TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tonight, ABC plans to mount a very unusual experiment - a TV special called "Live In Front Of A Studio Audience," in which well-known actors will recreate individual episodes of two vintage sitcoms, using the original scripts, broadcast live. The shows will be drawn from two of the most familiar and successful sitcoms from producer Norman Lear - "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons." These new versions star Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson and Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker. Our TV critic David Bianculli has these advanced thoughts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THOSE WERE THE DAYS")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: From Television City in Hollywood.
CARROLL O'CONNOR: (Singing) Boy, the way Glen Miller played.
JEAN STAPLETON: (Singing) Songs that made the hit parade.
O'CONNOR: (Singing) Guys like us, we had it made.
CARROLL O'CONNOR AND JEAN STAPLETON: (Singing) Those were the days.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Those were the days, indeed. The theme song for Norman Lear's "All In The Family" sitcom, sung in character by Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie Bunker and his wife Edith, was itself a tribute to nostalgia. The show, based on a long-running British sitcom, was about a bigoted and opinionated cabbie from Queens, his genial wife, their daughter Gloria and their politically and socially liberal son-in-law Mike. All of them lived under the same roof. Their neighborhood demographics have changed so much that their next-door neighbors are an African-American family named the Jeffersons.
Without leaving his neighborhood, or even his house, Archie was able to sit in his designated living room chair and spout off and argue about everything from race and religion to the Vietnam War and women's equality. Archie's opinions were sharp-edged enough that the first season of "All In The Family" was preceded by a warning - and with good reason. Almost 50 years later, the dialogue still sounds shockingly raw and rude as when Archie, played by Carroll O'Connor, is talking in the premiere episode with his daughter Gloria, son-in-law Mike and wife Edith, played, respectively, by Sally Struthers, Rob Reiner and Jean Stapleton.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALL IN THE FAMILY")
SALLY STRUTHERS: (As Gloria Stivic) Mom.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Gloria, you married the laziest white man I ever seen.
ROB REINER: (As Mike Stivic) All right, all right, it's bad enough you got to make fun of me. You don't have to make it worse by attacking a whole race.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Who's attacking a whole race?
REINER: (As Mike Stivic) You are. You just said I was the laziest white man you ever met.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) What's the matter with that?
REINER: (As Mike Stivic) White man you ever met.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Yeah - you.
REINER: (As Mike Stivic) Implying that the blacks are even lazier.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Oh, no. Wait a minute, meathead. You said that, not me. I never said your black beauties was lazy.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) It's just their systems is geared a little slower than the rest of us.
REINER: (As Mike Stivic) Come on.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) You don't believe me - look it up.
STRUTHERS: (As Gloria Stivic) There's just no fighting his prejudice. There's no hope for him - no hope at all.
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) I'm not prejudiced. Any man deserves my respect - he's going to get it irregardless of his color.
REINER: (As Mike Stivic) Well, what do you call them names like black beauties for?
O'CONNOR: (As Archie Bunker) Now, that's where I got you, Mr. Liberal, because there's a black guy that works down the building with me. And he's got a bumper sticker on his car that says, black is beautiful. So what's the matter with black beauties?
BIANCULLI: "All In The Family" premiered on CBS in January 1971, part of a new wave of shows that stress topicality, rather than consciously avoided it. The same network that had fired the Smothers Brothers in 1969 for daring to be opinionated and relevant in their comedy variety show turned around at the start of the new decade and embraced that approach wholeheartedly.
"All In The Family" quickly became the most popular TV show in the country and began spinning off other shows. By the mid-'70s, four of Lear's comedies - "All In The Family" and spinoff shows "The Jeffersons," "Good Times" and "Maude" - all ended the season in the top 10. Both "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons" lasted more than a decade.
Reviving some of these 1970s sitcoms today, even for one night, is a risky gamble. For most of today's younger viewers who didn't grow up watching TV reruns, the names Archie Bunker and George Jefferson have little or no meaning. But live TV remains a promotable event on broadcast television. And even though the live musical trend is starting to wane on TV, it might just be that live sitcom specials are the next big TV trend.
The worst that could happen to this new ABC special is that no one watches, strangling the experiment in its cradle. The second-worst thing is that people could watch it, but not like it. But if it works - oh, the possibilities for the future. And ABC, in its promotions leading up to Wednesday's show, is beating the drum as loudly as it can.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Wednesday, May 22 - a can't-miss television event - "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons" live, with an all-star cast - Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Jamie Foxx, Wanda Sykes, Justina Machado, Amber Stevens West, Jovan Adepo, Jackee Harry, Stephen Tobolowsky, Ellie Kemper, Sean Hayes, Ike Barinholtz, Anthony Anderson, Kerry Washington and Will Ferrell. Anything can happen when you're "Live In Front Of A Studio Audience," Wednesday, May 22, on ABC.
BIANCULLI: ABC hasn't revealed which episodes of "All In The Family" and "The Jeffersons" will be performed live, but they have to be ones with minimal set changes and small casts. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the new "All In The Family," for example, recreates that series premiere, which takes place entirely in the Bunkers' living and dining room.
In theory, I really like the casting of Woody Harrelson and Jamie Foxx, both of whom had extensive sitcom experience before becoming movie stars - Foxx on his own sitcom and Harrelson as bartender Woody Boyd on "Cheers." They can do this. And James Burrows, who is directing, is the best sitcom director ever. He directed the original "Cheers," so this live ABC event is in very, very good hands.
What I love most, though, is the larger concept. The very best sitcom episodes from the past are like perfect little plays and ought to be revived just as often as classic Broadway musicals. And you don't have to limit yourself to the Norman Lear comedy universe. In fact, you shouldn't. Who wouldn't want to give today's best comic actors a crack at performing, say, the "Chuckles Bites The Dust" episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" or the "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy goes on TV to do a commercial for Vitameatavegamin or hits that candy assembly line? Perform those wonderful scripts live with today's popular stars. Then, as a double feature, replay the original versions. That way, you're not only making a little bit of TV history, you're teaching it, too.
GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of TV studies at Rowan University in New Jersey and editor of the website TV Worth Watching.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Lizzo. Her new album, "Cuz I Love You," is her star-making breakthrough. She sings, raps and plays flute. In fact, she's classically trained. She's a self-proclaimed big girl, a feminist and a lot of fun to talk to. I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS SHELBY ORCHESTRA'S "REMEMBER ROCKEFELLER AT ATTICA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.