Good Times Reconsidered: When Norman Lear Got Woke

If you love TV, then you love Norman Lear, and if you love Norman Lear, you should hurry up and watch “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” (available on Netflix), a fascinating documentary retrospective of his career. You’ll learn about the genesis of all of Lear’s hits, but the most interesting segment by far covers “Good Times,” a groundbreaking sitcom that has been both admired and ridiculed, not only by history but by some of its cast members as well.

When Esther Rolle and John Amos signed on to play parents Florida and James Evans, they assumed that Lear’s intention was to tell meaningful stories of the black experience (it wasn’t yet the “African-American” experience), albeit with a comic touch. That may have indeed been his intention, but as Lear ruefully notes, he had to crank out 26 episodes a year and couldn’t stop to have a rap session about every questionable line in the script that Rolle and Amos complained about, even though he knew “a sense of responsibility to their race descended on them.”

Rolle and Amos were both publicly vocal in their disdain for Jimmie J.J. Walker, who played eldest son J.J. His rubber-jointed antics delighted the audience, and once the writers gave him a catchphrase — “Dy-no-MITE!!!” — and put it in every script, the die was cast. “I couldn’t stand it,” the late Rolle says in the documentary. “To make him the most popular black in America was a way of putting us all down. You can have comedy without buffoonery.”

Lear admits to remaining somewhat clueless as tensions mounted. He tried to convince Amos that as a father, son, brother and husband, “I didn’t think there was any difference. We shared the same feelings.” Nope. Amos eventually had enough, and in an excruciating two-parter, his character was killed off, leaving Rolle to play a single mother, a position in which she had explicitly said she did not want to be put.

In a way, “Good Times” couldn’t win. It either made black people look worse off than they actually were — why did they live in the Cabrini-Green projects? — or better off than they actually were — why aren’t you portraying the real dangers of life in Cabrini-Green? Finally, an encounter with three Black Panthers who stopped by for a chat convinced Lear that there might be space on the TV dial for a black family that was “movin’ on up,” and that’s how “The Jeffersons” came into being.

“Good Times” chugged along both with and without Rolle for a total of five years, introducing the character of Penny (a young Janet Jackson) as a victim of child abuse. Anyone who remembers the scene in which Penny’s mother comes after her with a hot iron will agree that was one moment that kept it all too real.

Today, in its frequent reruns, “Good Times” seems at its best in its earliest episodes, when we see how James and Florida struggle together to keep their family afloat and before J.J.’s shenanigans take center stage.

And by the way, the last remaining Cabrini-Green building was demolished in 2011.

Image: Creative Commons

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