Redd Foxx and Free Speech Were Comedy Gold
There are a lot of classic sitcoms floating around on the various streaming services now and, for reasons I can’t really explain to myself, I haven’t been watching many of them. Perhaps it’s because I am now old enough that “classic television” refers to shows that were on when I was a kid. It’s not so much denial, it’s just avoidance.
In pre-cable times all of the brilliant sitcoms were on one of the big three, of course. ABC, NBC, and CBS haven’t produced much that’s funny in recent years. The one exception I can think of is The Good Place, which was hilarious, and just finished a brief, four-year run on NBC last year. ABC’s Modern Family had some moments but never really captured my fancy, even with Sofia Vergara there. Prior to that, the last broadcast sitcom I liked was NBC’s Parks and Recreation, which wrapped up six years ago.
My favorite sitcom in the last few years was Schitt’s Creek, which was a Canadian production that aired on Pop TV, but that doesn’t really apply here. I just wanted to mention it.
I saw a mention of Sanford and Son pop up on Twitter recently and was happy to find that the entire series is streaming on STARZ, which is one of the 4,200 streaming services I subscribe to at the moment. I decided to jump into the Wayback Machine and head to 1972 for the pilot episode.
I was rather surprised to see a “Foul Language” warning at the beginning of the show. The pilot was broadcast in an era when the sound of a toilet flushing on All in the Family (another Norman Lear production) was considered edgy, groundbreaking television, after all. I kid you not, the roughest word in the first episode was “dummy,” which was something that Fred called Lamont at least once a show.
After watching past the first episode I realized what the warning was about. Like almost all comedy from that era, Sanford and Son is laden with humor that offends the delicate, weak, and pathetic woke progressives.
That got me thinking once again about the true nature of free speech and where we are with it today.
The reason that “Foul Language” warning is so laughable is that, short of dropping f-bombs, it’s almost anything goes with expletives on television today. If you’re watching one of the cable networks like FX, the f-bombs are there too. Given that Lenny Bruce kept getting arrested for saying the word in nightclubs, society has come a long way with tolerating expletives. From that perspective, Lenny would no doubt view that as a victory for free speech.
I’m no clean speech purist, as anyone who has ever seen me live can attest. Still, I liked it better when the f-bombs were raining in comedy clubs and not on television. That may seem ridiculous but my reasoning is sound: kids can accidentally hear things on television that they aren’t supposed to hear but kids don’t go to comedy clubs.
We live in a topsy-turvy world now where most “dirty” words have been given a green light but seemingly innocuous words come with trigger warnings or social media bans.
In fact, it’s gotten so bad that I’m surprised that a band of rabid wokescolds hasn’t tried to get Sanford and Son pulled from STARZ.
The show was edgy in a lot of ways. Until Norman Lear began producing comedies, most sitcoms were feel-good affairs. They were called situation comedies because every episode revolved around some ridiculous situation that lent itself to wacky hijinks. The Norman Lear era ushered in deeper societal situations and caustic, biting humor.
Lamont: Forget him Aunt Esther. What can we do for you?
Esther: You can do a lot, Lamont. In fact, you both can make a big donation to charity.
Fred: Oh, you want us to donate you to multiple ugly-osis. pic.twitter.com/mdat69IEnl
— Sanford and Son Quotes (@sanfordquotes) April 18, 2021
Reading that is funny, but what made lines like that work was Redd Foxx’s perfect timing, which never failed him. In today’s climate, that line would be deemed offensive because it shames a woman and mocks the “differently-abled.”
There was a freedom of subject matter back then that allowed both Sanford and Son and All in the Family to lampoon and confront bigotry in a way that was still funny. Richard Pryor was just coming into his own with his shift to dealing with deep, deep subject matter and making audiences laugh at it. I’ve always said that Pryor’s genius was that he could make people laugh at things that they didn’t want to laugh at. He was able to do that because he was allowed to talk about anything.
In Lenny Bruce’s day, he only had to deal with undercover police stalking his shows and waiting for him to slip up. Now there are millions of politically correct snitches playing Culture Stasi for the Church of Woke.
If so much as one trigger word is uttered the unhinged woke will try to ruin a career.
The modern sitcom’s proscription of subject matter has neutered the format’s effectiveness in dealing with societal issues. All in the Family and Sanford and Son were effective because there were no sacred cows, especially when it came to politics. All in the Family could portray both Archie and Meathead as ridiculous, thereby mocking both sides of the aisle. Comedy today isn’t supposed to speak ill of leftist orthodoxy. There is a big difference between lampooning and demonizing. Most popular (wide audience) comedy now does the latter. Sitcoms and late-night shows are cheerleaders for the Left and the main objective is to portray any different way of thinking as evil.
That’s why none of it is funny anymore.
The worst part about the modern speech police movement is that the list of banned words and phrases is growing at such an alarming rate. Even leftists are made to do the “I said a bad thing” apology walk of shame now. Something that may have been perfectly acceptable to say at breakfast time might get you canceled later that afternoon because a constipated woke scold decided that it was wrongthink and some sort of “phobic.”
Fortunately, there are still more than a few of us in stand-up who have no interest in conforming to the whims of the rage mob. We may not be able to perform in the same venues as the a**-kissers, but the modern media era does still provide us with a wealth of opportunity.
I have no interest in trying to please a bunch of emotionally stunted weaklings who are too stupid to understand context or freedom.
Sanford and Son endures because of all of the gloriously messy free speech it had available. That, combined with Redd Foxx’s prodigious talent, made for comedy that will last. Trust me, no one will be talking about The Big Bang Theory fifty years from now.
Freedom is a marvelous thing and it’s being taken away from us in chunks on a daily basis now. Free speech is the foundation of the whole thing. Once it is gone for good, everything else crumbles. One only needs to look at 20th-century history to see that the good guys weren’t the ones telling people what they couldn’t say.
Let’s go offend some people, shall we?