The Jeffersons: A Look Back At “The N Word” In Prime Time

“The insult was ni**er and the people were klansmen.”

March 23rd, 2017 – A television sitcom that spans 11 seasons will often deal with controversial issues, and The Jeffersons not only did so but chose to do it in a way that might not fly on networks today. During their seventh season, creator Norman Lear tackled the KKK, CPR and the N…word. “Sorry, Wrong Meeting” premiered in 1981 and found successful, opinionated George Jefferson winding up in a KKK meeting with klansmen. In minute seven, the word “nigger” is used, and by the end of the episode when George saves the klansman’s life, “the n-word” has been used four times.

As a spin-off from All in the Familythe show set the tone early on as a groundbreaking series – it was the first to prominently feature a married interracial couple. Its parent series also blazed a trail by using the n-word in an episode where George’s son is marrying a woman whose parents are an interracial couple. Being a lovable bigot (much like his neighbor Archie Bunker), George says with a little more fighting the white husband will be calling the black wife “nigger.”

The Jeffersons: A Look Back At "The N Word"
All in the Family

But in “Sorry, Wrong Meeting,” The Jeffersons deals with race in a nuanced but also no sugar coating manner. The episode begins with Louise and Florence (George’s wife and maid) going to a CPR class while George and Tom discuss the string of burglaries in their building. The women get verbally attacked by a father-son klansmen duo in the class. The instructor wants them to practice CPR on the dummy doll the women had just used, and the father replies with We don’t touch anything that’s been kissed by a nigger.” 

The Jeffersons: A Look Back At "The N Word"
The Jeffersons – CPR class showdown

George’s neighbor, Tom, runs into the father-son team in the elevator and misinterprets their talk about the black women for anger and fear regarding the break-ins. He agrees to go to a meeting, which he believes is a building watch effort to stop crime. When George shows up at the meeting, too, confusion turns to hate when the father says The scum we’re trying to get out of this building is you, boy.”

As arguments get heated, the father grabs his left arm and collapses. Since George knows CPR, he begrudgingly walks over and begins performing CPR on the man after having just heard his son say Take that foreigner and your nigger loving friend of yours with you.”

The Jeffersons: A Look Back At "The N Word"
The Jeffersons – unexpected KKK meeting

Ultimately, the father is saved by George, but the fact that a black man breathed the life back into him makes the father wish that he would have died. “He saved me life? You should have let me die.” Not to be outdone, when George is told he breathed life back into the man he responds with “Hm. I should have inhaled.” The klansman son is the one who has the “learning moment” in the episode when he ends up being the only person left in the meeting. After another member begs him to stay with “the white race has got to stick together,” he rips up the flyer and leaves the room.

The episode uses some familiar and subtle tactics to put its characters in situations where they’re forced to address harsh realities. Sometimes it’s easy for them to make a joke about a slur. Sometimes their own bigotry gets called out. Sometimes they highlight how similar people’s views sound when you strip down outwardly appearances – similar to the black jeopardy sketch SNL did last fall.

But it’s the boldness in using the n-word that makes it stand apart from sitcoms airing today. Even in many re-runs, the word is bleeped today and shows, such as Black-ish, also bleep the word when addressing its use.

How do you think “Sorry, Wrong Meeting” would be received if it were to air today? Does the character’s race determine whether or not they can say it and does using it give way to more honest discussion? Watch the episode below and give us your thoughts.

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