When shows like Julia and Sanford And Son hit the airwaves in the early 1970’s, their arrival marked a new era of prominence for African-American performers on television. One of the finest shows to emerge within this trend was The Jeffersons, a classic sitcom that mixed plentiful laughs with a refreshingly new portrait of affluent African-Americans. As a result, it became a long-running hit as it broke new ground for television.
The Jeffersons, a spin-off from the hit series All In The Family, focused on Archie Bunker’s former neighbors, an upwardly mobile African-American family known as the Jeffersons. The series began when the Jeffersons moved from Queens to “a deluxe apartment in the sky” in posh East Manhattan. The family consisted of bigoted and endearingly arrogant patriarch George, his levelheaded wife Louise (a.k.a. “Weezy”), and their son Lionel. The Jeffersons also had a live-in maid named Florence, who made up for her lack of cleaning skills with a sharp wit that could put the ornery George in his place. Florence and Louise quickly became good friends, and soon enough Florence was like one of the family.
The Jeffersons also had an interesting array of neighbors. First and foremost, there was the couple of Tom and Helen Willis. Tom was Caucasian and Helen was African-American, so George took no end of joy in giving them grief about being a “zebra” couple. There was also Harry Bentley, an Englishman who worked as a translator at the United Nations. This eccentric but good-natured neighbor often drove George to distraction with his frequent requests to borrow various kitchen items (a cup of sugar, etc.) and to have people straighten out his back by walking on it. For added comic value, there were frequent visits from Mama Jefferson, who never missed an opportunity to smother her son George or snipe at Louise.
The result was a sort of reversed version of All In The Family, with rich African-American bigot George replacing the Caucasian working-class bigot Archie Bunker. Much like Archie, George wanted to be the king of his castle but had to deal with dissenting opinions from all sides, especially his wife. Of course, George brought a lot of this on himself by indulging in racist attitudes (every Caucasian was a “honky” to him) and his constant scheming to get more wealth. He was redeemed by the fact that beneath all his bluster he was a good-hearted man who loved his family and worked hard to support them. Lucky for him, he also had the clear-thinking Louise and the sharp-tongued Florence to keep him in check.
Plotting on The Jeffersons tended to be simple, with usually one dramatic situation driving the whole episode (Examples: George attends a funeral where Louise and Mama Jefferson fight over his attention, or George’s donation to a politician endangers Louise’s chance at winning a charity award). However, the show never felt underplotted because the show’s gifted cast could transform any simple plot thread into a non-stop barrage of laughs with their formidable comic skills. No matter what the situation was, there were always plenty of verbal duels (the highlight being the sparring between George and Florence) and a bit of slapstick to add some extra spice.
The Jeffersons also stayed fresh thanks to its innovative twists on the sitcom format. This show broke new ground for sitcoms, presenting a rare television portrait of affluent African-Americans and also being the first TV depiction of an interracial couple as regular characters. Since the show was developed by Norman Lear, the man behind All In The Family and Good Times, it also deftly weaved a sense of social consciousness into its comedy. Over the years, The Jeffersons would tackle such pressing social issues as divorce, street gangs and alcoholism.
This combination of social issues and slick comedy made The Jeffersons an instant hit when it debuted in 1975. It went on to enjoy a ten-year run and stayed either in or close to the Top-10 ratings winners during each of these seasons. Today, it remains a favorite in syndication, where its timeless combination of visual and verbal humor consistently draws in a high number of viewers. The deathless popularity of this classic proves that The Jeffersons are one family that will always be welcome in the homes of television fans.
“Hooray, we’re movin’ on up,
To the East Side,
To a deluxe apartment in the sky…”
USA / CBS / x25 minute episodes / Broadcast 18 January 1975 – 23 July 1985
Theme Music: Moving On Up by Jeff Barry, Ja’net DuBois/ Producer: Norman Lear
SHERMAN HEMSLEY as George Jefferson
ISABEL SANFORD as Louise Jefferson
MARLA GIBBS as Florence Johnston
ROXIE ROPER as Helen Willis
FRANKLIN COVER as Tom Willis
MIKE EVANS as Lionel Jefferson (1975, 1979-81)
DAMON EVANS as Lionel Jefferson (1975-78)
BELINDA TOLBERT as Jenny Willis Jefferson
PAUL BENEDICT as Harry Bentley (1975-1981, 1983-85)
EBONIE SMITH as Jessica Jefferson (1984-85)
NED WERTIMER as Ralph the doorman
DANNY WELLS as Charlie (1984-85)