A single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
Remakes have a mixed reputation in popular culture, with the reactions usually dependent upon the medium and the intent. We love an inspired cover song; we mock a dull one. We roll our eyes at the announcement of yet another movie version of an old property, but if the new creative team can make the material feel fresh and relevant, they get a pass for cashing in on a familiar name. And when it comes to television? Well, with TV we don’t tend to talk about “remakes” so much as “reboots,” “reimaginings,” and “rip-offs.” The Office, for example, is based on a British show. But do its 201 episodes really count as a “remake” of The Office U.K.’s 14?
There have been times when television producers edge into true remake territory. Exactly one year after Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin shook up showbiz with their CBS sitcom All In The Family, the partners took their act to NBC, debuting the similar Sanford And Son. Both shows were about cranky old bigots, both were set among the working class, and both were based on British series: Till Death Do Us Part and Steptoe And Son, respectively. But while All In The Family was about the generational divide in a household of white New Yorkers, Sanford And Son hit some of those same notes in a predominately black Los Angeles neighborhood. And there was one other major difference: The NBC series didn’t just borrow its premise from the U.K. For most of its first season, Sanford episodes were direct adaptations of Steptoe.
That’s not unheard of, but it is unusual. In recent years, Americanized versions of British imports like Shameless have started out with episodes that lightly rewrote the shows they were aping; and in the ’70s, Three’s Company (among others) adapted multiple episodes from its source material. But Sanford And Son reinterpreted 16 Steptoe And Son episodes during its first year on the air—so many that it almost became like a Broadway production of a London play. That makes it a useful case study for those who like to think of the proper artistic analogue for television as not movies or novels, but theater.
Could Steptoe And Son’s “The Piano” be thought of as a one-act play? Just the second episode of the series—originally airing on the BBC on June 21, 1962—“The Piano” doesn’t demand any familiarity with the show or its premise to understand either the story or the jokes. It’s a piece of situation comedy where the situation is easy to grasp: A foppish rich man (who never says his name) wants his ex-wife’s piano out of his apartment, so he hires a pair of bickering father-and-son junk dealers to haul it off. While the aristocrat worries that these oafs will harm his priceless antiques, the “rag and bone” men argue among themselves about how hard it’s going to be to move the instrument through the door and down the stairs. They also speculate about whether or not their decidedly fey employer is “kinky.” In the end, the Steptoes determine that the job’s not worth the trouble, so they bail halfway through, with the piano still wedged in the doorway.
On April 14, 1972—the last week of Sanford And Son’s first season—NBC aired “The Piano Movers,” with a script by Aaron Ruben from a story by Steptoe creators Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. It’s not just the rough outline of “The Piano Movers” that shadows “The Piano.” Ruben also repeats bits of dialogue, and digressive details. Both Harold Steptoe and Lamont Sanford ask their respective rich guy if his wife is dead, and in both cases the man says, “Unfortunately, no.” In both episodes, the employer forces the junkmen to put on elegant slippers so they won’t ruin his expensive rugs; and in both, the grumpy father (Albert Steptoe in one, Fred Sanford in the other) elicits sympathy with lies about his war record, and asks for a drink by saying, “Beer if it’s near, brandy if it’s handy.” And each episode ends with a police officer telling the movers to choose between finishing an obviously impossible task or getting their vehicle out of the street before it’s towed away. As they leave, both the Steptoes and the Sanfords are still wearing the weird-looking soft shoes that were foisted on them.
The biggest change between “The Piano” and “The Piano Movers” is the extent to which Albert and Fred are fascinated by their host’s extravagant wardrobe and surroundings. Albert cocks an eyebrow at the way their employer dresses and at his collection of fancy footwear, and he warns Harold that this stranger could be “dodgy.” But Fred’s way more accusatory, and more curious. “I think he’s a fruitcake, or maybe just a plain fruit,” he tells Lamont. When he peeks at the piano-owner’s checkbook and sees one made out to “Duane,” Fred jokes, “I bet I know who Duane is.” When the man casually mentions that “I have a whole new way of life that I prefer,” Fred says, “That’s what I want to ask you about… ” before Lamont stops him from going any further.
Like a lot of the sitcoms that Lear and Yorkin worked on in the ’70s, Sanford And Son makes jokes about prejudice that walk up to the line of seeming prejudiced themselves (at least by 2016 standards). But the gay-themed humor in “The Piano Mover” is genuinely funny, for a few reasons. For one, there’s never any confirmation that the wealthy man actually is homosexual, which means that Fred’s presumptions say as much about him as they do about what society winks at. For another, Fred seems more intrigued than disgusted. As Fred, Redd Foxx has a knowing twinkle in his eye, like someone excited to peek into a secret world that he’s only ever heard rumors about. At one point he grabs a long, thin cigarette from a box on the coffee table and lounges back on the couch, fantasizing what it would be like to be invited to a gay party—in every sense of the word “gay.”
