Movin' on Up and Puttin' One Down
When The Jeffersons premiered in January of 1975, the sitcom had everything going for it. The comedy series was a spin-off of All in the Family, which ranked number one in the ratings for four consecutive seasons. The show was developed by Norman Lear, the creative force behind that show and three other high-rated sitcoms: Sanford and Son, Maude, and Good Times.
The Jeffersons had a built-in audience of All in the Family fans who were already familiar with the Bunkers’ neighbors—George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley), his wife Louise (Isabel Sanford) and their son Lionel (Mike Evans). And now, four years later, the Jeffersons had packed their bags, bid the Bunkers farewell, and, as the show’s catchy theme song goes, were “movin’ on up to the East Side,” where they would remain on CBS’s prime time schedule for the next 10 years.
Unfortunately, the only thing different about George Jefferson when he moves into a higher tax bracket is his address. The owner of a successful chain of dry cleaning stores, he is still stubborn, quick-tempered, and intolerant, especially when it comes to white folks or, as he calls them, “honkies.” There’s no mistaking that George was conceived as a black version of Archie Bunker, but, as the DVD release of the show’s second season reveals, that is where the similarities between The Jefferson and its parent show end.
When All in the Family premiered in the 1971, it was a groundbreaking, adult situation comedy that never shied away from controversy. The show’s humor was more character than plot-driven and the storylines often revolved around a specific current issue (gun control, homophobia, women’s liberation) that usually pitted right-wing Archie against the rest of the Bunker household. Although the Bunker’s ongoing discussions about the Nixon and Ford Administrations and the many references to 1970s issues, like the oil crisis and inflation may be dated today, the comedy still retains some of its edginess if only for its political content. Could you imagine hearing any of today’s dopey TV dads express their opinions on the Iraqi War or abortion rights?
Unlike All in the Family, The Jeffersons is a more conventional situation comedy that relies heavily on put-down humor and silly, sitcom plots that are recycled from 1950s television. Even when an occasional attempt was made to address a more serious or “adult” theme or issue, The Jeffersons would only go so far before it reverted to its silly, formulaic brand of humor.
In all fairness, we need to remember that TV sitcom producers never intended viewers to watch an entire season’s worth of episodes in one single sitting. Perhaps airing episodes a week apart works to the writers’ advantage because it can conceal, if only partially, how essentially the same jokes and gags are repeated week after week. This is certainly true for George Jefferson, a self-made black man who does not hide his hatred of white people. In this respect, he is like Archie Bunker, whose disdain for anyone who is not white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant reared its ugly head each week. Still, Archie’s bigotry usually surfaced within a specific context, like during a heated discussion with liberal son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) over welfare reform or the civil rights movement. George’s bigotry, on the other hand, is never addressed in a social or political context. Instead, it’s used like a comical device in the same manner that sitcom characters’ flaws (like being cheap, obsessive, self-centered, etc.) are the source of running jokes and gags.
George’s main targets are his neighbors and future-in-laws, Helen and Tom Willis (Roxie Roker and Franklin Cover), whose daughter Jenny (Belinda Tolbert) is engaged to Lionel (played by Damon Evans, who replaced Mike Evans (no relation), in season two). As soon as Helen and Tom, the first interracial couple to appear as series regulars, enter the room, George is quick to express his disapproval of mixed marriages by using a racial epitaph like “zebra.” After watching variations on this scene in over a dozen episodes, the fact Helen and Tom rarely respond to his racial put-downs (almost as if they have grow immune to his remarks and accept his ignorance) becomes more disturbing than George’s behavior. By letting his repeated remarks go by unchecked, The Jeffersons offers little in the way of a critique and as a result, his attitudes and repeated use of words like “honky” are in danger of appearing, despite the writers’ intentions, normal and acceptable.
The Willises are not the only targets of George’s put-downs. Several of the other supporting characters serve as George’s verbal dartboard. When he’s not berating Helen and Tom, George is insulting his maid, Florence (Marla Gibbs), who, with her sassy comments back to her employer, fits right into the voluble Jefferson clan. Then there is next-door neighbor, Mr. Bentley (Paul Benedict), a well-mannered, yet somewhat befuddled British gentleman who gets on George’s nerves. And, of course, George frequently spars with Louise, who had no trouble holding her own against her husband and her meddling mother-in-law, Mother Jefferson (Zara Cully), who was constantly making snide comments about Louise’s suitability as George’s wife.
Put-down humor became something of a trademark of Lear’s post-All in the Family situation comedies like Sanford and Son and Good Times. The fact that all these latter series are specifically black situation comedies is not coincidental. As some critics have argued, all three characters—George Jefferson, Fred Sanford, and J.J. Evans—were essentially variations on the stereotype of the black buffoon. Watching grown men acting like idiots is difficult enough to watch, but the fact there were so few images of African-American men (“successful” or otherwise) on TV in the 1970s makes it even harder to watch George acting like a child, stomping his feet and shouting at the top of his lungs when he doesn’t get his way.
Black comedians like Richard Pryor made “honky” jokes popular in the 1970s, so viewers in the 1970s may have considered George’s endless stream of anti-white jokes and pseudo-stereotypical behavior “hip.” “Hip” maybe, but other than this there was little “new” about the show. There is no denying that the majority of the plots seem like they were lifted from a 1950s sitcom-writing textbook. Many even bear a strikingly close resemblance to I Love Lucy episodes. George and Louise plan a vacation and their neighbors and Mother Jefferson tag along (just like the Ricardo’s trip to Hollywood with Lucy’s mother and the Mertzes).
Mother Jefferson pretends she twisted her ankle to get attention (didn’t Lucy often feign illness and injury to gain Ricky’s attention?). Tom shows up to a party wearing the same jacket as George (just like Lucy and Ethel appearing on TV wearing the same dress). These episodes of I Love Lucy are still funny, though, because Lucy is an ambitious, endearing character with the best of intentions, despite her often ending up in trouble. The same cannot be said for George, who is constantly getting into a jam because he is ignorant, egotistical, and a liar.
On occasion, The Jeffersons made some attempt to offer social commentary on race and class-related issues, but it was difficult for a show so laden with crude humor to suddenly get serious. The best example from season two involves Florence, who declares one day that she has nothing to live for and decides to commit suicide. Upon discovering Florence’s plans, her employers, the Jeffersons and the Willises, try to understand why she would want to do such a thing. She explains she is tired of working (“Would any of you like to trade places with me?” she asks, and gets no response) and imagines there are no windows to clean in heaven. Once George blurts out how much they love her, she instantly changes her mind, flushes the pills she has been saving down the toilet, and accepts the Jeffersons’ invitation to dinner.
In addition to setting the mental health profession back about a hundred years, the episode resolves “Florence’s Problem” in a matter of minutes. Although George tells Florence how much they care, his words are preceded by the usual string of insults about her lack of skill as a housekeeper. The producers may have had the best of intentions in addressing class, labor exploitation and their connection to race in a serious manner, but in the case of The Jeffersons it’s always too little too late. How can you deliver any such serious message if it can’t be heard above all of the insults?