Foxx recreates classic episodes with Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Wanda Sykes, Kerry Washington, Will Ferrell and an incredible surprise cast-member!
Who knew Norman Lear could do it again. Four decades ago, "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" dominated television and pop culture. And for one night in 2019, they were all anyone was talking about all over again.
Jimmy Kimmel coordinated with the 96-year-old Lear to revive both shows as live programs with all-star casts reprising some of the most famous characters in television history. But the real question was how much a modern audience would connect with shows that existed in the 1970s and ’80s. Would they watch?
If social media interaction is any indication, they absolutely watched. The special dominated the top of the trending topics for both shows, for its combined title "Live in Front of a Studio Audience" and for a huge surprise Kimmel and Lear saved for the closing moments of their "Jeffersons" tribute episode.
The risks were many. Would people take Jamie Foxx doing an impression of Sherman Helmsley’s iconic George Jefferson seriously? And would scripts written almost a half-century ago resonate with modern audiences? How relevant could they still be?
For one thing, both episodes were as sharp and funny today as they ever were. This is stellar sitcom writing that both exists in a certain time and space and yet manages to be timeless. So much of the humor is about the characters and their foibles that it never quite feels awkwardly dated.
What may be the most remarkable and disappointing and amazing and depressing thing of all is that the scripts couldn’t be more relevant. Culled directly from the original series, each tribute was a full episode of each series with absolutely zero alterations to the scripts.
That meant there were references to President Nixon and liberal use of the term "colored" to refer to black people, but the ways in which it sounded dated paled in comparison to the ways it was totally current. The big debate in "All in the Family" was about the struggle for equality for black people in this country, as well as for women.
It was — as it always was — an exploration of small-minded bigotry even when it wasn’t being presented in a hateful way but rather an ignorant way.
Archie Bunker; as portrayed by Carroll O’Conner originally and Woody Harrelson Wednesday night; is a loud-mouthed racist, sexist, homophobic, insensitive jerk who never thinks before he speaks and says whatever comes into his mind. He’s easily offended and insulted and yet he has very little understanding of the things he’s talking about.
All in all, the casts of both shows did a fantastic job of bringing their characters to life. As expected, reviews for each portrayal were mixed, but it was Harrelson who took the most heat for his attempts to mimic Archie’s unique accent and line delivery.
Marisa Tomei and Wanda Sykes were almost universally praised for their respective work as Edith and Louise, but it was Jamie Foxx who really got people talking. At his best, George Jefferson was always a bit of a cartoon character, from Helmsley’s exaggerated strut to his ridiculous posture and even his staccato line deliveries, but Foxx was on top of all of that. Now if only he’d been on top of his lines as well.
Check out the social media reaction to the shows as well as some of the individual performances below, including Kimmel and Lear’s big surprise that had audiences cheering across the nation, and for several minutes live in studio.
For the most part, for a 90-minute live production, the cast did a great job with the material. There were a few stammered lines or stutters here and there, but no major breaks or cracks like you see on "Saturday Night Live." At least until Jamie Foxx made his grand entrance as George Jefferson and absolutely blew one of his lines.
Finally, he gave up on the line and looked directly into the crowd. "It’s live. Everyone sitting at home just think they TV just messed up," he said as his fellow cast-members cracked up around him. It was a momentary blip — and the only one on the night — but Twitter was loving it.
The More Things Change…
The relevance of the show still today was probably one of the starkest reminder of just how much things haven’t changed socially in this country. Of course, that’s more than likely the reason Jimmy Kimmel spearheaded this project in the first place.
But it does say something that the conversations being had in a sitcom more than 40 years ago are not only conversations we’re still having, but ones we still need to have. And yes, there has been progress, but clearly it has been very, very, very, very slow.
Another huge notable difference that says much about our modern culture is the use of the censor button. The n-word was beeped twice through Wednesday’s production, and yet it was not censored when it originally aired. "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons" dealt with harsh topics head-on, including inflammatory and hateful language.
Was it wrong for them to have those conversations so directly? We are in a time now where society is learning to be very careful about what it can and can’t say to anyone for fear of offending them. But in this context, it was supposed to be offensive, and its usage was intended to be shocking and uncomfortable and, yes, even offensive.
Should we shy away from these conversations or should we just have them without invoking the hateful words they’re about? Is it progress that we’re not allowed to hear that word on broadcast television in 2019, no matter the context, when they were allowed to say it then?
Most viewers agreed that Jamie Foxx absolutely killed it as George Jefferson. He had the pleasure of appearing in both episodes, alongside Wanda Sykes as his long-suffering wife Louise, and he was an absolute hoot to watch. Maybe he toned it down, or maybe we just got used to it, but he seemed a little more grounded by the time we got to "The Jeffersons" itself.
Fans were not as enamored with Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of the bigoted Archie Bunker. There was a twinkle in Carroll O’Conner’s eye and a sweetness behind his ignorance that Harrelson didn’t quite nail. This wasn’t a script that offered him much sentiment, and a lot of the love people had for O’Connor was built over time. As it stood, Harrelson just seemed a little more mean-spirited than the original, and people picked up on it.
Marisa Tomei, on the other hand, brilliantly brought to life Archie’s dingbat wife Edith. She was daft and sweet and perfectly nailed Jean Stapleton’s shuffle through the house, as well as her nasally voice and that one-of-a-kind accent. It’s a hard character to portray without slipping into parody, and it took a couple scenes for Tomei to have it, but she really brought it home.
Isabel Sanford is a legend and she had one of the toughest jobs on television, standing opposite Sherman Helmsley’s cartoon character of a performance and making it all look real. Wanda Sykes was largely herself in this role, but herself is a lot like what Sanford was doing. And she absolutely brought the same amount of humanity, compassion and heart that made people fall in love with Weezy in the first place.
While it made perfect sense for Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei to butcher their own take on the "All in the Family" theme, who was going to help us move on up to "The Jeffersons." That theme is a bop and they absolutely nailed it by bringing in Jennifer Hudson. She shimmied through the Jefferson’s apartment and nailed the attitude of the theme song perfectly, setting the stage for the next exciting adventure.
Easily the most important role on "The Jeffersons" went to Marla Gibbs as the family’s maid, Florence Johnston. And no one could play that role like Marla Gibbs. Apparently, Kimmel and Lear knew that, so they didn’t even bother to try and replace her. At 87-years old, Gibbs came out and smashed it in her most iconic role, earning the night’s biggest ovation and even getting its last line. And fans were loving it!
"Live in Front of a Studio Audience" is the banner Kimmel presented this under, which means we could totally do this again. Here’s hoping it kicks off a revival of classic shows recreated as lovingly as these were, as opposed to the musical revival that quickly turned into trash.
One of the most important lessons in life is to never forget the past lest you repeat it. These shows today proved that either we’ve not grown at all, or we’re in danger of repeating this near past already. Either way, it’s important to see that these conversations were happening then and they’re still happening now.
Not every show was as groundbreaking and relevant and topical as Norman Lear’s body of work, but many spoke to their eras in ways that could resonate with modern audiences. Plus, how much fun was this night? That cast was clearly having a blast; the audience was loving the fresh take on these classic shows, and viewers spent the whole night sharing their favorite moments.
So let’s do it again sometime.
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