Finally, a TV event for those of us who aren’t into musical theater. Though there was one stand-out song (all hail Queen JHud!), Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons was a loving, celebratory exercise in the art of situation comedy — a production by TV nerds for TV nerds.
The 90-minute special opened with Lear himself, dapper and trim at 96 years old, sitting in Archie Bunker’s beat-up brown perch, perhaps the most famous armchair in television history. Just as CBS originally ran a warning in front of the first episode of All in the Family, Lear gently reminded viewers that “the language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today.” Both All in the Family and its spin-off The Jeffersons are exalted in the television history books as shows that Broke Boundaries in the 1970s — talking openly about racial tensions, class divides, sexism, religion, and other not-yet-ready-for-prime-time topics. One of the many worries about revisiting these or other classic comedies today, nearly half a century later, is that the jokes will feel musty and tame — or worse, in these easily-triggered times, problematic.
And indeed, there was a ripple of nervous laughter from the studio audience when Archie (Woody Harrelson) referred to one of the Bunkers’ African-American neighbors as “colored.” In the episode, “Henry’s Farewell” from season 4, Archie bristles at the idea of attending a goodbye party for Henry Jefferson (Anthony Anderson), because he and Henry’s brother George Jefferson (Jamie Foxx), don’t get along. When his daughter Gloria (Ellie Kemper) reminds him that the Jeffersons are some of their “closest friends,” Archie scoffs, “Their closest friends are still shrinking heads in Africa!” That’s a gasp-out-loud line in any era, and it elicited a low hum of uneasiness from Studio Audience’s studio audience. But the tension was temporary, as Lear intended. All in the Family always sought “to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns,” as CBS’s original warning told viewers in 1971. Once the 2019 audience, at home and in the studio, got over the initial shock of Archie’s insensitive vulgarity, they (and we) realized it was ok to relax a little, and laugh. (Of course, had ABC not bleeped the n-word, which was uttered twice in the Jeffersons episode, that relaxed mood would have been summarily shattered.)
What host and executive producer Jimmy Kimmel brought to Live in Front of a Studio Audience, besides a Gen X fanboy’s love of Lear’s signature humor, was a raft of famous friends to play the 17 characters required for both episodes. For an ensemble comprised entirely of stunt-cast celebrities, Studio Audience had a remarkable success rate. As Bunker, Harrelson delivered a solid Carroll O’Connor impression, though sometimes his accent veered into Queens-by-way-of-Hyannis-Port territory. Marisa Tomei was a sheer delight as Edith Bunker; her performance was part warm homage to Jean Stapleton’s quavery brilliance, and part reminder to every TV executive watching that she has an Oscar, thank you very much.
Knowing that many viewers likely weren’t familiar with either sitcom, Lear and Kimmel wisely chose to pair “Henry’s Farewell,” the All in the Family episode that first introduced George Jefferson, with the pilot for The Jeffersons, “A Friend in Need.” Jamie Foxx, who stepped into Sherman Hemsley’s snug three-piece suits as George, made the most of his grand entrance in the first episode. Wiggling and waggling his head in an exaggerated tribute to Hemsley’s trademark mannerisms, barging through Archie’s front door in a fine replica of George’s cock-of-the-walk strut, the In Living Color vet brought an electric sketch-comedy energy to his performance. So what if it was more impression than interpretation? Foxx gave the people what they wanted — including the viral flub we were all waiting for. (“It’s live!” he barked after messing up a line.)
In contrast, Wanda Sykes — as Louise “Weezy” Jefferson — chose to play her character as Weezy, not “Isabel Sanford as Weezy.” The episode centered on George and Louise’s debate over hiring a maid for their new deeee-lux apartment in the sky: George tells Louise she deserves to have the help, but she’s still uneasy about their recent change in social status. “I’ve had a lifetime of being poor,” she sighs. Sykes has a fierce, no-nonsense edge that fits well with George’s give-as-good-as-she-gets wife, and the comedian layered her take on Weezy with an undercurrent of anxiety that deepened the resonance of the story.
Live in Front of a Studio Audience was packed with fun novelties — how often do you see Kerry Washington (as The Jefferson’s Helen) and Will Ferrell (as Helen’s husband Tom) dueting on Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got the Sun in the Morning”? — but I think my favorite came at the very end when Weezy opened the door to reveal original Jeffersons star, Marla Gibbs. The 87-year-old actress, who played the Jefferson’s sharp-tongued maid Florence, reprised her role for ABC’s live event — and she was greeted, as any legend should be, by a thunderous wall of applause. Even Sykes herself, standing at the door and holding, waiting for the crowd to quiet down, could not contain her glee. In that moment Sykes was — like all of us at home — a fan, thrilling at the sight of an actress and a character she loved. Television doesn’t get more unifying than that. B+