Los Angeles -- P.C. alert. Fox has a sitcom this fall that's going to explode the thermometer of political correctness.
It's called "Daddy Dearest." It stars Don Rickles and Richard Lewis. And the minute the stars and producers hit the stage yesterday for a news conference, questions started flying about all the anti-gay, anti-Arab, anti-Asian, anti-everybody lines from Rickles' character in the pilot.
The sitcom features Lewis as a recently divorced psychologist whose obnoxious father, a retired car salesman played by Rickles, has come to live with him. Lewis' character is already having a hard enough time as a single parent raising a 10-year-old son. Now, he's got the reincarnation of Archie Bunker under his roof, too.
Yesterday, the producers of the show -- Billy Van Zandt and Jane Milmore -- at first tried to defuse the issue.
"Yes, we have the politically incorrect character [Rickles], but we also have the politically correct character [Lewis]," Van Zandt says. "So, hopefully, they'll balance out."
That was the essence of their defense. But when that failed to stem the rising tide of hostile questions, Lewis stepped in and passionately defended both the show and Rickles' insult-ethnic humor by putting his own reputation on the line.
"Look, I've been a stand-up comedian for almost 25 years," Lewis says. "I never would be part of a show unless it was, one, funny, and two, would serve a purpose.
"I'm a firm believer in freedom of speech . . . and the deal is that Don's perspective is, 'Hey, man, we are all the same. Can we just get along in the same boat?'
"His humor is not mean-spirited . . . it's not an attempt to separate people . . . his character is someone who's old-fashioned . . . from another generation . . . not racist.
"And I'm happy to be part of the show, because, hopefully, my character can spar with Don's and teach Don and the viewers that, 'Hey, man, that's not the way to go.' I wouldn't be part of a project that came from a racist or anti-Semitic place."
That quieted the room a bit, but every third or fourth question returned to the issue of ethnic humor and the specifics of Rickles' character.
Some of the milder lines from Rickles' character in the pilot:
* "Don't sit like that, or you're going to wind up doing Judy Garland impressions in the Rainbow Room," he yells at the 10-year-old boy who's sitting on a couch watching TV with his legs crossed so that the toes of his right foot are curled under left ankle.
* "Shut up, Aladdin," he snarls at an Arab-American cab driver during a group therapy session at his son's office.
* "Here, I'll make you feel at home -- no MSG, table 25," he says to an Asian-American member of the therapy group.
Fox executives said none of the this material will be deleted from the pilot before it airs Sept. 5.
In fact, Fox seems to be courting controversy for "Daddy Dearest" by scheduling the show at 9:30 Sunday nights -- after "Married . . . With Children," a hit that has consistently tested the limits of taste on network TV.
And a network vice president opened the news conference by asking: "Don Rickles and Richard Lewis -- where else but Fox?"
The controversy that is sure to surround "Daddy Dearest" could turn out to be one of the most important stories of the fall season. If nothing else, the show will test the limits of ethnic humor on prime-time TV like no show since "All in the Family." And that test should help us understand, to some extent, how far we have come -- or not come -- in the past 15 years regarding cultural diversity and tolerance.
Rickles says he's ready for the controversy.
"I don't get into that political correctness stuff," he says. "Funny is funny . . . My whole act is based on making fun of people . . . You can't please everybody."
The producers say they're ready, too.
"The political incorrectness is about that much of the show to us," Van Zandt says, pinching his thumb and index finger together.
"We're not going to censor . . .if we get letters, we get letters . . . if people switch us off, they switch us off."