Nothing to stifle here.
Jimmy Kimmel, Norman Lear and a great cast and director aced a daunting high-wire act Wednesday, presenting re-created episodes of two groundbreaking Lear sitcoms on live TV.
From the evocative sets to the memorable characters, ABC’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons’” recaptured the energy, humor and thought-provoking engagement on race, sex and other charged issues that made Lear’s comedies an influential cultural phenomenon when they premiered in the 1970s.
”I imagined this would be great and I just can’t believe how great it was and how great you all were,” Kimmel said at the end of the special, standing in the familiar Bunker living room with the full cast.
The presentation, a project close to the “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” host’s heart, offered a robust rebuttal to those who say Lear’s cutting-edge comedies would be too offensive to be revived today. The scripts were presented in their original form, complete with Archie Bunker’s slurs against blacks, Jews and women, although the use of the N-word by George Jefferson and his black neighbor, Helen Willis, was bleeped in the new version.
Lear summarized the night best during an introduction delivered from Archie Bunker’s iconic living room chair.
”When we introduced America to the Bunkers and the Jeffersons, people weren’t used to TV shows dealing with issues like racism and sexism, but we thought humor was a way into people’s hearts,” he says. “The language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today and we are still grappling with many of these same issues. We hope tonight will make you laugh, provoke discussion and encourage action.”
While Woody Harrelson and Jamie Foxx admirably took on impossible tasks, ably playing the roles of Archie and George defined by the irreplaceable Carroll O’Connor and Sherman Hemsley, Marisa Tomei stole the show as sweet, simple Edith Bunker and Wanda Sykes grounded the proceedings as smart, no-nonsense Louise Jefferson.
An unannounced appearance by “Jeffersons” original cast member Marla Gibbs, reprising her role as maid Florence Johnston, appeared to impress fellow cast members as much as the cheering studio audience, with Foxx clasping his hands as Sykes beamed.
The other great surprise was Jennifer Hudson’s rousing rendition of the inspiring “Jeffersons” theme song as she danced through the apartment set, joining her ‘70s-attired backup singers in the living room.
The 90-minute presentation featured re-creations of the 1973 “All in the Family” (1971-79) episode “Henry’s Farewell,” which featured the first appearance of Hemsley as George, and “A Friend in Need,” the 1975 premiere of “The Jeffersons” (1975-85).
The star-studded cast, which also featured Kerry Washington, Will Ferrell, Anthony Anderson, Ellie Kemper, Sean Hayes, Ike Barinholtz, Jackee Harry and Stephen Tobolowsky, appeared excited to be performing Lear’s classic material. A couple of portrayals were a bit over the top, but most of the actors stuck the landing.
In “Henry’s Farewell,” Archie, courtesy of Edith’s hospitality, found himself inadvertently hosting a goodbye party for one of their neighbors, Henry Jefferson (Anderson), that featured a head-to-head between Archie and George, two strong-willed, thick-headed men who have no trouble hurling racial epithets.
Harrelson captured Archie’s attitude and, to some degree, mannerisms, but not the voice made famous by O’Connor, who clearly is the one and only Archie Bunker. Foxx nailed George’s cocky strut, his physical appearance and even his speaking style, although he couldn’t quite reconstitute the hilarious bantam-like aggression of the smaller Hemsley.
Tomei, from her loving looks at Archie to her screeching rendition of “Those Were the Days,” seemed to be channeling the beloved Jean Stapleton, who masterfully defined the surprisingly wise Edith.
Archie’s bald-faced racism, which would stand out for its nakedness even more in today’s culture, was tempered by the smarter Jeffersons, who toyed with his prejudices for their own amusement.
The “Jeffersons” episode follows George and Louise from the Bunkers’ Queens neighborhood to a fancy, “de-luxe apartment in the sky” in Manhattan, as the theme puts it, considering interracial marriage, less common at that time, and looking at racial assumptions and social inequality questions that seem timely today.
The special, directed by sitcom master James Burrows, astutely pulled back from the sets as the show headed to commercial to reveal the studio audience and convey the exciting — likely nerve-racking for cast and crew — live-event nature.
The performances, both in front of and behind the camera, were almost seamless, save for minor imperfections such as a camera glitch that missed a visual joke related to Jenny Willis’ clothing and a blown line by Foxx, who then blurted out “It’s live!” as his fellow actors tried to hold in their laughter. That just underlined the dangerousness of the TV endeavor.
Lear’s topical comedies are dated in certain ways, especially in their references to ‘70s figures such Richard Nixon and Lester Maddox, but they are as timely as ever in embracing issues that remain trip-wires. It will be intriguing to see how a current-day audience responds.
Now, do “Maude.”