Thoughts on (the first) LIVE IN FRONT OF A STUDIO AUDIENCE

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing some thoughts on the ABC special that aired last Wednesday, Live In Front Of A Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All In The Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’ which recreated a full episode of both those aforementioned series and got ratings so good that the entire show was rerun over the weekend… Now, if you’ll recall, I recently revealed that I was involved in a similar project called Norman Lear Theatre, which wanted to make an anthology series of four Lear classics, including the two above, along with both Maude and Good Times. That project fell through and seems to have merged with a long-simmering Jimmy Kimmel-Justin Theroux deal to re-stage classic sitcom episodes in one-off specials… Well, after having seen their efforts, I’m moderately enthused… and think it creatively wise that these are special events and NOT a sustaining series.

Here’s why: the recreation of classic sitcoms with actors from the present-day is an inherent gimmick. And the primary reason to watch is less a love for the shows themselves than a curiosity in how they will be reinterpreted. Accordingly, with curiosity the guiding factor, once you’ve tuned in to see how today’s folks do, there’s little need to come back. I mean, it only took a few minutes last week to see that, while the kids (including Ellie Kemper as Gloria) were surprisingly bland, Marisa Tomei attempted to imitate Jean Stapleton and generally succeeded because of nostalgia and the actor-proof (joke-laden) material. Woody Harrelson, meanwhile, struggled to determine whether he should try to be like Carroll O’Connor or give his own take — inevitably floundering because he couldn’t find the role’s underlining humanity (for reasons probably dealing with both O’Connor’s specter and Archie’s mounting political reputation). Thus, one episode was more than enough to sate my curiosity.

Unfortunately, I think the wrong episode was picked. (Sure, I was probably always going to be critical of the picking, given both what I do on this blog every week and what I was tasked with doing for the defunct Norman Lear Theatre, but in this case, I think the selected outing did really hurt the production.) As you know, the special decided to perform a script from Season Four entitled “Henry’s Farewell”… (which, in case you’re wondering, was cited as an Honorable Mention but otherwise did not make my list of that season’s best). The entry served an entirely functional purpose in its original run — it replaced proxy Jefferson patriarch, Henry, with the oft-mentioned, never-seen George, whose introduction Lear had delayed, allegedly due to Sherman Hemsley’s unavailability. In effect, this was the Jefferson trade-off show, with George’s debut being the primary calling card. And aside from giving more airtime to the Jefferson family and Jamie Foxx’s George in particular, I can imagine the entry also appealed for two topical reasons: its talk of Nixon, as this was aired after the summer of ’73, when Watergate broke, and a two-minute exchange about the possibility of a black or female president.

But as for the rest of the show, well, it’s a middle-of-the-road script from one of the series’ middling seasons, and watching both the 2019 recreation and then the 1973 original, one really comes to understand how attuned the original cast was — even Reiner and Struthers — at elevating what was given to them on paper. (And I forgot how arch and unnecessary the Lorenzos were — especially Frank, until I saw him without Vincent Gardenia.) But a special like this requires material so good that no actor can screw up and look bad. (Again, I think Tomei worked simply because Edith’s lines were actually funny.) So what should they have chosen?… Well, they very well couldn’t pick the iconic and star-needing “Sammy’s Visit,” but something similar like “Cousin Maude’s Visit” would have been ideal — it’s a classic that would have also given Kimmel the chance to cast another TV name as Maude without having to do Maude itself. Or if they wanted Watergate talk, why not do a funnier show from that era, like “We’re Having a Heat Wave”? Or if utilizing the George/Archie relationship was the primary concern, there’s much sharper entries on that front too, like “George And Archie Make A Deal” for one… Or, here’s a novel idea: why not do the best example of the series itself? “Meet The Bunkers.” Yeah, that’s right. The pilot: everything you need to know is right there.

