The incomparable sitcom Good Times has been cemented in history as one of the most innovative, cutting edge, and progressive shows to have ever graced the small screen. Produced by 1970s screenwriter, film and TV producer Norman Lear, Good Times soared to monumental heights in popular culture along with other Lear productions such as The Jefferson’s, Sanford and Son, One Day at Time, All in the Family, and Maude. Lear held the top spot for television ratings throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, but was he at the very least problematic? Let’s dissect.
With Good Times being the first sitcom showcasing a nuclear Black family, Co-stars John Amos and Esther Rolle constantly went to bat with show executives on the importance of maintaining a functional two-parent household on the show and showing up as dignified representation of the Black community.
During the pre-production stage of Good Times, which happened to be the spin-off from Ether Rolle’s character named “Florida” on the hit show Maude, the writers concocted a family of five that included a mother, father and three children. Norman Lear immediately objected, citing that his comedy would be funnier without a father. Rolle, who was a theatrical trained actor, refused to accept the role unless they included a paternal figure in the series who would be Florida’s husband and the father of her children.
“I told [the producers and Lear] I wouldn’t compound the lie that black fathers don’t care about their children,” Rolle stated. Eventually, Esther’s demands were met, and John Amos—who had made appearances in “Maude” as Florida’s husband—was brought in to play the role of James Evans, the father of Michael, J.J, and Thelma.
Rolle took this to heart as she was the tenth of 18 children in a family of two parents’ home. Let’s take just a moment to note that Ether Rolle came to a sitcom when there were only two other Black sitcoms before her, Julia, which featured a single mom, and Sanford and Son, which featured a single dad. Can we talk about breaking ceilings?
So let’s dive into John Amos’s and his heroic stance that would open many doors for other Black family sitcoms, including the most successful one named The Cosby Show.
As Good times entered production, the intent was for the series to focus on the entire family, specifically the parental styles of James and Florida Evans. However, as the series hit the air it was clear that Jimmy Walker’s “J.J. Evans” had become the breakout character. As a result, the writers and producers began to make J.J. the star of the show, much to the dismay of John Amos and Ether Rolle. As JJ’s role started to increase, the tone of the show started to become broader and moved away from the series that was supposed to deal with serious topics in a comedic way. Amos’ initial gripes with the show included his character, James Evans, not being able to hold down a job and provide a decent income for his family.
He also thought that the character J.J. could prove to be a dangerous role model for children due to the character’s outrageous antics that catered to stereotypes. On the show, James and Florida had three children James “J.J.” Evans Jr., Thelma, and Michael. Thelma aspired to be a surgeon, while Michael wanted to become a Judge. As the show’s popularity continued to grow, J.J. quickly become a fan favorite among audiences.
As a result, the show’s storyline began to center more around him, leaving Thelma and Michael behind as supporting cast members. Amos felt that his other two children should have been used more and would have been a better role model for those watching.
“The writers would prefer to put a chicken hat on J.J. and have him prance around saying ‘Dy-No-Mite,’ and that way they could waste a few minutes and not have to write meaningful dialogue,” Amos said.
In 2020, Amos was interviewed by Comedian Lunelle on Vlad TV where detailed more on his gripes with the writers.
“I felt like I knew more about what a Black should be and how a Black family should act than our writers, none of whom were Black. Their perception or their idea of what a Black family would be and what a Black father would be was totally different from mine and mine was stooped in reality,” he said.
Amos did not agree with the attitude that the writers had attached to characters. Amos’ character was known to be high-tempered most of the time. Amos would stand for his cast and say this is not how Black people act.
On a Sway in the Morning interview, Amos says “We did not African-American writers on the show. Some the attitudes that were written for us caused me to say ‘Uh, we can’t do this and we can’t do that’”
Eventually Amos’ stance would cause him to be terminated from Good Times during season four after receiving a call from Lear.
For decades, Amos has been hailed a hero for risking his career to demand a better depiction of the Black family, some believe Lear to have been in the wrong. Either way, the character James Evans will go down in history as one of tv’s strongest and loving fathers.
But the question remains, was Norman Lear problematic?