After four decades, cameras rolled once again on the classic ’70s/’80s comedies, Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life, as part of ABC’s Live in Front of a Studio Audience tonight.
Airing live on the East Coast, the telecast unfolded smoothly, with no major line flubs and only a few uneven moments, which passed quickly. Soon-to-be-100-year-old TV legend Norman Lear, appearing with Jimmy Kimmel, who produced the third outing in the Live series, dropped an f-bomb that had to be bleeped. The curse word toward the top of the show seemed to be a staged, though amusing, element.
Before the main event, Deadline took a peek behind the curtain during Monday night’s rehearsal featuring an all-star cast of new players and plenty of surprise blast-from-the-past guest appearances.
The night’s star indisputably was Ann Dowd, who pulled double duty on both shows in the role of Edna Garrett. Garrett, originally played by the late Charlotte Rae, was the Drummond family’s housekeeper on Diff’rent Strokes before taking on the new role of housemother at the Eastland School in the spinoff, The Facts of Life.
Not only does Dowd capture Rae’s essence in every scene, she never broke character when cameras stopped rolling. She even earned the approval of the show’s original cast members Lisa Whelchel and Mindy Cohn, who opened Live with their rendition of the Facts of Life theme song. Kim Fields joined Whelchel and Cohn during the live performance but was absent during the rehearsals.
Mrs. Garrett didn’t get mad often, but when she does in Live in Front of a Studio Audience — in the re-telling of the Season 3 episode, “Kids Can Be Cruel ” — it proves difficult not to imagine her going all Aunt Lydia on Blair (Jennifer Aniston), Tootie (Gabrielle Union), Jo (Kathryn Hahn), and Natalie (Allison Tolman), who were reprimanded for being mean in a slam book.
Their cutthroat criticisms mainly were aimed toward Carl “Rocky” Price, a shy boy with a mouth full of metal braces played by Jon Stewart. And the ribbing increased when the guys from nearby Bates Academy arrived to help Eastland set up its charity box lunch auction.
Blair’s beau Dink Lockwood and his pal Tim Holyfield really didn’t care for Carl, and Mrs. Garrett wasn’t having any of it. Audiences might remember the actors who played Dink and Tim as they played brothers in Arrested Development: Will Arnett and Jason Bateman. Arnett and Bateman were inseparable even when the cameras ceased recording, a familiarity that comes from all their years of friendship.
Not even a pro like Stewart could keep from breaking character while interacting with the pair, especially as he struggled to enunciate his lines while wearing Rocky’s elaborate headgear.
But it was dear Carl who emerged as the victor by episode’s end, earning not only lunch with his crush Blair but also the satisfaction of knowing she found him interesting once she got beyond the surface. They don’t ride off into the sunset or anything, but it’s always nice to be reminded not to judge a book by its cover or you might miss out on a gem.
Mrs. Garrett headed back to the big city and the Park Avenue apartment she resided in for years for the second half of the show focused on Diff’rent Strokes. The production switch was heralded by a performance of the show’s theme song by Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman and Wanya Morris.
But before Kevin Hart made his big debut as pint-size Arnold Jackson — in superhero pajamas, no less — the last surviving main cast member from the original series, Todd Bridges, shared a warm appreciation to fans who continue to show love for their work after so many years while also remembering his series co-stars Rae, Gary Coleman, Conrad Bain, and Dana Plato.
Truth be told, Hart’s performance as the 8-year-old really gave Dowd a run for her top spot. In the reimagination of the Season 1 episode “Willis’ Privacy,” Arnold interacted often with his adoptive father Mr. Drummond (John Lithgow), including the scene-stealing moment he plonks down on Lithgow’s lap that was worthy of a comedy Emmy nomination.
Adding to the height disparity favoring the tall people was the surprise addition of Snoop Dogg in the role of Vernon, Willis’ best friend from Harlem. The pair are working on a photo project together and just can’t seem to get Arnold off their backs long enough to develop photos worthy of excellent marks.
Arnold’s constant need for Willis’ affections and the latter’s need for more privacy causes a rift that splits the room in half. But it would take more than a failed photo development to tear these sweet brothers apart.
Woven into the night were remakes of classic ’80s commercials featuring Jennifer Beals and Alfonso Ribeiro — a new element that wasn’t part of the first two Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials.
Before the lights go dark once more, both casts gathered around the Diff’rent Strokes living room to pay homage to legendary producer Norman Lear.
A replay of the special will be available via Hulu on Wednesday.
Dade Hayes contributed to this report.