getTV talks GOOD TIMES — An Interview with Karen Burroughs Hannsberry
What’s the first thing anyone says when you mention Good Times? “Dyn-O-Mite!” But this groundbreaking sitcom from producer Norman Lear is much more than a catchphrase. And you can see why weekdays on getTV!
When Good Times debuted in February of 1974, it was a TV first: a sitcom about an African-American family. Esther Rolle and John Amos stared as Florida and James Evans, loving parents struggling to raise a family in an inner-city housing project. Their kids are high-spirited J.J. (Jimmie Walker), daughter Thelma (Bern Nadette Stanis), and Michael (Ralph Carter), the politically minded baby of the family. And always dropping by is neighbor Willona (Ja’Net DuBois).
To learn more about this series, we recently spoke Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, a first-generation fan who grew up to be a critic, film historian and author of multiple books. Hannsberry chatted with us from Chicago, a hometown she shares with the Evans family! The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.
getTV: Take us back 50 years. What did TV look like in terms of representation of people of color in 1970?
KAREN BURROUGHS HANNSBERRY: There was Room 222, which had two black stars. Julia was a groundbreaking show starring Diahann Carroll. The Flip Wilson Show was a variety show with a lot of black guest stars. But, in general, there wasn’t a great deal of black representation.
As a kid, were you conscious of the fact that there were not people on television who looked like you?
When we did see them, it was a big thing. You watched it, and that was why. That was the draw, because there weren’t any.
Norman Lear introduced these two shows: All In The Family in 1971 and Sanford And Son the following year. All in the Family had several regular cast members who were black and Sanford And Son was an almost exclusively black cast. Both were successful and that made a significant impact.
Without All in the Family there would be no Florida Evans!
Correct. Florida was introduced on the third episode of Maude, which was a spinoff of All In The Family, in 1972. She was very different from the Florida of Good Times: sassy and flippant! On Maude, her husband’s name was Henry and he was a fireman, but his character was pretty much the same: stubborn, aggressive, but still loving toward his wife.
Good Times also has another connection to All In The Family, right?
Yes, it was co-created by Mike Evans, who played Lionel on All In The Family and then later on The Jeffersons. The co-creator was Eric Monte, who wrote the movie Cooley High, which was also set in Chicago.
Did you watch Good Times from the beginning?
From Day One! It seemed like it was made just for us. We could laugh at things that you weren’t laughing at before on television. People in positions of power were now objects of ridicule and their power was lessened because of that. It was an all-black show, but it was a family: mother, father, children. This was a real black family, not a stereotype.
In in the 1970s, “the projects” were often depicted as a place of hopelessness, but Good Times did not depict a hopeless family.
They all had goals and dreams. Even though they were in the projects, they all were able to see beyond that, and strive for something better. But it was also a realistic depiction of life: gangs, gun violence, James feeling frustrated, Florida wanting to be more than a wife and mother.
Was that portrayal important to Esther Rolle and John Amos?
Definitely. They both had a strong voice in the direction of the show and how the family was depicted, which is why it became an issue with both of them when J.J.’s character took off the way it did.
What was your response to J.J. as a kid?
He was hilarious to me, and to all of us. The whole “Dy-No-Mite” thing was a scream. You looked forward to that like, “When’s he gonna say Dy-No-Mite?”
Can you see how John Amos and Esther Rolle had issues with it?
I can see how they had issues. It was making a mockery, in a way, of what they believed the show should be depicting.
Jimmie has said, very unapologetically, “I was a comedian and I came on the show to be funny.”
“Dy-No-Mite” became so huge. It was everywhere. But if you look at the show — which I’ve been doing a lot of lately — it really wasn’t that big a part of his character. It just became so big, and so associated with him, that everything else got overlooked. His character was very funny, outside of that aspect of his personality, and he was a thoughtful, caring brother.
So, you think the marketing of “Dy-No-Mite” was more substantial than the presence of it on the show, itself?
I believe that to be true. There are so many positive aspects of J.J. that get lost, and understandably so. It got lost to me too, at the time. There are so many instances of J.J. stepping up to back up Thelma, giving advice to Michael, being there for his mother, helping with the family finances.
“It seemed impossible to go on,” Norman Lear said about John Amos and the clashes over tone and content that led to his firing.
However they felt during the run of the show, and the direction it was going, was valid. It’s only looking back that I’m able to say, “Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it seemed.”
And “Dy-No-Mite” got a mass audience to the show — an audience that saw a stable, loving, traditional depiction of an American family who just happened to be black.
Definitely. And, looking back, I don’t think J.J. harmed the show at all. His antics didn’t take away from that message, and that depiction of the family. It didn’t negate any of that.
As a club comic, Jimmie understood that, if you don’t make it funny, you lose people pretty quickly.
He was there to fulfill a role, just like Esther on Maude. Her flippancy and sassiness on Maude didn’t take away from the show, didn’t make it into “The Florida Show.” She added to it. I think J.J.’s character added to Good Times.
As a young woman, did you feel a connection to Thelma?
I thought she was so beautiful and so accomplished and everything that I would want to be. She was this shining star who had everything going for her: her hair, her beauty, her ability to dance, her intelligence, the way she could come back at J.J. She was just everything.
Why do you think Michael’s militancy dissipated as he aged?
When you’re having “militant” thoughts come out of an eight-year-old, that’s funny. That’s cute. But when that person is 15, and old enough to put some action behind the militancy, it’s not so funny. I don’t think they could have this young man — because that’s what he became — saying the same kinds of things that little Michael had said.
“Ralph Carter faded on us,” Jimmie Walker said in an interview in 2017. Agree or disagree?
I can see why he faded. What did he have? That was his whole thing, his niche. When you take that away, he didn’t have an identity anymore. There was nothing to base episodes or situations on.
How do you look at James and Florida now, compared to when you were young?
I love them as much as I did then. It was a complete marriage. They were there for each other. They supported each other. They had grown children, but they were also physically still attracted to each other.
When Ja’Net DuBois passed away, Bern Nadette Stanis told us: “As Willona she showed women that even though you are single, you can still be happy.”
I distinctly remember the episode where Willona tells Florida, “Just because I’m alone, doesn’t mean I’m lonely. Who said you have to be married in order to be happy?” She was happy with her life and that was really inspirational and so valid. When I think about the character that resonates for me the most, I think of Willona.
How would you feel about a Good Times reboot?
Nope. Can I say that fast enough? Just because something was a hit back when it was created doesn’t mean that you can recreate it and have that same magic.
So, part of what makes Good Times so special for you is the time in which it was made?
Definitely. I love the live studio audience. The things they shout out, like “Right on!” They’re almost like another character. That can’t be recreated. It’s like a historical record: the music they refer to, the pop culture references, what life was like back then. You watch a sitcom to laugh, but Good Times gives you so much more.