‘SANFORD AND SON’: WHEN SITCOMS WERE EDGY & CONTROVERSIAL
Yes. I’m going to write that word in this review. You know…that word. The word MeTV won’t air on their hacked-to-pieces Jeffersons reruns (no…”honkey” is still on those. They let “honkey” fly). I’m going to write it, so you better prepare yourself. If you’re a millennial, and you need a “safe place,” you have plenty of time to seek shelter. Counselors will be on hand all day here at the Drunk TV corporate offices to offer guidance if you feel threatened or abused or victimized by my typing a word that you can hear blasted from millions of car stereos every day here in America. Be prepared; it’s coming soon. For the faint of heart, I’ve prepared a William Castle-inspired “N-Word Fright Break” for those with weaker constitutions. Remember—you’ve been warned.
Sony gets down and dirty with their cheapskate customers (something junkman Fred Sanford would no doubt appreciate) by offering up Sanford and Son: The Complete Series, which puts all 136 episodes (over 55 hours) from the smash 1970s NBC series’ six (really five and a half) seasons on 17 discs. Bundled up in what has to be the cheapest packaging job I’ve ever seen (more about that way down in the review), you have to hand it to Sony: if you really want this series, they’ve cut the presentation down to the absolute bone, with each episode coming out to about .19 cents per. Now that’s a junkman’s special!
As a TV-obsessed kid during the seventies, I’m still shaking my head trying to figure out how people could never have heard of
rip-off artist “creator” Norman Lear‘s iconic Sanford and Son, one of the biggest television shows of that decade. However…time does march on (my kids had no idea what this series was about, to my great shame), so a quick summary of Sanford and Son‘s simple plotline should suffice.
At 9114 South Central, in the Watts section of Los Angeles, 65-year-old widowed junkman Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) is supposed to spend his working days “coordinating” the refuse that litters his combination junkyard/home, while he cooks and cleans for his 30-year-old son, Lamont (Demond Wilson). However…as soon as Lamont takes off for the day in their broken-down old 1951 Ford pickup truck, scanning the streets of L.A. and particularly Beverly Hills for discarded treasures, Fred can usually be found sitting in his TV chair, watching his favorite game shows, soap operas and of course, his Godzilla movies.
Lazy as the day is long, Fred always has an excuse for the dirty dishes and unkempt, cluttered junkyard when frequently tired, stressed-out Lamont (who aspires, at least in the beginning of the series, to better things than being a junkman) comes home after a hard day out in the truck. Fred’s crippling (and totally fake) “ar-thur-ritis” is usually good for a quick deflection of Lamont’s anger, and it that doesn’t work, Fred can always summon up one of his “big ones”—his life-threatening heart attacks (again: fake)—that include clutching his chest with one hand, while another arm is thrown out in agony, as Fred intones to his deceased wife up in heaven: “Oh, it’s a big one! You hear that, Elizabeth? I’m comin’ to join ya, honey!”
Day in and day out, Fred and Lamont battle not only over the running of the Sanford “empire,” but also over the dynamics of their own complicated relationship. Usually referred to as, “you big dummy,” by Fred, Lamont is a sweet, uncomplicated young man, tolerant of others and of his father, who always tries to see the good in Fred, even when the actions of his irascible “Pop” cause Lamont embarrassment or even humiliation and emotional pain. Fred Sanford (“That’s spelled ‘S-A-N, F-O-R-D,’ period”), on the other hand, is the epitome of the grumpy old man, as well as being an out-and-out bigot who doesn’t much like anyone, particularly his sister-in-law, Esther Anderson (LaWanda Page), a Bible-preaching tornado whose tag line anytime Fred insults her (which is constantly) is, “Watch it, sucka!”
Fred has a few friends who come around often, including loud-mouthed poker buddies Skillet (Ernest Mayhand) and Leroy (Leroy Daniels), and more notably, sweet-natured Bubba Bexley (Don Bexley) and otherworldly Grady Wilson (Whitman Mayo). However, he’s often as insulting to them as he is to any stray white person he might encounter, or to his friendly, forgiving next-door-neighbor, Puerto Rican junkman Julio Fuentes (Gregory Sierra), who’s fast friends with Lamont. Fred, constantly short of money, frequently dreams up get-rich-quick schemes (like that other proletarian TV sitcom icon, The Honeymooners‘ Ralph Kramden), but more times than not (just like Ralph, too), these plans go belly-up, often because of Fred’s ultimately abrasive, oft-putting personality, combined with his unscrupulous business sense.
