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Whoopi back with ‘risky’ business

Los Angeles, Sept. 7 (Reuters): Whoopi Goldberg’s new NBC sitcom features an Iranian immigrant unhinged by terror alerts, a conservative black lawyer with a hip-hop-talking white girlfriend and jokes about President George W. Bush mispronouncing “nuclear”.

So far, NBC hasn’t blinked.

In fact, says the Oscar-winning actress, executives at the General Electric-owned television network think she could even be “a little riskier.”

“They’re fearless about what it is we’re trying to do. We haven’t heard from anyone saying ‘no, you can’t do this’,” she said.

That also goes for some of the more unsavoury aspects of the character she plays on Whoopi — Mavis Raye, a tart-tongued, menopausal former singer-turned-hotelier in New York City who smokes like a chimney and drinks on the job. The series pilot opens with a cigarette joke. A hotel guest admonishes Goldberg that “second-hand smoke kills”, to which she retorts,“so do I, baby, walk on!”

Goldberg’s on-screen puffing already has drawn the ire of anti-tobacco activists. But she is unrepentant about her character’s nicotine habit, an extension of a real-life vice.

“I think people are smart enough to be able to say to their kids ‘now you see this is not the greatest behaviour Whoopi could be having right now’,” she said in an interview.

“This is a show about real people. And real people do have these flaws. Is (Mavis) going to have them forever' Maybe not, but she’s damn well going to start out with them. I mean, she’s not shooting dope. She’s not killing anybody.”

Whoopi, which begins on Tuesday, marks Goldberg’s first stab at her own prime-time series since the short-lived 1990 CBS sitcom Bagdad Cafe in which she played the proprietor of a diner-motel in the California desert. She also was a regular for five years on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

An Oscar winner for her turn as a spiritual medium in the 1990 film Ghost, Goldberg, 47, said her return to the small screen comes at an ideal time.

“I’m a little bit older now, and I like the idea of being in a steady gig,” said the actress, who acts as executive producer as well as the star of Whoopi. “There’s not a lot of offers coming my way, either. You get into that awkward stage of late 40s, and things slow down.”

Cigarettes notwithstanding, her new show draws much of its humour from subjects that may strike some viewers as just this side of taboo for prime-time network television.

The comedy features an inter-racial couple consisting of Mavis’ buttoned-down, decidedly un-hip brother, Courtney (Wren Brown) and his white girlfriend, Rita (Elizabeth Regen), who dresses and acts “like a sister”.

“She’s introduced me to rap, hip-hop and just a whole world I’ve never known,” Courtney exclaims on the series pilot, to which Mavis dead-pans: “So, she’s teaching you to be black.”

Goldberg says the Rita character merely reflects one of many cultural mixes that have grown so common in society.

“Lots of parents in the suburbs are raising black children and don't know it,” she said.

The show also co-stars British-born Iranian comic Omid Djalili as Goldberg’s sidekick Nasim, a hotel handyman from Iran who immediately takes offence whenever anyone mistakes him for an Arab.

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