How Norman Lear’s Historic Black Sitcoms Changed American Television
On Tuesday night, May 22nd, ABC is celebrating TV creator and producer Norman Lear with Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, a live remake of his two most iconic shows. Lear and his partner Bud Yorkin were the primary drivers in moving television sitcoms from the idealistic representations of husbands and wives sleeping in separate twin beds in the 1960s to a realistic depiction of America in the 1970s.
One of the successful runs in sitcom history began with a show about a bigoted, curmudgeonly white man named Archie Bunker. With All in the Family, Lear built a TV world that reflected the real world - especially the ugly and uncomfortable parts – for the first time. With a laugh track, Lear’s shows were the first to address abortion, menopause, politics and anti-war sentiments. The first to prominently feature an interracial married couple, the first to feature a transsexual character, and the first to make topics of race and class – “liberal” issues – the driving storylines on TV. Most importantly, Lear was the first creator/producer to center the black family and black stories on television, giving white viewers some of their first insights into the challenges – but more importantly the normalcy – of black families.
In advance of tonight’s special, we look at the two very different black family portraits Lear created for the world, why they were important, and where they fell short.
Good Times (1974 - 1979)
Good Times evolved from Lear’s realization that black people needed to be visible beyond the service and sidekick roles they usually occupied on television. The producer developed a backstory for Florida Evans, the maid for Bea Arthur’s Maude, so viewers would realize she had an existence outside of her service to white folks. “You’re seeing a different side of (Florida),” Esther Rolle said to Ebony about her character’s development. “What I do in my madam’s house is a façade; what I do at home is me.”
When John Amos was introduced as Florida’s husband (then named Henry), he and Rolle were so compelling together that CBS asked Lear to give them a spin-off.
Mike Evans, the first Lionel Jefferson (aka Light Skin Lionel, aka the Lionel that can actually act, aka the fine Lionel) had expressed an interest in writing to Lear (giving cast members shots to grow outside of their roles is a recurring theme with the producer), so Lear gave Evans and writer Eric Monte (Cooley High) a crack at the series.
Monte and Evans placed the Evans family in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects and along with Lear established three rules for the show: the Evans would never go on welfare; they would face the “reality of their world,” which in 1970s Chicago included gang violence, crime, financial challenges, and a pimp named Sweet Daddy; and despite anything the family faced, the Evans children would get an education.
The parameters the creators put in place were key as everyone knew they were breaking new ground: the Evans were the first black two-parent family on television.
The overprotective stay-at-home matriarch, three-job-working, strict disciplinarian patriarch, creative if flighty eldest trying to figure out his path, studious and straight-arrow daughter, and super-bright, politically aware and socially conscious youngest son weren’t unlike the make-up of any other American family, which was intentional.
But their problems were unique to any other family on TV, like trying to keep their son out of a gang in Southside Chicago.
“They were representing their entire race, who had never, ever been represented before,” Lear explained in his autobiography. “And I realized shortly into rehearsal, just from questions and conversations and body language and everything else, just how much weight was on them.”
The show, which Ebony called “…the best effort to date at showing a real slice of ghetto black life,” was a hit – and not just with black viewers. The audience was 60% white, and the pressure for positive representation was real. Lear’s unflinching commitment to real storylines produced episodes, not just about the challenges of living somewhere between working class and the working poor, like a neighbor eating dog food; but also ableism, age discrimination in the workforce, and child abuse (hi, young Janet Jackson). And conversations that are still hot topics forty years later, including racial bias in standardized testing and preventative health for black men (turns out, James was always mad because he had hypertension).
The challenges of balancing realism and comedy without playing into tropes and stereotypes kept the sitcom from reaching its full potential. That weight the adult cast felt caused tension with the creative team by the end of the first season. Rolle started pushing back on some story ideas and dialogue, including an episode where 16-year old Thelma is pressured to sleep with her older boyfriend. Rolle wouldn’t even review the script, telling Lear, “The last thing we want to deal with on this show is teenage sex… It is morally wrong, let’s not even discuss it.” Lear ultimately won that battle. Over time, the biggest conflict came from increased centering on J.J.’s “dy-no-mite”-punctuated antics and borderline buffoonery.
