On The Jeffersons

I remember watching The Jeffersons all the time as a kid, particularity because my grandmother and great-grandmother liked it (they had liked All In The Family). According to the Museum TV article:

The Jeffersons, which appeared on CBS television from 1975 to 1985, focused on the lives of a nouveau riche African-American couple, George and Louise Jefferson. George Jefferson was a successful businessman, millionaire and owner of seven dry cleaning stores. He lived with his wife in a ritzy penthouse apartment on Manhattan’s fashionable and moneyed East Side. “We’re movin’ on up!” intoned the musical theme of the show opener that featured George, Louise and a moving van in front of “their de-luxe apartment in the sky.”

The program was conceived by independent producers, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. This team’s creation of highly successful and often controversial sitcoms during the 1970s and early 1980s, helped to change television history. Programs such as Maude, Sanford and Son, and Good Times enjoyed frequent rankings amongst the top-ten most watched programs.

The Jeffersons was a spin-off of one of 1970s television’s most notable television sitcoms, All in the Family. In 1973, Lear cast Sherman Hemsley in the role of George Jefferson, Archie Bunker’s irascible and upwardly mobile black neighbor. This character was such a hit with viewers that Hemsley was soon cast in the spin-off series, The Jeffersons.

George and Louise Jefferson lead lives that reflected the trappings of money and success. Their home was filled expensive furnishings; art lined the walls. They even had their own black housekeeper, a wise-cracking maid named Florence. The supporting cast consisted of a number of unique characters including neighbor Harry Bentley, an eccentric Englishman who often made a mess of things; the Willises, a mixed-race couple with two adult children–one black, one white; and, the ever-obsequious Ralph the Doorman, who knew no shame when it came to earning a tip. Occasional characters included George’s mother, the elderly and quietly cantankerous “Mother Jefferson” (the actress, Zara Cully died in 1978), and George’s college-aged son (who was portrayed during various periods by two different actors).

The George Jefferson character was conceptualized as an Archie Bunker in blackface. George was intolerant, rude, and stubborn; he referred to White people as “honkies.” He was a short, mean, bigoted popinjay who balked at manners. Louise, his long-suffering wife, spent most of her time apologizing for her husband’s behavior. Florence, the maid, contributed a great deal of comic relief, with her continuous put-downs of George. She was not afraid of his of angry outbursts, and in fact had little regard for him or his tirades. She referred to him as “Shorty,” and never missed a chance to put him in his place.

The program was enormously popular and remained on prime-time television for ten years. There are a number of factors that position this program as an important facet of recent television history. First, The Jeffersons was one of three programs of the period to feature African-Americans in leading roles–the first such programming since the cancellation of the infamous Amos ‘n’ Andy show in 1953. The Jeffersons was the first television program to feature an interracial married couple, and it offered an uncommon, albeit comic, portrayal of a successful African American family. Lastly, The Jeffersons is one of several programs of the period to rely heavily on confrontational humor. Along with All in the Family, and Sanford and Son, the show was also one of many to repopularize old-style ethnic humor.

It also serves to examine some of the controversy that surrounded The Jeffersons. Throughout its ten-year run on prime-time television, the show did not go without its share of criticism. The range of complaints, which emanated from media scholars, television critics and everyday black viewers ranged from the show’s occasional lapses into the negative stereotyping to its sometimes lack of ethnic realism. To some, the early Louise Jefferson character was nothing more than an old-south Mammy stereotype. And George, though a millionaire businessman, was generally positioned as nothing more than a buffoon or the butt of someone’s joke. Even his own maid had no respect for him. Some blacks questioned, “Are we laughing with George as he balks at convention, or at George as he continuously makes a fool of himself.”

Ironically, as the show continued into the conservatism of the Reagan years the tone of the program shifted. Louise Jefferson’s afro disappeared and so did her poor English. There was no mention of her former life as a housekeeper. George’s racism was toned down and the sketches were rendered more palatable as to appeal to a wider audience. As with Amos ‘n’ Andy some twenty years prior, America’s black community remained divided in its assessment of the program.

This period of television history was a shifting one for television programmers seeking to create a show featuring African Americans. Obvious stereotypes could no longer be sold, yet the pabulum of shows like Julia was equally as unacceptable. The Jeffersons joined other Lear/Yorkin programs in setting a new tone for prime-time television, exploring issues that TV had scarcely touched before, while it proved that programs with blacks in leading roles could indeed be successful commodities

According to the Inside Pulse review:

You can get so familiar with a character that you forget that the actor might have interests that aren’t in the scripts. When Sherman Hemsley passed away in 2012, stories came out that the man best known as George Jefferson was a serious prog rock fan. This included a rumor that he had made a record with Jon Anderson of Yes. Instead of repeating the blabberblogs rumor, I wrote Jon Anderson’s official website to ask if he really made a record with Sherman. The next day, singer of “Starship Trooper” and “Roundabout” emailed me back. Jon Anderson wrote this loving tribute: “We talked we laughed, we talk we sang, we laughed….and so it goes…he was fun to be around.. but we never got any further than that…what a guy…what a face!!!” Sherman might not have made a record with Jon Anderson, but he had a deep friendship with the English singer. It’s easy to understand that there’s more to Sherman than George Jefferson. There’s also more to The Jeffersons than just a long running sitcom. This was a TV institution. The Jeffersons: The Complete Series – The Deee-luxe Edition contains 11 seasons and 253 episodes about a family that was always wanting to move on up.

