Signals Success of Black Situation Comedies Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Jeffersons, a spin-off from All in the Family, became an immensely successful situation comedy, one of the first to put a black cast into nonstereotyped scripts.

Summary of Event

“Getting taken to the cleaners” took on a whole new meaning when, in January, 1975, The Jeffersons came on the air. Originally, the characters George and Louise Jefferson, with their son, Lionel, had been next-door neighbors to Archie and Edith Bunker on All in the Family. All in the Family (television program) In that capacity, they fulfilled the role of allowing a humorous discussion about urban race relations. The Jeffersons proved to be economically upwardly mobile, finding business success as their single dry-cleaning shop in Queens turned into a chain of seven shops covering several areas of New York City. In celebration of their success, they moved out of their working-class neighborhood to an apartment on the upper East Side of Manhattan. This was where their own show was set. African Americans;television series Television;comedies African Americans;television series Television;comedies Lear, Norman Hemsley, Sherman Sanford, Isabel Evans, Mike Gibbs, Marla Roker, Roxie Cover, Franklin Benedict, Paul

The launching of The Jeffersons was testimony to the fact that, in the mid-1970’s, television was producing spin-off series at a furious rate. No show produced more spin-offs than the grandfather of the socially relevant situation comedy, Norman Lear’s All in the Family. George and Louise Jefferson bid farewell to Edith and Archie Bunker because the Jeffersons had established a television identity of their own that could support a separate series.

Marla Gibbs and Sherman Hemsley in a scene from the television series The Jeffersons.

(CBS/Landov)

The strength of situation comedies, or sitcoms, tends to be more in characters than it is in plots. The plots of sitcoms are, generally, routine and predictable. The strength of a program can be seen when a character is able to leave the original setting and establish a free-standing spin-off. It is astonishing that Norman Lear created so many strong characters. All in the Family spun off The Jeffersons and Maude, Maude (television program) the title character of which was introduced on All in the Family as Edith Bunker’s cousin; Maude later spawned Good Times, Good Times (television program) which featured the character who had been Maude’s maid. Gloria Bunker even had her own show, Gloria, in 1982 and 1983.

The basic situation pursued in The Jeffersons was the misplacement of a family in a social class. The Jeffersons had money, but they did not have the education or the social skills of their new associates. This was far from a new premise. Television had used the same concept a decade earlier with The Beverly Hillbillies. Beverly Hillbillies, The (television program) The Jeffersons was basically The Beverly Hillbillies, but with black characters. One twist was that while Jed Clampett tried to hold on to the old ways, George Jefferson was attempting to learn new ones. The Jeffersons also had elements reminiscent of the 1950’s situation comedy Father Knows Best: Father Knows Best (television program) George Jefferson tried to be the all-knowing father for his brood and usually made a mess of things in the attempt.

At the beginning of the series, George Jefferson was probably the most unsympathetic character on American television. He had few redeeming qualities, was devoid of warmth, was verbally abusive to his wife and son, harassed his maid, and was a bigoted, social-climbing snob who did not understand the social code of the class he was attempting to enter. Even the huge business and financial success he achieved with his dry-cleaning business did not change him. He remained short-tempered, bigoted, pompous, and a know-it-all. One critic noted that George Jefferson was an African American version of Archie Bunker, except that George had money while Archie was struggling to make ends meet.

The public responded to George, sensing that behind his blustery exterior there was insecurity and sadness. George had always believed that money was the key to the American Dream. Once he had acquired money, it was devastating to him that he still could not find acceptance.

Sherman Hemsley, who played George, had grown up as a member of a street gang in Philadelphia. Four years in the Air Force gave him discipline and direction in life and, on his discharge, he attended the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1967, he went to New York City to perform on Broadway. Norman Lear saw Hemsley in a performance and recalled him years later when he was casting for All in the Family.

Isabel Sanford played Louise, George’s long-suffering wife. The function of her character was to smooth out the feathers George ruffled and to remind him of his roots. Whenever George engaged in delusions of grandeur and narcissistic self-involvement, Louise would prick his bubble and put his feet solidly back on the ground. Even in their high-rise luxury apartment, Louise was a very down-to-earth person. She had known hard work and economy before their marriage, and she retained a practical outlook on life.

Sanford grew up in New York City and was so enamored of acting that she began doing nightclub acts without her mother’s knowledge or permission. She joined the American Negro Theatre and acted whenever and wherever she could. Her goal was to become a black comedian, and she pursued that goal by moving to Hollywood.

Marla Gibbs played Florence, the Jeffersons’ maid. Her ambition long had been to become a television star. She studied singing and acting in Hollywood before appearing on the situation comedy Barney Miller. From there she became a regular on The Jeffersons. Although some critics thought her portrayal of Florence perpetuated stereotypes about lazy black workers, Gibbs rejected this criticism by saying that she worked against such stereotypes by talking back to her employers and insisting that they do some of their own menial work. In her view, Florence was the representative of a common black heritage, that of the servant.

It is requisite of sitcoms that there be eccentric neighbors for the major characters to react to. Paul Benedict played such a character with his role of Harry Bentley. Occasionally, the character would suffer from back problems. On those occasions, Bentley would lie on the floor and ask George Jefferson to walk on him—symbolism carried to its ultimate degree. The microcosm inhabited by the characters on The Jeffersons gave Americans of the mid-1970’s to the mid-1980’s a chance to laugh at themselves and at the racial tensions of the time.