After hitting it out of the TV park with CBS’ unlikely 1971 megahit, All in the Family (based on the edgy, ground-breaking British sitcom, Till Death Do Us Part), producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin settled on another British sitcom adaptation for a proposed series on NBC. Taking the basic premise of the hit Britcom Steptoe and Son, which featured a Jewish father-and-son “rag and bone” team battling over politics and family responsibility, Lear and Yorkin switched the characters to African-Americans and set them down in the middle of a Watts junkyard.
Redd Foxx, a hilariously ribald comedian who had worked the famed “Chitlin Circuit” of black nightclubs during the 40s and 50s, and who had a huge following in the black community with his XXX-rated “party” albums, had recently scored some good notices in a small supporting role in the first big “blaxploitation” comedy crossover hit, Cotton Comes to Harlem in 1970. This role caught Norman Lear’s eye, and Foxx was offered the part of Fred G. Sanford. Demond Wilson, a former Vietnam veteran with extensive theatrical experience but a virtual unknown to the TV audience, had recently started popping up in small roles on television in the early seventies (he had a funny turn with Cleavon Little as one of the smart-assed burglars who invade Archie Bunker’s house just prior to the debut of Sanford and Son) before he was cast as the good-natured high-school drop-out Lamont.
With some of the supporting roles filled out by friends of Redd Foxx (Page, an even filthier stand-up artist than Foxx—if that’s possible—had worked extensively with the gravely-voiced comedian), Sanford and Son was set as a mid-season replacement for NBC’s 1971-1972 season. Even with the relatively small episode order number of 14, Sanford and Son reached an astonishing 6th place in the overall year-end Nielsen’s, and the rest, as they say, was television history.
It’s probably fair to say that there wouldn’t have been a Sanford and Son if Norman Lear’s groundbreaking All in the Family hadn’t come first. While Sanford and Son was certainly notable in television history for its almost-all black cast, as well as its emphasis on featuring and celebrating an African-American comedic sensibility, it would have been difficult for a network, in 1972 America, to have justified taking a big, controversial chance on a series based around the exploits of a cranky, bigoted black man, had a series about a white bigot not hit first (TV, after all, is the most imitative “art form” out there). And at first, Sanford and Son was viewed by critics and viewers as a direct answer by NBC to CBS’ All in the Family—no doubt aided by Lear’s connection to both projects.
But was Fred G. Sanford really analogous to Archie Bunker? Certainly, the most “notorious” aspect of Fred’s character in 1972 was his bigoted views on anyone who wasn’t black—a marked contrast to the few, isolated African-Americans that might pop up in cameos or small, incidental roles in other series (as an example, think of John Amos as the little seen, inoffensive, apolitical Gordy the weatherman on The Mary Tyler Moore Show at this time). Fred Sanford broke the TV mold for black characters by resolutely embracing the newly-mined field (for mainstream network TV, at least) of “humor through prejudice.”
By 1972, blaxploitation films like Shaft had made it acceptable for black lead roles to fully embody genre characteristics that had previously been restricted to “whites only.” Sidney Poitier may have won an Oscar in 1963, but he rarely kissed the girl on screen, while white action stars like Newman, McQueen and Connery engaged in all sorts of mayhem, in and out of bed. But if you saw Shaft, you know Richard Roundtree did way more than kiss the girls–black and white–so the time was right in 1972, after the big success of All in the Family, to have a TV sitcom that featured a black lead who didn’t care what anybody else thought about what he thought.
However, there was a big difference between how Fred expressed his views over in NBC’s Watts, as opposed to Archie’s Queens. Fred G. Sanford was an unrepentant bigot (even after several seasons where he would occasionally show a soft spot for someone of a different race). And sometimes, along the lines of All in the Family, he would be “punished” when his money-making schemes or his efforts to control Lamont’s life would backfire because of his ignorant views. In Tooth or Consequences (a very All in the Family-esque episode from the second season), Fred is reluctant to use a black doctor, feeling that a white Jewish one would be better trained. Of course, once he’s at the clinic, the white doctor he insists on turns out to be far less qualified than the first black doctor he turned down. In Fred Sanford, Legal Eagle, from the third season, Fred’s bigoted comments—to a black judge—about supposedly racist cops, lands him a contempt-of-court fine, while Lamont, who was originally charged with a traffic ticket, beats the rap. When Sanford and Son operated along these familiar lines, it very closely resembled a black version of All in the Family.
