The 10 Best ’70s Black Sitcoms (and Why We Love Them)
The ’70s were a huge turning point for black-centric television shows, and the sitcom is undoubtedly one of the main genres where you’ll notice this pattern. From the nostalgia of “Good Times” to the regular antics on “Sanford & Son”, we’ve got the definitive list of the 10 best black sitcoms of the ’70s that television had to offer.
1. “Good Times”
Despite its title, “Good Times” wasn’t always a good time with its frequent discussion of heavy themes like poverty, but it was unquestionably a groundbreaking show and one of the most revered in the genre of ’70s black sitcoms and TV shows.
Following a black family, “Good Times” was the first black sitcom to feature a two-parent family. It was lauded for a relatively positive portrayal of a black family going through their daily life with a few extra struggles. Some notable details that made “Good Times” so important include:
- The show provided an honest look at life in the Chicago projects
- The show broke boundaries with a two-parent nuclear family on American prime-time television
- Good Times knew how to balance the good with the natural hardships of life.
2. “The Jeffersons”
This 70s Black sitcom marked a significant turning point in Black television and is, to this day, a masterclass in all things funny. “The Jeffersons”, a spinoff of its predecessor “All in the Family”, subverted audience expectations for how Black families were portrayed on television and heralded in a new generation of the black sitcom. Exactly what were the milestones that “The Jeffersons” achieved? Consider some of the following.
- “The Jeffersons” broke boundaries by portraying an affluent black family rather than the typical struggling black family seen in media.
- The show was the first to portray an interracial married couple.
- The show became the longest-running series with a predominately-black cast.
3. “What’s Happening!!”
A good time, that’s what. “What’s Happening!!” is a gem within the catalog of 1970s black sitcoms and followed three high school kids going through their daily life and getting up to all sorts of silly antics you’d expect from a teen sitcom. Along with a star-studded cast, “What’s Happening!!” stood out from the crowd for some of the following reasons:
- The show took an honest yet lighthearted look at what it was like to be a black youth in the 1970s
- “What’s Happening!!” was a top 10 hit for ABC in its early days
- The show shed light on the black working class in America
4. “Diff’rent Strokes”
A massive success for NBC in the late 1970s, “Diff’rent Strokes” is remembered for more than just its groundbreaking topics–it’s also one of the most entertaining sitcoms from this era of television, and one that holds up pretty well on rewatch.
Following a family including two black children adopted by a rich white family after the passing of their mother. The show broke ground by portraying an interracial family and the complexities of life as a black child navigating a new and entirely unfamiliar environment.
Among its numerous achievements and memorable moments include the following that “Diff’rent Strokes” achieved:
- The show wasn’t shy about creating “special” episodes to talk about heavy subjects, from poverty to racism and other pressing topics in the American public
- “Diff’rent Strokes” launched the career of notable comedians like Gary Coleman
- The show took an honest approach to discuss racism in America and the many ways it manifests
5. “Sanford and Son”
Another smash hit and staple in of 70s Black sitcom history, “Sanford and Son” brought together brilliant comedic minds while portraying the lives of Fred and his son Lamont as they navigated life running a junk shop in 1970s Los Angeles. The quippy comedy and fantastic leads make “Sanford and Son” an unforgettable show for more than its groundbreaking nature.
“Sanford and Son” differentiated itself from its predecessors and successors in critical ways, cemented it as a relic of 1970s black TV shows. For example, the show stood out for the following:
- Its refusal to avoid racial humor and commitment to addressing black identity
- The show understood how to make a catchphrase work.
- The show and main cast never stopped addressing racial injustices and encouraging a conversation about race in America.
6. “Sanford Arms”
While it might not have the same notoriety as its predecessor, the follow-up show to “Sanford and Son” deserves recognition among the best 1970s black sitcoms. “Sanford Arms” follows some of the supporting cast from “Sanford and Son”, building a fun, similar environment sans Frank and Lamont. “Sanford Arms” is often overlooked today because the show didn’t have a long run–only four episodes, in fact.
Though, its premature cancellation didn’t stop “Sanford Arms” from being appreciated by die-hard fans. The show is notable for many reasons, such as the following:
- Its ability to highlight black talent and give a voice to the supporting cast of “Sanford and Son”
- Its long-lasting legacy, despite its short run
- The show’s dedication to telling stories for black characters
7. “Baby, I’m Back”
Following his memorable run as Lamont Sanford, actor Demond Wilson joined the cast of the 1978 series “Baby, I’m Back”, following a man who previously abandoned his family and was presumed dead. When Ray, played by Wilson, discovers that his wife is getting remarried, he returns to his family home and does his best to prove his capabilities as a loving father and husband. Though it lasted only a season, “Baby, I’m Back” remains a hysterical and important representation of the ’70s black sitcom era.
The show is notable for the following:
- Its ability to highlight Wilson’s talent outside of “Sanford and Son”
- Its discussion of heavy topics like divorce, remarrying, and abandonment
- Its power to stay funny and lighthearted despite heavy subject matters
Helmed by the hilarious Robert Guillaume, “Benson” was the late-1970s hit for black sitcoms. The show followed traditional sitcom elements and portrayed Guillaume as Benson, a charismatic individual working his way up the chain of command as the governor’s head of household affairs.
As Benson works his way up the ladder, the audience is privy to his hilarious antics and profound realizations. Despite its fanbase, the show was canceled after a fantastic seven seasons.
However, its importance remains in many ways:
- The portrayal of a crossover character, Benson, originated from the show “Soap”
- “Benson” garnered a large audience rivaling “Soap”, igniting new potential for black-led TV shows
- “Benson” shows a black man in powerful positions typically allocated to white characters
9. “Barefoot in the Park”
While it might not be as familiar as some other titles, “Barefoot in the Park” represents a short-lived but meaningful period in 1970s black sitcoms. Despite its low profile, “Barefoot in the Park” was among the first to feature a predominately black cast on American television. Named after the Neil Simon Broadway play of the same title, “Barefoot in the Park” is cherished for some of the following reasons:
- The show was the first American sitcom to feature a majority black cast since “Amos ‘n’ Andy” aired in the late 1920s.
- Despite being short-lived, the show made a massive impact on black-led shows in the following years.
- The show paved the way for many 1970s black sitcoms.
10. “That’s My Mama”
Rounding out our list is the classic 1974 sitcom “That’s My Mama”, starring sitcom legend Clifton Davis and following Clifton as a barber working for his family’s barbershop. The show chronicles the trials and tribulations of Clifton as he works and navigates the various expectations his family has for his future.
Beyond being a launching pad for excellent comedic talents, “That’s My Mama” stands out for the following:
- “That’s My Mama” debuted as one of the first shows produced by Columbia Pictures Television
- The show dealt with traditional values and how younger generations gradually deviated from these expectations
- The show appealed to young and adult audiences alike
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