Webster is a remarkable melange of social commentary, sexual politics, tragic pathos, and yes, even uproarious comedy. The show aired 150 episodes, debuting on ABC with the bittersweet "Another Ballgame" on September 16, 1983 and bowing with the triumphant "Webtrek" (a fan favorite in which Webster is transported by his video game onto the bridge of the Star Trek Enterprise!) on March 10, 1989. During that time it touched hearts, opened minds, and made Papadopolous a household name. Its influence is still felt throughout the industry today.
Small Boy, Big TalentEdit
Emmanuel Lewis was only 12 years old when he was chosen for the role of Webster Long, but he already had a long string of Burger King commercials under his tiny belt. His expertise was evident from the opening moments of the first episode. Lewis somehow managed to take the role outlined in the script -- that of a diminutive seven-year-old boy -- and make the character even more diminutive, almost more like a four- or five-year-old. Even so, it was impossible to ignore another aspec of Lewis' bearing: a raw, seething sexual energy that seemed to lurk just below the surface, threatening to boil over at any moment.
Alex Karras, too, came equipped with a large well of past acting experience from which to draw, including memorable roles as a brawny, slow-witted henchman in Blazing Saddles and a brawny, slow-witted sheriff in Porky's. But Karras had to dig deep into his thespian bag of tricks for his most challenging role yet, as the brawny, slow-witted retired pro football player, George Papadapilus! Despite the complexity of his character, however, Karras quickly settled into his performance, and it soon became evident that this was a part Alex Karras was meant to play.
Susan Clark, as Webster's Godmother, would have been relegated to a bit player on any other show. But right from the start, Webster was determined to break down barriers. And so it was that Clark made the bold decision to play her character as a closeted lesbian. Of course, a full decade before Ellen DeGeneres would come out publicly on her own sitcom, American audiences were not yet ready for an openly gay sitcom character, so Clark chose to express her character's preferences another way: by sporting a Pin-Ups-era David Bowie hairstyle that made her unstated sexuality abundantly clear. (The same 'do was later adopted, in what can only be considered a pale imitation, by Cloris Leachman during her stint on The Facts of Life.)
O What a Tangled Webster We WeaveEdit
Webster opens on a childless couple named the Popadopalusses. George is a burly football player settling into his first year of retirement, while his wife, Katherine Calder-Young Popodopilus is a socialite, as unaccustomed to homemaking as she is unaccustomed to George's presence at home. This already chaotic household is thrown into even more turmoil when little Webster Long appears on their doorstep. While searching for a spare key, Katherine discovers Webster under the mat and invites the boy in.
Webster's parents, it seems, have been killed in a tragic accident. As Webster's father was George's long-time teammate and friend, he has chosen George to act as Godparent, and it now falls on the Pappaluffaguses to take the boy in and raise him. Not surprisingly, this unusual, inter-racial family raises more than a few eyebrows, but the Papodiplodocuses resolve to fill their new life with lots of love... if they can keep Webster from being carried away by a large bunch of helium balloons, that is!
Webster's initial ratings were strong, but nothing compared to what was to come. As word of mouth grew about the show's gripping narrative and Lewis' smoldering screen presence, Webster's ascent to the top of the Nielsens was rapid and decisive. By the show's fourth episode, as company water coolers everywhere buzzed about Katherine's touching attempts to make Webster see her as a mother figure, it was apparent that the show had touched a universal nerve. Webster Long, it seemed, was the miniscule black orphan living with a white ex-football player and a butch dyke in a mysterious house with secret passages and dumbwaiters he can ride in that exists inside all of us.
As the show's popularity grew, the writers weren't content to simply rest on their laurels. Instead, they took their audience goodwill as an opportunity to work in some risky, groundbreaking storylines. In its first season alone, Webster examined with unflinching gaze such topical social issues as trying out for the football team, standing up to peer pressure, facing the fear of having your tonsils removed, dealing with the loss of a beloved teddy bear, and learning to just be yourself. What other supposedly lightweight sitcom, besides Silver Spoons, Gimme a Break!, Full House, The Brady Bunch, Family Affair, Punky Brewster, Leave It to Beaver, and others, can lay claim to such meaty subject matter?
Sadly, the show's writers seemed to have lost some of their nerve in later seasons -- perhaps due to pressure from "family values" groups? -- and scaled back their ambitious subject matter in favor of typical light sitcom fluff. Hence, later episodes found Webster burning down the family apartment, witnessing a child molestation, and discovering a secret passage in his new home leading to a room containing a life-like adult-sized doll, which turns out to be a shrine to the original owner's dead daughter. Yawn.
Meanwhile, Katherine's suppressed sexuality adds yet another layer to Webster's intricate narrative onion -- though necessarily relegated to the show's subtext. While it is never explicitly stated, it is clear that Katherine has responded to her frustration with George's fumbling attempts to satisfy her by subtly emasculating her husband. Witness that Webster is told to call the man of the house "George," but must address Mrs. Papodopilis with a respectful "Ma'am."
George, for his part, effectively admits to his submission by giving Webster the nickname "Webman," as if to acknowledge the surrender of his own masculinity to his young charge. This can at times lend a disturbing Oedipal air to the proceedings, a sense that is only heightened by the riveting manliness that Lewis seems to exude from his very pores. One wonders what goes on behind the scenes at the Poppodapilos residence when the cameras aren't watching. Perhaps one throws up a little into one's mouth thinking about it; a testament to the power of these fine actors and writers!
An accusation frequently leveled against Webster by those too dense to appreciate its nuances is that the show is a blatant rip-off of Diff'rent Strokes. While this charge is normally too ridiculous to even warrant a response, in the interest of completeness, here are the reasons why the comparison simply doesn't stand up:
- No catchphrase: Webster couldn't have cared less what Willis was talkin' 'bout.
- Webster is much smaller than Arnold: Seriously, you could fit, like, two Emmanuel Lewises in Gary Coleman's body, and most of a third one in his head. Also note that Emmanuel pulled off this feat with perfectly functional kidneys!
- Much better cute add-on kid: Like many aging sitcoms, both Diff'rent Strokes and Webster eventually added a "cute kid" to boost their youth appeal. Diff'rent Strokes brought in Danny Cooksey, an obnoxious little red-headed brat who played the fiddle and talked like he had two Cadbury Creme Eggs jammed up his nostrils. Webster introduced Corin Nemec, who later became Parker Lewis, and therefore is above criticism. As a bonus, Nemec's addition to the cast did not induce viewers to envision Mr. Drummond getting it on with Dixie Carter.
- 100% less Tootie: While most shows -- yes, even Webster -- could have benefited from a little more Tootie, one cannot deny that Diff'rent Strokes was chock-full-o'-Tootie, while Webster was decidedly Tootie-free.
- Diff'rent Strokes, indeed: Webster saddened but educated children by showing them that sometimes teachers touch little girls inappropriately. Diff'rent Strokes scarred children permanently by showing them that sometimes teachers touch Dudley. What might be right for you might not be right for some, but Dudley getting molested ain't right for nobody.
- Emmanuel Lewis hasn't shot up smack, killed himself or died out of a wheelchair: Yet.
I rest my case.