Inside the Live in Front of a Studio Audience Rehearsal for Lighthearted Special With Kevin Hart, Ann Dowd, Jennifer Aniston and John Lithgow

If the idea of Kevin Hart as Arnold Jackson — the 8-year-old played by Gary Coleman on “Diff’rent Strokes’ — sounds perfect on paper, wait until you see tonight’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience.” When the 5’4” Hart stands next to the 6’4” John Lithgow — who fills Conrad Bain’s role as Arnold’s adoptive father, Mr. Drummond — the casting is about as spot-on as anything “Live” has done in the past.

And then, when Hart leaps into Lithgow’s lap at one point, expect the live studio audience to erupt. At least, they did on Monday night during a dress rehearsal of “Live in Front of a Studio Audience.” Variety was there to witness the staging of early-series episodes of “The Facts of Life,” which aired on NBC from 1979 to 1988, and “Diff’rent Strokes,” which aired from 1978-1986.

Both shows come from the stable of Norman Lear, the legendary creator who was also a major TV mogul by the late 1970s. His Tandem/T.A.T. Communications was behind “Diff’rent Strokes,” which also yielded “Facts of Life” as a spinoff, and although Lear wasn’t credited as an executive producer on those shows, his imprint was still there. Lear was instrumental in casting Coleman in the show, for example: “It was so clear that he he belonged at the center of the show, that was he had a rare talent,” Lear recalled.

Lear and Jimmy Kimmel are back to host the third “Live,” and Lear — even sporting a hip pandemic ponytail as he prepares to celebrate his 100th birthday next year — lavishes praise on Kimmel for originating the idea of taking classic scripts from his library with modern superstars.

This edition’s cast boasts plenty of them — including Hart and Lithgow, as well as Damon Wayans as Willis on the “Diff’rent Strokes” portion, which airs during the second half of the 90-minute special. The night kicks off with “The Facts of Life,” featuring Jennifer Aniston as Blair, Kathryn Hahn as Jo, Gabrielle Union as Tootie and Allison Tolman as Natalie.

But the real MVP of the evening has to be Ann Dowd, who plays Mrs. Edna Garrett in both “Facts” and “Strokes.” An almost perfect channeling of Charlotte Rae’s vocal inflections as the wise but often exasperated Mrs. Garrett, Dowd nails it. As do the hair, makeup and wardrobe teams — who found the perfect wig for Dowd. Close your eyes, and you’ll swear you’re watching the original series whenever Dowd opens her mouth.

A consummate pro, Dowd didn’t drop character even during commercial breaks, as she continued to keep busy, as Mrs. Garrett would, even during a pause in the action.

This edition of “Life in Front of a Studio Audience” is also bursting at the seams with major roles played by celebrities that the producers and ABC have asked us not to reveal. Ditto who performs the theme songs for both “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes.” But fans of the original “Facts” will be especially thrilled at the start of the show when they hear who breaks into “You take the good, you take the bad.”

The idea for doing “Diff’rent Strokes,” and ergo, “The Facts of Life,” had been in the works for years and hinged on one thing: Hart’s availability. “Jimmy had tried, almost three or four years ago, he wanted to approach Kevin Hart about this, because he just thought he would make the perfect Gary Coleman,” said executive producer Brent Miller, who runs Lear’s Act III production company. “And we had been talking to his team for the past couple years about when Kevin would have a break. So we waited until we got his schedule, and then we built from there.”

The pandemic, of course, also put a halt to plans to produce the third installment of “Live” in 2020, as originally planned. And once it was time to go, the producers decided to step away from the conceit of the first two editions — which took episodes from “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times” that tackled social issues of the time that are still relevant today. This time, “we were looking for lighthearted and funny. And not the world’s problems In this case,” Lear said.

These aren’t Christmas episodes, but beyond that, Lear, Miller and ABC have asked attendees to keep the specifics of each episode a secret. But we can confirm that these are memorable, but lightweight, episodes from both shows’ runs (in other words, these aren’t “very special episodes,” a genre that shows like “Diff’rent Strokes’ and ‘The Facts of Life’ helped popularize in the early 1980s).

Added Miller: “As Norman said, we’ve just come off two tough years. And rather than focusing on episodes that were relevant, issue wise, to some of the times we’re living, we really just wanted to make them relevant to a good time. Where we’d have fun and the audience could have fun.”

As usual, audiences will likely marvel at the perfect re-creations of Mr. Drummond’s Park Avenue penthouse, as well as the Eastland School cafeteria. “They’re identical to what we remember from that time,” Miller said. “And when you walk on the stage to see them, especially if you grew up with them like I did, it’s a moment.”

Kimmel also told the crowd that it felt good to be back in production on “Live” after a long break. “We’re all in a room together again,” he marveled. The celebratory atmosphere on set included a DJ spinning late 1970s and early 1980s tunes during the commercial breaks — at one point, Aniston, Hahn and Union were spotted dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Let’s Groove” between acts.

Nine cameras are employed to capture the live telecast from every angle (a bit more than the four normally used on a multi-camera taping). And at least during the dress rehearsal, the stars seemed to remember most of their lines — or at least hid any flubs well. Expect some ad-libbing, especially during “Diff’rent Strokes.” (And yes, the stars have found a way to humorously and subtly point out the fact that these are adults — Hart has a full beard, after all — playing kids.)

Viewers should be advised not to fast forward through ad breaks, as there are special comedic spots for real products — in some cases, parodying 1980s ad campaigns — sprinkled throughout the evening. But again, details of those commercials remain heavily embargoed until after the telecast.

“Live from a Studio Audience” won Emmys for its first two installments, and Kimmel attributes the specials’ success as a tribute to the television we all grew up on.

“It’s funny, there are friends I’ve had since I was in junior high school whose kids’ names I can’t remember, and yet I know it’s Mr. Drummond, Mrs. Garrett, Arnold, Willis,” Kimmel said. “I know it’s Tootie. It’s Jo. It’s Blair. It’s Natalie. It’s just funny how important these characters are, how much brain space they take. If it’s a show that is iconic and when I say iconic, I mean a show that is unique, it’s beloved and it’s funny. That’s the sort of show we look for.”

(Pictured: Norman Lear and Jimmy Kimmel, and Kevin Hart)

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