10 Things I Realized While Binge-Watching Black ’70s Sitcoms On YouTube
Back in the day, black comedy was the brightest spot on TV.
Back in 1993 when I visited France for the first time, one of the biggest culture shocks was sitting in my hotel room in Toulouse watching the Valerie Bertinelli TV miniseries I’ll Take Manhattan dubbed in French. I’m so glad I’ll never have to do anything so ridiculous ever again. LOVED Toulouse, though.
Nowadays, being in a foreign country where English isn’t the mother tongue no longer means having to temporarily kick your English-language TV habit. You may not have the option to Netflix and chill or pop the complete third season of Empire into a DVD player, but there’s now more TV on YouTube (in a variety of languages) than anywhere else, including your television set back home.
Since most of the channels in India and Thailand, where I’ve spent most of the past four months, are in the local languages, I’ve been turning to YouTube for my daily TV fix when I’m not out enjoying the real world. The video website might very well be the best thing to come out of the social media age. Thanks to it, all you need is a good WiFi connection and a laptop-to-TV cable for good-old fashioned televised entertainment when you’re struggling with pop-cultural dislocation.
YouTube may not always hook you up with your latest thrills, but it’s the perfect place to go retro crazy. I’ve been reliving my childhood in hotels rooms all over India and Bangkok, binge-watching shows I grew up with in the ’70s: Sanford and Son (1972–77), Good Times (1974–79), The Jeffersons (1975–85), What’s Happening!! (1976–79), Baby… I’m Back (1978), All in the Family (1971–79), Maude (1972–78), Three’s Company (1977–84), and Happy Days (1974–84).
There were no black people at all in Three’s Company’s L.A., not even in the background. At least Happy Days, set in the segregated ’50s, had an excuse.
They’ve all gotten me thinking. The most intriguing thing about ’70s TV is how, only a handful of years after blacks were no longer required to use separate bathrooms or sit at the back of the bus, they were far better represented in primetime than they would be in subsequent decades. There have been some solid black TV comedies from the ’80s on, and black-ish and Atlanta represent a true resurgence, but the ’70s remain the golden age of black comedy.
While revisiting black and racially aware sitcoms from the ’70s, I’ve realized a few things I didn’t pick up on back in the day. For one, there were no black people at all in Three’s Company’s L.A., not even in the background. At least Happy Days, set in the segregated ’50s, had an excuse.
Maybe I was too young to be a discerning TV viewer in my pre-pre-teens, or perhaps I was too busy laughing to dig deep. Now that I’m old enough to multitask, I’ve been making discoveries while cracking up. Among them…
1. The Jeffersons had one of the strongest ensembles in the history of television.
Still, Isabel Sanford (Louise “Weezy” Jefferson) was the only one to ever score a Primetime Emmy and remains the only black performer to win Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. Isabel, Roxie Roker (Helen Willis), and Marla Gibbs (Florence Johnston) were ’70s and ’80s goddesses. If the 2016 film Hidden Figures had been made 35 years earlier (as it should have been), they would have been perfect as the three ground-breaking mathematicians.
2. Sanford and Son’s Redd Fox was a much better actor than he ever got credit for being.
I’m not saying that just because Fred G. Sanford was so different from the smooth, urbane stand-up who played him. Sanford and Son is arguably the best black sitcom of all-time, but that’s not really because the jokes as written were all that funny. They ended up being hysterical because of the way Redd delivered them. His physical interpretation of Fred — that mix of swagger and old-man gait, the hilariously choreographed flailing of his arms when he was fixin’ to throw a punch — wasn’t in the script. That was all Redd. And boy, could those old hams (Redd and Fred) deliver a song!
Benson’s Robert Guillaime became the first black actor to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series in 1985. (Atlanta’s Donald Glover just became the second, 32 years later.) Three-time nominee Red Foxx should have gotten there first.
3. It’s a shame Sanford and Son’s Aunt Esther was married to Woody, because despite their regular insult exchange, she and Fred had some interesting I-hate-you-but-I-kind-of-dig-you-too chemistry.
Remember the Pygmalion-themed episode where Fred (Redd Foxx) transformed Esther (LaWanda Page) into a beauty contestant contender? Clearly he saw something in her that he spent the entire series denying. Had the show aired in 2017, at least one of their throwdowns probably would have ended with them making out on the couch.
By the way, Esther’s “Watch it, sucker!” never gets old, which is a testament to LaWanda’s comic genius.
4. Compared to a modern black sitcom like black-ish, the racial humor of Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons was sometimes the weakest aspect of both shows.
