Throwback Thursday came a little bit early this week…
On ABC’s special Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s All in the Family and The Jeffersons, there were a bunch of new faces breathing life into sitcom episodes of the past. Jamie Foxx put his own twist on Sherman Hemsley’s iconic strut as George Jefferson, while Wanda Sykes filled Isabel Sanford’s shoes as the inestimable Louise “Weezy” Jefferson. Kerry Washington and Will Ferrell brought elegance and goofiness to the Jeffersons’ neighbors Tom and Helen in equal measure.
But in the closing moments of this live variety experiment, there was one familiar face from The Jeffersons who made her return to the soundstage in a surprise appearance — Marla Gibbs. Gibbs portrayed the Jeffersons’ wisecracking maid Florence Johnston on 11 seasons of The Jeffersons. She also enjoyed a brief stint on her own spin-off Checking In, which only lasted four episodes.
Live in Front of a Studio Audience recreated two episodes from All in the Family and The Jeffersons, both of which share a natural link. From All in the Family, they selected the sixth episode of season 4, 1973’s “Henry’s Farewell.” The episode marked George Jefferson’s first appearance on the series, which then continued until The Jeffersons launched in 1975. To streamline this connection, they brought the pilot of The Jeffersons back to life.
In the episode’s final moments, Louise and George await the arrival of a woman interviewing to be their new maid. Another Norman Lear player Justina Machado (One Day at a Time) was originally announced to be recreating the role of Florence Johnston — but at the dress rehearsal on Tuesday, Machado was nowhere in sight. Louise opened the door for their maid, and in walked Gibbs to thunderous applause.
A few of the original cast members from the two series are still with us, including Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers. At the dress rehearsal, Ike Barinholtz, who is taking on Reiner’s role as “Meathead,” even quipped to Kimmel that he was looking forward to directing This Is Spinal Tap next in reference to Reiner’s legendary directing career that followed his success on the 1970s sitcom.
However, Gibbs was the only one to make an appearance in this new special. Lear and Kimmel urged the new actors to put their own spin on the parts, but in every other way, the episodes remained the same. Even the sets were rebuilt down to the inch.
“We’re not updating anything. They are word for word,” Lear previously told EW. “The lesson or message in that is human nature doesn’t change. All of the problems that Archie and Jefferson face are clearly here today. Nothing has been totally resolved. There isn’t any subject we did through all those years that we couldn’t do again today.”
There was, however, one other crucial member of the original show present — Archie Bunker’s chair, which Kimmel told the dress rehearsal studio audience was there on loan from the Smithsonian. At the end of Tuesday night’s dress rehearsal, Norman Lear sat in the iconic chair, next to Gibbs in Edith’s chair, surrounded by Kimmel and the original cast.
As the audience members shuffled out after a night full of surprises, they were treated to a glimpse of television history being immortalized as pictures were taken of this image: Lear sitting in Archie Bunker’s chair, a chair worthy of being preserved in a museum, next to renowned television director James Burrows (who directed this live special). It was a fitting end to an evening that made classic television into living history — along with some of the original faces who helped make it so.