THE JEFFERSONS

U.S. Domestic Comedy

The Jeffersons, which appeared on CBS television from 1975 to 1985, focused on the lives of a nouveau riche African-American couple, George and Louise Jefferson. George Jefferson was a successful businessman, millionaire and owner of seven dry cleaning stores. He lived with his wife in a ritzy penthouse apartment on Manhattan's fashionable and moneyed East Side. "We're movin' on up!" intoned the musical theme of the show opener that featured George, Louise and a moving van in front of "their de-luxe apartment in the sky."

The program was conceived by independent producers, Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. This team's creation of highly successful and often controversial sitcoms during the 1970s and early 1980s, helped to change television history. Programs such as Maude, Sanford and Son, and Good Times enjoyed frequent rankings amongst the top-ten most watched programs.

The Jeffersons was a spin-off of one of 1970s television's most notable television sitcoms, All in the Family. In 1973, Lear cast Sherman Hemsley in the role of George Jefferson, Archie Bunker's irascible and upwardly mobile black neighbor. This character was such a hit with viewers that Hemsley was soon cast in the spin-off series, The Jeffersons.

George and Louise Jefferson lead lives that reflected the trappings of money and success. Their home was filled expensive furnishings; art lined the walls. They even had their own black housekeeper, a wise-cracking maid named Florence. The supporting cast consisted of a number of unique characters including neighbor Harry Bentley, an eccentric Englishman who often made a mess of things; the Willises, a mixed-race couple with two adult children--one black, one white; and, the ever-obsequious Ralph the Doorman, who knew no shame when it came to earning a tip. Occasional characters included George's mother, the elderly and quietly cantankerous "Mother Jefferson" (the actress, Zara Cully died in 1978), and George's college-aged son (who was portrayed during various periods by two different actors).

The George Jefferson character was conceptualized as an Archie Bunker in blackface. George was intolerant, rude, and stubborn; he referred to White people as "honkies." He was a short, mean, bigoted popinjay who balked at manners. Louise, his long-suffering wife, spent most of her time apologizing for her husband's behavior. Florence, the maid, contributed a great deal of comic relief, with her continuous put-downs of George. She was not afraid of his of angry outbursts, and in fact had little regard for him or his tirades. She referred to him as "Shorty," and never missed a chance to put him in his place.

The program was enormously popular and remained on prime-time television for ten years. There are a number of factors that position this program as an important facet of recent television history. First, The Jeffersons was one of three programs of the period to feature African-Americans in leading roles--the first such programming since the cancellation of the infamous Amos 'n' Andy show in 1953. The Jeffersons was the first television program to feature an interracial married couple, and it offered an uncommon, albeit comic, portrayal of a successful African American family. Lastly, The Jeffersons is one of several programs of the period to rely heavily on confrontational humor. Along with All in the Family, and Sanford and Son, the show was also one of many to repopularize old-style ethnic humor.

It also serves to examine some of the controversy that surrounded The Jeffersons. Throughout its ten-year run on prime-time television, the show did not go without its share of criticism. The range of complaints, which emanated from media scholars, television critics and everyday black viewers ranged from the show's occasional lapses into the negative stereotyping to its sometimes lack of ethnic realism. To some, the early Louise Jefferson character was nothing more than an old-south Mammy stereotype. And George, though a millionaire businessman, was generally positioned as nothing more than a buffoon or the butt of someone's joke. Even his own maid had no respect for him. Some blacks questioned, "Are we laughing with George as he balks at convention, or at George as he continuously makes a fool of himself."

Ironically, as the show continued into the conservatism of the Reagan years the tone of the program shifted. Louise Jefferson's afro disappeared and so did her poor English. There was no mention of her former life as a housekeeper. George's racism was toned down and the sketches were rendered more palatable as to appeal to a wider audience. As with Amos 'n' Andy some twenty years prior, America's black community remained divided in its assessment of the program.

This period of television history was a shifting one for television programmers seeking to create a show featuring African Americans. Obvious stereotypes could no longer be sold, yet the pabulum of shows like Julia was equally as unacceptable. The Jeffersons joined other Lear/Yorkin programs in setting a new tone for prime-time television, exploring issues that TV had scarcely touched before, while it proved that programs with blacks in leading roles could indeed be successful commodities.

-Pam Deane


The Jeffersons

CAST

George Jefferson .............................Sherman Hemsley
Louise Jefferson
.....................................Isabel Sanford
Florence Johnston
.....................................Marla Gibbs
Helen Willis
..............................................Roxie Roker
Tom Willis
..............................................Franklin Cover
Lionel Jefferson
(1975, 1979-)......................Mike Evans
Jenny Willis Jefferson
..........................Berlinda Tolbert
Harry Bentley
..........................................Paul Benedict
Mother Jefferson
(1975-1978).........................Zara Cully
Lionel Jefferson
(1975-1978).....................Damon Evans
Ralph the Doorman
.................................Ned Wertimer

PRODUCERS    George Sunga, Jay Moriarity, Mike Mulligan, Don Nichol, Michael Ross, Bernie West, Sy Rosen, Jack Shea, Ron Leavitt, David Duclon

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

CBS
January 1975-August 1975                Saturday 8:30-9:30
September 1975-October 1976          Saturday 8:00-8:30
November 1976-January 1977        Wednesday 8:00-8:30
September 1977-March 1978              Monday 8:00-8:30
April 1978-May 1978                         Saturday 8:00-8:30
June 1978-September 1978                Monday 8:00-8:30
September 1978-January 1979      Wednesday 8:00-8:30
January 1979-March 1979           Wednesday 9:30-10:00
March 1979-June 1979                 Wednesday 8:00-8:30
June 1979-September 1982               Sunday 9:30-10:00
September 1982-December 1984         Sunday 9:00-9:30
January 1985-March 1985                  Tuesday 8:00-8:30
April 1985                                         Tuesday 8:30-9:00
June 1985                                        Tuesday 8:30-9:00
June 1985-July 1985                          Tuesday 8:00-8:30

FURTHER READING

Bogel, Donald. Blacks, Coons, Mulattos, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Film. New York: Garland, 1973.

_______________. Blacks in American Television and Film. New York: Garland, 1988.

Friedman, Lester D. Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana, Illinois and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for "Blackness." Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1993.

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law, America's Greatest TV Shows and People Who Created Them. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Taylor, Ella. Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1990.

 

See also All in the Family; Cosby Show; Good Times; Hemsley, Sherman; Lear, Norman