Sunday, February 10, 2008

And the Doorknobs Shined Like Diamonds

By Odienator

Over the years, the character of George Jefferson has taken a lot of heat. Some people saw him as a buffoon and a stereotype. Others found his success didn't match his apparent lack of business intelligence. As a kid, I found George to be an inspiration, and I can honestly say the genesis of my desire to run my own business (which I currently do) began with watching The Jeffersons. Until I saw George, most of the Black men on my TV were characters like Thug #2 on Baretta. George opened my eyes to something I had never seen before, a successful and rich Black businessman. I was in awe, and I knew that if George, who reminded me of my uncle, could have seven cleaning stores (one near you), I had a chance to succeed just as he did. I didn't have to grow up to be Thug #2. I could be A-number-one.

Norman Lear created George as a Black counterpart to Carroll O'Connor's Archie Bunker on All In the Family. George, like Archie, was a loud mouthed bigot whose wife, Weezy, played the role of common sense. I wasn't allowed to watch All in the Family, because it was "parental discretion advised," so I didn't get to see George, Weezy and Lionel in Queens until I was much older. When I met Sherman Hemsley's most famous character, he was living in an East Side high rise as a result of the success of Jefferson Cleaners, the business he built from the ground up. He had a maid and a huge apartment, bigger than some of the places I saw White people living in on other sitcoms. I was fascinated.

I knew there had to be something good about being The Jeffersons because, unlike Good Times, their theme song sounded happy, like something out of church. Good Times' theme song, written by Oscar winners Dave Grusin and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, was a hard-as-fuck-to-sing wallow in misery with lyrics nobody understood. It sounded like the writers were savoring just how broke these Negroes were; it's a Good Time simply because you ain't dead. The lyrics should have gone "y'all are some broke muthafuckas! Makin' a way when you can." And why were temporary layoffs and easy credit ripoffs a good time?

By contrast, The Jeffersons' theme song, written and sung by Willona from Good Times, Ja'net Du'Bois, was a call and response number signifying we had overcome. We're movin' on up to the east side. We finally got a piece of the pie. Now we're up in the big league, getting our turn at bat. And we were going to hit it out of the park. This was a Black sitcom where something new had been added, something designed to shock and piss people off. Norman Lear was a provocateur and he knew how much more effective it would be to move up George and Weezy instead of Archie and Edith.

Good Times was closer to my reality; The Jeffersons was closer to my dreams. The folks on Good Times acted like people I knew, and despite all his money, George Jefferson acted like people I knew too. I think this is where the confusion about his character lay. What made George such an inspiration to me was that he was a self-made man, someone who pulled himself up, but who also acted exactly like he did when he was broke. This was staying true to the character's roots, his upbringing, and his experiences prior to his promotions. Success may have spoiled Rock Hunter, but it didn't change George. He was still always running his hustle, afraid that everything he had could be taken away at any minute. Just because you have money doesn't mean it changes the type of person you are. Especially if you're not used to having it. Weezy was always trying to refine herself. George was always going to be George.

The entire sitcom walked that line of the more things change, the more they stayed the same. It was progressive to see an interracial couple like Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker's Tom and Helen Willis, but George had the old-fashioned reaction to them. Weezy accepted it, George did not. George had resentment about a lot of the White establishment, but at the same time, he wanted to go to one of Mr. Wittendale's parties, if only so he could network (and perhaps run a hustle) to get business. The show always played both sides of the fence when it came to George, and Sherman Hemsley, aided by Isabel Sanford and Marla Gibbs, handled the complexity in more subtle ways than he is given credit. He never forgot where he came from, and the show didn't want you to forget either. His success seemed so achievable to a kid like me because the character's actions seemed so familiar.

Perhaps the best episode of the series, the one that houses its soul, is from season 7. The episode was called "And the Doorknobs Shined Like Diamonds," and it had very little to do with George. Louise hears that the building she grew up in has been condemned and is scheduled to be demolished. She pays her old apartment a visit and the scriptwriter (show creator) Michael G. Moye has her find a cute little kitten to which she tells her reminiscences. These take the guise of flashbacks where a younger actress plays Louise. We discover Louise had a sister, and also meet her mother, a tough woman who wasn't below beating Louise's ass when she got caught sneaking back into the house late at night. The floorboards always creaked, causing her to get caught. Louise discovers this feature is still present.

Louise tells the kitty that when she was young, she and her sister would imagine the cheap plastic doorknobs on their bedroom door were diamonds, and someday she was going to take them and use them to buy the things she wanted. After a few more flashbacks, including one on her wedding day, George shows up to collect her from the apartment. He tells her that the building may be disappearing, but her memories never will. They both leave together, and as they do, the camera closes in on the cheap plastic bedroom doorknobs Louise mentioned earlier. Then we see the door open, and Louise's hand reaches in to remove the doorknobs to take with her.

It was such a symbolic gesture, not just of the show's overall theme but of our experiences in general. Everything from your hood shapes you; no matter where you go, you're taking it with you--good and bad. When you move on up, whatever you had on the ground floor gets in the elevator with you. It was the defining moment in the show, and I like to think that it was partially why Isabel Sanford won the Best Comedy Actress Emmy that year, the first Black woman to do so. The Jeffersons was far from perfect, but I'll always be indebted to it for giving me the idea that my skin color didn't have to hinder my desire to succeed.

Your homework assignment:

Think about someone who inspired you. Call that person, if you can, and thank them. Warning: They might ask for compensation.

14 comments:

Rick Olson said...

I was moved to tears by this post, and I love the homework.

Well done!

odienator said...

