Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from one of the unashamedly funniest sitcoms of the decade, Sanford And Son (1972-1977, NBC). I’m thrilled to announce that every single episode of the series has been released on DVD.
Widower Fred G. Sanford and his adult son Lamont reside in their humble Watts abode, which also doubles as a junkyard. With the irascible Fred around, hijinks are always bound to ensue — much to the bemused chagrin of Lamont. Sanford And Son stars Redd Foxx as Fred G Sanford and DEMOND WILSON as Lamont Sanford.
Bewilder by the success of CBS’s All In The Family, producer Bud Yorkin turned for inspiration to another successful British show — this time for comedically challenged NBC. The British series was Steptoe And Son (BBC, 1962-1965; 1970-1974) about a father-and-son team of junk dealers. NBC turned the series into a vehicle for Redd Foxx, a black stand-up comedian known for his racy material. With Foxx at the helm, Sanford And Son revolutionized the depiction of African Americans on television. For the first time, black actors were allowed to play black characters — who ACTED like black characters. Race was a part of the story, but unlike All In The Family (and Steptoe) the series wasn’t concerned with social or political issues. At least, not overtly. While those themes were ever present, the principal focus of the series was comedy, and for a while, Sanford And Son was among the funniest shows on TV. However, the abbreviated Season One (it was a midseason replacement) is a little slow, as 12 of the 14 scripts are adapted from the BBC series, and not surprisingly, it takes the entirety of the first year to find itself. (With none of those wonderful recurring players!) But that’s okay — there’s some worthwhile stuff here too. So I have picked six episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the six best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.) Note that every episode this season, except for one, is written by Aaron Ruben, and that every episode except for two, are adapted from scripts written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
01) Episode 2: “Happy Birthday, Pop” (Aired: 01/21/72)
Lamont treats Fred to a night out on the town in celebration of his 65th birthday.
Directed by Bud Yorkin
Though this episode is a bit stiff and far from being the funniest episode of the season, the installment is largely built around the characters and their interactions. The story, which brings them from a bar, to the movies, to a Chinese restaurant, is merely an excuse to put the characters in different locales and allow them to play off one another. The fluidity is appealing, and though the laughs aren’t as abundant as they’d be if this episode was done next season, the way in which both the script and the performers are building the characters is worth a watch.
02) Episode 3: “Here Comes The Bride, There Goes The Bride” (Aired: 01/28/72)
Relatives are of little comfort when Lamont’s bride-to-be dumps him at the altar.
Directed by Bud Yorkin
This is an atypical Sanford And Son episode. Again, the performers are a little stiff, and the premise really isn’t as funny as one would expect from the series. Lamont getting jilted — on-screen — is not enjoyable to watch. Furthermore, it’s in contrast to the lighthearted fare for which this series would soon be known. However, I’ve included this episode here because of the sincerity of the script and for the introduction of the family — a source that (when used right) can provide much comedy. (Just wait until next season’s introduction of Aunt Esther!)
03) Episode 6: “We Were Robbed” (Aired: 02/18/72)
Fred fakes a robbery when he accidentally breaks Lamont’s porcelain collection.
Directed by Coby Ruskin
Things begin to loosen up starting with this episode, which happens to be one of the abbreviated year’s funniest. When Fred clumsily breaks Lamont’s porcelain, he pretends that it was stolen in a burglary. As sitcom law dictates, the lie gets bigger and bigger until Fred is awarded for his bravery in staving off the intruders. The best moment is Lamont’s justice when he turns the tables on Fred — delaying the outright reveal that he’s learned of his father’s deception. It’s the development you anticipate, but not in the way you would expect. And the episode is very funny.
04) Episode 9: ‘Coffins For Sale” (Aired: 03/10/72)
Fred is spooked when Lamont brings a pair of coffins into the living room.
Directed by Charles S. Dubin
Credit must be given to the original British scribes for coming up with such an original premise. Fred’s superstitious side shows when he’s afraid to sleep under the same roof as a pair of coffins. (Though we’re supposed to find Fred’s behavior silly, can you blame him?) For the second time in this series (after “A Matter Of Life And Breath”), Lamont gets the opportunity to be even goofier — as the last third of the episode is given to Wilson, as he struggles with the fear that his father has since planted in his head. It’s all rather goofy, but that’s what we love about this series!
05) Episode 11: “TV Or Not TV” (Aired: 03/24/72)
Fred feigns amnesia to guilt Lamont into buying him a new color TV set.
Directed by Peter Baldwin
This is a bit like “We Were Robbed” as the story involves Fred scheming and lying to his son. While that lie was to avoid Lamont’s ire, this episode gives Fred a much more amusing motivation: he wants to guilt Lamont into buying him a new color TV set (instead of the car that Lamont bought for himself). While the amnesia beat does provide a lot of comedy, it’s a story that we’ve seen elsewhere, and thus, I’m not as impressed with the premise as most fans (some of whom consider this the season’s best) seem to be. But it’s very funny, and therefore, a first season classic.
06) Episode 14: “The Piano Movers” (Aired: 04/14/72)
Fred and Lamont are charged with removing a piano from a chic Beverly Hills apartment.
Directed by Bruce Bilson
Regular readers of my blog know how appreciative I am of sitcom episodes that play in limited time and space with a limited number of characters — like a one act play. This episode is a perfect example of this phenomenon, as the majority of the show takes place in the ritzy apartment of a swishy antique collector who’s giving our favorite junk dealers his ex-wife’s piano, as long as they remove it themselves. With a funny guest star (topical, without hitting our heads with it like AITF) and a focus on the relationship between Fred and Lamont, this is undoubtedly the best of the season. A unique installment that’s loaded with laughs — an unusual, but marvelous way to end the season.
Other notable episodes that failed to make the above list include: “A Matter Of Life And Breath,” in which Fred fears he’s contracted tuberculosis, “A Pad For Lamont,” in which Lamont moves away in an attempt to get some privacy, and “The Great Sanford Siege,” in which the duo is trapped inside their house to avoid a process server sent by the collection agency. The latter most deserves to make the list.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Sanford And Son goes to…..
“The Piano Movers”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Two! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!