The Jeffersons episode Sorry, Wrong Meeting episode is still bold and poignant today.
Good television is like a fine wine. It only gets better with age, and when it’s done right you can tell the folks that worked on it put their feet into it.
On February 15th, 1981, a classic episode of The Jeffersons aired on CBS: “Sorry, Wrong Meeting” written by Peter Casey and David Lee, both of whom also wrote and produced other classic sitcoms such as Cheers, Frasier and Wings. This episode, like quite a few dealt with bigotry, only this one took it a whole other “honky” level.
By this point The Jeffersons was one of tv’s most highly rated and beloved sitcoms on the air. The show was now on top of the ratings mountain and received wide acclaim for such ground breaking episodes such as “Once a Friend”, where George discovers an old navy buddy has undergone a gender reassignment; “Lionel Cries Uncle”, where Louise’s uncle Ward visits the Jeffersons and he and George get into a debate about what an “Uncle Tom” really is; and perhaps most memorable up to that point was the classic “The First Store” from only a year earlier where we get flashback to 1968 with The Jeffersons and the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The show had also received some accolades from the industry, its biggest coming from Isabel Sanford‘s Emmy win for Best Lead Actress In A Comedy Series for her wonderful performance in season 7’s “And the Doorknobs Shined Like Diamonds” written by Michael G. Moye of Married… With Children fame. One could say the show had enough clout at this point in 1981 to pull off such a scary topic of Sorry, Wrong Meeting’s nature.
At that time in 1981, a program to provide telephone instructions for performing CPR began in King County, Washington. The program trained emergency dispatchers to give callers CPR instructions while the EMTs were in route. Now dispatcher-assisted telephone CPR is standard in dispatch centers across the country.
This method of resuscitation played a huge role in the episode where Florence and Louise take a CPR class held for tenants in the building. Lots of fun is to be had with jokes abound and Florence being Florence. But the fun stops when the group leader picks a man to go after Florence to practice CPR on the dummy and he utters “We don’t touch anything that’s been kissed by a Niggar”. Now, he dun made Florence mad, and that’s not good for your health. After the ordeal, Florence and Louise tell George what happened and of course George Jefferson is ready to get out the trusty ol’ baseball bat, Florence suggests a better tool: A led pipe. Louise, as usual the voice of reason reminds Florence and George of what it says in the Bible: “Love thine enemies.” George rebuttals with a story about his mother’s cousin Elvin and how he was accused of messing around with a white girl and ending up in jail, only to then have the Klan burn down the jail around him. These interactions between the three are essential to distinguishing their core characteristics: Louise, always the voice of reason and sanity; George, ready to blow up and take care of the problem with his fists of fury; And Florence, always quick with a sharp quip,but always coming back to her strong Christian faith. Not unlike the scene in The First Store with George, Louise and Lionel after MLK is assassinated.
Meanwhile, Tom runs into the father and son Klansmen and is invited to a tenants meeting to deal with what he thinks is the rash of robberies that’s been going on and invites George to come along with him. Only poor gullible but well meaning Tom Willis could get them into this bind, but if not for Tom’s mistake the most important element of this episode would never have happened.
At the meeting, George arrives a little late and sits next to Tom and Mr. Bentley. He cheers on what the Klansman is saying not realizing who he’s actually talking about. The reactions of the Klansman and George’s naivete give us plenty of laughs to balance out what will become another tense scene. When the Klansman lets George know that it’s him they’re talking about “Boy”, that’s when George goes off and it takes both Tom and Mr. Bentley to hold him back. The Klansman then gives a groan worthy speech about how “The people on warefare living off white people’s money” and how George and his kind “personify garbage”.
I must say, I applaud the actor playing the Klansman for being able to say all that garbage without throwing up. It takes a bold actor to play such a despicable “human being” on such a popular television show with millions of people watching, doing such a good job that you risk getting jumped on the street by random people you convinced that you really are who you’re playing… But, I digress.
Anyway, before they’re able to come to blows the Klansman starts having a heart attack and his son has no idea how to save him because he and his father left early before they learned how to do it after their confrontation with Florence and Louise. After the son asks if anybody knows how to help his dad, George stands there nonchalantly for a comedic beat until he then jumps into action and performs CPR on him, saving his life.
After George saves the despicable slug he feels lousy that he saved the life of a man who didn’t deserve to live, but Tom and Mr. Bentley assure him that him doing the right thing makes him a better man than that man could ever hope to be. The son comes up to George and thanks him for saving his father’s life. When the Klansman comes to, his son tells his dad that George was the one who saved him and predictably, but still sadly, the man responds with “You should’ve let me die.” And is wheeled off by the paramedics.The episode ends with a sad but true statement from George: “See that? They never change. You save their life and they still don’t change.”
I want to take a moment to talk about George’s character in that scene. This was a monumental moment for George Jefferson: It showed just how much this man had evolved and softened over seven years, nine if you include his two years on All In The Family. The George that went back and forth with Archie Bunker and called Tom Willis “Honky” and would constantly refer to Jenny Willis-Jefferson as “Zebra” etc. would never have saved the life of a white man like that. The old George would’ve probably kicked his body as he was fading away, which I can’t say I’d blame him. George in fact did prove that he is a far better and more compassionate man than that low life could ever be, and more than any Klansman who refuses to change will ever be. But more important than saving the man’s life is the impact George’s act had on his son. George saved the father’s life physically and saved the son’s life philosophically. Because of George’s actions the son, who has obviously not been completely poisoned, is on the cusp of leaving hate behind and embracing people of any and every race. George gave him that chance, and if nothing else it was worth saving that man’s life for that alone.
The biggest take away from this episode is this: By loving thine enemy we are not condoning them, but giving them the chance to throw away their hate and embrace us. Some will reject us no matter what (Like the father) and some will see the light and fully embrace us (Like the son).
We still got a lot of hate out there, but if we rise above it and don’t let them take us down with them then maybe we can get more of the hateful to see the light. I’m down for taking away as many members of the Klan as possible. The more we take, the faster that organization can just finally die.
For more on the history of CPR, check out this wonderful piece on the American Heart Association’s website: