Note: I needed to post this again because of a URL error. Pay no mind if you've already read it.
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for winter 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here and an introduction to the project is here.
During the 1974-75 season, three of the Top 10 shows on TV were sitcoms with mostly African-American casts: Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. A fourth show, the biggest new hit of the season, was Chico and the Man, which had a title sequence that would be inconceivable on prime time today. It has Jose Feliciano singing over footage of life in a Los Angeles barrio (with Jack Albertson, the old white guy who's ostensibly the star, nowhere to be seen), and it cheerfully alerted most viewers that they were about to encounter characters who looked very different than the people in their neighborhood.
White people didn't really watch these shows to learn about other cultures. There were three networks, and if you were home on a Friday night in fall 1974 and you didn't like Kung Fu or the lame TV version of Planet of the Apes (few people did), you watched Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man. My French-Canadian grandfather in Maine, who probably never talked to more than a half-dozen non-white people in his life, loved these shows — though I'm not sure whether his naming a pet hamster "Chico" was a sign of affection or condescension. But if he had 100 cable channels then, perhaps including a French-language channel and another that continously reran Red Sox games, he probably never would have discovered Sanford and Chico.
Most "ethnic coms" have not aged well, but Sanford and Son (a remake of the British sitcom Steptoe and Son) has some enjoyable outings, mostly due to Redd Foxx's lead performance. Superficially, junk dealer Fred Sanford has a lot in common with other sitcom loudmouths who are always looking to make a quick buck (Ralph Kramden, Archie Bunker, Al Bundy), but there's always a bit of glee in Foxx's portrayal, befitting the comic's unlikely late-in-life stardom. (Phil Silvers's conniving Sgt. Bilko is a little closer in spirit.) The best-known running gag on the show is Fred's frequent fake heart attacks to get out of work — "I'm coming to join you, Elizabeth!" — but the most charming is Fred's habit of crooning the Ink Spots song "If I Didn't Care" (see first video below).
Still, the character isn't exactly Ward Cleaver. He's afraid of being alone, so he constantly manipulates his 30ish son Lamont in order to keep him in the house and the family business. (This limiting premise was probably one reason the characters never evolved very much, and the show had a relatively short five-year run before Foxx got tired and quit.)
He's also well aware that's he not living in a "post-racial" society. "I bet I wouldn't have to wait if I was white," he mutters when he calls the Social Security office and gets a recording. And he knows the right retort to a white drifter who's been hanging around the Sanford residence, in "A Guest in the Yard."
Fred: Now get up out of there!
Gus: I'm going. But just know I'll never contribute to the NAACP!
Fred: Good, and I'll never contribute to the KKK!
In "Wine, Women, and Aunt Esther," Fred has just returned from the funeral of a friend two years younger than himself, and he adopts a new outlook on life: hedonism. "Fun, fun, fun, son," he tells Lamont. "Bring on the wine, women and the song."
He plans a party with his friends and, it's implied in typical 1970s sitcom fashion, hires some hookers.
Fred: Hey, Fanny, I'm glad you were free.
"Fast" Fanny: I ain't exactly free, but I'm reasonable!
He also picks up a "Superfly" suit from a pawn shop, leading a disgusted Lamont to ask, "Why don't try acting your age and not your shoe size?" (I doubt that line originated with Sanford and Son, but I can't find an earlier citation.) "You keep talking to me like that, and you'll feel my shoe size," says Fred.
Despite his best efforts, Fred's party never attains (or sinks to) his idea of debauchery. Instead, he and his friends tire themselves out demonstrating dance steps to each other as they wait for the women to arrive. This is actually a sweet scene, foreshadowing several episodes of The Cosby Show in which the family essentially puts on a talent show in their living room. And it's yet another example of a lesson that has been showing up again and again in this Top 100 list: Be thankful for the people who are already in your life.