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Norman Lear, Marla Gibbs Talk Political Relevance of ‘Live in Front of a Studio Audience’ Special

When Marla Gibbs returned to set for ABC’s live remake of Norman Lear’s “The Jeffersons” and “All In the Family,” she never even looked at a script — she remembered her lines from playing Florence Johnston in the seminal sitcom nearly 40 years ago.

“When something changes your life, you never forget it,” Gibbs said during Saturday’s FYC event held at Disney Studios in Burbank. “I never forgot the show, never forgot the lines, never forgot the cast and their lines, because everything about that show was very important to me.”

The actress’s cameo — which was kept secret until the special’s premiere — featured one particular line that Gibbs remembered was a smash during its original run. In it, Florence cracks a joke about three black women living in the same building, saying “How come we overcame and nobody told me?” which Gibbs said was met with the same uproarious laughter the second time around.

Such politically-nuanced lines are a staple of the show, which Lear said are just as relevant now as they were in the ‘70s: “The big surprise for the audience was that nothing has changed — it’s the language of the moment, it wasn’t [just] the language of 40 years ago.”

In choosing which two episodes to recreate for the special, Brent Miller (Lear’s producing partner at Act III Productions) said they “wanted to focus on episodes that were relevant then and now,” which explains the revived episodes’ political nature.

The panelists joked that certain scenes — such as the one where the notoriously bigoted Archie (played here by Woody Harrelson) voices disgust over the idea of a black president and makes disturbing misogynistic comments — are certainly still timely under a Trump presidency. When asked about the parallels between its Nixon-era jokes and the current president, Miller said: “That was intentional.”

The contemporary stars who took on the show’s iconic roles were also present on the panel, including Anthony Anderson, Marrisa Tomei, Fran Bennett, Jovan Adepo and Ike Barinholtz, who all felt a mix of fear and excitement at the prospect of working with Lear.

“There’s no secret that Norman Lear is the most important television producer in the history of television,” Anderson, who played George’s brother Henry in the re-make, said. “Normal Lear and the shows he created — ‘The Jeffersons,’ ‘All in the Family,’ ‘Maude,’ ‘Good Times’ — were the shows I grew up watching.”

Anderson continued to praise the producer for being a trailblazer in the television industry, inspiring the inclusive shows we see today. “Norman Lear and his work 40-plus years ago are the reason we are able to have a successful show named ‘Blackish’ on the air right now,” he said. “With characters who are unapologetically Black in what they do and in their views, and very opinionated in the same vein as Archie Bunker and George Jefferson.”

But despite the excitement, the cast agreed that the pressure was definitely on. Tomei, who took up Jean Stapleton’s post as Edith, was particularly nervous for her live rendition of the show’s theme song, which she performed alongside Harrelson.

“That was terrifying; they had to cajole me,” Tomei said. “I was so scared. We weren’t even sure if we were gonna do it at the beginning and then James Burrows wanted it to be live and I thought, ‘I’m gonna lose it, I can’t do it.’ I thought I might cry.”

Miller and Lear were hesitant to reveal anything about the prospect of more recreated episodes, but the actors on stage didn’t hide their eagerness to take part in more specials in the future. Gibbs perhaps summarized their thoughts best, saying, “Anything Norman does, I’m in.”

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