Significance

The Jeffersons was part of the new wave of socially relevant situation comedies that began to come on the air in the 1970’s. Television;relevance programs These relevance shows, which can be attributed to Norman Lear, with assistance from Mary Tyler Moore, all involved a degree of social consciousness and dealt with current issues of concern and controversy. By being a part of this line of approach, The Jeffersons helped change the face of television. Beginning in 1971, topics and even language that once had been taboo were made legitimate by the impact of such shows.

The Jeffersons broke ground beyond what had been accomplished by All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. The Jeffersons portrayed an atypical black family and its issues, which often came up in comical ways. American audiences had been slow to accept black characters in serious roles on television. Exceptions to this rule include Diahann Carroll Carroll, Diahann in Julia Julia (television program) and Bill Cosby Cosby, Bill in I Spy, I Spy (television program) but most black characters prior to the 1970’s were used to provide comic relief. The Jeffersons used several stock characters in this respect, but they all had more than one dimension to them. George Jefferson often portrayed a loud-mouthed, opinionated windbag; Florence was an “uppity” black woman, even though she worked as a maid. In many ways, The Jeffersons was no more than another domestic comedy, one that happened to be about an African American family. This in itself set a precedent, in that it showed that black actors could play mainstream roles and be accepted by viewers.

The serious side to the program came through the character of George Jefferson, whose bluster belied a sensitive nature that was hurt and bewildered by the failure of the American Dream to be fulfilled by his financial success. The show also presented to the public subjects not previously explored in great depth on entertainment television, subjects such as integrated neighborhoods and interracial marriage. Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker appeared on The Jeffersons as the Willises, prime time’s first interracial married couple. To the extent that The Jeffersons helped open the way for racial tolerance, the show had social significance.

The secret to the success of Norman Lear, in this respect, was his use of humor to attract viewers. Then, once they had become involved in the show, Lear stimulated them to think about their prejudices. It is impossible to say how effective this relevance approach was in changing attitudes and opinions. Many studies indicate that the initial reaction of viewers was reinforcement of the attitudes they held before they watched the show; in short, they saw what they wanted to see. The long-term impact was to wear down resistance to unfamiliar social situations such as integrated neighborhoods, although this did not mean that viewers came to approve of these conditions. It is noteworthy, however, that the liberal social context of The Jeffersons met with little resistance from ultraconservative groups, and no stations canceled their broadcast of the program.

Although set in radically different social conditions, The Jeffersons was a lineal descendant of Amos ’n’ Andy. Amos ’n’ Andy (television program)[Amos n Andy] The picturesque characters of the old radio show, which made the transition to television, made their comedy work by tricking other black people and had only minimal contact with white society. George Jefferson tried to outwit all of society and integrate himself into white society when it suited his purposes. Amos ’n’ Andy was about black people, but the intended audience was largely white. The heavily stereotyped characters appealed to the ignorance and prejudice of whites who lived in a segregated society, but the black community recognized the program for what it was. The Jeffersons was clearly about black people and targeted a black audience as well as the large white audience. Perhaps the major difference between Amos ’n’ Andy and The Jeffersons, and a measure of the impact of relevance programming, can be seen in the roles of the two Georges. George “The Kingfish” Stevens on Amos ’n’ Andy ducked his head, shuffled his feet, and said, “Yas, suh, Boss.” On The Jeffersons, George Jefferson looked the world in the eye because he was the boss, a successful independent businessman.

The Jeffersons remained a hit well into the Ronald Reagan years, going off the air in 1985. By that time, socially conscious shows generally had lost their appeal. Their legacy, and the legacy of The Jeffersons in particular, can be seen in the shows that developed later. African Americans;television series Television;comedies

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fiske, John. Television Culture. New York: Methuen, 1987. A heavily sociological work that analyzes television through technical sociological research and studies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldstein, Fred, and Stan Goldstein. Prime-Time Television. New York: Crown, 1983. Combines text and pictures to present a vivid history of television from 1948 to 1983. Discusses most programs or series during this period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hefzallah, Ibrahim M. Critical Viewing of Television. 2d ed. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2002. A teacher of classes on critical viewing of television discusses how to understand television, how it affects viewers, and advice on becoming a critical viewer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Means Coleman, Robin R. African American Viewers and the Black Situation Comedy. New York: Garland, 2000. Ethnography explores how blacks have been depicted in black situation comedies since the 1950’s. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mitz, Rick. The Great TV Sitcom Book. New York: Richard Marek, 1980. Covers virtually every situation comedy shown on television from 1949 to 1980. In addition to describing the shows, discusses social reference points and proposes reasons particular shows succeeded or failed. Good for placing The Jeffersons in the context of its time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, John, ed. American History, American Television. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. Discusses how television acts as a social force and why television deserves serious study. The essays included range over a broad variety of topics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rose, Brian G., and Robert S. Alley, eds. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Explains how and why television shows fall into a limited number of formats. Cross-fertilization of genres sometimes occurs, as in the case of situation comedies that become issue-oriented.

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