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Sunday, August 30, 2009
GUEST SHOT column: "Censored and Son" by John Wekluk
By John Wekluk
In TV Land’s current airings of NBC’s hit ’70s sitcom Sanford and Son, there’s something missing besides Grady’s front left tooth: The ever dangerous, and derogatory, “N” word.
Redd Foxx, who played lead character Fred G. Sanford in the 1972-77 series, was known for his “blue” comedy. So it should have been no surprise when Fred uttered that word, or any other seemingly questionable words. Consider the facts that Norman Lear created the show and Richard Pryor’s pen inked a few episodes and it would have been almost disappointing if that word hadn’t been vocalized.
This begs the obvious question: Should TV Land censor what many consider art, or should they follow the PC route and continue to edit the show that now airs in the late morning?
Overwhelmingly, most fans of the show cry, “Stop censoring Fred!” In the season three episode “Fred Sanford, Legal Eagle,” Fred, after asking the white judge why there are only black people in traffic court, says, “Look at all the niggas in here. There’s enough niggas in here to make a Tarzan movie!” Uproarious laughter ensues—but not in the TV Land version, which awkwardly ends after Fred asks the judge, “What do you have against black people?”
Fred isn’t the only victim of censoring. Aunt Esther, played by LaWanda Page (whose own “blue” comedy made Redd Foxx look like Urkel in hindsight), also gets the dub treatment. In the third season episode “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” Esther, hearing the claim that the family’s old St. Louis pal Big Money Grip is really her favorite nephew Lamont’s father, deadpans, “What did you say, nigga?” to a round of hysterical laughter. TV Land serves up a badly dubbed “sucka” in place of the offending word. It’s hard to believe that, even though “sucka” was her catchphrase, the live audience would have howled at that level.
So who is right? Should TV Land keep censoring the show that airs alongside other Norman Lear hits such as All In The Family and Good Times, or should they keep in mind that children might be tuning in to watch Andy Griffith or Leave It To Beaver?
Perhaps TV Land is missing the boat by not realizing the cultural context of the show, or even the word itself. None of Fred’s other bigoted rants are censored. Pat Morita’s Japanese-American character Ah Chew and Gregory Sierra’s Puerto Rican character Julio Fuentes certainly got their fair share of uncouth browbeating by Mr. Sanford. And we all know Fred doesn’t like “ugly white women.” Fred Sanford, not unlike Archie Bunker, was a lovable bigot and, more often than not, in the end of most episodes, Fred realized the err of his ways. Though he always seemed to forget them a week later.
Had a white television cast been throwing around the “N” word, it would certainly seem cringe-worthy in hindsight. Those episodes would be collecting dust in the vaults with the racist Betty Boop and Looney Tunes cartoons of yesteryear that will never be aired again. However, the predominantly African-American cast of Sanford and Son was working in an era not too long after the Civil Rights Movement—and there was an effort to take the word back.
Thirty-plus years later, with recent events such as the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the expulsion of African-American children from a pool in northeast Philadelphia, race relations in America still have quite along way to go. In the mid-’70s a newfound freedom enabled many black people to explore certain social aspects that had been previously unavailable. Sure Fred’s comments were at times unmannered and wouldn’t fly on TV today, but, contextually, these episodes are a potent reminder of the history of race relations in this country. As ungraceful as it seems, Sanford’s blue comedy marked one of the first times a minority group got to turn the tables, so to speak.
TV Land should let Fred speak! Perhaps they could even run the uncensored episodes, with disclaimers, in the night slots and air the censored episodes during the day. One thing is for certain: It is almost criminal to censor any art, especially art that captures a Zeitgest as well as Sanford and Son does.
It doesn’t hurt that the art is genuinely funny, too. Sometimes we need to laugh at ourselves. At least we know the G. in Fred G. Sanford definitely did not stand for Genteel.