Critically, however, whereas Archie always paid for his racist jokes and his backward thinking, with the writers of that show making sure that Archie was never “rewarded” for his prejudice, by having either Archie fail at whatever he set out to do, or by having another character “top him” by turning his failed logic against him, Fred Sanford is often given a “pass” for his racist stereotypings. And Fred’s given that “pass” by the producers either cuing up a vigorous applause on the soundtrack after one of Fred’s insults, or by simply letting the comments go within the storyline, with no one significantly answering Fred back, or challenging him on his views. Viewers, black and white, who openly laughed at Fred’s frequently cruel comments about his favorite target—old, ugly white women (“Ain’t nothin’ uglier than a 90-year-old white woman”)—were never made to feel embarrassed or ashamed at their own laughter: something that never occurred on All in the Family.
Nor, more importantly, were viewers ever asked to be enlightened by the revelation of Fred’s ignorance. Whereas Archie’s bigotry was a device for All in the Family‘s white liberal writers to show up mainstream white America’s perceived prejudices, Fred’s equally offensive bigotry was merely a “joke device” for Sanford and Son‘s white (and eventually a few black) liberal writers to score uncontested hits against anyone not black. And it wasn’t just Fred’s abuse of whites that were allowed to get laughs unchallenged; his other favorite targets—Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and gays—were also skewered with impunity.
In quite a few episodes, Redd Foxx manages to work in his trademark “see-saw” hand gesture (indicating someone is “funny” in their sexuality), if not outright lampooning them with an outrageously stereotypical, lisping imitation (The Piano Movers). In a second season episode co-written by Richard Pryor, Sanford & Son and Sister Makes Three, Fred loses his temper and whips off an effete smoking jacket, throwing it at someone and yelling (quite angrily), “Take this faggoty jacket with you!” That line gets a wild, positive reaction from the audience (whereas today, presented in exactly the same innocuous sitcom context, it would bring howls of angry protest from gay advocates, calling for the head of whomever was ultimately responsible for its airing).
Fred’s racial insults of his next-door-neighbor, Puerto Rican junkman Julio Fuentes, also cue up big laughs…with absolutely no consequences. Fred’s intentional generalization of Puerto Ricans as no different from Mexicans allows him to throw out jokes about typical Mexican cars (Mexicans speed so their cars get to where they need to go before they conk out), “wetbacks” stealing, and their questionable, to his mind, hygiene habits. Asians and other blacks aren’t off-limits, either. The introduction of Pat Morita’s Aw Choo character (with that name an indication of where the jokes were going with this role) allows Fred to make some “slant eyed” jokes, while Fred’s constant assaults on Aunt Esther, overwhelmingly referring to her as an ape and a gorilla, and his jokes about “passing” and references to “high yellows,” are all good-naturedly allowed, with absolutely nothing asked of the audience in relation to these racial insults other than to receive them with a hearty laugh.
Certainly the most heightened aspect of Sanford and Son‘s embrace of guilt-free racial humor—WARNING! HERE IT IS! HERE IS YOUR N-WORD FRIGHT BREAK! is the frequent use of the words “n*gga” or “n*gger” in several episodes. It first shows up in only the third episode, Here Comes the Bride, There Goes the Bride, and the audience reaction to it is huge (clearly, this and other moments where it pops up are not sweetened with “canned” laughter). Probably its most notorious appearance comes during Fred Sanford, Legal Eagle, where, once he gets up into a white cop’s face about supposedly only stopping black drivers, Fred calls out to the raucous courtroom crowd: “Look at all these n*ggers! There’s enough n*ggers here for a Tarzan movie!” (Again, the audience reaction is overwhelming). Of course today, such lines on a mainstream network sitcom, billed as a “family show” (Sanford and Son occupied the primo family time slot of Fridays at 8:00PM) would result in a media firestorm and the absolute cancellation of the show (this and other Sanford and Son episodes with the word “n*gger” in it are almost always edited for syndication—but not here on these discs).