At any rate, the ultimate effect of choosing a script that made it difficult for the actors to shine was that we were forced to focus on the material alone, and as a result, All In The Family came up looking like something of a museum piece — where references to local California elections took precedence over the characters and their relationships. But this makes sense. After all, Season Four is from a period in the show’s life where it was still clinging to topicality, but relying more and more on the humanity of its performers to supply laughs that weren’t as genuinely earned as they had been in the series’ more novel, inherently exciting first three seasons. So, Four wasn’t the show at its height; it was the show at the very beginning of its descent, neither truly relevant or truly irrelevant… Now how could actors who haven’t lived in these roles for years be expected to play something from this season and come off looking well?

Fortunately, I thought The Jeffersons was much better. Right from Jennifer Hudson’s electrifying rendition of the theme song, The Jeffersons felt like a living and breathing show — one that was very much from 1975, but without the emotional distance that plagued the All In The Family episode, where the actors didn’t feel safe to reinterpret the characters and the material didn’t allow them any leeway to find their own laughs. No, The Jeffersons got almost all of its original hahas last week and that’s thanks to a great roster of performers — including 227 vets Jackée Harry and Marla Gibbs, the latter in a surprise cameo playing her original role, Florence Johnston. It was a gimmick on top of a gimmick, but with curious nostalgia reigning supreme, it didn’t feel out of place… Nor did the Willises, Kerry Washington and Will Ferrell — whose campy portrayal of the “zebra” couple worked only because their roles were so finite (just a fun scene… with a couple of bleeped out n-words for shock value).

Naturally, though, the show was carried by the central Jeffersons — George and Weezy. Jamie Foxx, whose “unplanned” line flub in All In The Family earned a lot of attention (because it brought energy to a show that had otherwise lacked it), gave a burlesque impression of Hemsley in the first half hour — so accurate an impersonation that, for me, it didn’t work. However, in the actual Jeffersons episode, he toned it down and played it more straightforward, and with Wanda Sykes turning in an impressive performance as Louise, one that didn’t attempt to match the unforgettable Isabel Sanford, but instead arose seamlessly out of what Sykes could realistically offer, the Jeffersons came off looking like a real couple — one, again, from 1975, but still vital enough to earn laughs… I think there are several reasons for this: a) The Jeffersons is less iconic than All In The Family, for the latter is often credited — rightly — with kicking the proverbial door down with regard to topicality, allowing all ensuing shows, like The Jeffersons, to follow, and b) the show took far less of its material, comparatively, from sociopolitical issues, meaning that the characters didn’t have as much main-textual “relevance” to hide behind (which is why stupid story-driven episodes tended to be really stupid and story-driven). Right from the beginning, we had to be watching The Jeffersons for the Jeffersons.

But, of course, the main reason this 2019 production of The Jeffersons worked was because the right episode was chosen — “A Friend In Need” — the first official installment of the series, initially airing the week after a special All In The Family that introduced the new regulars and essentially served as the pilot. This one, which got to deal with similar themes — like the Jeffersons trying to adjust to their new world — didn’t presume we knew the side characters the way we knew George and Louise, but it also didn’t have to create them either. In other words, it got the best of both worlds, for it wasn’t an exposition-heavy pilot, but it also wasn’t so far in the run that it took the characters and their establishments for granted. Additionally, it introduced Florence, which allowed for the big cameo and gave the selection a motivation (in the same way, I guess, that they were hoping George could do with “Henry’s Farewell”)… More than anything though, the script is darn funny — I actually recommended it for Norman Lear Theatre — and that’s so important when trying to argue a sitcom’s merits.

So, it was a mixed bag, with most of the good stuff happening on The Jeffersons, and in my estimation, a lot of that had to do not only with casting, but also with the selection of material and what that permitted the cast to do… Yet the special did so well that I expect we’ll see more of Live In Front Of A Studio Audience. When this project was first announced several years ago, Kimmel mentioned doing shows by Lear, James Brooks, Garry Marshall, and Jim Burrows. (I imagine we’ll be seeing a Cheers in our future — a one-off chance to cast an ensemble of current TV stars in a one-act play.) So, what did YOU think? What would YOU like to see?



Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Raymond!