The question of evolving taste in comedy has been raised quite frequently in recent days. As older material is accused of racism, sexism, and homophobia (mostly aptly, although occasionally the point is missed), some people ask if any material could survive a modern day lens. Personally, I feel like this is a cheap cop-out used by people trying to justify bad behavior in the past – funny is funny, and while some jokes may land clunkier today than they did half a century ago, any time humor is used to punch up as opposed to attack those already suffering, it will maintain a timeless appeal. This remains true about Blazing Saddles, it’s mostly true about the National Lampoon, it applies to almost every Charlie Chaplin film, and it in particular applies to the works of Norman Lear, the great 70s satirist and television mogul. And it appears that Lear wants to prove this thesis, as he has recently announced an interesting comedy special tackling this very subject.
As a means of proving the universality of comedy, as well as hoping to find a way to bring families together the way he once did during the turbulent 70s, Lear has teamed up with producers Jimmy Kimmel, Will Ferrell, Brent Miller, Adam McKay, and Justin Theroux to present Live In Front Of A Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All In The Family And The Jeffersons. Essentially, Lear and fellow host Kimmel will be presenting a series of episodes from two of his most beloved comedies, and two of the greatest shows ever made. Famously tackling serious topics like family dynamics, gender roles, racism, sexism, and political turmoil, both shows helped unite audiences and define an era. And as tensions flare in this country yet again over a series of similar issues, this might be the perfect time for Lear’s timeless writing to return to the mainstream. Perhaps the most interesting detail about this show is that each episode will be presented live with an entirely new cast interpreting the classic roles. For All In The Family, the role of Archie Bunker, the mean-spirited, racist patriarch of the Bunker family (legendarily played by Caroll O’Connor) will be performed by Woody Harrelson, while Archie’s lovably put-upon wife will be played by Marisa Tomei. Feminist daughter Gloria will be portrayed by Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Ellie Kemper, which honestly feels like spot-on casting, if you ask me. No announcement has been made for Mike Stivic, Gloria’s socialist husband who feuds with Archie (I told you these themes were timeless), but my vote is for Rob Reiner to reprise his role, no wig, no nothing: just a 70-year-old man pretending to be a twenty-something (it is worth noting that this is my answer to everything). As for The Jeffersons half of the evening, the opinionated George Jefferson (so brilliantly played by Sherman Hemsley) will be portrayed by Jamie Foxx, while kind-hearted matriarch Louise (portrayed with equal aplomb by Marla Gibbs) will be played by Wanda Sykes (an interesting take, to be sure). Neighbor Tom Willis will be played by producer Will Ferrell, while maid Florence will be played by One Day At A Time’s Justina Machado.
This is a fascinating production that can really go any number of ways. These characters are so beloved, and so deeply ingrained with the actors who portrayed them, that it remains to be seen if any new actors could really handle the roles, no matter how excellent they may be. Still, with Lear behind the production, and legendary television director James Burrows behind the camera, I honestly can’t wait to see how two of my favorite shows translate to the 21st century (I will say I’ve watched episodes as recently as 2016 and they hold up remarkably well). The special airs on May 22nd on ABC, and you can bet I’ll be watching when it airs.