Good Times to Future Cop, the amazing journey of John Amos… The robots of law enforcement… My defense of Norman Lear… And so much more

I don’t know that it changes anything, but I wonder if the folks behind the statue of Robocop, which will soon be staring-down the citizens of Detroit, know that he wasn’t the first robot to wear a badge… No, a full decade before officer Alex Murphy became Robocop, there was officer Gregory Yoyonivich, breaking down barriers for all those who would follow, like an electronic Jackie Robinson. Granted, they’re a little different, as Murphy was a cyborg, and Yoyonivich was an android, but I still think that it’s worth noting that Robocop, while perhaps the most deadly of his kind, was not the first to pursue a career in law enforcement. Here, for those of you unaware of Yoyonivich and his accomplishments, is a brief clip from a documentary entitled Holmes & Yo-Yo.

And, yes, this is apparently how I’m spending my Saturday evening… scurrying around the internet like a chipmunk on meth in search of information on the 1976 production of Holmes & Yo-Yo, and the almost identical show, Future Cop, which came out just a year later on the exact same network (ABC). Here, for the masochists in the audience, is a little of that one as well.

I almost didn’t share that video from Future Cop, as it made me incredibly sad for the actors involved – Oscar-winner Earnest Borngine, and John Amos, whom I’ve had a fondness for since the very first time I saw the show Good Times. It particularly stung to see Amos subjected to this, as it must have been his first acting job after being fired from Good Times for complaining about the increasingly trivial nature of the show… Good Times, as you may recall, in spite of the fact that it had originally been conceived of as vehicle for the somewhat serious exploration of life in the projects, had taken off in the ratings thanks to the buffoonery of Jimmie Walker, the actor portraying the oldest of the three children in the family… Amos, along with Esther Rolle, who played his wife on the show, complained vociferously, demanding that the producers and writers focus less on Jimmie’s character, J.J. “Kid Dy-No-Mite” Evans, which had been evolving into something that they found offensive, and more on the plight of the hard-working family struggling to make ends meet in Chicago’s Cabrini–Green. And, in return, Amos was asked not to return for the third season. Then, to add insult to injury, he apparently took a job as “the black friend” on Future Cop who couldn’t figure out that something was amiss with his fellow police officer, who could quote obscure local ordinances verbatim and run faster than a car full of bank robbers.

I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit it, but, as a kid, I loved the television show Good Times. I can’t recall exactly what it was about the show that I loved, but I know I was crazy about it. It may have been the time slot more than anything else. I remember very distinctly that it was on in the afternoon at my grandmother’s house, and that it was the only thing worth watching until later in evening, when Hogan’s Heroes, Get Smart and You Bet Your Life came on. I’d sit in front of the television, on the brown and gold linoleum, playing jacks, and laughing my ass off. It was, at least in my ten year old mind, the perfect expression of the art form known as situation comedy. I’m not positive, but I think that, in addition to just loving J.J., I understood and appreciated the fact that they were bringing real issues – like child abuse, prostitution, and drug addiction – into the living rooms of America. At least I’d like to think that I wasn’t just laughing at J.J.’s ever escalating antics.

In my 20s, I’d come to see it a bit differently. My cynicism grew, and, with it, my opinion changed about what had been my favorite television show. I’d started to suspect that all the stuff that I’d seen as socially important was, in actuality, just window dressing which allowed producers to lampoon the lives of poor, inner city blacks, as personified by the show’s breakout star, the aforementioned Jimmie “J.J.” Walker. (note: As I write this, my cherished J.J. doll is looking down on me from his home above my desk.) Sure, in the background, there would be a plot line about how, for instance, the food sold to the inner-city poor was more expensive and of lesser quality than that sold in the suburbs, but, what I came to realize is that it didn’t really matter. That stuff was interchangeable. The best current day analogy I can think of is NBC’s hit series To Catch A Predator. It’s sold as a meaningful exploration of the threats which face young people in this country, and the abnormal desires that motivate the pedophiles who target them, but, in truth, people just want to see folks walk into traps, make up ridiculous excuses, and go to prison. It has zero to do with making kids safer, or trying to understand the motivations of pedophiles so that they can be helped, and everything to do with ad sales.