That fantasy is the key to what both “The Piano” and “The Piano Movers” are really trying to express. Neither episode writes its themes in bold letters or parcels them out in big speeches. Instead, the message is encoded into the circumstance, the setting, and the performances. Steptoe And Son was often concerned with Harold’s aspirations to rise above his class, and the ways that Albert would keep him in check through some combination of emotional manipulation, public humiliation, and appeals to his son’s pride. In Sanford And Son, Fred similarly schemed and faked his way into holding Lamont down, but less because his son leaving would be a rebuke of everything he stands for (as was the worry in Steptoe) and more because he not-so-secretly liked having someone around to keep him company and do most of his work.
Whatever the subtle differences in the relationships between the Steptoes and the Sanfords, all four men share a dream of not having to scrounge so much to make a living. When each meets the piano owner, they’re impressed by the size and tastefulness of his home, and by the idea that he could be lounging around in a cozy-looking robe in the middle of the day. They want some of what this gentleman has, and so—metaphorically, at least—they try to take it in the form of this massive piece of furniture. Then they can’t even figure out how to fit it through the door.
This is a classic comedic concept, dating back to vaudeville and music hall: the notion of the working-class bumblers who have an awkward encounter with some swell. “The Piano” and “The Piano Movers” may remind comedy connoisseurs of the Laurel and Hardy short The Music Box, which has a similar story, but in reverse. There, the guys face the Herculean task of moving a piano in, by pushing it up a ridiculously long, steep, outdoor stairway. The symbolism works in the same way, though. The piano represents the impossibility of a couple of ordinary blokes ever getting ahead.
This was another way that Sanford And Son distinguished itself from All In The Family. The latter wasn’t about Archie Bunker wishing he were rich; it was about him defending what he had from the ethnic minorities and young folks he presumed were out to take it from him. In Sanford And Son, Fred was just as stubbornly set in his ways as Archie, but his curmudgeonliness was more generalized, aimed at everyone he considered a “dummy.” And while Archie was constantly at odds with his hippie son-in-law, in Sanford Lamont wearily took on the role of liaison between his dad and the rest of the world, if only to make sure that their business stayed afloat.
Harold in Steptoe And Son tries to play a similar part, except that he himself is almost as rough-hewn. There’s no real straight man in the Steptoe duo; they’re each kooky in their own way. That’s why “The Piano Movers” is able to get more comic mileage than “The Piano” out of the running joke of the rich man walking in just when the son is sitting down and the dad’s at work. When it keeps happening to Harold, it’s mildly amusing, but because he’s already something of an oddball it’s to be expected that a wealthy person would distrust him. It’s more hilariously unjust when the well-meaning Lamont keeps getting caught looking like a slack hustler exploiting his aging father.
It also matters that Lamont is black and his employer is white. The class differences in Steptoe are purposefully pronounced, but Sanford has the added wrinkle of race. It’s only directly addressed once in “The Piano Movers,” when Lamont asks if the man reads Ebony and then follows up with, “Why not? I read Life.” But throughout the episode there’s an unspoken expectation of deference that Lamont grudgingly accepts—despite being part of the Black Panther generation—and that Fred thrillingly defies. Albert Steptoe is antisocial because he’s eccentric. But Fred Sanford just doesn’t care what anyone thinks.
That’s another way that “The Piano” and “The Piano Movers” are like theater. For centuries, actors and directors have been reinterpreting the classics: moving Shakespeare to the modern day, say, or gender-swapping Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple. The changes reveal something about both the plays and the times in which they’re staged. The original Steptoe And Son episode is a finely cut little gem, with two terrific central performances from Harry Corbett as Harold and Wilfrid Brambell as Albert, and with a scenario that allows for some wry social commentary. That’s evident just in the way Harold assumes the authoritarian role when Albert arrives, putting his father through the same shoe-removing, antique-protecting rigamarole that he went through the first time he entered the apartment. In Sanford And Son though, Lamont watches as Fred gets put through his shoe-removing paces by the piano-owner. That dynamic has its own meaning: a black man letting some well-to-do white guy tell his dad what to do.
The main connection between “The Piano,” “The Piano Movers,” and theater is that great plays are transformed in every generation by the actors who perform them. Corbett and Brambell were masters, and duly beloved. But Redd Foxx was a comic force like no other. Demond Wilson makes for a sympathetic Lamont, but the big reason why his character is less comedic than Harold is that there was no way Wilson could compete with Foxx’s Fred Sanford. Foxx had impeccable timing, and a semi-dangerous screen presence, both born from years of shocking nightclub audiences with his raunchy stand-up routines.
In later Sanford And Son seasons, the show would move beyond Steptoe And Son and develop its own unique ensemble and attitude. And as often happens with sitcoms over time, the writing and performances would slacken, and rely more on catchphrases and mugging. But “The Piano Movers”—like “The Piano” before it—is so sharp that it could be revived today, with an all-new cast but most of the same lines and plot. Like the best art, it’s open to interpretation.
Next time… on A Very Special Episode: The Mickey Mouse Club, 2/11/58