to Bill Clinton’s travails at the time. i truly hope i get [to see] the remaining five episodes that UPN didn’t air.

    1. Beter late than never I suppose – thanks Cass Teague, at least I wasn’t the only one! As long as the racists are the butt of the joke, I say go for it (à la The Producers). Sadly, I only have 3 of the 4 – but the one where they have to rescue Lincoln from Confederate territory – the only time it really does deal with slavery – makes it damn clear who is on the receiving end…
      What is a pity is that things seem even worse now than 20 years ago; this kind of innocent poke would have even more trouble today.

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