Guest Author - Edie Dykeman
Good Times was a spin-off sitcom from Maude, itself a spin-off of All in the Family. Created by Eric Monte and Michael Evans, Good Times was executive produced by Norman Lear and Allen Manings, and based on Eric's childhood in Chicago.
The show first aired on CBS as a mid-season replacement in February 1974 and was an instant hit. Set in Chicago, the groundbreaking show followed the tight-knit Evans family and their three children. Esther Rolle stared as Florida Evans and John Amos played her husband James.
Their family included eldest son James Evans, Jr. (J.J.) played by Jimmie Walker, Thelma (BernNadette Stanis), and Michael (Ralph Carter). J.J was an accomplished painter, Thelma was considered beautiful and brainy, and Michael was a social activist who was called “the militant midget” by his father. From the start, Jimmie Walker’s character became a fan favorite and his catch phrase “Dy-no-mite” could be heard around the world.
The paintings J.J. created were actually by artist Ernie Barnes. The show brought attention to his distinctive style and helped make the African-American artist famous.
The close-knit family lived in a high-rise housing project apartment, 17C, in the inner city. Never mentioned but implicitly suggested, the infamous Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago were shown in the opening and closing credits causing viewers to believe that is where the family lived. When the show began, J.J. was seventeen, Thelma, sixteen, and Michael was eleven.
Other characters on the show included recently divorced next-door neighbor, and best friend of Florida, Willona Woods (Ja’net DuBois). Willona’s daughter Penny (Janet Jackson) joined the cast during the fifth season. Other recurring characters added depth to the show.
While most sitcoms showed prosperous white families living in well-to-do areas and black families usually portrayed as broken down, Good Times was the first prime-time show to feature a strong black man as the head of the lower-middle-class family.
With that premise, the show was able to take an honest look at the social and political issues of the time including race, poverty, unemployment, and addiction. The series was able to interject humor into the serious subjects as it portrayed a strong loving supportive family.
Behind the scenes, the series was not doing as well. Because of the instant popularity of J.J., the writers started focusing every episode around the character to the exclusion of the rest of the family. They made J.J. a cartoon-like character at the expense of the storyline as first envisioned.
Show creators Monte and Evans became increasingly frustrated at the white writers who wanted to stereotype the black characters, causing the characters to take on a nature not intended or conceived by the duo. They wanted the show to remain a role model for black families who were struggling to survive.
John Amos and Esther Rolle also were dissatisfied with the direction the show was taking, and Amos left at the end of the third season. Frustrated that the writers killed off the Amos character, Rolle left the show a year later. She returned for the final season after insisting on positive changes to the show and J.J.’s character.
The changes were not enough to keep the show from declining in the ratings and CBS cancelled Good Times in 1979. The show was created and developed as a positive role model for the black community due to the strong father figure and the loving two-parent household, but could not compete with the stereotypical views of the white writers and producers of the 1970s.
Although the last episode aired in August of 1979, the show became a cult hit enjoying a long run in syndication. The show is also available on DVD.