There’s an episode of 21 Jump Street where the cops go undercover at a performing arts high school. Peter DeLuise’s Doug Penhall has to perform a scene in acting class, and opts to do something from an episode of the classic Fifties sitcom The Honeymooners rather than from a play. He and Johnny Depp’s Tom Hanson do pretty good impressions of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, but the teacher’s not impressed. He tells Penhall to forget about the TV show and just play the reality of the scene. Penhall stops channeling Gleason and does something that feels true to the spirit of the show but is also its own thing, and it’s much more interesting than the original sketch-comedy version.
When I first heard about Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family & The Jeffersons, I hoped the project — where an all-star cast performed an episode apiece from two of Lear’s iconic Seventies sitcoms — would take that latter approach. Instead, almost everyone opted for the former, resulting in a fun night, but one that wasn’t all it could have been.
The 90-minute special was introduced by the legendary Lear himself, who acknowledged that, “The language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today. And we are still grappling with many of these same issues.” Both Lear and Jimmy Kimmel, who co-hosted and produced the special with him, had talked previously about wanting to see if these very topical comedies still felt relevant today. There were moments where they very much did. The All in the Family episode, “Henry’s Farewell,” opens with TV’s original antihero, lovable bigot Archie Bunker (Harrelson) debating his liberal son-in-law Michael Stivic (Ike Barinholtz) about whether Richard Nixon would rather be president or king, if a man would want to profit off of being in the Oval Office and whether rich people can get into Heaven. The episode was surely chosen for the special because it features the first meeting between Archie and neighbor George Jefferson (played here by Jamie Foxx), but that Nixon argument neatly touched on a whole lot of issues related to the Trump administration. The Jeffersons half of things opted for the series premiere, “A Friend in Need,” and its discussion of class issues within the black community didn’t feel dated in the slightest.
For the most part, though, both episodes seemed less interested in engaging with the material than simply recreating the originals as much as possible. Harrelson did his best to talk like Carroll O’Connor, while Foxx swung his arms around like Sherman Helmsley. Now, many of these were excellent impressions — if you didn’t feel great joy at seeing Marisa Tomei hurl herself into Jean Stapleton’s old shoes as Edith Bunker, I’m not sure what could make you happy in this life — but they were still largely functioning on the surface, rather than going deeper with some of the most vividly-etched characters in TV comedy history.
Some of the actors involved opted to do their own thing, more in The Jeffersons half of things than over at 704 Houser Street. As Louise “Weezie” Jefferson, Wanda Sykes was just giving a straightforward performance, rather than trying to approximate Isabel Sanford. As the Jeffersons’ friends — and TV’s first interracial couple of note — Tom and Helen Willis, Will Ferrell and Kerry Washington were engaging with one another rather than memories of what Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker once did. And Stephen Tobolowsky was suitably weird as Jefferson neighbor Harry Bentley, but not just copying Paul Benedict.
But a lot of the actors (including three of the four leads) were working hard to evoke the original casts. Between that and the overly enthusiastic studio audience (who not only cheered the entrances of most of the actors, but sometimes cheered when they reappeared later), the whole thing was too karaoke. It was entertaining — Tomei’s delivery of the line about how George’s brother Henry (Anthony Anderson) would be happy to say goodbye to Archie made me laugh as hard as Stapleton’s version back in the day — but hollow.
One of the night’s biggest treats (along with Jennifer Hudson belting out The Jeffersons‘ incredible gospel theme song) was a surprise cameo by Marla Gibbs, reprising her role as Jefferson maid Florence almost 45 years after she first played it. To keep her appearance a secret, early promotional materials for the special claimed that Justina Machado would play Florence. Machado and Tobolowsky recently co-starred in a different kind of Norman Lear revival: Netflix’s great, now late, One Day at a Time. That show didn’t use scripts from the original show, but rather looked at the concept and figured out what a show about a single mom raising two teenagers might look like a few decades later. It had the aura of vintage Lear while also seeming entirely modern.
Live in Front of a Studio Audience was a different kind of experiment, and a worthy one to try. I wouldn’t have wanted to see the setting updated to the present, even if the fans in the bleachers didn’t get references to people like segregationist Georgia governor Lester Maddox. Nor did anyone need to rewrite the scripts from scratch. But it would have been nice if Harrelson, Foxx and some of the others had played their parts like they’d never seen the old shows. These are great actors! Seeing Woody Harrelson play Carroll O’Connor playing Archie Bunker was cute. Seeing his own direct take on Archie could have been a revelatory experience.
There was enough of interest last night to be worth trying again, whether with more Lear shows or another classic. (Say, a Cheers script with Channing Tatum and Constance Wu as Sam and Diane?) Hopefully, though, the next attempt will try to be its own thing rather than just a lovingly slavish recreation.