It’s important to remember, though, that Redd Foxx battled constantly with NBC and the producers of Sanford and Son to include more of this kind of humor into the series, not less (anyone who’s heard his nightclub act will more than understand)—a fact that today’s hypocritical, liberal facist, P.C.-obsessed “guardians of public taste” would find difficult if not impossible to resolve with their own conflicted, compromised views. Because looking past the knee-jerk reaction of rejection that such humor invariably conjures up today, what Foxx was doing in Sanford and Son was far more “brave” than what passes for edgy TV today. While All in the Family had a specific, definable political purpose to its humor, which was always tied in with a “message” (a potentially limiting aesthetic conceit that was overcome by the absolute brilliance of star Carroll O’Connor’s performance), no such “message” exists within Sanford and Son, despite some obvious attempts at topical one-liners about then-current political concerns.
The all-important “issues” that drive almost each and every episode of All in the Family, are few and far between in Sanford and Son. Archie needed to “pay” for his ignorance if the creators and writers of All in the Family were to succeed at their intent: to chastise white America for its perceived sins. Foxx ‘s embrace of a guilt-free black racist isn’t tied to any “good will” teaching purpose and its unapologetic enthusiasm is ultimately, quite liberating. All of this is geared towards laughs.
Some may counter that Foxx’s “pass” on his racial insults was the result of guilty white liberal writers and producers allowing him leeway in his comedy because it was somehow “owed” to him as a black comedian, and no doubt there is a large—and condescending—element of that “blind-eye turned” to the show. And of course it’s regrettable that even today, some forty-plus years after Sanford and Son went off the air, that that absolute freedom of expression in Hollywood is reserved strictly for minority voices; straight whites still need not apply if they value their mainstream careers over this obvious double-standard.
However, those caveats shouldn’t temper one’s enjoyment of what Foxx was ultimately able to do here—make us collapse in laughter—despite the essential unfairness of his ability to insult other races in his comedy without fear of reprisal. I’d like to think that times will eventually relax to the point where such racial humor is not only acceptable again, but acceptable for everyone to utilize. Any and all jokes, at everyone‘s expense, with no limits…or no jokes at all. Total freedom. But of course I’m dreaming….
Still, even back in ’72, the producers and writers knew that there had to be some redeeming value to Fred G. Sanford (just as they did for Archie Bunker, too), or else the constant insults would eventually become tiresome. Cannily, the producers and writers—aided by some expert mugging by Foxx—keep Fred lovable, combining in the character the oft-referenced comedic stereotype of the old, rickety coot who still has some smooth moves, with the fun, easily identifiable image of an older parent now turned, essentially, into a willful child again. Foxx is particularly adept at conveying both of these time-honored comedic types, and it’s to his great credit that he pulls Fred Sanford off, despite the fact that the character, at its core, is largely unsympathetic.
If you watch Foxx closely, you’ll see that impish, naughty boy come out quite frequently, especially when Foxx insults somebody, and then tries to “get by” by giving a little wave, or turning his face into a hurt pout if the subject of the insult really gets upset. The notion that Lamont’s 65-year-old father is more of a handful than Lamont ever was as a baby, is consistently amusing (maybe that’s why kids my age loved this show: Fred is nothing more than a bratty kid, trying to scam his way out of trouble on a daily basis). Fred’s willful, conniving ways around Lamont’s objections to his drinking, gambling, TV-watching, and general laying-about, remain the core dramatic tension in the series, and when it stuck to that theme, Sanford and Son was always successful.
And naturally, in order to put that parent-as-child/child-as-parent dynamic over as a successful comedy, a talented partner is needed: Demond Wilson. There’s no question that Sanford and Son is designed and executed primarily as a vehicle for Redd Foxx, but one shouldn’t overlook the contribution of Wilson, who’s particularly good in his scenes with the star. Regardless of what the reports were about the two actors’ relationship off-camera (there were consistent rumors that the two didn’t like each other), on-camera they’re a delight, and much of the show’s efforts to make Fred more palatable as a sympathetic character succeed because of Wilson’s charming performance. Despite the initial bent of the character to be a sharp-tongued detractor of his father’s antics (toned down considerably even by the end of the first half-season), watching Wilson, you can often see him reacting with genuine affection towards Foxx, with a delighted little smile on his face whenever Foxx does something that tickles him.
