Live In Front of a Studio Audience, the 90-minute restaging of two classic episodes of Norman Lear sitcoms performed by an all-star cast, could have been just another shallow attempt to wallow in television nostalgia. You know, like rebooting Press Your Luck and Card Sharks, something ABC will do next month as part of its all-retro-game-show approach to summertime programming.
But the back-to-back staging of the All in the Family episode “Henry’s Farewell” and the first-ever episode of The Jeffersons, an All in the Family spin-off, worked on more levels than that. It was effective as a televised stage play; as, yes, an admittedly nostalgia-riddled exercise in watching contemporary actors try to nail the mannerisms of old sitcom characters; and as a reminder that the same social issues addressed in these nearly 50-year-old comedies remain relevant today. That last point is something Lear, who hosted the proceedings alongside executive producer Jimmy Kimmel, highlighted in his introduction. “There is so much more work we must do in this country we love so much,” the TV pioneer said at the top of the show, while also warning the audience that the dialogue in the original scripts had not been watered down and might be hard to stomach. (ABC did bleep the use of the N-word, twice, in The Jeffersons.)
Listening to Archie Bunker, played by Woody Harrelson in lieu of the great Carroll O’Connor, rail about “the coloreds” was indeed uncomfortable, partly because of the language but partly because there surely are old white men in America, sitting in their worn living room armchairs, still talking like this.
“Black people have arrived,” Ike Barinholtz, as Rob Reiner’s Meathead, tells Archie. “They’re here.” Archie’s response: “I ain’t letting them in.” This All in the Family episode first aired in 1973. It’s both impressive and sad that it holds up as well as it does in 2019.
That initial episode — in which the Bunkers wind up hosting a good-bye party for Henry Jefferson, who is moving out of their Queens neighborhood to start his own business — segued nicely into the first episode of The Jeffersons, in which George, played with appropriate Sherman Hemsley peacockiness by Jamie Foxx, insists that his wife Louise (Wanda Sykes) hire a maid, a decision that makes Louise (or, Weezy), still adjusting to their new status as wealthy people, uncomfortable.
The Jeffersons was the slightly more entertaining effort because the dialogue and pacing had a bit more zip and all of the actors seemed to slide into their roles more comfortably. Will Ferrell and Kerry Washington as Tom and Helen Willis, roles originated by Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker, were really good together, and the sharp-tongued Sykes made Weezy effectively her own instead of trying to mimic Isabel Sanford. The Jeffersons portion also benefitted from being bookended by two powerful moments: Jennifer Hudson in a Foxxy Cleopatra-esque wig singing “Movin’ on Up,” the show’s bumpin’ theme song, and the surprise appearance of Marla Gibbs, now 87, reprising her role as Florence, George and Weezy’s wisecracking maid. The fact that she shared a scene with Jackée Harry, playing Louise’s friend Diane, made this something of a 227 reunion, too.
Watching all of this unfold live injected a sense of energy into the whole exercise. During the All in the Family portion, Foxx botched one of George Jefferson’s lines. “It’s live,” he said, breaking character after his tongue got all twisted during a toast to Henry, played by Anthony Anderson of Black-ish. “Everyone sitting at home just thinks their TV messed up.” In the background, Harrelson could be seen turning his back to the camera because he was laughing so hard. That screw-up and the subsequent attempt to get the scene back on track gave Live In Front of a Studio Audience the flavor of another great comedy from the same era: The Carol Burnett Show.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching this staged bit of time travel was gauging which actor did the best job of capturing the original performance. The MVP in that department was Marisa Tomei, whose high-pitched lilt and awkward lumbering was Jean Stapleton’s Edith Bunker to a T, yet still registered as acting as opposed to a straight-up impression. Tomei got Edith’s warmth and agreeable ditziness just right. Harrelson, who had the most difficult task of anyone, didn’t fare quite as well with Archie. He sometimes lost control of his Queens accent and seemed more whiny than grumpy, though his face-off with Foxx’s George was a good match.
Overall, everyone in the cast seemed to enjoy themselves and that gave this whole ABC experiment, directed by distinguished sitcom vet James Burrows, the type of verve that can’t be replicated in pre-recorded scripted fare. Given how well it went, I wouldn’t be surprised if ABC makes the live sitcom its version of the live musicals that NBC and Fox regularly stage. Even if it is a blatant nostalgia play, bringing some old TV history into the present seems like a smart move for ABC — and a reason for the rest of us to actually watch live network television for a change.