Evictions, gang warfare, financial problems, muggings, rent parties and discrimination were frequent themes of the television program Good Times, that aired on CBS Television from February 1974 to August 1979. The program was created by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin. This highly successful team of independent producers team enjoyed unmitigated success during the 1970s and 1980s with a number of hit television shows including Maude, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons and one of television's most controversial sitcoms, All in the Family.
Good Times was a spin-off show of the hit series Maude. In Maude, the Black maid/housekeeper Florida, was portrayed by actor Ester Rolle. Rolle was chosen to star with John Amos as Mr. and Mrs. Evans in Good Times. The cast of Good Times included Florida; her unemployed but always looking-for-work husband, James; their teen-aged son, J.J.; a daughter, Thelma; and a younger son, Michael. The Evan's neighbor, a fortyish woman named Willona made frequent appearances. A very young Janet Jackson of the Jackson family fame, joined the cast later as Willona's adopted daughter.
Good Times earned its place in television history for a number of reasons. The program is significant for its decidedly different view, not only of Black family life, but American family life in general. Unlike the innocuous images served up in early televisions shows such as Father Knows Best and Julia, Good Times interjected relevancy and realism into prime-time television by dealing with the pressing issues of the day.
Good Times was also noteworthy in its portrayal of an African-American family attempting to negotiate the vicissitudes of life in a high-rise tenement apartment in an urban slum--the first show to tackle such a scenario with any measure of realism. The program exploited, with comic relief, such volatile subject matter as inflation, unemployment and racial bigotry. Along with The Jeffersons, Good Times was one of first television sitcoms featuring a mostly Black cast to appear since the controversial Amos 'n' Andy show had been canceled some twenty years prior.
Good Times was initially successful in that it offered solace for both blacks and whites, who could identify with the difficulties the Evans family faced. During the program's appearance on prime-time television, the concurrent period of history had included the Watergate scandal, the atrocities of the Vietnam War, staggeringly high interest rates, and growing unemployment. The James Evans character made clear his dissatisfaction with current government policies, hence, the show became a champion for the plight of the underclass.
The show also highlighted the good parenting skills of James and Florida. In spite of their difficult situation, they never shirked on their responsibility to teach values and morality to their children. The younger son Michael was thoughtful, intelligent, and fascinated with African-American history. He frequently participated in protest marches for good causes. J.J. was an aspiring artist who dreamed of lifting his family from the clutches of poverty. In one episode the family's last valuable possession, the television set, is stolen from J.J. on his way to the pawn shop to obtain a loan that would pay the month's rent. But somehow the Evans family prevailed, and they did so with a smile. Their ability to remain stalwart in the face of difficult odds was an underlying theme of the show.
Good Times is also significant for many layers of controversy and criticism that haunted its production. Both stars, Rolle and Amos walked away and returned as they became embroiled in various disputes surrounding the program's direction. A major point of disagreement was the J.J. character, who metamorphosed into a coon-stereotype reminiscent of early American film. His undignified antics raised the ire of the Black community. With his toothy grin, ridiculous strut and bug-eyed buffoonery, J.J. became a featured character with his trademark exclamation, "DY-NO-MITE!" J.J. lied, stole, and was barely literate. More and more episodes were centered around his exploits. Forgotten were Michael's scholastic success, James' search for a job and anything resembling family values.
Both Ester Rolle and John Amos objected to the highlighting of the J.J. character. When both stars eventually left the program in protest, abortive attempts were made to soften the J.J. character and continue the program without James and Florida. "We felt we had to do something drastic," Rolle said later in the Los Angeles Times, "we had lost the essence of the show."
Even with a newly fashioned (employed and mature-acting) J.J. character, ratings for Good Times plummeted. With some concessions, Rolle re-joined the cast in 1978 but the program failed and the series was canceled. The program went on to enjoy a decade of success in syndication.
Good Times, with its success and its criticism remains an important program in television history. As the product of the highly successful Lear/Yorkin team it stretched the boundaries of television comedy, while breaking the unspoken ban on a mostly black cast television show.
-Pamala S. Deane
Florida Evans (1974-1977, 1978-1979)..... Esther Rolle James Evans (1974-1976)....................... John Amos James Evans, Jr. (J.J.)...................... Jimmie Walker Willona Woods.................................... Ja'net DuBois Michael Evans ......................................Ralph Carter Thelma Evans.............. Anderson BernNadette Stanis Carl Dixon (1977).................................. Moses Gunn Nathan Bookman (1977-1979).............. Johnny Brown Penny Gordon Woods (1977-1979)....... Janet Jackson Keith Anderson (1976-1979).................... Ben Powers Sweet Daddy (1978-1979)................ Theodore Wilson
PRODUCERS Norman Lear, Allan Mannings, Austin Kalish, Irma Kalish, Norman Paul, Gordon Mitchell, Lloyd Turner, Sid Dorfman, George Sunga, Bernie West, Dohn Nicholl, Viva Knight
PROGRAMMING HISTORY 120 Episodes
CBS February 1974-September 1974 Friday 8:30-9:00
September 1974-March 1976 Tuesday 8:00-8:30
March 1976-August 1976 Tuesday 8:30-9:00
September 1976-January 1978 Wednesday 8:00-8:30
January 1978-May 1978 Monday 8:00-8:30
June 1978-September 1978 Monday 8:30-9:00
September 1978-December 1978 Saturday 8:30-9:00
May 1979-August 1979 Wednesday 8:30-9:00
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Friedman, Lester D. Uspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Urbana, Illinois and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Gray, Herman. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for "Blackness." Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Blacks and White TV: Afro-Americans in Television Since 1948. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1993.
Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law, America's Greatest TV Shows and and People Who Created Them. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.
Taylor, Ella. Prime Time Families: Television Culture in Postwar America. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1990.