And my perspective has continued to evolve as I’ve grown older. Now, I think the truth is likely somewhere in between. I think Norman Lear and his team likely really did want to make a meaningful series, and introduce middle America to some of the things that were taking place in the inner city, but, at the end of the day, they had to find a way to make it economically viable. And I think they deserve credit for finding a way, within the sitcom model, to push the existing boundaries. (And Lear didn’t just do this with Good Times. He also, as some of you will recall, brought breast cancer and abortion into primetime with Maude, and any number of other taboo subjects with All in the Family.) Sure, it wasn’t perhaps the most serious presentation of the subject matter, but at least he planted the seed. So, while I can certainly see why Amos and Rolle might be pissed that valuable screen time was taken up by J.J. attempting to seduce his female classmates by way of the family telephone, I know that, as the audience grew, so too did the ability to reach more people. And I suspect that, if not for Good Times, I may not have gone on to seek out Soul on Ice and The Autobiography of Malcolm X… As with everything else in life, there was a trade-off that needed to be made. Maybe Lear didn’t walk the line perfectly, but I think you could argue that, in the case of Good Times, when taken as a whole, the positive outweighed the negative.

With that said, I can totally see where Esther Rolle was coming from in 1975, one year into the show’s run, when she said the following to a writer for Ebony. “He’s eighteen and he doesn’t work,” Rolle said of the J.J. character. “He can’t read or write. He doesn’t think. The show didn’t start out to be that… Little by little — with the help of the artist, I suppose, because they couldn’t do that to me — they have made J.J. more stupid, and enlarged the role. Negative images have been slipped in on us through the character of the oldest child.”

With that said, though, here’s one last interesting factoid. Rolle agreed to come back for a fourth season only if producers agreed to make J.J. more responsible, which they did. And, the more responsible J.J. became, the less people watched… until the show was eventually cancelled.

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11 Comments

  1. Kevin Halsted
    Posted September 21, 2013 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    “A documentary entitled Holmes & Yo-Yo.” If only it were so.

  2. Posted September 21, 2013 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    OMG I LOVED Good Times! One summer, some channel showed a three-fer of The Jeffersons, Sanford & Son and Good Times from 11:30-1:00am and guess who watched it almost every night?

    It has come to my attention that there is some confusion over the lyrics at the beginning. An episode of the Chappelle Show (great show) said the last bit said “hangin in a chow line” but I’ve actually looked into this and it is, in fact, “hangin out and jivin'” (which definitely rhymes with the previous line “scratchin and survivin”). There is no argument that the closing song begins, “Just lookin out of the window, watchin the asphalt grow, thinkin about how it all looks hand-me-down.”

    By the way, if you happen to catch JJ live, do not ask him to say “dy-no-mite”…he gets really irritated.

  3. fast n furious
    Posted September 21, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Laugh it up. Shows like Holmes and YoYo and Future Cop were placed on ABC by the government as part of their plan to acclimate us to loveable androids in positions of power. It is happening. The plan is coming to fruition. First they’ll be in the prisons. Then they’ll be walking among us.

  4. anonymous
    Posted September 21, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    There was also Hymie the robot from Get Smart.

    http://getsmart.wikia.com/wiki/Hymie

  5. dragon
    Posted September 21, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    Good Times, as you may recall

    Yes, I remember.
    Love was changing the mind of pretenders
    While chasing the clouds aways

  6. Posted September 22, 2013 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    If nothing else, Good Times led you to the Autobiography of Malcolm X. Now there is a role model.

  7. Elliott
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Michael “the militant midget” Evans was the better brother.

  8. Elviscostello
    Posted September 22, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

    Next to All in the Family, Norman Lear’s greatest show was, by far, Fernwood 2night! The brilliance of Martin Mull, Fred Willard and Frank DeVol was a harbinger of where talk shows would go. Letterman, Conan, Fallon and Kimmel should kiss the rings of those guys!

  9. Art
    Posted September 23, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    Life imitates art. Borgnine comes back as a future cop.

    http://i.imgur.com/aPyDpXh.jpg

  10. The Face of Terror
    Posted September 24, 2013 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    That’s nothing. Prepare yourselves for the real Earnest Borgnine.

    http://imgur.com/MoDMIHG

  11. Posted September 24, 2013 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad you didn’t name your son J.J.

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