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Scratchin’ and Survivin’: Hustle Economics, Gender Politics, and Creative Dissent in the Black Sitcoms of Tandem Productions (1972-1975)


“Scratchin’ and Survivin’: Agency and Resilience through Hustle Economics, Gender, and Dis-sent in the Black Sitcoms of Tandem Productions (1972-1975) explores the production history and the representation of racial identity formation in the all-Black casted sitcoms of Tandem Productions: Sanford and Son (1972-1977), Good Times (1974-1979), and The Jeffersons (1975-1985). The popularity of these sitcoms, and the numerous themes discussed throughout the series, show a compelling shift in viewing styles and influences during the 1970s. The production of these sitcoms called for various forms of creative agency and labor resilience that transformed the television industry and I wish to call attention to the Black artists, writers, etc. who were all a part of these transformative acts.

My dissertation puts the production history of Tandem Productions into conversation with textual analyses of particular episodes of its Black sitcoms, not only to discuss specific themes (such as, “hustle economics,” gender, and dissent) that addressed the state of Black Americans in the 1970s, but to chronicle the agency and resilience of Tandem’s Black artists, and to reveal shifts in the practices and content of the larger American television industry. Through my analyses, I argue that we must read the representations of the Black community in these sitcoms beyond the often-popular discussions of their “stereotyping” and “buffoonery.” Rather, it is crucial to read them from the perspective of the intertextual narratives of the show’s stars and creative talent who represented Black agency and resilience within an established racial and social order, and to read them as a response to temporal national politics. This project attempts to better understand and provide dimension on the impact that these sitcoms had in popular culture and on television. Particularly, the research draws attention to the artistic struggles between Black actors, Black writers, and Tandem Productions executives, in order to illuminate the complex history of an independent production company heralded for its advances in depicting Black American life in a comedic fashion. The dissertation uses the personal papers of Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, and examines production documents and budgets, viewer letters, contracts, interviews, original scripts, important events in national and Black politics, and popular magazine coverage of the shows with two goals: first, to create a history that better addresses Tandem Production’s politics of representation; and second, to discuss why and how the company initiated and deployed the rise of Black cultural representation in network sitcoms.

In order to address a production history of Tandem in conversation with analyses of particular episodes of its Black sitcoms, I also research the writers of particular episodes of the series; Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. I focused particularly on Black writers who used their primetime platform to respond to national, social, and political issues. The main episodic themes that I will be following through these three Black sitcoms are: “hustle economics” (the specifically racialized ways in which Black community members engage with informal or sometimes illegal economies), Black gender politics (the historical and cultural traditions that construct the formation of gender roles in Black families), Black artist’s dissent with White executives, and protest (engagement with topical political issues, electoral politics, and Black activism). My aim is to understand the politics of representation of Tandem as a whole and how the Black artists involved with each show added to the company’s production culture and to demonstrate that Sanford and Son, Good Times, and The Jeffersons are all important to the developmental arc of racial formation and Blackness in network television.

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