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TV You Haven’t Watched But Should – Sanford and Son

I have already discussed two shows by Norman Lear since I started this column last semester. The first was “Maude” and the second was “The Jeffersons.” I decided this week to write about another classic Lear sitcom that I find to be a wonderful showcase of sharp writing and fantastic acting, “Sanford and Son.”

“Sanford and Son” ran for six seasons when it debuted. Since the show ran from 1972-1977, I’m guessing a lot of you have not seen the classic sitcom unless your parents introduced you to it or you happened to stumble upon reruns of it on TV Land. As is the case with “The Jeffersons,” a lot of you are probably more familiar with “Sanford and Son’s” theme song than you are with the show itself. The theme was composed by legendary producer Quincy Jones, who also crafted many of Michael Jackson’s biggest hits such as “Billie Jean” and “Beat It.” The music is still used today in commercials and even in movies such as “I Am Legend” starring Will Smith. Also, if you’re a fan of the TV show “Scrubs,” you have probably heard J.D. and Turk singing the theme music or sitting down to watch an episode of the classic sitcom as it was one of the characters’ favorite shows. Like all of Lear’s programs, “Sanford and Son,” and even its theme music, has made a mark on American pop culture that still shows up today.

“Sanford and Son” stars comedian Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford and Demond Wilson as his son Lamont. The two own a junk business which they operate in Watts, California, though few episodes of the show actually revolve around the business itself. Both of these actors are tremendous at what they are able to accomplish in these roles. If any of you have ever watched “The Golden Girls,” Fred and Lamont’s relationship can best be compared to that of Dorothy and Sophia. Theirs is a constant love-hate relationship that flows throughout the series. While the two obviously care about each other, it’s not unlikely for Fred to hold up his fist and threaten to give Lamont “one across his lip.” Fred Sanford is also known for his ability to fake heart attacks which happens in almost every episode. This is one part of the show which proves how strong it is. In almost every episode Fred grabs his chest and stumbles around, calling for his late wife Elizabeth telling her “I’m coming to join you honey!” While it happens again and again, Foxx manages to make the bit fresh and keep the humor without it ever feeling like it’s getting old or boring.

While Foxx and Lamont are strong actors who really bring their characters to life, one of the biggest contributors to the show’s success is the supporting cast. Cast members such as Whitman Mayo who plays Fred’s best friend Grady, give the two primary characters someone to shoot insults at or get into trouble with. In fact, the supporting cast is full of actors who can hold their own just as well or sometimes, even better than the two main characters. Toward the end of the series’ third season Redd Foxx got into contract disputes with the show’s creators and ended up missing nine episodes (the last six of season three and the first three of season four). In his place they put Mayo as Grady to work with Lamont and the series ended up being just as successful and almost as hilarious without Foxx. Though, in my opinion, the show probably wouldn’t have lasted the rest of its six seasons without Foxx’s return.

My personal favorite supporting cast member though, is LaWanda Page who plays Aunt Esther, Fred’s super religious sister-in-law. The two actors play off of each other extremely well. While Fred is constantly throwing insults at Esther she is more than able to hold her own, verbally and physically with the overbearing Fred. If you’ve ever heard the term “watch it sucka” then you need look no further than Aunt Esther to figure out where that phrase came from.

While the majority of Lear’s sitcoms are politically and socially oriented, taking stances on serious issues of the time and either poking fun at it through debates among the characters or taking serious looks at the issue, “Sanford and Son” is probably the least socially aware sitcom. It’s not that social issues don’t come up. The show just doesn’t deal with the serious issues in the manner that his other programs do, and doesn’t force viewers out of their comfort zones in the way that “Maude” or “The Jeffersons” might. It concentrates more on keeping the viewers laughing rather than thinking.

For instance in the episode “Fred’s Treasure Garden,” Lamont discovers marijuana growing in the junkyard and wonders how to get rid of it. Fred’s best friend Grady believes it to be wild parsley and ends up putting it into a salad and serving it to two policemen for dinner. In this episode the issue of marijuana is highly satirized to increase the humor value, yet it still manages to poke fun at a major political issue of the time. While in not as obvious a manner as the other shows of its time, it is clearly there and it really succeeds at making the intended statement through comedy.

“Sanford and Son” is one of those shows that can transcend time and still be a great program for people to enjoy today. If you’re interested in seeing the show, the entire series is on DVD and re-runs can be seen on TV Land and TV One. The majority of the episodes can also be found on YouTube. I personally recommend season one’s “We Were Robbed,” season 2’s, “The Shootout,” and season 3’s “Superflyer.”

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Jeffrey Payne
Pierce Arrow Blogger

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