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DAR TV: Black Sitcoms of the 70's and 80's

By @TrueGodImmortal





The 1970s and the 1980s were an interesting time in black pop culture. The music was led by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and a few others in the 70s, with soulful sense, social awareness, and a small bit of activism within it. The 80's music scene was full of an entirely different element, as Prince, Michael Jackson, and such ruled the 80's, with big ballads, pop sounds, and a less black centered image. While the music was evolving, it seems that television wasn't going through a big change. Black sitcoms weren't really a regular occurrence on television at the beginning of the 70s, but that would slowly begin to change.




The beginning of the shift has to be attributed to Redd Foxx, I would say. He's in many ways one of the godfathers of comedy without a doubt. After a long run in standup that proved to be successful, Redd Foxx was given his own vehicle to star in a sitcom, one that would change television forever. When referencing my favorite black sitcoms, I tend to look at most of the sitcoms from the 90's, as that's the decade I really became invested into television, but one sitcom from the 70's that always resonated with me was Sanford and Son. The story of Fred and Lamont Sanford was hilarity personified, and Redd Foxx put forth enough jokes, charisma, and wit to carry the show for 6 seasons with over 135 episodes. Norman Lear was a vital force in pushing for black sitcoms and this would be one of his greatest creations in many ways, as Quincy Jones composed the infamous theme for the show. The characters came to life whenever the show was on, and Aunt Esther and Grady were two reoccurring characters that would build up their own following.

The problem I had however honestly, was the fact that it seemed as if there was a disconnect in the writing and the mentality of the show creators and what was really going on within the culture. Norman Lear really wouldn't have an accurate depiction of what goes on in the culture, but this is entertainment, so it's no shock that the show features Redd Foxx being seen as a bigot who hates just about every other race except black, much like Archie Bunker was a close minded racist on All In The Family. Without going all thinkpiece on you, one has to suspect this was Hollywood's way of saying "see... black people can be racist too", in a sense. With racism so prevalent during the decade, it's a never ending saga it seems as the shows either accurately depict the state of the world within white perception of blacks or follow misguided stereotypes to paint us as such. Sanford and Son mostly bucked the trend, outside of a few issues, but unfortunately, it seemed as if winning with one black sitcom led the producers of the show to want more and more. There were multiple spinoff shows from Sanford and Son, none of which were successful. Was there a need for a Grady spinoff? Another Sanford spinoff after Redd Foxx left the show? Another Sanford spinoff as Redd Foxx came back to reprise his character without Lamont? If you lived through the 70's and early 80's, you might have felt like they went to the well one too many times, and nearly ruined the legacy of Sanford and Son. Nothing was more embarrassing to me than observing the Redd Foxx Show, a one season disaster that saw Redd Foxx surrounded by white characters and he even adopted a "street wise" white teenager. The jokes write themselves. Regardless, Sanford and Son was the standard bearer for black sitcoms and the true game changer for black television at that point.





Now, when I say black television, I'm only referring to the stars and the actors. It was important to have black actors visible and popular for the culture, but the white writers and show creators really didn't have an idea of what black life was really about. They never seem to really. Instead, they take a caricature of the culture and base everything on the stereotype. Nothing furthers this notion than the shows like Good Times, That's My Mama, and What's Happening. Now, Good Times was all about a family in Chicago trying to make a way while dealing with the pressure that everyday life brings us. In some ways, this is where I enjoyed the show, as a struggling family who wanted to survive and dealt with the day to day of that struggle was endearing. The characters you grew to enjoy and you saw some of your older cousins or aunts within the character slightly. There had never been such an alpha male black father on a television show until James Evans. He was the no-nonsense, straight forward, honest father that we hadn't seen, a departure from the passive yet angry Fred Sanford and different from what we had seen in the past. The strength of the black men was well within James Evans and though his decisions on the show didn't always make sense or seem realistic at times, it was the main thing that the show got right. J.J. didn't bother me as much as he did some other folks, as Jimmy Walker was able to put his own charisma into the character and make it an enjoyable watch for sure. My least favorite character from the show had to be Florida Evans, which I know sounds a bit off perhaps, but the depiction of her character just didn't resonate correctly to me. The show ran for 6 seasons and still remains one of the most popular shows ever as far as black sitcoms go.

Outside of Good Times, there was the ill advised That's My Mama, which I have rarely watched, but didn't seem to enjoy the little bit of it that I did watch. I think it fit for the time, as the afros and slick "jive" talk was the norm then, but this show just felt flat to me when I caught an episode or two (thanks TV One). What's Happening is another one that was middle of the road, with Fred Barry playing ReRun and always dancing. I think it was an attempt to display the fun and lives of black youth and while it missed a lot, it also hit on some good points. Still, the show left a lot to be desired, and it seemed that while we were just entertained by it, from a technical standpoint, these shows lacked depth. They lacked quality writing for the most part and besides Good Times and What's Happening, most of the shows molded in this ideal didn't last too long. As the 70's came to a close, there seemed to be a shift in shows led by black actors and you might know what I'm getting at.



