Television

A Show In The Middle: That’s My Mama

I was reading the comments about the new spring schedule posted by one of those television stations that specialize in airing classic TV series. A lot of complaints were about “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times” continually running when the station could probably make way for other re-runs to be shown. It appears that both of those shows have reached the level of “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” in terms of being so popular that people don’t get tired of seeing them again and again. I admit that I still watch and laugh at the antics of Fred and Lamont, as well as those of J.J. Evans. The 1970’s saw an explosion of African-Americans on television, and those two shows were “must see TV” when I was a kid. But younger audiences seeing those shows for the first time might assume those shows, along with “The Jeffersons” and “What’s Happening?” were the only sitcoms back then that featured predominately African-American characters.

But I’d like to shine a spotlight on another popular 1970’s sitcom that is not re-run as often as the four previously mentioned, but was still amusing in its own right. “That’s My Mama” had its original run on ABC from September 4, 1974 to December 24, 1975. The show was set in Washington, DC. Richard Nixon had just resigned from being the President of the United States a month before the show began, and Gerald Ford took his place. There were comical comments made by the characters on the show about the political turmoil in the wake of the Watergate scandal. There was also an economic recession going on, and comments were made about that as well.

The title of the show was somewhat misleading. Theresa Merritt played Eloise Curtis, the “mama” and she had top billing. Her character lovingly meddled in the life of her son Clifton (played by actor-singer Clifton Davis). Clifton ran a barbershop he inherited from his late father; the shop was attached to the house he shared with Eloise. However, the plots seemed to focus more on Clifton, and the other characters: Clifton’s best friend, Earl (played by Theodore Wilson), Clifton’s sister Tracy (first played by Lynne Moody then later by Joan Pringle), Tracy’s husband Leonard (Lisle Wilson), Junior (Ted Lange), and two seniors, Wildcat and Josh (Jester Hairston and DeForest Covan), who hung around the barber shop all day. Eloise seemed to be more of a supporting character who acted as the voice of reason to all.

While “Good Times” showed the view of poor African-Americans, and “The Jeffersons” highlighted rich African-Americans, “That’s My Mama” had a middle class view. There could have been an argument made that the Earl and Junior characters were a little stereotypical. Junior had a swagger, was always using slang talk, and seemed to live for the next good time. Clifton even remarked in one episode that a business man had not offered an opportunity to Earl because Earl was “too much of a street brother”. However, everyone, with the exception of Eloise, Wildcat and Josh (who were all retired), were gainfully employed. It was mentioned that Junior was attending community college, but it appeared that Junior worked a series of part-time jobs. Earl even made a career change going from being a mailman to working as a barber alongside Clifton. The characters lived in what appeared to be a solid middle-class neighborhood.

The situations the characters found themselves in mirrored that of other sitcoms – dating mishaps of bachelors Clifton, Earl, and Junior; Eloise feeling her age and sometimes not feeling appreciated by her children; Leonard being picked on by Clifton and Earl for being too stuffy; Tracy and Eloise having misunderstandings, and so on. The show never was as raucous as “Sanford and Son” could be, nor full of frenzied energy like “What’s Happening?” But the show settled in the middle, and it was a pleasant diversion. Unfortunately, the show’s run was short, which probably explains why it is not re-run much. But it’s worth watching whenever it is shown.

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