Amos and Rolle weren’t having it. “They chose to go for the obvious and the comedic...It started to dissipate into something I wasn’t terribly proud of.” Amos later said. He felt like the show was doing the other characters a disservice, saying, “’You guys don’t really matter. We’re more interested in seeing J.J. with a chicken hat on.’
”Rolle was more direct in her critique, “(J.J.)’s 18 and he doesn’t work, He can’t read and write. He doesn’t think,” she complained in an interview. “…they have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”
Jimmy Walker – who wasn’t close with anyone in the cast – responded in the same interview, “I play the way I see it for the humor of it. I don’t think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said.” (I guess syndication wasn’t a consideration in the ‘70s. But also, Walker’s a clown, so…)
Amos and Rolle made a pact at the beginning of the series: they would fight to preserve the integrity of the characters and the family. When they felt they weren’t representing responsibly anymore, they spoke up. Amos threatened to leave the show at one point, forcing producers to delay taping. Eventually, he was labeled a “disruptive element” on the set, and they decided to kill James off. The choice to remove the key figure that made the show so important led to its eventual demise, but Amos later told Lear he was right to fire him for the way he behaved. Ironically, James’ death – just as he’s finally pulling his family out of the hood - produced one of the two most powerful scenes of the series, and maybe the only time we saw Rolle’s power as a stage actress.
(The second is Penny’s mama coming towards her with an iron, which I can’t even watch anymore.)
Watching now, viewers have identified Florida as a hater; she seemed to thwart every possible opportunity for the family to get even the tiniest glow up. But Florida was a manifestation of Rolle fighting with the show runners against anything she thought was gonna make us look crazy. Was some of it based in respectability? Absolutely. But considering Good Times was the only show of its kind, at least until What’s Happening!! debuted in 1976, I understand. Except for Black Jesus, that was fly. Florida was buggin’. Ebony, the most important black media outlet at the time, understood why she and Amos were fighting against foolery, too. The last black-centered sitcom before Diahann Carol’s Julia, Sanford and Son and Good Times had been Amos ‘n’ Andy, and nobody was trying to go back to that. “What seems to be called for now is a greater relevance among characters and a closer rein on a tendency to slide towards old-timey black minstrelsy. What is being revealed is a healthy awareness on the part of black performers that they are responsible for cleansing the stained image of blacks so long perpetrated on stage and screen.”
Shortly after John Amos left the show, Esther Rolle left as well, and ratings fell. Writers tried revamping J.J. as a mature head of the family, they introduced new characters and even brought Rolle back for a period, but the show was canceled in 1979.
Good Times feels now like Blaxploitation (and it was a bit) and poverty porn. But then, it was still a new version of our story told publicly. It was still a top-rated show about a black family. It was still a display of active and conscientious black parenting, including a black daddy with a job in a house, even in the ghetto.
The Jeffersons (1975 - 1985)
The Jeffersons was the longest running black family sitcom on television – longer than The Cosby Show. The show started just as the black middle class was building in the wake of the post-civil rights movement and was the first show to depict a black family that wasn’t working class. The show introduced one of the most iconic black TV characters in history. George Jefferson was the representation black folks had been waiting for; he was the hope and the dream. A black man from post-great migration Harlem who reached out with both hands to grab every part of the American Dream that he could as soon as it was available to him and would give white people his a** to kiss if they weren’t with it. It’s easy to dismiss George as mostly mouth and swagger, but that mouth and swagger were on our collective behalf.
Lear created the Jefferson family as an agitator for Archie Bunker. Lionel was a character from the beginning of the show, a smart young black man Archie considered one of the “good” ones. Then, the family moved in next door to the Bunkers – the first black family in the all-white Queens neighborhood.
George wasn’t introduced for a couple of seasons. Sherman Hemsley was in a Broadway production, but Lear was so intent on him in the role that he found workarounds. George was the black version of Archie: stubborn, bullheaded, archaic in some of his thinking, and prejudiced towards people who he deemed other. George was sharper than Archie, though, and a fighter, which created great tension between the two characters as their families fell into a neighborly relationship. Usually at odds, one of the best scenes between the two happens in a set-up episode for the spin-off. The Jeffersons are meeting the Willises for the first time, and George and Archie are equally horrified to discover Tom and Helen Willis are an interracial couple. As they watch Tom dance with Louise at the end of the scene (I think I might have preferred this Tom…I don’t think he would have taken George’s sh*t), they toast to their shared disapproval.
