In the politically volatile climate of the late 60’s and 70’s, American Way founder and sitcom producer Norman Lear introduced socially conscious themes to primetime network TV. Political discussions as comedy and entertainment provided a striking contrast to the staid and “orthodox” sitcoms of the previous decade. Whereas Leave It To Beaver and I Love Lucy portrayed idealistic families and avoided controversy, often reinforcing gender roles in plain American settings, Lear’s comedies embraced adversity. His groundbreaking show, All In the Family, reflected popular cultural arguments as comedy. Spinoff show Sanford & Son also exploited political tension for laughs, as can be seen in this clip.
Redd Foxx played the role of L.A. junkyard owner Fred Sanford, whose son Lamont helped manage the business after the death of his mother Elizabeth. Fred’s character was not unlike Archie Bunker from All In the Family; he was coarse, stubborn, opinionated, and conservative in his own way. His son Lamont played the role of Fred’s foil. He was open-minded and progressive, but sometimes naïve and self-important, echoing the dynamic from the Bunker household.
In the episode entitled “The Puerto Ricans Are Coming,” a noisy new neighbor has moved in across the street from the junkyard. Loud music and sounds of power tools reverberate through Fred’s living room, and being a stereotypically elderly black man, Fred comes unhinged. After shaking his fist and shouting across the street (or “nipping buds”), Lamont arrives home for lunch and tries to pacify his father.
Lamont reveals that he has recently met the new neighbor, a Puerto Rican man named Julio. When Fred learns of Julio’s heritage, he launches into a racist tirade that evokes the generational prejudice against blacks in America. In fact, the hypocrisy of Fred’s attitude is the point the episode wants to make, all subtlety aside.
Later, Fred’s plot to evict Julio by reporting him to a county building inspector backfires. Julio earns a commendation from the county, and Fred is fined for code violations. Finally, Fred is won over by Julio’s unannounced delivery of Fred’s favorite meal: spare ribs and mustard greens. All is forgiven and Fred learns to see through the stereotype and accept Julio as a person… within the final 30 seconds of the episode. Unlike Archie Bunker, Fred Sanford occasionally changes his mind.
As was typical for sitcoms from the late 60’s and 70’s, Sanford & Son confronted topics that had traditionally been considered taboo. Fred’s mentions of “Latin lettuce” and sexually suggestive gesturing early on reveal a bolder storytelling voice than 50’s sitcoms would have dared.
In some ways, Sanford & Son reinforced common stereotypes of poor African Americans. Set in the L.A. ghetto known widely for its riots some five years earlier, the decision to place the Sanfords’ junkyard in a Watts neighborhood created a healthy tension from which to draw stories. Like its T.V. cousin All In the Family, Sanford & Son attempted to open a dialogue about social issues, but through the beliefs and values of a poor black man rather than a poor white man. And like All In the Family, this noble goal had the secondary effect of reinforcing stereotypes, particularly those about struggling African-Americans. Still, popular sit-coms featuring all black casts were steps in the right direction for a society coming to terms with civil rights. Being able to laugh at ourselves helped to ease the growing pains.
While Sanford & Son was aired before my time, I understand why it was so popular. It allowed a mainstream audience to feel as though it understood the trials of a poor black family. It brought lovable, relatable characters into living rooms and allowed America to view Fred and Lamont in friendly terms. Characters we can relate to provide us with the chance to empathize, and empathy is the enemy of racist doctrine.