There was very little insight there. An old black man hating on and stereotyping Puerto Ricans as well as the Japanese and the Chinese isn’t funny. Neither is the N-word just because a black person uses it. I liked both of Sanford and Son’s recurring white cops — Officer “Swanny” Swanhauser (Noam Pitlick), the one who was overly formal when explaining police procedure, and Officer Howard “Hoppy” Hopkins (Howard Platt), the one who was always screwing up hip lingo — but the latter’s clueless-white-guy schtick quickly grew old.
And that was the biggest problem with both Sanford and Son and The Jeffersons: The racial bits often came across as mere schtick. All in the Family’s Archie Bunker was probably more racist than Fred G. Sanford and George Jefferson (Sherman Helmsley), and certainly less likable, but there was real-world truth to his bigotry because it wasn’t played strictly for laughs.
Also, characters like Maude Findlay (Bea Arthur) and Michael “Meathead” Stivic (Rob Reiner), challenged him by speaking for the politically correct opposition. That led to groundbreaking dialogue. Fred’s son Lamont (Demond Wilson) and Weezy rolled their eyes at “Pop” and George, respectively, but they rarely called them out for their bigotry with any conviction.
5. Speaking of racism in the ’70s, “honkey” might be the dumbest racial epithet ever.
We all know where the N-word came from, but what was the genesis of “honkey”? I actually find it more offensive than the N-word because there is absolutely no power behind it, not even when George Jefferson, an expert at delivering a withering cut-down, was the one hurling it.
6. Maid naming conventions were so inconsistent in the ’70s.
Maude called Florida (Esther Rolle) “Florida” on Maude, but she referred to Mrs. Naugatuck (Hermione Baddeley) as “Mrs. Naugatuck.” Meanwhile, Florence called Weezy “Miss Jefferson” instead of “Mrs. Jefferson,” and she called Tom and Helen by their surname, even though she didn’t work for them, and even while vacationing with them in Hawaii. Awkward.
7. Black actors were always playing older than they were in real life on ’70s sitcoms.
Redd Foxx was 49 when Sanford and Son launched, but his TV alter-ego celebrated his 65th birthday in the show’s second episode, “Happy Birthday, Pop.” Meanwhile, the great underrated Demond Wilson (Lamont) was several years younger than his character, who was around 30 when the series began. Demond was 25. Whitman Mayo, the actor who played Grady Wilson was 41 going on 42 when he made his first appearance on the show in 1972, but his character was supposed to be closer to Fred Sanford’s age.
Over on The Jeffersons, Sherman Helmsley was 20 years and five months younger than Isabel Sanford, who played his TV wife. In the 1981 episode “Louise’s Father,” Leonard Jackson guest-starred as Weezy’s long-lost dad. The actor was 10 years and five months younger than Isabel.
Finally, Good Times’ John Amos was 34 when the sitcom debuted. He looks so much hotter to me now than he did to me back when I was a kid and assumed the actor was much older, but I really digress. Esther Rolle, his TV wife, was 53. (Both actors and their characters had previously appeared on Maude.) Female black really wasn’t cracking in the ’70s because Esther Rolle and John Amos were perfectly believable as spouses as were Isabel Sanford and Sherman Helmsley.
8. Black sitcoms in the ’70s had better opening themes than sitcoms in any other decade.
To be fair, both black and white ’70s sitcoms had pretty kick-ass opening themes. The ones for All in the Family, Maude, Alice, and One Day at a Time are even better than you probably remember them being. But between Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, What’s Happening!!, and Diff’rent Strokes, there wasn’t a bum note in earshot.
9. Single women on ’70s sitcoms were so virginal.
Fred Sanford was engaged to beautiful fortyish Donna (Lynn Hamilton) for the duration of Sanford and Son, but there was never any indication that they had a sex life. She never gave up more than the occasional peck on the lips. In fact, when Fred tried to get a little intimate, Donna usually tried to change the the subject.
As for single lady Florence on The Jeffersons, she once thought a guy was going to propose to her just because he held her hand in Hawaii. What?! When she did get engaged in the 1979 episode “Florence Meets Mr. Right,” it was to a blowhard holy roller. Guess who wasn’t getting any! Janet and Chrissy were similarly virginal on Three’s Company. Alice on The Brady Bunch was allowed to have a far steamier love life with the butcher!
10. “Louise vs. Florence” is still the best episode of The Jeffersons.
“Florence, you are speaking to a jackass.” Timeless. See for yourself at 20:30 in the video below.