Speaking to the studio audience on Tuesday night at a dress rehearsal for this week’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” special, executive producer Jimmy Kimmel offered a quick disclaimer about how different sitcoms were back in the 1970s — in particular, Norman Lear comedies.
Lear’s shows weren’t afraid to tackle messy social, political and cultural topics. To 2019 ears, some of those things may be offensive — particularly when they come out of Archie Bunker’s mouth. “Shows were different in the 70s,” Kimmel told the crowd (and, in particular, an audience member from England who wasn’t familiar with Lear’s work). “They are very vanilla now. Back then, they were chocolate.”
That’s part of the draw of “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” which returns for a second installment on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC. Lear’s 1970s-era sitcoms were known for mixing comedy with an honest look at the issues that people face — the kind of things that we’re still dealing with, more than 40 years later. Watching modern casts perform the timeless scripts from Lear’s series is a reminder that while the world may change, the good and bad of humanity doesn’t.
Like the first special, “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” will once again recreate an episode of Lear’s “All in the Family.” But this time, it will be paired with a new take on an episode of another Lear classic, “Good Times.” And indeed, some of the subjects addressed, and terms used, are of the era, which is why a disclaimer written by Lear opens the show. “There is much more work to do in this country we love so much,” part of the opening statement reads.
The original ‘Live in Front of a Studio Audience” special ran in May, and included all-star remakes of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” episodes. It was not only a hit (averaging 14.3 million viewers after 35 days of DVR playback), but also won the Emmy for outstanding variety special (live).
ABC picked up two more installments of the special, and when the call went out to find new stars to participate, Lear admitted to “an embarrassment of riches” when it came to casting.
Joining the returning “All in the Family” cast, including Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei, are Kevin Bacon, Justina Machado and Jesse Eisenberg. And then starring in a recreation of spinoff “Good Times” are Viola Davis, Andre Braugher, Tiffany Haddish and Jharrel Jerome, among others.
“We got a lot of enthusiasm and it made it a little easier to explain because we had done it before,” Kimmel told Variety. “So we didn’t have to start from scratch and explain what was going on, and if it was going to work. Everyone involved saw it and wanted to be a part of it. And for us, there are so many great people that we wanted to work with.”
As a result, Kimmel said the producers had the ability to cast the performers they thought would be best for “Good Times” and the guest roles in this episode of “All in the Family.” “I think we got very lucky,” he said.
But before casting the new roles, Lear’s partner at ACT III Productions, Brent Miller, said the producers first figured out a schedule that would work for Tomei and Harrelson. Tomei is currently on Broadway in “The Rose Tattoo,” while Harrelson is shooting “Venom.” But they figured out how to bring both stars back, “and ultimately that’s how we ended up with the air date that we have,” Miller said.
“I spend a lot of time trying to book people to do things,” Kimmel said. “And it is interesting, when people have a lot of fun and are proud of what they did, it becomes suddenly very easy to figure things out.”
One person who couldn’t return, however, was Jamie Foxx, who played George Jefferson in the “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” version of “The Jeffersons.” With Foxx unavailable, the producers began looking at other Lear shows to remake.
“To be honest, we would have done ‘The Jeffersons’ again if Jamie Foxx had been able to do it,” Kimmel said. “We were going to do holiday episodes of both shows. But we wanted to do ‘Good Times’ anyway, so this worked out perfectly.”
There’s still some Foxx in this edition, however: The star’s daughter, Corinne, plays Thelma Evans in this take on “Good Times.” She appears opposite Braugher and Davis as James and Florida Evans, while Haddish appears as Willona Woods, Jay Pharoah plays J.J. Evans and Asante Blackk is Michael Evans.
Harrelson and Tomei played Archie and Edith Bunker in the inaugural “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” and at the time said they would be game to return for a second installment. “It’s the best of everything for a performer, it’s a stage performance but everyone gets to see it and it’s quick — and we know the writing’s incredible,” Tomei told Variety in June.
Also back are Ellie Kemper and Ike Barinholtz, reprising their roles as Gloria and Mike “Meathead” Stivic.
Additionally, “Black-ish” star Anthony Anderson returns, but in a new role. In May, he played Uncle Henry Jefferson in “All in the Family,” but that character doesn’t appear in this episode. So this time, he’s singing the “Good Times” theme song with Patti LaBelle.
“Anthony never misses a chance to sing both on television and in real life, and you don’t just put anybody in to sing with Patti LaBelle, that would be a terrible thing for someone who can’t hang,” Kimmel said. “But Anthony is a super talented singer. And we had so much fun with him last time. We didn’t want to repeat cast members in roles other than what they had already played, but we wanted Anthony to be involved very much, so this seemed like a great answer to that.”
Like last time, Kimmel and Lear are hoping to keep the element of surprise by not revealing the exact episodes being revisited. The roles being played by Bacon, Machado and Eisenberg on “All the Family” are also being kept secret, as are the parts for Jerome and others on “Good Times.”
And then there are also several cameos set to appear, including one that may slightly stun fans of the original shows.
“We enjoy having a little surprises here and there,” Miller said. “Since it’s a live show, we were trying to create the idea of appointment TV and have people come together as families and friends to watch. The more we can tease it with surprises that people are going to discover in real time, the better for all.”
Kimmel added that the timeliness of the two episodes selected is intentional.
“Yes, there will be fun surprises, that we will promise. But also the episodes themselves are very powerful,” Kimmel said. “I think that they are meaningful in December of 2019 just as they were when they originally aired. I’m excited about the episodes themselves.”
The turnaround on “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” is fast: The castmembers first got together on Friday for a table read, and then worked through the weekend to prepare. On Tuesday night, the production ran mostly smoothly — although during the “Good Times” dry run, much of the cast (all of whom are new to the live sitcom special) flubbed a line or two.
Lear said he got emotional when he stepped on the revived “Good Times” stage for the first time, earlier this week: “I have to say, I cried,” he told Kimmel. “Just to be here again. I feel them all.”
As for the first special’s success, Lear called it was “such a lovely, glorious surprise. There was no reason they wouldn’t do well, but the extent to which they have also surprised and delighted, it’s more than I expected. It’s delicious.”
Among the superfans of the special: Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, who was spotted on the floor watching the dress rehearsal on Tuesday.
Kimmel said he couldn’t put his finger on one reason why “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” resonated with fans, but believed it was “a combination of great shows that people love, a curiosity factor because this all-star cast has agreed to be part of it and they’ve agreed to do it live, which adds an element of excitement. I think it just brings back positive memories for people.”
The next “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” will air in the spring, and Kimmel said he already has an idea in place.
“Not only have we been thinking about it, but we know what we want to do and I already have it booked,” Kimmel said. “This is a great idea; we have an unbelievably fantastic plan for the next one. I don’t want to tip it off yet.”