Well, they're movin' on up again. Suddenly, The Jeffersons are everywhere. They're back in prime time five nights a week with highly rated reruns on Nick at Nite. They're doing guest shots on shows ranging from ABC's The Hughleys to CBS' Martial Law. They're popping up in Old Navy, Lipton Brisk, and 10-10-345 commercials. And they were recently honored with the closing-night tribute at the Museum of Television & Radio's prestigious William S. Paley festival in L.A. What's with this Jeffersonian renaissance?
''It's hard to say, brother,'' shrugs Sherman Hemsley, relaxing backstage after reuniting with his costars and the show's creative team at the festival. ''I can't figure it out myself. But it feels good.''
In 1975, Hemsley's scrappy bantamweight George Jefferson and his patience-of-a-saint wife, Weezy (Isabel Sanford), left All in the Family's Queens neighborhood behind for the posh Upper East Side and spun off into their own CBS sitcom. Despite no fewer than 15 time-slot shifts, The Jeffersons was a ratings contender for 11 seasons, reaching as high as No. 3 in the Nielsens. Yet the show never really received the recognition it deserved, winning only two Emmys one for Sanford, one for editing. Hemsley has a theory why the series was overlooked by the TV industry: ''There were a lot of big-name people on shows then Donny and Marie, Sonny and Cher and we were unknowns. We were a show that beat everybody out, and I don't think they appreciated it too much.''
Only now are people beginning to wise up. Maybe that's because, unlike All in the Family, which is filled with now-dated topical references, the comedy of The Jeffersons is timeless. Observes Norman Lear, who produced both shows: ''Funny is funny, and undeniable performers will be undeniable in any time and any clime. Hemsley and Isabel Sanford and Marla Gibbs [as back-talking maid Florence Johnston] are just great comic performers.''
But The Jeffersons was more than just funny. Its portrayal of a well-to-do African-American family was groundbreaking. ''Why is Bill Cosby getting all the credit?'' complained Sanford on the Paley festival panel. The scripts were unafraid to raise issues of race and class or to drop the N-word like a comic H-bomb (no wonder Chris Rock is an avowed fan). ''There are things we did then that we could never do now,'' admitted writer Michael Moye, who knows a bit about pushing the envelope, having followed up his work on The Jeffersons by cocreating Married...With Children. Agrees Lear: ''There's a degree of political correctness now that chokes the humor.''
How did they get away with it? It was all due to the power of Lear, whose amazing track record (All in the Family, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times) allowed him to insist, for example, that the Jeffersons' neighbors Tom and Helen Willis (Franklin Cover and Roxie Roker) share a passionate interracial kiss in the pilot. Says Lear, ''We were successful, and nobody f---s with success.''