George: Bunker, what is this world coming to?
Archie: Beats me, Jefferson. All I got to say is (raises glass), here’s to yesterday.
Feedback from the scratchin’ and survivin’ work of Good Times impacted how Lear developed The Jeffersons. Three Black Panther party members showed up a Lear’s production company one day to express their displeasure with Good Times. Lear recounted the story for an interview, saying, “They were pissed off that the only (black) family that existed, the (patriarch) had to hold down three jobs.” The Panthers asked why there couldn’t be an affluent black family on television, and Lear listened. Maybe George and Weezy would have stayed next door to the Bunkers, or moved to the black middle-class Queens enclave Jamaica Estates, or back uptown to Harlem for the spinoff, but that random visit sent them to a deluxe apartment in the sky in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
The Cosbys, the Banks, and other upper middle class to upper-class TV families that came later were comfortable being comfortable. But the Jeffersons were adjusting to having finally attained the dream, being part of the early post-segregation black upper class, and the mixture of pride, guilt, and responsibility that came along with it – and so were the white people and other black people in their orbit. What happens when you’ve made it? When you jump from being a black housekeeper to hiring a black housekeeper? When your old friends from around the way come around? When you can buy your family whatever they want just because? How do you stay real in the midst of that?
The Jeffersons addressed not just race and class, but also race vs class. George wasn’t educated, but he worked hard, and expected his success to afford him respect and access - his theory was that green was more influential than black, and he was furious every time that proved to be untrue. There were plenty of puns based on George making social faux pas to impress elite white people, but there was also the very clear message – even if you’re a black millionaire: you still a ni**a.
I recently went back and watched the entire series on TV One, and the first few seasons are the blackest thing I have ever seen on television. As George and Louise are adjusting to their money and their lifestyle, the Harlem stayed jumping out. George still spoke in “jive” (the AAVE of the ‘70s), and would call somebody “ni**a” in a minute. Louise had a lot of fire early on, too. Her character became more one dimensional (and low key annoying) as the series progressed.
George was written to be abrasive and dislikable on the surface with redeeming qualities beneath, but Hemsley brought the character to life, with the walk he gave him without thinking, with Louise’s nickname, “Weezy,” with his attitude and mannerisms. Sherman was quiet, reserved in real life, and found playing George difficult. The blatant intolerance and insults, the rudeness and door slamming. It’s amazing from today’s more politically correct viewpoint that not only did this fly on primetime TV, but it was also one of the top sitcoms on air. The think pieces, Twitter hot takes and “What if this was a white character acting like this?” would be on a hundred if the show aired today. But George’s ridiculousness was the point.
At its best, the series educated viewers through George’s development, dispelling myths and stereotypes, and not just expanding the awareness of white viewers, but black ones, as well. At its funniest, the wit and wordplay were some of the best on TV. I would bet money that Martin pulled from George and Florence (a role we really don’t give Marla Gibbs enough love for) when writing Martin and Pam.
By the early ‘80s, the black professional class had grown and with the Reagan boom, plenty of families had moved on up. Now that the Jeffersons weren’t a unique story, the show was still cute but had lost its heart. CBS abruptly canceled it without a series finale.
George Jefferson endures, though. We know his walk, we know his dance, we know his door slam, we know him. We literally all know an old black man like George: ain’t gonna take no sh*t, kind of an a**, you worry he might say something extremely foul in public, but also has all the confidence and swagger.
Morehouse honored Norman Lear in 2016, and Dr. John Silvanus Wilson Jr., the university’s president, proclaimed that Lear “showed America 40 years ago that Black Lives Matter. He opened the eyes of millions of Americans when it came to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights, all by making us laugh about it heartily so that we can think about it differently. Norman Lear is and will always be, in TV and race relations, a pioneer.”
I know we stopped giving cookout invites, but somebody please send Norman Lear a plate.