US comedy series originating from characters created on the sitcom Maude.
133 episodes of 30 minute duration. CBS. 1974-79.
'Good Times' was an ironic title for a situation comedy that dealt with a low-income African-American family in Chicago's housing projects, where unemployment, crime and illegal temptations abounded.
But 'Good Times' was rare for its time because it showed a black family with traditional parents, who instilled good values into their children. It was only when the show veered off course and started becoming more of a cartoon that the "Good Times"--literally and figuratively--came to an end.
Esther Rolle had played maid Florida Evans for two seasons on producer Norman Lear's Maude (which itself was spun off from All In The Family) when she left the Findlay household in the spring of 1974. Originally, CBS wanted Florida to be a single mother raising three kids on her own. But she put her foot down and demanded that she have a husband. As created by Eric Monte (who lived in the Chicago projects himself), Florida and husband James (John Amos) shared an apartment with their three children: young social activist Michael (Ralph Carter); teenage daughter Thelma (BernNadette Stanis); and oldest son James Jr. (otherwise known as J.J. and played by young comic Jimmy Walker). Living next door to the Evans family was the liberated and single Willona Woods (Ja'net DuBois). Strangely enough, Amos' character was named Henry when he appeared occasionally on Maude as Florida's husband; why his name was changed to James for Good Times remains unclear.
Like most Lear shows of the period, Good Times was filled with topical issues such as government policy on blacks and the poor; teenage sex; unemployment, drugs and such. When the show began in February 1974, it was unique in showing a credible lower-income family trying to hang on. Rolle and Amos were parents who kept order in the family despite circumstances beyond their control. As for the kids, Thelma was your typical teenage girl, more concerned about boys than studies, while young Michael was more apt to take a liberal to radical viewpoint on problems that affected the Evans family. (Michael was sometimes more adult than the adults who surrounded him.) But it was J.J. who became the show's secret weapon, thanks in part to Walker's sharp comic delivery. He was portrayed as not being a good student (he always tried to find a quick scheme to get the Evans' out of a financial hole) and popular with the ladies. And on the second episode of Good Times came the words that made the J.J. character immortal in American television trivia: After a run-in with the police, he announced that the cops were in trouble "when they realized they were dealing with Kid Dyn-O-Mite!"
That phrase--"Dyn-O-Mite"--soon found itself into every episode, because it guaranteed a laugh from the live studio audience that watched the taping (not to mention the TV audience). Soon, the writers began shifting the show's emphasis away from the other characters to J.J.--a move that would have damaging consequences down the road. But for the present, Good Times lived up to its name: The critics liked the show, and so did the audience--who made it a top-20 staple for two straight seasons.
By the fall of 1975, however, the antics of J.J. and his growing airtime were beginning to grate on the rest of the cast--especially John Amos and Esther Rolle, who felt the character of James Evans Junior was not a good one for impressionable viewers. The boiling point came with an article in "Ebony" magazine (a major publication aimed at African-Americans), that depicted "Bad Times on 'Good Times'", complete with complaints from the show's leads. Rolle said she resented the image "that says to black kids that you can make it by standing on the corner saying 'Dyn-O-Mite'! (J.J. is) eighteen and he doesn't work. He can't read or write. The show didn't start out to be that. Little by little...they have made J.J. more stupid....Negative images have been quietly slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child". Walker chose to ignore the complaints, saying he was "a comic who lucked into a good thing".
That luck was starting to run out by the end of the 1975-76 season. Amos was released from his contract, in part because of his criticism of the show, both behind the scenes and in the media. (He would go on to other acting jobs, including a role in the landmark miniseries Roots, and a recurring role as a Colin Powell-like military figure on The West Wing.) The writers killed James off in an auto accident; he had landed a job as a mechanic in Mississippi and the rest of the family was set to join him there, to start a new life. James' death left Florida to raise three kids on her own--which didn't sit well with Rolle, who never wanted to be depicted as a "single mom". Black groups also protested the loss of one of the few African-American comedies with a two-parent family. The writers continued to rely on J.J. more than ever, but viewers began to tune out. Producers decided to bring a permanent male figure back to the show; to that end, Florida began dating appliance shop owner Carl Dixon (Moses Gunn). The goal was to have the two marry and have Carl run the household. But Rolle quit the show before that happened, calling it "a matter of black pride, not pique". Rolle remained unhappy with the J.J. character, one reason she decided to leave.
To explain her departure in the fall of 1977, the writers had Florida marry Carl during the summer, with the two moving to Arizona for his health (he was diagnosed with lung cancer in the final episode of the previous season). It was no solution to the show's core problems; in fact, it just made things worse because the three Evans children were left alone with no parents at all, forcing J.J. to become the head of the household and having neighbor Willona become a surrogate mom to the clan. (Willona herself became a parent that season by adopting Penny Gordon, a young girl who was a victim of child abuse. Penny was played by a young Janet Jackson, who was acting before setting out on a very successful recording career.) The changes didn't help, the show's ratings continued to fall.
In the fall of 1978, Rolle was lured back to the show for more money and a promise of creative control--which included taming down J.J.'s antics. Her return proved to be too little, too late; the former top-10 comedy was scraping the bottom of the ratings. CBS canned Good Times in 1979, but at least the network allowed the producers to tie things up once and for all. In the final episode (August 1, 1979), Thelma--by now married to football player Keith Anderson (Ben Powers)--announced that Keith won a contract with the Chicago Bears. Plus, Thelma found out she was pregnant. J.J. sold his comic strip "Dyn-o-Man" and moved to an apartment; Michael moved into a college dorm; Florida was invited to live with Keith and Thelma in their new luxury condominium. As for Willona, she and adopted daughter Penny announced they were moving too--next door to Keith, Thelma and Florida! Good Times' gospel-like theme song was written by Dave Grusin and Alan Bergman.
For all its faults, Good Times still broke important ground by giving American television viewers a rare look at a nuclear black family. Its success did pave the way for more African-American family comedies, including The Cosby Show, 227; Family Matters and others. But as author Robin R. Means Coleman wrote, "J.J.'s wider popularity became a signal that ridicule and the buffoon were still the tried and true representational formulas to fall back on when creating African American representations". Three decades after Good Times first hit the airwaves, that debate continues to rage.
Questions Site Information Contact
Return to Top of Page