TV in the mid-70s had already embraced a series about a family living high above the city streets in an apartment. However that was Good Times where the family was struggling to make ends meet as they lived in a dangerous government subsidized edifice. Producer Norman Lear had the perfect opportunity to show a different perspective of a minority family that takes the elevator up to their home. The Jeffersons were recurring characters on All in the Family. Very quickly George (Hemsley) became a fan favorite as he gave Archie Bunker the business. Archie couldn’t stand that a black guy was running a successful business. Weezie (Isabel Sanford) was a friend to Edith. Their son Lionel (Mike Evans) was tight with Gloria and Meathead (Rob Reiner). The family was launched into their own show in 1975 when they moved across the bridge from Queens into the glamour that’s Manhattan.

There’s a strange confusion as to the order of things. The Jeffersons made their big move to the city on an episode of All In the Family. The first real episode of The Jeffersons has them already living in their apartment. So if you want to watch this show properly, start with the >AITF episode on the bonus DVD. You’re not spoiling anything as you get to see the historic moment when Mr. Bentley (Sesame Street‘s Paul Benedict) first asks George to walk on his back. The first real episode of The Jeffersons deals with money, race and friendship. “A Friend in Need” starts off with Weezie having coffee with a woman she considers a friend. Turns out she’s also a maid to one of Weezie’s neighbors. The maid thinks that Weezie and George are the staff for the family living in the apartment. George explains to his wife that they are no longer the people they were. They are money now. The odd thing is that George doesn’t see his neighbors as merely a shade of green. He’s got an issue with the Willis family. Seems that Tom (Franklin Cover) and Helen (Roxie Roker) are a married couple. He’s white. She’s black. George thinks it’s wrong. He does his best to get them angry at each other. He doesn’t like that their daughter is dating Lionel. The Willis’ tolerate George because they adore Lionel and Weezie. The big turn in the episode is when George wants to hire a maid to take care of the apartment’s numerous bathrooms. Weezie is caught in the middle since she’s always taken care of the house. Now she has to consider hiring her friend to work for her. The eventual hiring of the maid brings on the sassy Florence Johnston (Marla Gibbs). She’s fearless in her treatment of George. She puts the little guy in his place.

The episodes switched between issue oriented plots and normal sitcom frivolity. “Louise Feels Useless” has her get a job to do something with her time. What she can’t tell George is that she’s now working for a rival dry cleaners. “Jenny’s Low” displays the frustration of the Willis’ daughter since her brother is able to pass for white. He doesn’t have the racial hassles she gets. This isn’t a script recycled from The Brady Bunch. “Louise’s Daughter” features the Darren switcheroo. Lionel turns into Damon Evans Why did Chris Evans leave the role? Because he was a creator and writer on Good Times. Chris and Damon don’t seem to be related. In a confusing moment, Chris returned to the role a few seasons later when Good Times was canceled. But Lionel wasn’t a major character in the later years. The original Lionel in the All in the Family pilots was played by D’Urville Martin. The actor would achieve cinema immortality by directing and starring inDolemite.

The show had quite a few famous guest stars. Gary Coleman played George’s nephew in an episode. Sammy Davis, Jr. moves next door in order to get some rest. Of course he can’t be left alone by his new neighbors. “You’ll Never Get Rich” sends the family to Atlantic City. This was the boon time for the now self-destructing gambling town. Among the people near the craps table is Phyllis Diller, Charo, Engelbert Humperdinck, Helen Reddy, Joe Frazier, and Michael Spinks. It’s like a Love Boat on land.

What interesting to note in the show is the treatment of the apartment. We’re assured in the theme song that it’s a “deee-luxe apartment.” But this is not some ostentatious penthouse being pimped by Donald Trump. It’s almost suburban in its layout and furniture. The kitchen looks rescued from The Brady Bunch. This is not a sleek temple of European design. While the Jeffersons have come along way since being stuck next to Archie Bunker, they’re not quite ready for The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous crew to call up from the lobby. The feeling that the Jeffersons were doing good, but not rolling in Silver Spoons money allowed the sitcom to be anchored to a certain reality. Viewers weren’t teased with the ritzy life like an episode of Dynasty. George’s wealth was not unobtainable. Sure they were better off than the family on Good Times, but George and friends still had issues of race, economics and friendship. Just because you’ve moved up in the world, doesn’t mean you’ve freed yourself of problems. There’s so much more to The Jeffersons than an inspiration theme song.



One thought on “On The Jeffersons

  1. Pingback: On Maude | The Progressive Democrat

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