Take your pick.
Iconic sitcom producer Norman Lear dropping the F-bomb. Jon Stewart guesting in full nerd head-gear. Kevin Hart sulking on John Lithgow’s lap. Jennifer Aniston ad-libbing a line from the “Friends” theme song. Snoop Dogg being, well, Snoop Dogg.
Those were just a few of the fun, not-ready-for-prime-time moments from ABC’s “Live In Front Of A Studio Audience” Tuesday, yet another re-recitation of TV-king Lear’s greatest hits – this time resurfacing one episode each of “Diff'rent Strokes” (1978-1986) and its spinoff, “The Facts Of Life” (1979-1988).
If you’ve never caught this romp before, the concept is simple.
Current stars reprise familiar roles from iconic Lear shows. In recent years, “Live” tackled “All In The Family” (twice) as well as “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.” Cue Woody Harrelson unleashing his most demonic eye-roll as Archie Bunker, and a put-out Jamie Foxx channeling George Jefferson.
This time, the festivities opened with Jimmy Kimmel introducing his age-defying friend (Lear turns 100 in July), who promptly let fly when asked about his philosophy on finality: When things are over, he said, "they’re (expletive) over,” as Kimmel’s eyes popped.
“The Facts of Life” crew went first, acting out an episode called “Kids Can Be Cruel,” in which a vengeful Natalie (Allison Tolman) tries to get back at superficial Blair (Aniston) by setting her up on a date with Carl (Stewart) at their all-girls’ school harvest festival.
The core “Facts” cast – which also included Kathryn Hahn and Gabrielle Union (as classmates Jo and Tootie) and Ann Dowd stepping in as their housemother Mrs. Garrett – was unimpeachable, with the adult actresses summoning their best teen selves (notably Hahn’s huffy performance as boy-phobic Jo).
But it was Aniston who reminded us that her true place is on a situation comedy, where she can milk scripted beats to the max. And she can’t be faulted for breaking character after being face to face with surprise guest Stewart, who donned a wig and braces to play a Grateful Dead-loving dork.
Stewart, some may recall, was a guest on late 90s sitcoms such as “The Nanny” and “NewsRadio,” though his talents ultimately were much better served elsewhere.
Here, Stewart was less Carl and more Jon with a hair piece.
Not to be overlooked, two other unannounced guests appeared as jocks/love interests lugging equipment to the harvest festival event. While both Will Arnett and Jason Bateman sported similar goofy wigs, Arnett made the bigger meal out of his meat-head character as Aniston’s boyfriend, Dink.
With scores of “Facts” episodes to choose from, one wonders if perhaps there might not have been a better selection than this one, which apart from its enduring message –don’t be cruel – felt especially 80s-Lite.
The closing moments, however, did offer an improvised surprise from the original script. When Aniston’s Blair realized the right thing was to follow through on her dinner date with Stewart’s Carl, she kindly wiped food from his braces-barred lips while summoning that “Friends” theme and said: “Don’t worry, I’ll be there for you.”
There was decidedly more there there when it came to the “Diff’rent Strokes” episode, titled “Willis’ Privacy.”
For starters, the episode was introduced by Todd Bridges, who played Willis on the original show. While the actor has had his own hardships, he poignantly noted that the rest of his co-stars have passed on: Conrad Bain as wealthy family patriarch Phillip Drummond; Dana Plato as his daughter Kimberly; Charlotte Rae as the original Mrs. Garrett; and Gary Coleman, who as the inimitable Arnold, played, along with Willis, an adoptee from Harlem.
(The "Facts" episode ended with three original stars taking bows before the live audience: Lisa Whelchel as Blair, Mindy Cohn as Natalie and Kim Fields as Tootie.)
Said Bridges of his onetime colleagues: “If they were here, they’d be proudly celebrating."
Hart got into the spirit as Arnold, complete with Coleman’s heavy sighs, elastic facial expressions and deft physical comedy. He of course delivered Coleman’s now iconic line, “Whatcha talkin’ about Willis?” with suitable zest. And in one notable scene, Hart, who is 5-foot-2, climbed down from the top of a bunk bed to hilarious effect.
Hart’s physical stature was further reduced as a result of him being paired with Damon Wayans as Willis, and the equally tall Snoop Dogg as Willis’ friend Vernon. In the episode, Vernon comes over to help Willis with a photography project, only to find Arnold getting in their way so often that Willis threatens to move out for good.
Lithgow as Drummond played his role for both laughs – such as when he asked Hart to sit on his knee and gave him a kiss on the head – and true emotion, showing care and frustration at the growing brotherly feud. Equally deft was Dowd as Mrs. Garrett, who did double duty as the girls’ true north in “Facts” and the faithful housekeeper in “Strokes.”
Wayans, a deft comedian, summoned his inner 13-year-old with skill, appearing both put-out by and considerate of his sitcom brother’s feelings. He ad-libbed when addressing Lithgow, saying that although Arnold “looks 45, he’s only 8.” But it was ultimately Hart who literally had the last laugh.
After at first splitting their room in two so they don’t have to speak to each other, Willis and Arnold make up as Willis returns home instead of staying at Vernon’s house in Harlem.
Overjoyed, Hart as Arnold struggles out of the top bunk and makes his way to Willis’ single bed and climbs in next to him.
Just when the show seems over, Hart brings the TV tale into the real world and asks of the character played by the cannabis-loving rapper: “Hey Willis, how come Vernon always smells like weed?”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jon Stewart, Snoop Dogg join Aniston, Hart in 'Facts,' 'Strokes' reprise