First, an admission: I've never been a huge fan of Jimmy Kimmel's Live In Front of a Studio Audience specials.
The late night host's idea – redoing classic Norman Lear sitcom episodes live with modern stars – is wonderful. But in practice, past outings featuring Woody Harrelson as All in the Family's Archie Bunker, Jamie Foxx as George Jefferson from The Jeffersons and Jay Pharoah as J.J. in Good Times never felt right to me.
Too often, the episodes mostly proved the original success of those classic sitcoms was a unique alchemy, matching indelible characters with performers who could take those roles to another level. Without a Carrol O'Connor, Sherman Hemsley or Jimmie Walker to bring the magic, you were often left with talented actors doing vague impressions offering faint echoes of the original legends.
Kimmel's third Live outing on Tuesday night was poised to offer the same disappointment, with a game cast hamming their way through a Facts of Life episode. (Did Jennifer Aniston, playing snobby beauty Blair, just forget how to deliver a sitcom punchline in the 17 years since Friends left the air?)
But then, they got to the Diff'rent Strokes episode, with a height-challenged, fortysomething Kevin Hart playing 8-year-old Arnold – a role immortalized by the late Gary Coleman. And the magic returned.
Casting for maximum humor, rather than mimicry
Watching a bearded Hart, running around the stage in a superhero outfit, jumping into the arms of John Lithgow – playing Arnold's wealthy adoptive father Mr. Drummond – you felt the absurdity of the casting bring new laughs. Hart wrung out every bit of physical comedy he could manage, pretending to struggle while climbing down from a bunk bed and copying Coleman's distinctive gait.
Damon Wayans, taking over Todd Bridges's role as Arnold's brother Willis, was another surprise, setting up Hart's punchlines as a consummate straight man before landing his own sly jokes. ("Even though he looks 45, he's just 8," Wayans deadpanned about Hart's Arnold in one moment). And the night's best bit of surprise stunt casting – rapper Snoop Dogg as Willis' friend Vernon – was inspired, mostly because Snoop is a much better comic actor than many realize.
Indeed, the best moments of the night came when stars broke character briefly or found a way to bring new interpretations to old material. Will Arnett, playing a thickheaded suitor to Blair in the Facts of Life episode, offered a brief ad lib while speaking to Jon Stewart that scored better than most of the scripted punchlines (Stewart was playing Carl, a geek who also liked Blair).
Each episode also featured a new final line – the Facts of Life quip spoken by Jennifer Aniston, wasn't very memorable and was partially covered by applause. ("I'll be there for you," in a nod to Friends.) But Hart's last line – "How come Vernon always smell like weed?" – was also spot-on, and a great callback to Snoop's character.
Often, I found myself enjoying the commercials more than the episodes, because several of them were filmed in a retro style hearkening back to the late '70s/early '80s when these episodes first aired.
In particular, Flashdance star Jennifer Beals and Fresh Prince of Bel Air co-star Alfonso Ribeiro appeared in several sidesplitting, retro-style commercials for a string of products including Heinz ketchup and Jack in the Box restaurants that felt like old school Saturday Night Live ad satires (created by a production company/marketing agency co-founded by movie star Ryan Reynolds).
How to move beyond an exercise in nostalgia
Before that Diff'frent Strokes episode, I was ready to write an essay begging Kimmel and ABC to stop doing these projects. The previous one, in which John Amos got a bit lost playing a different character in the Good Times recreation, was particularly tough to sit through.
But Hart and Wayans have shown the way to move these specials beyond questionable exercises in nostalgia. The performers need room to bring more to their roles than a snarky take on old sitcom punchlines. (Perhaps they should rethink the rule of forcing actors to stick mostly to the old scripts and allow a bit more in-the-moment improvisation.)
The casting Tuesday was star-studded: Aniston, Kathryn Hahn, Gabrielle Union and Allison Tolman played Blair, Jo, Tootie and Natalie from The Facts of Life. Arnett and Jason Bateman joined Stewart as guest stars for that episode; Lisa Whelchel, who played Blair in the original series, sang The Facts of Life theme song, while Boyz II Men members Shawn Stockman and Wanya Morris sang the theme for Diff'rent Strokes.
Still, Tuesday's production proves these specials need to reach beyond tapping stars who vaguely resemble the characters they are recreating. Even the great Ann Dowd, who offered a pitch-perfect impersonation of Charlotte Rae's motherly housekeeper Mrs. Garrett during both the Facts of Life and Diff'rent Strokes episodes, wasn't particularly funny. These roles need performers whose presence can add humor beyond mimickry.
It is beyond amazing that Lear is still around to experience this heartfelt tribute to his comedy genius; Kimmel quite rightly gushed over the 99-year-old's expansive career and service in World War II, sitting next to the venerated executive producer before the show started.
And having Lear drop an F-bomb before everything kicked off – he was explaining how he values two words, "over" and "next," but slyly let go a bleeped profanity before the first word – was a nice touch of cheeky energy. Still, despite his brilliance and innovation, scripts written more than 40 years ago need a bit more help to stay funny and relevant in 2021.
These specials are so popular that Kimmel and his crew, including executive producers like Will Ferrell and Kerry Washington, can keep doing them, likely for as long as they want.
But I hope they take a lesson from the success of Hart and Wayans to play a bit more with the material in future recreations and cast performers whose presence adds fresh comedic possibilities, not just a faint nod toward giants from the past.