Everything old is new again, as fan-favorite 1980s sitcoms Diff’rent Strokes and its spinoff, The Facts of Life become the next shows to be featured on ABC’s third round of Live in Front of a Studio Audience.
The first two live specials, which aired back in 2019, featured reproductions of episodes from producer Norman Lear‘s classics All in the Family, Good Times, and The Jeffersons . Cast members, including Kevin Bacon, Marisa Tomei, Woody Harrelson, Viola Davis, and Jamie Foxx, helped bring in big ratings and (so far) three Emmy awards.
The third installment is bringing more recognizable names to memorable roles like Diff’rent Strokes’ Arnold Drummond (to be played by Kevin Hart) his brother Willis (Damon Wayans), and On The Facts of Life, Blair Warner (Jennifer Aniston), and Jo Polniczek (Kathryn Hahn) as well as a surprise role for Jon Stewart.
While the episodes they’ll be reenacting are under wraps until show night, Tuesday, December 7, executive producers Norman Lear and Brent Miller talked to TV Insider about everything from their memories of the series to how they choose which installments to feature.
Issues have changed over the years and what’s funny then might not be funny now, so tell me how Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life will pertain to audiences today?
Brent Miller: The way it pertains to today is a good time. Everyone is going to have a good time, the actors on stage and the audience at home, and we intentionally chose these episodes for that reason. We’ve come off a couple rough years and we really wanted to lighten things up and just have a good time.
Having such fond memories of both shows, is it always hard to pick the episodes or is it fairly easy?
Miller: It’s not easy.
Norman Lear: It’s an embarrassment of riches.
Miller: Ultimately we think about what is it that we want to present to the audience on this particular special. And as I said, this one, we wanted to present a good time. So we start with that. And also, as Jimmy [Kimmel, executive producer] has said, we started with the fact that Kevin Hart was going to play Arnold and took off from there.
Since this is the third special and the first two did very well, has casting gotten easier?
Lear: Well, the actors are attracted to the history and the excitement of doing something before a live audience because that isn’t happening a lot now. And for me, I don’t know anything in theater, more exciting than shooting a show for a live audience.
LIVE IN FRONT OF A STUDIO AUDIENCE – Key Art. (ABC)
Tell me about that first table read and what was it like once you got these people together and these characters came to life through them?
Miller: I loved it. I was a little nervous about the conceit and I just went with it. At the end of the day, when you saw that table read and everyone starts reading, their instincts were spot on. It was the perfect way to go with these two episodes.
Norman, both Diff’rent Stroke and The Facts of Life were focused on young people when your earlier hits were very adult. What are your memories of both shows?
Lear: It started with a pilot that didn’t work really, Little Rascals. And it wasn’t picked up. I saw it after it had been filmed since I really had very little to do with the other part of the company that made it. And I saw this little guy, Gary Coleman, of course. And I said, “Get that kid” and they brought him back [for Diff’rent Strokes] because it was so clear that this little guy should be on the tube. That’s how all of that began.
For this year’s Live show, how long is the rehearsal before Tuesday’s night’s performance?
Miller: A couple days. I kid you not. The first time they all met each other was on Wednesday. The Facts of Life on Thursday was when Diff’rent Strokes met each other. Friday they’ll all see each other and then it’s literally Sunday, Monday, Tuesday there’s rehearsal.
Lear: Those actors are total pros. You have to be in order to do what they’re going to accomplish in a couple of days.
Miller: As is our director, Jimmy Burrows.
Lear: Jimmy Burrows, yes!
How are the actors told to prepare outside of reading the scripts themselves? Are they encouraged to go back and watch old episodes?
Miller: It’s not a prerequisite. We encourage them to have some creative freedom to bring the character that they want to bring to the screen. They all know the shows as we all do but they don’t have to mimic and become who that character is if they don’t want to. Very much like how Jamie Foxx was more Sherman Hemsley than Woody Harrison was Carroll O’Connor. He brought his own Carroll O’Connor, his own Archie to it.
2019’s LIVE special with (l-r) Anthony Anderson, Wanda Sykes, Marisa Tomei and Jamie Foxx (ABC/Eric McCandless)
There are other shows that you guys haven’t touched on yet. Of course you don’t have to go chronologically, but you know, my mind goes to One Day At a Time and Maude. Are those shows in your eyesight?
Lear: What do you think? [Laughs]
In the past Live shows, the scripts were not edited. Is that the same this time around?
Miller: You’re quite right.
I know you have some great talent in the show this year. Anyone standing out early on?
Lear: They all stand out.
Miller: They really do.
Lear: But when you have somebody with reputation and the history of Jennifer Aniston in a role, of course, there’s a little more spotlight on her because she brings her history to the role.
Live in Front of a Studio Audience, Special Premiere, Tuesday, December 7, 8/7c, ABC