There’s a feeling of caring, of shepherding Foxx (which is ironic, considering Wilson was a comparative showbiz novice next to Foxx), that creates the show’s central appeal: these two people love each other, no matter what happens, and they’ll always wind up supporting each other through thick and thin. Regrettably, whenever a scene can be thrown to Foxx, it is, at the expense of Wilson, but without his presence, Sanford and Son might have very well have been labeled a cheap Archie Bunker rip-off before disappearing into obscurity. No matter how talented Foxx was at playing Fred Sanford, he and the Sanford and Son franchise needed the counterbalancing Wilson to make it work (as evidenced by Foxx’s failure to make Sanford work, the failed 1980 attempt to reprise the series that critically didn’t include Wilson).
The first three seasons of the show are really the glory years of Sanford and Son, when Foxx and Wilson and the supporting cast consistently excelled at both their comedic timing and their individual line readings. Certainly the addition of LaWanda Page as Aunt Esther provided the Fred character with a worthy opponent in his war of words (a position filled initially by Lamont’s shady friend, Rollo, played quite nicely by Nathaniel Taylor). There are few funnier moments in 1970s television than the sight of Page, squinting her eyes in palpable disgust at Fred, before she intones, “I’d rather be kissed by a snaggle-toothed jackass, you old heathen!” before she exits the scene with one of her trademark flourishes: a “Glory, hallelujah!” as she convulses in divine rapture.
As well, the addition of Whitman Mayo as the befuddled Grady finally elevated the Fred character into the ranks of other luminary TV comedic duos like Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, and Gomer Pyle and Sergeant Carter. Mayo, who started off “Shady” Grady as a befuddled wino, before the writers and producers promoted him to more responsible co-starring status when Foxx walked off the series at the end of the third season, is beautifully tempoed next to the grouchy Foxx. With his frequently blissed-out, shaggy-headed demeanor, Grady got big laughs by coming in almost sideways to the joke (in Grady and His Lady, his dating story capper, “I then immediately told them to hold my onions, too!” is, for my money, one of the all-time most hilarious moments in the series). It’s a shame that his short-lived spin-off series, Grady (the pilot is actually one of the Sanford and Son episodes here), wasn’t properly developed enough to support this unique performer.
During these first three, best seasons, Sanford and Son was a consistent Nielsen powerhouse, running second to All in the Family in 1972-1973, and third (right behind The Waltons, a frequent butt of Sanford and Son jokes) during the 1973-1974 season. Operating out of its comfortable Friday 8:00PM slot, it destroyed everything in its path, including the much-vaunted first incarnation of ABC’s “TGIF” schedule, which included classics like The Brady Bunch, along with promising series that didn’t stand a chance against the junkman from Watts (such as CBS’s highly touted Planet of the Apes TV series in 1974).
However, several factors started to wear the series down from the third season onward (even if the ratings still held very well), beginning with the infamous walk-out by Foxx during the middle of filming the third season. Unhappy with the white writers who dominated the scripts, and feeling like the producers (including that champion of the proletariat, Norman Lear) weren’t ponying up the kind of money he deserved for single-handedly rescuing NBC from ratings oblivion, Foxx walked out on the show during the 1973-1974 season. Signed up when he was still a relative unknown with mainstream TV audiences, Foxx’s contract probably did amount to peanuts compared to the millions that NBC and the owners of the show were raking in, but everyone dug their heels in, and it looked like Foxx might leave the show permanently.
Ratings dipped slightly during the end of that third season, but not enough during the start of the fourth season to convince the producers that Foxx leaving the show would spell doom for Sanford and Son (indeed, the fourth season episode, Once a Thief, with Mayo’s Grady as the lead, garnered the highest single rating for a Sanford and Son episode—which must have struck real fear in the heart of Foxx). Lawsuits were filed, and Foxx eventually came back to the show, with the fourth season winding back up as number two for the year in the Nielsen’s.
