The 1970’s was a time of change for black people in the area of television in the United States. White actors in TV shows mass marketed toward white audiences since the advent of television shows in the late 1940’s had dominated television. Before the 1970’s there were only three situation comedies (sitcoms) geared toward black audiences that featured black actors: Amos ‘n’ Andy, Beulah, and Julia. Amos ‘n’ Andy was highly offensive, Beulah was an improvement, but it reflected the life of a black woman in a stereotypical role. Julia hit the jackpot when it highlighted the life of a professional black woman in an independent position, but it was the only sitcom of its kind during the 1960’s.
In the 1970’s, television producers started to acknowledge the fact that black people comprise a huge portion of the American television viewing audience. In order to capitalize on the untapped wealth (television advertising) of a virtually ignored section of society, black sitcoms began to appear everywhere. Many of the black sitcoms from the 70’s have become major television classics, some were mediocre hits, and the rest were forgettable; journey back in time with me as I visit the black sitcoms of the 1970’s.
70’s Black Sitcom TV Classics
The Jefferson‘s – George Jefferson (Sherman Helmsley) was the black answer to Archie Bunker. Loud, rude, bigoted, sexist and mostly wrong about everything are all good ways to describe George Jefferson. Much like Archie Bunker, we laughed at George Jefferson when he was being a boor, not with him. The relationship between George and his wife Weezy (Isabel Sanford) was always pleasant to watch because she constantly proved him wrong, but it was the relationships between George and Florence (Marla Gibbs), the housekeeper, that would steal the show. The Jefferson’s is a classic TV staple, and at 11 seasons, it is one of the longest running sitcoms in television history.
Good Times – If you ask almost any African American person over the age of 30, what the phrase “Damn! Damn! Damn!” means, they will most likely be able to give you the answer-hint, it has to do with the classic TV sitcom, Good Times. James (John Amos), Florida (Esther Rolle), JJ (Jimmie Walker), Thelma (BernNadette Stanis), Michael (Ralph Carter), and Wilona (Ja’net DuBois) are all characters that may just as well have been members of our own families. James and Florida were the backbone, Thelma and Wilona were the pretty ones, Michael was the smart one-and JJ was the breakout star of the show.
Sanford and Son – It is doubtful that there is anyone over the age of 10 that does not know the name Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx). Sanford and Son is such an endearing classic TV show that current popular TV show characters of today, like JD from the ABC TV sitcom Scrubs, constantly refers to its central character Fred Sanford. Lamont was the son, Esther (LaWanda Page) was the bible-thumping aunt, and Grady (Whitman Mayo) and Bubba (Bubba Bexley) were Fred’s best friends. In our minds, we all hope that when his time came, Fred went to join his beloved wife Elizabeth. Redd Foxx (December 9, 1922 – October 11, 1991) may be long gone, but his memory will live forever through Sanford and Son.
What’s Happening – Raj (Ernest Thomas), Rerun (Fred Berry), Dwayne (Haywood Nelson) and Shirley (Shirley Hemphill) are all characters that most people who love Classic TV can easily identify. If we remember nothing else, the opening credits with the theme song that gets eternally stuck in one’s head will never be forgotten. What’s Happening was created in response to the enormous success of the film Cooley High in 1975. The bond between the three teenage guys was the life of the show, and as such they were the original Friends and Rob’s Diner was the original Central Perk Café.
Mediocre 70’s Black TV Sitcoms
The Bill Cosby Show– Now Wait. Before anybody gets confused, I am not speaking of the 80’s classic TV show mega hit, The Cosby Show, nor am I referring to Cosby, the Bill Cosby TV show from the 1990’s. The Bill Cosby Show is entirely different from both of the previously mentioned Bill Cosby Vehicles. In the show, Cosby was a high school P.E. teacher named Chet Kincaid, each week he would get into various situations with his students. The Bill Cosby Show played more like a dramedy than a situation comedy; in that respect, it may have been a decade ahead of its time and many people did not connect with the show.
That’s My Mama – Not many people tuned in to this 70’s TV show that revolved around the life of a DC barber and his relationship with his overbearing mama. However, the show did introduce us to talented and enduring black actors like Clifton Davis, Ted Lange, and the beautiful black actress, Lynne Moody.
Baby, I’m Back – It almost seems as though Baby, I’m Back is only remembered by black audiences, and handful of those at best. The show starred Demond Wilson who had earlier starred as Lamont, Fred Sanford’s son on the mega hit TV show, “Sanford and Son.” The premise of the show was interesting as it was all about a man who was trying to make amends with his wife and daughter after he had previously walked out on them. Baby I’m Back did not last an entire season but audiences were introduced to Kim Fields, and it offered more Hollywood exposure to Denise Nicholas.
Forgettable 70’s Black TV Sitcoms
The Sanford Arms– Fred Sanford and Lamont moved on, and audiences move on with them. The Sanford Arms was an apartment building that was owned by Fred Sanford, but managed by an old Army buddy named Phil. Phi and his kids lived in the old Sanford house while they managed the Sanford Arms. This show was doomed to fail.
Grady– This was yet another spin-off of Sanford and Son. In this show, Grady moves in with his son’s family and the weekly activity had to do with Grady’s attempt to adjust to the burbs after life in the Watts Ghetto.. We all know that Grady was Fred’s best friend (sorry Bubba), so I guess the producers of Grady thought that Grady’s close relationship with Fred Sanford would be enough to make a TV hit-it wasn’t.
Barefoot in the Park – If you have ever seen the film Barefoot in the Park, which starred Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, you will have a good idea of the premise of this show. The show featured Nipsey Russell as a supporting actor and two lead characters that only their mothers will know. Probably the biggest highlight of this show was two separate guest appearances by Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams(Laverne & Shirley).