It’s probably no surprise that Norman Lear has seen his relevancy rise even higher in recent years. Lear’s classic 1970s sitcoms, such as “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” feel just as applicable today as they did 40 years ago.
And that’s part of the motivation behind ABC’s Wednesday night special “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons.'”
The special is a re-creation of two episodes, one from each series, as performed by contemporary stars — including Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker, Marisa Tomei as Edith Bunker, Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson, and Wanda Sykes as Louise Jefferson.
The actual episodes used are under embargo, but there is a natural thread between the two shows, given that “The Jeffersons,” which ran from 1975 to 1985, is a spinoff of “All in the Family,” which aired from 1971 to 1979. For this special, the two shows’ living room sets have been re-created side-to-side on a sound stage at the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, Calif., and it’s seamless.
At a Tuesday night dress rehearsal for the special, Jimmy Kimmel — who is executive producing the live event with Lear — called both Lear series “two of the greatest and most important shows in TV history.
“[Lear] did so much for freedom of speech and inclusivity,” Kimmel told the audience. “We’d be way behind without him.”
Some of the subject matter discussed on both shows, of course, are also a reminder of how some things haven’t changed — except, perhaps, for what can be said on television now. Lear’s shows were famous for boldly and bluntly discussing race relations, socioeconomics, women’s rights, family dynamics and more.
But some of those discussions might seem jarring to people in 2019, Kimmel said, noting that the bigoted character of Archie Bunker has goodness deep inside him, but you’re supposed to be turned off by his viewpoints.
“Some of the jokes are going to be shocking to you,” he warned the crowd, noting the irony that certain words are no longer acceptable on TV, yet “now you can have dragons burning naked women at the stakes.”
Kimmel added the audience that some of those words heard on stage will be bleeped — “don’t be horrified,” he quipped. Also, Lear will appear in an opening pre-taped segment noting how back in the 1970s, “people weren’t used to TV shows dealing with issues,” and that humor was one way to do so — but that “the language can still be jarring today.”
By revisiting these shows now, Lear added, he hopes the presentation will “make you laugh, provoke discussion, and encourage action… there’s still so much work to do.”
The 90-minute special itself feels like a bit of time travel, giving audiences a chance to revisit some old friends, but with a different sheen. And unlike those pre-taped multi-camera shows, this time it’s all live.
But on Tuesday night, flubs were kept to a minimum, under the eye of famed sitcom director James Burrows. As Kimmel and Lear sat at a large table just off camera, “All in the Family” began just like it always did: With Archie and Edith crooning “Those Were the Days.” But this time, it’s Harrelson and Tomei playing tribute to Caroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton.
Because it’s live, the prop team and set designers race to move things around during commercial breaks while a fifth camera (normally multi-camera sitcoms employ four cameras) has been added to make sure no shots are missed.
Ellie Kemper, Ike Barinholtz, Sean Hayes and Anthony Anderson are also among the performers in the “All in the Family” segment. After that half of the special, Lear proclaimed himself “over the moon,” adding to Kimmel, “bless you for doing this.” Kimmel added that he felt like he was “nine years old in Brooklyn, watching this show.”
Before the second half began, Foxx couldn’t help but mug for the audience and interact with the crowd (a week after he similarly took over the DJ booth at Fox’s upfronts party in New York), before doing an exaggerated strut in the style of Sherman Hemsley as George Jefferson. Just as Tomei stole the first half as Edith, Sykes was a force as Louise Jefferson, while Kerry Washington, Will Ferrell, Amber Stevens West, Stephen Tobolowsky and Jackee Harry were also featured.
More surprise guest stars — also under embargo — also popped up to thrill the crowd.
At the end of the night, after several hours under punishing hot lights, Foxx suggested that perhaps a bit more air conditioning was necessary for the room. Beyond that, Harrelson called the experience “thrilling and terrifying” but also “such a privilege to be a part of Norman Lear’s legacy.”
In success, “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” could become an occasional event for ABC. Said Kimmel: “This was so much better than I hoped it would be!”