Watching the show, though, it’s apparent that the break in continuity had some kind of effect on the show’s chemistry. While always a consistent laugh-getter, Sanford and Son began to repeat itself, while injecting ever-more silly moments into the show, until the realistic grit that drove the series during its best years was all but gone by the last season. The loss of Gregory Sierra as Julio at the start of the fifth season (he was steadily being written out even during the fourth season) spelled the first signs of trouble for the show. His character functioned very much like George Jefferson did as Archie Bunker’s next-door neighbor—a constant racial irritant—and without the sweet-natured Julio getting one over on Fred time and again (and without being there as a set-up for some of Foxx’s more outrageous insults), the show lost a lot of its underlying edge.
Increasingly stupid, clichéd plots were introduced (Fred buys a broken-down racing horse; an earthquake episode, complete with bogus special effects; desultory location shoots in Las Vegas and Hawaii to give the format an artificial boost…and to give the cast and crew a vacation perk), resulting in further dilution of the central theme of the show. The introduction of a serious love interest for Lamont in season five was eventually dropped for no reason in season six, while the added subplot of having the guys own Julio’s house and turning it into the “Sanford Arms” rooming house, never worked from minute one (god save us from semi-regular boarder, the supremely unfunny Nancy Kulp).
Occasional bright spots would still turn up in the last two seasons. The fifth season Steinberg and Son episode is doubly self-reflexive, not only referencing the original inspiration for Sanford and Son, but for spoofing Foxx’s show—as well as his lawsuit against the producers—while the repeat appearances by hilarious Frank Nelson (“Yeeeeeeeees???) often provided some big laughs. However, more and more, the writers get lazy (putting Fred into silly costumes at least once an episode; the reliance on performance segments—always a bad sign of a show drifting), while the leads clearly have other things on their mind than giving their all to the show.
Foxx’s addiction problems were no secret during the filming of Sanford and Son, and by the final seasons, he looks and sounds pretty rough (if the appearance of his gold coke spoon-on-a-chain that I clearly remember him wearing on almost every non-Sanford and Son appearance wasn’t enough of a heads-up, Foxx would openly do lines at episode tapings). You can see he’s relying more and more on cue cards (never pretty for any performer, except maybe Jack Webb), while his timing gets slower and slower, and his voice becomes more of a croak.
Wilson, too, seems “preoccupied” at times (there were rumors of conflict with the producers and Wilson, too), but that’s not surprising when you see how marginalized he is by this point in the series. By the fifth season, Sanford and Son had dropped to seventh place (still socko), but by the sixth season, the audience had had enough. Offered the fresh-faced alternative of the Donny and Marie kids on ABC, enough families drifted over to the toothy duo to severely impact Sanford and Son‘s ratings, where the show dropped twenty spots to finish out the year as the 27th most watched show on the air.
While that number was still entirely respectable, it was a far cry from the show’s glory years. Had ABC not offered Foxx his own variety show for the 1977-1978 season, NBC, hurting again in the ratings, no doubt would have kept Foxx and Wilson on for another season of Sanford and Son. However, ABC’s lucrative offer proved too much of an incentive for Foxx (helped by NBC’s early stiffing in his contract), who bolted Sanford and Son. When Wilson was approached to lead The Sanford Arms, the spin-off series of Sanford and Son scheduled for the 1977-1978 season, his salary demands (and some say his own increasingly erratic behavior) ultimately led the producers to fire him from the show, cancelling Sanford and Son and putting The Sanford Arms into production with most of the remaining Sanford and Son supporting cast. It was an abysmal failure (The Sanford Arms aired for less than one month), as was Foxx’s own variety show on ABC. One of the most influential TV shows of the 1970s tried to come back in fits and starts, but the magic was clearly over.
Sanford and Son may not have been as socially relevant as other Norman Lear hits like All in the Family or Maude, but it’s goddamned funny, and that’s about all the justification it needs. Yes, Fred Sanford is an unrepentant racist, and no, he doesn’t get “punished” for his thoughts—which amounts to high crimes and misdemeanors in today’s tremulous, pusillanimous society (if Fred was white, that is…). Well, I say, “Roll on, Fred G. Sanford (“That’s S-A-N, F-O-R-D, period”), roll on.” Funny is funny, regardless of whether it’s “right” or “wrong” (and usually, it’s way more funny, the more “wrong” it is).