Benson was a show that I've never cared to look back on personally, but Robert Guillaume starred as a butler for the wealthy yet dysfunctional Tate family. Benson was honestly a strange premise to begin with, as the idea of a black man as a servant being the lead role in a series didn't really make sense after all the progression we had witnessed in the world and television... or so we thought. This show wasn't necessarily a glowing example of strong black characters or an accurate depiction of where we were as a people or any evolution. Another series that didn't resonate was Webster, where Emmanuel Lewis would be adopted by a white family and essentially do a bunch of outlandish or "crazy" things that would make the family laugh. He served as the entertainment so to speak. While Webster made Lewis a lovable actor for people to observe, the premise of Webster derived from another show. A young black boy adopted by a rich white family? Where might I have seen that before?


"Now the world don't move... to the beat of just one drum... what might be right for you, may not be right for some...."


Now, as the theme song for Diff'rent Strokes plays, I always sing along. It's a catchy theme. One of the reasons why I first turned into the show was literally due to the theme. I wasn't born while the show was on originally, but syndication is what brought me into the fold watching it. I would watch a few episodes here and there as a child, but something didn't seem right to me about the show. Why was there a need to showcase poor black kids being "saved" by rich white families? There wasn't much depiction of black life on television at the time, and while Good Times didn't nail it completely, it still featured predominately black actors and a black family as the driving force. While Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges would gain notoriety from the show, the message of it was that the rich white family could learn from these poor black kids and vice versa, but was that premise really needed in society or television? That point could be argued I guess, but Diff'rent Strokes as a show overall wasn't bad, it's the premise that bothered me the most. Still, it was a launching vehicle for the odd careers of Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges, so I guess it works out. Another show I have to briefly mention is Gimme A Break, another odd show with Nell Carter as a housekeeper for, you guessed it, a wealthy white family. I'm so glad that these wealthy white families took a liking to these nice ol' black servants and housekeepers like they did in the days of slav.... well maybe not that far, but you get my point. However, in the midst of all these shows, there was one that showcased blacks in the late 70's-early 80's on the same level or at least close to the same level as their white counterparts and not beneath them.





When the sounds of The Jeffersons theme hits, it feels triumphant in some ways. It's upbeat, it's glorious, it's a bit overdone, but it's fun. Now, the show itself has many flaws, like any show, but the concept of a successful black family who own their own business and have a deluxe apartment in the sky was a start in the right direction. Upper middle class black family who didn't forget their roots and despite George Jefferson being a bit over the top, the show worked on a number of levels. The show's direction and social commentary may have lacked in the areas it needed, but there's no denying that this show was impactful and a step into the right direction on the imagery for black television. It may not have been the best (black family with a sassy black housekeeper has pros and cons, and I was not a fan of the use of the N-word and honky frequently), but it was a step into the right direction.




Other shows that were a step in the right direction were the predominately black casts of 227 and Amen as the 80's began to close. 227 was more centered around women and that's really a good thing. Some of the stars of the show got a bigger break because of it and 227 remains one of the more slept on black sitcoms from the 80's and in general. Amen was a new vehicle for Sherman Helmsey after The Jeffersons were abruptly ended with little warning. The show was based in the church, showing a black congregation led by Helmsey and his daughter, who was a deacon, and a new youth pastor who was the main focus besides Sherman. The show had its ups and downs, but brought laughs and maintained a decent audience for 5 seasons. These two shows were vital in the restructuring of black sitcoms, but they aren't the standard or the game changer. There aren't many game changers in black television, but two shows stick out to me and oddly enough, they come from the brain of the same man.




The Cosby Show is the best black sitcom of the 80's. Hands down. Say what you want about Bill Cosby as a person based on the accusations, and you're justified in doing so, but as the leader of the Huxtable family clan with his wife Claire, he was one of the greatest characters in television history. The doctor himself, Heathcliff Huxtable, was truly a model of black strength and success, along with his lovely black family and their ups and downs. The Cosby Show showed a successful black family with their own house, two successful parents, and the evolution of children and their lives. It was the most groundbreaking thing we had seen on television. It wasn't believed that there was a market to watch black successful families live out their lives and go through the motions. The Cosby Show didn't sum up the inner city black experience, it didn't sum up the bougie black experience either, it was the perfect medium. You could either relate to the Cosby Show, wanted to relate, or you could learn something. It fit and touched all demographics, along with showing the new era of the black family in television and ushering in something special. While the Cosby Show remains one of the greatest shows of all time, the groundbreaking wave didn't just stop there. As the 80's were coming to a close, Cosby worked together with a few folks, notably Debbie Allen, to make a show that might appeal to all demographics, but it was structured to showcase the young black college experience, something we hadn't seen before on TV.




A Different World has already been covered on the site mostly in full. However, it is a landmark show in what it accomplished. Beginning in the late 80's, it was a spinoff for Lisa Bonet, as she went off to college. Hillman College, based on Spelman and other historic black colleges, would see the rise of a ton of actors like Sinbad, Kadeem Hardison, Jazmine Guy, Cree Summer, Jada Pinkett, and a slew of others. The show gave the young black voice a platform, tackling some of the most prevalent topics of the decade like racism, rape, AIDS, and various other tough subjects. It pushed the envelope more than The Cosby Show could ever do and that was an accurate depiction because the youth is more willing to do so. The fire in black youth, the hope, the anger, the will was all on display in this show. It seemed like black television had evolved from stereotypes, servant roles, and caricatures in the early 70's til the early 80's to a new wave of empowerment, reality,  independence and awareness. While black television struggled to find its footing in the 70's somewhat, it began hitting its stride in the 80's, setting the tone for the greatest decade in black television, the 90's. I'll save that for next weekend however. Stay tuned.

-True 

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