Thanks, Rick. This is the one that got to me too. And yeah, I did my own homework, hence the "they may ask for compensation" warning!

jim emerson said...

I wish I could tell the late Mike Evans this: Lionel Jefferson was my inspiration. My father was basically Archie Bunker (we watched "All in the Family" in my house, but he liked it because he thought Archie was speaking the truth!). Lionel's sly showdowns with Archie (especially the insults that went right over Archie's head) embodied my dream of dealing with my dad. Instead of the screaming fights we had about every issue of the day (Vietnam, civil rights, gun control, feminism, the "sexual revolution")... beginning when I was about, oh, 11. I wished I could be as cool and funny and together as Lionel, and not let dad/Archie get to me. To this day I feel some part of me (part of the best part) is Lionel Jefferson.

odienator said...

Jim, I always thought Lionel got the best of Archie, moreso than Meathead. Meathead and Gloria always got too emotional, presumably because Archie was directly related to them.

Mike Evans, I neglected to mention above, was one of the creators of Good Times, along with Cooley High writer Eric Monte.

Sheik Yerbootie said...

Odie - that was great - well done.

Can't say anymore than that.

anon said...

Odie,

A website management question: If I come to Big Media Vandalism directly all I get is the latest post in the Black History Mumf Series, as opposed to a long page with all of February's posts on it. For the long page I have to click on the February 2008 link on the right hand side. I was wondering if you'd consider putting all the BHM posts on the front page.

Anon

Jim Berkin said...

Great post! And we're certainly on the same page for picking the best episode of that series. Funny, I even brought it up in a class recently while discussing how our culture depicts the rise to success.

Another great episode from the series that developed George's "back story" was from Season 6, "The First Store," a flashback to George attempting to get a business loan to set up his first store amidst the riots resulting from Martin Luther King's assassination. The flashback sequence portrays George torn between kissing up to a condescending white banker to get the loan he needs to finally set up his own business, and his anger over the way the world is set up to squelch his audacity of trying to become independent. It was done quite well, and even provided reasons for the way George would handle Archie Bunker within the chronology of the character, besides showing us the difficult steps of attaining the American dream for this character.

As much as the sillier episodes of The Jeffersons were enjoyable (I lost count of how many times someone got robbed or George/Tom got into some harebrained scheme that Louise/Helen had to bail them out of), every so often they'd throw in something that made the show ring very real.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

This post reminds me that '70s sitcoms, particularly the ones that came from Norman Lear and Mary Tyler Moore, were adept at switching from low-down slapstick to wrenching drama and back again on a dime, so gracefully that you didn't think about the fact that a sitcom had suddenly turned serious. There's a much sharper demarcation between comedy and drama today, although "Everybody Loves Raymond" sometimes managed to mix those tones in a very "All in the Family" -- "Good Times" sort of way.

I don't think audiences have gotten dumber -- some of the cable series like "The Sopranos," "Sex and the City," "Deadwood" and "The Wire" jump from straight-up silliness to pathos and back again without worrying that they'll lose people. But the networks, by and large, seem to have grown far more timid in that respect.

Ali Arikan said...

This was a great post.

All in The Family was never shown here in Turkey, and The Jeffersons began its run in the late 80's. I was in my early teens, and I LOVED the show for its comedy, unable to see the commentary on race until much later.

I have a thing for sitcom theme tunes (horses for courses), and Movin' On Up is definitely up there among the greats.

Incidentally, "Millhouse Doesn't Live Here Anymore," one of the funnier episodes of The Simpsons' lacklustre later seasons features the late Isabel Sanford in her last ever television appearance. After a plea for Mr Jefferson to come home, Sanford, or her cartoon couterpart, starts dancing to Movin' On Up. It's sublime.

Seeing_I said...

I vividly recall the "Doorknobs" episode. It was very moving an unusual, all the more so for barely featuring the show's star.

When I was a kid, I always thought it was Weezy singing the theme song. Thanks for filling me in!

odienator said...

Nope, Seeing_I, it was Willona from Good Times who sang Moving on Up. Florence (Marla Gibbs) sang the theme song to her show 227. Hell, even Oprah sang her theme song before somebody pulled her aside and said "gurrrl, you sound like a pit bull."

Movin' On Up is my second favorite theme song behind--dare I admit this--Welcome Back Kotter. I also liked Cheers (though they don't sing the best lyrics of that song in the TV theme), Get Smart, Peter Gunn, Sesame Street, and Hill Street Blues.

Themes I dislike: Even though I love Donny Hathaway, I never understood what the hell he was talking about in the Maude theme song. As a kid, I even thought he said "and then there's Maude! She's a man!" (Well, it's Bea Arthur!) Friends--I hate that show and I hate that song. The Golden Girls--Thank you for making me puke. I'm sure there's more I like and dislike, but my mind's going blank.

My favorite part of the Good Times theme song was at the end. I thought the lyrics were just plain over the top ridiculous:

Mmmm-hmmm-hmmm.
Just lookin' out of the window,
Watchin' the asphalt grow-ow-ow-ow!

Say WHAT?! (At least I think that's what they're saying. As a kid, I thought they said assholes, not asphalt.)

Ali Arikan said...

Odienator - What do you make of Everybody Hates Chris? I love that show, and it always feels like I am missing the big picture, similar to the way you mentioned many white people do watching Coming To America.

odienator said...

Hey, Anon,

I'll see what I can do about putting up a complete list of the entries. Stay tooned for that.

Everybody Hates Chris is a lot of fun. I think it's well acted and Tichina Arnold reminds me a lot of my own mother. I love the show because I feel like Chris in my own family, except I'm the oldest of a much bigger family. Everybody Hates Odie.

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