Stream It Or Skip It: ‘The Facts Of Life / Diff’rent Strokes Live’ On ABC, Where Two More Norman Lear Classics Get The Live Treatment

After taking a pandemic-induced break, Norman Lear and Jimmy Kimmel returned to staging live renditions of Lear’s classic sitcoms on December 7. This time around, two late-’70s/early-’80s hits, The Facts Of Life and Diff’rent Strokes, were given the live treatment, with a cast full of 40-, 50- and 60-something actors instead of teens and kids. Did the stunt casting work?


The Gist: The third live broadcast of two classic Norman Lear sitcoms started auspiciously enough, with the 99-year-old national treasure sitting next to fellow executive producer Jimmy Kimmel. When Kimmel mentions to the World War II vet that they were broadcasting on Pearl Harbor Day, Lear decides to drop an f-bomb, which gets bleeped out.

Lisa Whelchel, in Blair Warner’s old Eastland uniform, sings the familiar theme to The Facts Of Life, and Mindy Cohn and Kim Fields join Whelchel on stage to introduce the episode (Nancy McKeon did not appear and was not mentioned, for some reason). The episode being recreated is “Kids Can Be Cruel”, from the show’s third season. The girls are getting ready for a boxed-dinner auction, led by Mrs. Garrett (Ann Dowd). Blair (Jennifer Aniston) hopes to get the dreamy Dink Lockwood (Will Arnett) to win the bid on her French-themed box, Jo (Kathryn Hahn) makes sure to make her dinner box as unappealing as possible, and Tootie (Gabrielle Union) is there to make her usual trenchant 12-year-old side remarks.

Natalie (Allison Tolman) has a crush on quarterback Tim Hollifield (Jason Bateman). When Blair reveals to Tim what Natalie anonymously wrote about him in a “slam book”, Natalie gets back at her by telling Carl “Rocky” Price (Jon Stewart), a headgear-wearing nerd that both Tim and Dink make fun of, which box is Blair’s. When Carl outbids Dink, and Blair is horrified, Mrs. G has to remind all of the girls that making fun of a “nice boy” like Carl and using him like Natalie did hurts him more than anyone else.

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The Diff’rent Strokes episode that was recreated was “Willis’ Privacy” from Season 1, with Todd Bridges introducing the segment and Shawn Stockman and Wanya Morris from Boyz II Men singing the theme song. In the episode, Willis (Damon Wayans) gets increasingly angry with Arnold (Kevin Hart) for getting in his way and not giving him any space. Mr. Drummond (John Lithgow) and Mrs. G (Dowd) try to make peace between the two, but things come to a head when Arnold’s antics ruin photos Willis is developing for a project he’s doing with his buddy Vernon (Snoop Dogg).

Willis and Arnold try to split their room in half, then Willis decides to go to stay at Vernon’s apartment in Harlem, not knowing if he’s going to come back. Arnold is so distraught that he’s on the outs with his brother, he turns to God for help.

Photo: Christopher Willard/ABC

What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The other two Live In Front Of A Studio Audience specials, of course, though this one succeeded for a very different reason than the first two did. See more below.

Performance Worth Watching: Ann Dowd was the actor who most completely embodied the role she was given. In fact, darned if she didn’t just sound like Charlotte Rae did 40 years ago, but she looked like her, too.

Memorable Dialogue: Kevin Hart and Damon Wayans had fun with it, making ad libs like Willis saying to Arnold, “You look like you’re 45 but you’re only a kid,” and Arnold telling Mrs. G, “I don’t want your damn soup!” The best one was the last line of the episode, where Arnold gets into bed with Willis and says to him, “Why does Vernon always smell like weed?”

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Sex and Skin: None.

Our Take: We were extremely skeptical about the casting of this special, given that the actors playing the girls at Eastland and the Jackson brothers were nearly as old as the surviving actors that originated the roles. Why not just have them play the roles if you were going to cast middle-aged adults? But Kimmel actually made a genius move casting the event the way he did, and not just because of the level of stars that he crammed into the show.

With this casting, Kimmel basically blocked viewers from comparing the actors to the role’s originators, which was ingrained in viewers during the first two iterations of this special. There’s no way you’re going to compare how a 49-year-old like Union does Tootie compared to how Fields did the role when she was 13. This also allowed the actors to interpret the roles in ways they felt comfortable with instead of trying to do an impression of the original performance.

Strangely enough, the guys upstaged the women in the Facts Of Life episode, mainly because everyone but Hahn played their roles relatively straight — Union essentially made Tootie into a world-weary fortysomething, despite sporting braces. Hahn got the idea with Jo, making her close to maniacal instead of just tough and standoffish. But the entire episode was stolen by Arnett, Bateman and especially Stewart, who hasn’t acted since the infamous film Death To Smoochy almost 20 years ago. He was hilarious as the sheepish but respectful and intelligent Carl, and when he was insulted by everyone, we actually went “awww” when he dejectedly shuffled off-screen.

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The Diff’rent Strokes episode was more successful because Hart and Wayans just let loose. And, like in the original series, the physical moments always outshined the actual jokes; who didn’t guffaw at the site of Lithgow picking up the 42-year-old Hart and carrying him across the kitchen or seeing Hart sitting in Lithgow’s lap? It made us forget just how simplistic the original episode was, how neatly the story ended and the fact that Kimberly wasn’t even on it.

Our Call: STREAM IT. Live In Front Of A Studio Audience: The Facts Of Life/Diff’rent Strokes succeeded because it doesn’t even try to come close to the way the original episodes were staged. Everyone had fun with embodying the iconic roles they were given, and it showed.

Joel Keller (@joelkeller) writes about food, entertainment, parenting and tech, but he doesn’t kid himself: he’s a TV junkie. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Salon,,, Fast Company and elsewhere.

Stream Live In Front Of A Studio Audience: The Facts Of Life / Diff’rent Strokes On

Stream Live In Front Of A Studio Audience: The Facts Of Life / Diff’rent Strokes On Hulu


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