I literally choked when Florida delivered the lines: “What do you mean ‘Our time of life’. You forget: You people don’t never know how old we are. That kills you, don’t it!” Ester Rolle delivers this line so gloatingly that I literally curled over ROFLMAO! Florida had shown up all in sorts of trouble and Maude made it her busy-ness to find out. Maude was constantly projecting her own menopause onto others, and wringing it in to explain what appeared inexplicable to her. Turns out, Florida’s husband had gotten a second job and was keen to keep to his wife at home, like white folks do.
That’s what makes Maude so interesting — the show took every ditch and vibe with its racial jokes as a means to challenge stereotypes. And like this episode, many of the jokes were delivered by whites and blacks, and in mixed company, quite unlike the show’s predecessor, All in the Family, and quite more poignantly than its sisters, the direct spin-off Good Times, as well as The Jeffersons. In so doing, the storylines of Maude really pressed our culture to face some of its darkest secrets around gender, age, and class. As it turns out, these three tropes of modernity are inseparable and must be examined together. Sure, its complicated. Often we talk about race, but what we really mean is class. Or then there’s the very real gender component to everything in modern life, so much so that the reality is that women on Earth are still poorer than men as a whole. Indeed, it’s complicated. Fortunately, shows like Maude made us laugh so hard we cried. We may have even shed a tear or two over our own hypocrisy. And then, well, then there’s Maude herself.
Looking back, the black maid and the white liberal housewife were probably more of a common scene in middle class American life, the remnants of an era long gone when more white women were staying at home. Maude did, too, until she got elected to Congress and the show ended. The irony is that Maude was a staunch feminist at a time when Women’s Lib was all about the bra burning, and proclamations that so-called “women” should have the right to go into the work place, and to do so with equal pay. We all chuckle now, knowing that women like Florida always ever worked in America — their bosses where white women, and probably not ones who served their maids martinis and offered them due gratitude. And this Kentucky boy will never forget his first walk through midtown Manhattan in the middle of the day in the last decade of the last century. At first glance, all the colored women with sing-song English, pushing carriages with white babies in tow initially made me lament about how integrated New York had become. That is, until someone pointed out these women were all Floridas! Needless to say, there was no Maude anywhere in sight! How’s that for liberation!
Maude debuted in 1972, and lasted merely six seasons. The show also paired Rue McClanahan with Bea Arthur, who played Maude. The comic duo would later star together in Golden Girls. I should mention that I discovered Maude just recently, years after loving the Golden Girls in it original broadcast (’85-’92), and all the spin-offs that pitched together a prude and a slut, an airhead and a brain: Living Single, Sex and the City, and Noah’s Arc all followed this same script (yes, writers are still considered by many to be not so serious workers, and Carrie’s luck with Big and Aden clearly solidified her role as the airhead of the show — the same can be said for Noah and his arc of girly-friends closely mirroring the rich white women in SATC). Other sources would add Queer as Folk and Girlfriends to the mix, but by the time those shows came along, I could not stomach much more of the same.
“What do you mean I cannot leave you?
I could swear there was a war fought
about this kinda thing, and our side won.”
This episode, “Florida’s Problem”, from the first season of Maude, just kept digging into the racial tensions of the day with sheer comedy. At one point, Maude forbids Florida from quitting the job as her maid, to which she responds: “What do you mean I cannot leave you? I could swear there was a war fought about this kinda thing, and our side won.”
The coup of “Florida’s Problem”, was, of course, the heart of the Maude show. Maude was a bleeding heart liberal, who meant well but always seemed to say the wrong thing, providing fodder for endless racialized mishaps. There’s the episode were Miss Maude decides to adopt a kid from the impoverished nation of Ethiopia, and enlists a local African-American church to pitch in funds for the kid’s travel to the States. Of course, the kid is white, left behind in Ethiopia after the Italian invasion, and Maude spends most of that episode’s 22 minutes figuring out how to break this news to the congregation set for a revival. That’s another episode well worth seeing; although the writers could have made some cheesy ending, they didn’t! You just gotta see how they laid that one out. And then there’s the one with the runaway kid who plans to take advantage of that bleeding heart liberal’s cash and sympathies for her own good. Again, no use looking for a spoiler here. Or, there’s “Florida’s Goodbye” — she has to quit in order to star as the stay-at-home-mom in Good Times. Maude rejects every interviewee, hoping to get Florida drunk on martinis and convince her to stay. Luckily, the crew is wise to her tricks, so they agree to let Florida interview the new maid… and oh what a whopper! All I can say is: Si señor, si señor!
The website www.amiright.com has a litany of misheard lyrics to Donny Hathaway’s classically soulful theme song “And Then There’s Maude”. Again, getting to know Maude from this century and not the last, and viewing episode upon episode on YouTube where Hathaway’s introduction is cut, the whole show just made that much more sense once one hears: “Lady Godiva was a freedom rider … Joan of Arc with the Lord to guide her … Isadora was the first bra burner … And when the country was falling apart / Betsy Ross got it all sewed up”. A list of white women who made their own world right. Oh, that’s what they were trying to do! Rosie O’Donnell sang the whole theme song to Bea Arthur when she visited her talk show — truly, anything but tranquilizing!
The way “Florida’s Problem” ends is quite fascinating, considering again the complexities and intertwining of gender, race, and class, even now. Although tempting, I won’t give away this episode’s ending, and perhaps it’s too complex for any one reading. Suffice it to say, it’s heavy, but dealt with so lightly. Television hasn’t quite been this sophisticated in decades.