Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re continuing 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.
What an uneven season! Despite the initial upswing in quality following Redd Foxx’s return (following three more Foxx-less episodes that were saved to air in the middle of the year), Sanford And Son begins its descent into mediocrity. This is largely a result of Turteltaub and Orenstein, who took the reigns for the last half of the series’ run and simply can’t resist turning the show into a cheap gag-filled cartoon. The days of continued excellence are behind us, and while there are a handful of episodes that work pretty well, very few are unqualified successes. Too many stories are illogical, or worse yet, unoriginal. It’s rare to find an episode that meets these three basics: funny, believable, and unique. So this was a harder list to make. But I have picked ten 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 ten best episodes of Season Four. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 63: “The Surprise Party” (Aired: 09/13/74)
Both Grady and Fred feel unwanted when the latter returns from St. Louis.
Written by Saul Turteltaub & Bernie Orenstein | Directed by Norman Abbott
Produced several episodes after Foxx’s first episode back, the decision to make Fred’s return a part of the narrative shows a wonderful self-awareness, and also allows for a genuine celebration. Surprisingly, while this episode has a function, it also manages to be quite often hilarious. Fred and Esther’s sparring is certainly the comedic highlight (the bit with the party hat is a scream), but the script’s sentimentality is appropriate and welcomed. (And kudos to Foxx for a great drunk bit.)
02) Episode 64: “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” (Aired: 09/20/74)
Fred and Grady plot to marry Lamont off in the hopes of obtaining an inheritance.
Written by Jerry Ross | Directed by Bill Foster
Beginning the trend towards unoriginality, this episode’s saving grace is its humor. Fred goes to a matchmaking service to get a date for Lamont (behind his back), while Grady tags along as the sidekick (which he’ll do for several episodes this season). The scene lends itself to comedy. However, the script only gets better from there — breaking with expectations and allowing an amusing guest spot for Beverly Sanders as Lamont’s date.
03) Episode 66: “Grady And His Lady” (Aired: 10/04/74)
A jealous Fred plots to break up Grady and his new girlfriend.
Written by Gene Farmer | Directed by Stan Lathan
Another hallmark of the second half of Sanford And Son is extreme broadness. The comedy is less refined (or character driven) and more gimmicky. This episode is an example of this trend, as Fred’s schemes to split up Grady and his unattractive girlfriend make the installment seem more like a sketch comedy than a sitcom. It’s on my list because there are a few laughs, and, as is often the case, Redd Foxx elevates his material.
04) Episode 67: “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” (Aired: 10/11/74)
To keep Lamont from moving out, Fred agrees to host his son’s group encounter.
Written by Jerry Ross and Earl Pomerantz | Directed by Norman Abbott
The first episode Redd Foxx shot upon his return to the series, this installment is delightfully ’70s. (While some TV watchers maintain that it’s important for sitcoms to be “timeless,” I appreciate when a series is of its era.) The whole group encounter sequence with all the members touching each other is amusingly kooky, and Fred’s reactions to the shenanigans are naturally comedic. However, the best bit occurs in the tag, when Foxx rips off LaWanda Page’s wig, to the surprise of Demond Wilson. Hilarious. (This is also the first appearance of Lamont’s friend, Ah Chew.)
05) Episode 73: “Fred’s Treasure Garden” (Aired: 11/29/74)
Fred and Rollo recognize the wild parsley growing in Fred’s garden as marijuana.
Written by Ilunga Adell | Directed by Herbert Kenwith
One of the funniest episodes of the season, this is one of the three installments produced before Foxx’s return. Sitcoms of this decade seem to delight in doing episodes about marijuana (snicker, snicker). This episode is actually one of the best, simply because it’s such fun. Despite Grady’s amusing naiveté, Aunt Esther’s whiplash, and a pair of drunk cops, a slightly hoarse Rollo earns MVP for this episode. His desire to dispose of the ganja himself is a riot.
06) Episode 74: “Tower Power” (Aired: 12/06/74)
Fred decides to create his own piece of modern art: a tower of junk.
Written by Calvin Kelly | Directed by Bill Foster
This episode works because of its originality. In fact, it’s probably the most original installment of the season. More than that, the story is completely rooted in Fred’s character, and wouldn’t work on any other series. When Lamont dates a woman who works in an art museum, Fred decides to create his own work of modern art: a tower of junk! Again, there’s some really funny stuff with Aunt Esther, but the strength of the story makes it worthy enough.
07) Episode 76: “The Merger” (Aired: 12/20/74)
Problems arise when the Sanfords and Julio decide to merge their businesses.
Written by Jerry Ross | Directed by Bill Foster
Although I enjoy the character of Julio, I don’t think he was given anything that matched the quality of his first appearance back in Season Two. (I think this is essentially because he’s a one-joke character.) Like many Julio installments from the past few years, this episode works because of its premise. The idea of merging the junk yards is ripe for comedy, and while the script could have been tighter, I (again) like that this story could only work for this series. But, like most Season Four episodes, it’s very cartoony, as the writers go for cheap laughs.
08) Episode 80: “The Masquerade Party” (Aired: 01/31/75)
Fred, Grady, and Bubba appear on a game show in the hopes of winning Lamont a birthday present.
Story by Redd Foxx | Teleplay by Ted Bergmann | Directed by Norman Abbott
This episode, with a story credit for Redd Foxx, has gimmick written all over it. Fred, Grady, and Bubba all don ridiculous costumes to go on a game show called “Wheel And Deal” (a clear parody of Let’s Make A Deal) so that Fred can win a birthday present for Lamont. So there IS a plot, but it’s merely an excuse to get the trio dressed as fools on a game show. And while that’s inherently funny, it’s nothing spectacular.
09) Episode 83: “The Headache” (Aired: 02/21/75)
Could Lamont’s chronic headaches be a result of his nagging father?
Written by Arnie Rosen | Directed by Bill Foster
Once more, we’ve seen this story on other series. Once more, we’ve seen similar stories on THIS series. However, this episode works because of the parallels made between the Lamont-Fred story and the soap operas that Fred’s been watching on television (which are an easy, but undeniably excellent, source of comedy). The tacky organ music and the closing voice over — it’s all delightfully silly, making for a unique spin on a familiar plot.
10) Episode 86: “The Over-The-Hill Gag” (Aired: 03/14/75)
Lamont mistakingly believes that his father only has six months to live.
Written by Matt Robinson | Directed by Stan Lathan
Interestingly, this was the first episode taped for the fifth season. But because production on Season Five began so early, NBC decided to tack this episode on at the end of the year (and save the miserable backdoor pilot for the ill-fated Grady spin-off for the following month). It’s not an original premise, but the episode has some fine guest stars, and the beat involving a visit from Lena Horne (whom Fred met back in Season Two) is a strong one because it’s rooted in our prior knowledge of Fred’s obsession with her.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Home Sweet Home,” in which a Japanese real estate firm seeks to buy the neighborhood, “A Little Extra Security,” in which Grady benefits from a Social Security glitch, “Strange Bedfellows,” in which Lamont becomes involved in local politics, “The Stung,” in which Fred’s prank on Lamont and his poker buddies seems to backfire, and “The Older Woman,” in which Lamont dates a woman his senior.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Sanford And Son goes to…..
“There’ll Be Some Changes Made”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from Season Five! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!