There have been many film critics on television. There’s Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, Gene Shalit and Jeffrey Lyons, even fictional reviewers like “The Critic”‘s Jay Sherman and “In Living Color”‘s Blaine Edwards and Antoine Merriweather.
And then there’s Harry Papp. Poor, poor Harry Papp, the film critic who was fired for looking like a monkey.
You read that right. Papp was the subject of one of the strangest hours in the history of televised legal drama, an episode of the ‘90s series “The Practice” entitled “Sex, Lies, and Monkeys.” Papp (veteran character actor Joe Grifasi, the “Oh my God, look at Donahue!” guy from “Naked Gun 33 1/3”) brings a wrongful termination suit against his former employer of nine years, newspaper publisher Mr. Holt (veteran character actor Richard Riehle, the “Jump to Conclusions Mat!” guy from “Office Space”). And why does Papp claim Holt fired him?
“He said I looked like a monkey. He said I had too much body hair and that it made him uncomfortable.”
This isn’t one of those “he said, she said” type lawsuits. Mr. Holt readily agrees: he fired Papp for looking like a monkey. So it should be an open-and-shut case right? Well, not exactly.
Holt claims he’s not a bigot — he wouldn’t fire someone because of the color of their skin, although he readily admits he gave another employee the boot for being fat. The legal issue at stake is whether a small business owner has the right to determine who he works with and why, even if his reasons for doing so are based upon personal prejudice. But “The Practice” is far less interested in the legal issue than the use of that legal issue as a platform to make fun of film critics.
Take poor Harry Papp’s appearance. With a big matted wig and enough fake hair on his neck and hands to make Robin Williams look like an alopecia victim, he really does resemble a monkey. But that’s just scratching the surface of the insults. As the case goes on, the defense attorney basically puts the entire profession of film criticism on trial. Here’s Holt’s lawyer’s closing argument. Notice how he starts by saying he’s “not to make too much of this film critic business” and then makes too much of the film critic business:
So just to recap, in the eyes of “The Practice” writers Ed Redlich, Stephen Gaghan, Michael R. Perry, and series creator David E. Kelley, film critics:
-Don’t do anything.
-Are bored and bitter and lazy.
-Feel like they’re wasting their lives.
-Are jealous of other journalists.
-Have zero initiative.
-Look like monkeys.
Papp ultimately wins his case, possibly because Holt makes the tactical error of insulting the physical appearance of members of the jury, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory at best. In delivering his closing argument, Papp’s lawyer says about six sentences on how unfair it is to terminate someone based entirely on their looks. In delivering his closing argument, Holt’s lawyer lets loose with that lengthy, emphatic diatribe. The takeaway for the viewer: this film critic didn’t deserve to lose his job, but in the end all film critics deserve to lose their jobs because they’re stupid and ugly and contribute nothing to society.
Papp himself isn’t exactly a credit to his vocation. When he’s put on the stand for cross-examination, every word out of his mouth is designed to make the audience hate film critics. He claims people are “jealous” of him because he gets to interview celebrities. He says he knows “in [his] heart” that if film critics weren’t around “the general public wouldn’t be able to decide whether they liked the movie or not.” I’ve never met a film critic who speaks like this; just artists who like to imagine they do because they hold grudges over the bad reviews they’ve received.
Bear in mind, there’s no narrative reason for Papp to be a film critic. A story about a guy fired for his bad looks could take place in any line of work, likewise Holt’s defense that he started his own company so he could do what he pleased, including the firing of ugly people. The only reason Harry Papp — and, yes, just to reiterate, they named the guy with a lot of body hair Harry — is a film critic is to settle some kind of personal vendetta Kelley or the other writers must have had with someone who’d trashed their work.
If you don’t believe me, you can watch the episode in its entirety at the link below. There’s also a really powerful subplot where Camryn Manheim’s character gets sued by a schlubby guy for refusing to date him. The theme of judging people based on their looks connects the two subplots. I’d interrogate that further, but I’m a film critic which means I’m too lazy and bored to do it.
Watch “Sex, Lies, and Monkeys” on Hulu.