Less talk, more mop: Sassy domestic servants in TV history

Maids. Butlers. Housekeepers. Whatever name they go by, the landscape of TV history is full of memorable ones. But what usually makes them memorable is not their acumen with a broom or their skill with a can of Pledge. No, what we remember them for are being the perfect foils to poke holes in the well-to-do bosses’ egos, while providing catharsis for legions of viewers with at least a bit of class envy.

Benson DuBois (Soap/Benson) – The urbane and tidy Benson DuBois got his start as a butler on Soap, before moving into the governor’s mansion on his own self-titled show in 1979. And let’s face it – when the show is named after you, and you are somebody’s servant, the wisecracks will surely fly. But after spending six years cleaning up for Governor Gatling (a George W. Bush prototype minus the lust for warfare), Benson (Robert Guillaume) worked his way up to Lieutenant Governor! In the show’s final season Benson even ran for the big office against Gatling, proving once again that if you give a guy a break he will eventually stab you in the back.

Lynn Belvedere (Mr. Belvedere) – He’s British, he’s a snappy dresser, and he don’t take shit from anyone – least of all that dunderhead Bob Uecker. Why, he’s Mr. Belvedere! Mr. Belvedere (Christopher Hewitt) taught us many things about life, including how to maintain your dignity while taking orders from stupid Americans, as well as how it’s perfectly acceptable for a middle-aged man to keep a diary. And hey, if he’s good enough for Stewie, he’s good enough for us.

Geoffrey Butler (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) – In a masterstroke of TV writing, the butler’s last name on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is…Butler! And truly, Geoffrey (Joseph Marcell) is a triple threat of domestic servitude, what with his housecleaning skills, top-drawer attire, and seemingly endless arsenal of fat jokes. Fresh Prince factoid: The role of Banks family matriarch Vivian was taken over by Daphne Maxwell Reid in the fourth season. In fact the real Vivian was brutally murdered and stored in mason jars in the Banks mansion basement by Geoffrey – but the rest of the family, fearing for their own lives, went along with the sham of “new Viv,” who was really just a third cousin.

Nellie Ruth “Nell” Harper (Gimme a Break!) – When she wasn’t busy zinging dopey police officer Ralph Simpson or trying to curb the budding racism of little orphan Joey (you remember the blackface episode don’t you?!), Nell (Nell Carter) was generally raising the bar of sitcom quality on Gimme a Break! Sadly, her plans for TV immortality were derailed by the rather thoughtless death of Dolph Sweet prior to the final and lame fifth season.

Alice Nelson (The Brady Bunch) – Although not as sarcastic or insubordinate as some of the others on this list, Alice (Ann B. Davis) of The Brady Bunch nonetheless deserves mention for one thing – her explicit and torrid love affair with Sam the Butcher, which was sadly robbed of its visceral sexual heat by stuffy 1970s TV censors.

Florence Johnston (The Jeffersons/Checking In) – While the archetype of the back-talking maid probably didn’t start with Florence of The Jeffersons, it’s no stretch to say that she honed it, perfected it, and made it her prison bitch. How George resisted the urge to grab Florence (Marla Gibbs) by the apron and toss her out the window of his luxurious high-rise apartment I’ll never know. Not so much because of her sass-mouth, but because she never did a damn lick of work! Sadly the genius of Florence did not extend outside George Jefferson’s apartment, which is likely why her short-lived spin-off, Checking In, bombed.

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2 Comments

  • Chris

    My Niles knowledge is admittedly weak – I could never bring myself to watch the Nanny for more than 10 consecutive minutes.

  • If there was an addendum to this entry, I’d put Niles from the Nanny on it. He has the same kind of biting wit that many of the above entries have, plus the distinction of being a dude from Arkansas playing an Englishman. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?

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