‘Live in Front of a Studio Audience’ Creator Teases Surprises for ‘Diff’rent Strokes’ Special

by Allison Hambrick

Legendary television producer Norman Lear gave fans a few hints as to what they have to look forward to in Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Diff’rent Strokes.

In an interview with TVLine, Lear and series co-creator Brent Miller discussed the upcoming special and its unusual casting choices. When asked how many surprises the producers had in store, Lear quipped “about 44!”

While the previous installments of Live in Front of a Studio Audience took a more traditional approach, Diff’rent Strokes made a critical change for the revival. The lead roles will be played by adult actors. The original series cast child actors Gary Coleman and Todd Bridges. Running from 1978 to 1986, it followed two boys from Harlem being taken in by a wealthy widower. Filling their roles in the live special are Kevin Hart and Damon Wayans. Jon Lithgow will portray Mr. Drummond.

“It started with Jimmy [Kimmel] and his desire to have Kevin Hart play Arnold Jackson, the Gary Coleman role,” Miller explained. “He had mentioned it when we were doing our second special, that the third one has to be Kevin Hart. At the time, I didn’t know: Is he going to want to cast everybody old, or is he just going to have the joke be Kevin? But as we started talking through it, it made sense to be consistent with that conceit of having older people play kids.”

Live in Front of a Studio Audience Tackles The Facts of Life

This trend carries over to the Facts of Life special as well. The cast will feature Jennifer Aniston as Blair, Gabrielle Union as Tootie, Ann Dowd as Mrs. Garrett, Allison Tolman as Natalie, and Kathryn Hahn as Jo. The episode also stars Jon Stewart in a mystery role. The Facts of Life aired from 1979 to 1988, and it followed a group of students at an all-girls private school.

Additionally, the two series are connected in that the character of Mrs. Garrett originated in Diff’rent Strokes. The character then became the housemother of the girls in The Facts of Life. As such, Dowd will play Mrs. Garrett in both halves of the upcoming episode of Live in Front of a Studio Audience.

A Return to Form for Legendary Lear

Live in Front of a Studio Audience was created by Norman Lear to celebrate classic sitcoms by reenacting old episodes. The previous episodes revived All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Good Times. All in the Family starred Marisa Tomei as Edith Bunker and Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker. The Jeffersons saw Jamie Foxx and Wanda Sykes step into the roles of George and Louise Jefferson. Good Times starred Andre Braugher as James Evans and Viola Davis as his wife Florida.

The series received positive reviews from critics, being nominated for seven Emmys. In 2019, Live in Front of a Studio Audience won “Outstanding Variety Special (Live),” making Lear the oldest recipient in Emmy history at 97. He would go on to beat his record the following year with another win for the series in the same category at age 98.

For those who aren’t aware, Lear is one of the most decorated winners in Emmy history. For that reason, Lear received the Carol Burnett Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021. It remains to be seen if he will once again become the oldest winner, this time at age 99.

As for why Lear created Live in Front of a Studio Audience, the producer said themes present in his work are just as relevant today as they were when he debuted All in the Family in 1971. His motivation for continuing the Live series with The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes is providing some nostalgic yet relevant comedy.

Live in Front of a Studio Audience: The Facts of Life and Diff’rent Strokes will air live on Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. on ABC.