• February 28, 2024

10 Best Black Sitcoms From the ’80s

These shows broke barriers and stereotypes.

An official image of the cast of The Jeffersons
Image via CBS

Black sitcoms, or rather sitcoms in general, have fallen to the wayside in the past decade. The reality TV craze that began with MTV’s Real World caught on like wildfire and before the world knew it, the sitcom was basically dead.

But the1980s was a golden era for the Black sitcom. What began in the ’70’s with the success of popular shows like Good Times, The Jefferons, and Sanford and Son spilled over to the next decade, bringing family friendly television entertainment that crossed racial barriers. The following shows were some of the decade’s best and most popular.

10 ‘Webster’ (1983-1987)

Emmanuel Lewis as Webster Long.
Image via ABC

Since its premiere, audiences fell in love with Webster. (Emmanuel Lewis). Orphaned at just five years old, Webster’s taken in by his father’s former NFL teammate George Papadopolous (Alex Karras) and his wife Katherine (Susan Clark) in this heartwarming sitcom.

In addition to the death of Webster’s parents, Webster covers several sensitive topics over its 150 episodes. Issues like divorce, custody, and parental kidnapping, Mature and lovable, Webster is wise beyond his years. Though the cast is racially mixed, Webster is still considered one of television’s best Black sitcoms.

9 ‘Gimme a Break’ (1981-1987)

Nell and the Kanisky kids on Gimme a Break.
Image via NBC

Gimme a Break stars Nell Carter as nanny Nell Harper. Nell helps her boss, Police Chief Carl Kanisky raise his three daughers Katie (Kari Michaelsen), Julie (Lauri Hendler), and Samantha (Lara Jill Miller) after the death of Carl’s wife.

The show got mixed reviews from critics but was a hit with viewers. Acting as a surrogate mom to the Kanisky girls, Nell is usually Katie, Julie, and Samantha’s first choice for advice. Still mourning the death of his wife, Carl relies heavily on Nell. Joey Lawrence joined the cast in Season 3 as 7-year-old Joey Donovan.

8 ‘Family Matters’ (1989-1998)

Steve Urkel and Carl Winslow in Family Matters.
Image via ABC

Winslow neighbor Steve Urkel (Jaleel White), known for his trademark suspenders, high wasted pants, and sweater vests, is the real star of Family Matters. Steve spends his time stalking his teenage crush Laura (Kelly Shanygne Willams) and annoying her father Carl.

A spinoff of Perfect Strangers, Family Matters co-star Jo Marie Payton as Harriet, acts as the voice of reason for her high-strung husband Carl. By the end of the series, Steve is featured prominently in most of the show’s episodes.

7 ‘227’ (1985-1990)

Mary Jenkins, Lester Jenkins and Sandra Clark in 227.
Image via NBC

Marla Gibbs of The Jeffersons fame stars as housewife Mary Jenkins in 227. Mary, her husband Lester (Hal Williams) and daughter Brenda (Regina King) share a Washington D.C. apt where Mary and her neighbor Rose (Alaina Reed Hall) spend their days on the apartment building stoop to share gossip.

Mary’s comedic interactions with her single neighbor Sandra (Jackée Harry) are a running theme on the show. Though Mary can be judgmental, 227 balances the antagonistic relationship with touching moments.

6 ‘Amen’ (1986-1991)

Casieta, Henrietta, Deacon Frye and Reverend Gregory on Amen.
Image via NBC

Longtime sitcom star Sherman Hemsley scored another hit as deacon Earnest Frye in the church-based all-black sitcom Amen. A widower, Hemsley is a single dad to adult daughter Thelma (Anna Maria Horsford).

Most episodes of Amen revolve around Philadelphia’s First Community Church, where Earnest is constantly at odds with the church’s new young pastor Reverent Ruben Gregory (Clifton Davis). It doesn’t help that Thelma has a not-so-secret crush on Reverend Gregory.

5 ‘Different Strokes’ (1978-1986)

The cast of Different Strokes.
Image via NBC

Orphaned brothers Arnold (Gary Coleman) and Willis Jackson (Todd Bridges), who are black, are taken in by their mother’s wealthy white former boss Phillip Drummond (Conrad Bain) after Arnold and Willis’ mother unexpectedly passes away. A common storyline among black sitcoms at the time.

Different Strokes handles controversial issues like racism, drugs and Phillip’s daughter Kimberly’s (Dana Plato) eating disorder delicately. Though technically a sitcom, Different Strokes often has the feel of watching an afterschool special.

4 A Different World (1987-1993)

Ron, Whitney and Dwayne on A Different World.
Image via NBC

A Different World follows the lives of African-American college students as they make the transition to adulthood at the predominantly black Hillman College. A spin-off of The Cosby Show, A Different World is a realistic look at what life is like at an HBCU. Something overlooked in Black sitcoms.

From diverse backgrounds, Denise, her roommate Jaleesa (Dawnn Lewis), southern bell Whitney (Jasmine Guy), streetsmart Dwayne (Kadeem Hardison), and his best friend Ron (Darryl M. Bell) navigate a world different from their own in this relatable sitcom.

3 ‘Benson’ (1979-1986)

The cast of Benson.
Image via ABC

Benson DuBois (Robert Guillaume) is sent to work as the widowed Governor Eugen Gatling’s (James Noble) butler by Benson’s previous employer. Cultured and quick-witted, Benson often spars with the governor’s other staff, and most always gets the last word.

Despite being the help, Benson asserts himself as a man of wisdom and is frequently sought out for advice. Guillaume’s portrayal of Benson is not only relatable but endearing as he helps Governor Gatling balance life as a politician and as a single father to his daughter Katie (Missy Gold).

2 ‘The Cosby Show’ (1984-1992)

The cast of The Cosby Show.
Image via NBC

When The Cosby Show premiered in 1984, audiences got to see what life is really like behind the closed doors of an upper-middle-class Black family in Brooklyn. The family patriarch Cliff (Bill Cosby) works as an obstetrician out of his home office while his wife Clair (Phylicia Rashad) works as an attorney.

Parents of five, Cliff and Clair mix humor with the real-life struggles of balancing work and parenting their children Sondra (Sabrina LeBeuf), Denise (Lisa Bonet), Theo (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), Vanessa (Tempestt Bledsoe), and Rudy (Keisha Knight Pulliam) in a way that resonated with viewers then and now. This is an undeniably historic show whose legacy is sadly marred by the tarnished reputation of its star.

1 ‘The Jeffersons’ (1975-1985)

An official image of the cast of The Jeffersons
Image via CBS

The Jeffersons is a sitcom about a self-made millionaire and his family who move to a penthouse on the Upper East Side of New York City. As the owners of a dry cleaning chain, George (Sherman Hemsley), Louise (Isabel Sanford), and their son Lionel (Mike Evans) literally live the high life.

Audiences tuned in week after week to watch the comedic interactions of the Jefferson family, their neighbors, and closest friends, Tom (Franklin Cover) and Helen Willis (Roxie Roker). A mix of laughs, reflection, and life lessons made The Jeffersons a must-see.

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