Webster was ABC's answer to the long-running NBC sitcom Diff'rent Strokes ... especially with its showcase star and even down to the basic concept (a young African American child being adopted by a white family).
The showcase star on Webster was Emmanuel Lewis, who played the title character. At 4-foot-3, the 12-year-old Lewis easily passed for 6 or 7 (the character's age at the start of the series in 1983), which was Webster's age when he was adopted by George and Katherine Papadopoulos (real-life couple Alex Karras and Susan Clark) in the series' pilot. Webster, you see, was the son of a professional football star (Travis Long), who was teammates and best friends with George ... until one tragic day when Travis and his wife, Gert, are killed in a car accident. George and Katherine take in the now-orphaned Webster and become one happy family. The series was set in Chicago, where retired-from-the-gridiron George worked as a sportscaster, while Katherine was a socialite from a rich family working as a psychologist.
Other regulars were Henry Polic II (as Katherine's male secretary and Webster's confidant, Jerry Silver) and Eugene Roche and Cathryn Damon (as Bill and Cassie Parker, who lease the Victorian house the Papadopoulous family lives in; George and Katherine buy the house outright in a 1986 episode, after which the Parkers move offscreen to Florida).
The show was created and executive produced by Stu Silver and was produced throughout the run by Paramount and Georgian Bay, Ltd., Karras and Clark's production company. After the third season ended, Emmanuel Lewis Entertainment Enterprises, Inc. was established and became a third production company. This was actually part of an agreement between Karras and Clark, Paramount, and ABC, in which Emmanuel Lewis would get production credit alongside them in order for ABC to stop making the story lines be "all Webster, all the time."
The series ran from 1983-1987 on ABC before spending its final two first-run years in syndication. By the time the final first-run episode aired in 1989, Webster was 12 years old and getting ready to enter junior high school; in real life, Lewis had just turned 18.
Lewis, by the way, was frequently compared to Gary Coleman ... that other cute, pint-sized TV star of the era. Coleman was 4-foot-8 at adulthood, thanks to a genetic kidney disorder that hindered his physical growth; Lewis has said in interviews that there has not been a medical explanation for his tiny size.
This show provides examples of:
- An Aesop: Like most family sitcoms, most episodes had these.
- Balloonacy: The show's opening credits included a sequence of still photos showing Webster being lifted by a bunch of balloons and then caught by the Papadopouloses. Later episodes used a "balloon"-type font to spell out the show's title and other opening credits.
- Catch-Phrase: Not so much a phrase, but Webster's trademark "chipmunk" laugh. Frequently when something humored him, but just as often after the episode's moral.
- Celebrity Paradox: Before his recurring role as Webster's Uncle Phillip, Ben Vereen guest starred as himself. Katherine even mentioned when meeting Phillip that he looked a little like Ben Vereen.
- Crossover Finale: With, of all things, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series finale, "Web Trek", is framed as an extended Dream Sequence in which Webster teaches Mr. Worf about human emotions by way of a Clip Show. While Data would seem a more obvious choice for this role, presumably, they really wanted Michael Dorn.
- First-Run Syndication: For the last two seasons.
- Forceful Kiss: One episode featured a houseguest of the Papadopouloses make a pass at Katherine (which Webster witnesses, unknown to anyone). George finds out and kicks the guy out.
- House Fire: In season 2 Webster accidentally sets the Papadopouloses' apartment on fire, leading to the family moving to an old Victorian rehab.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jerry. He was snobbish and snarky, but he absolutely adored Webster and Webster affectionately called him Uncle Jerry.
- Missing Mom / Disappeared Dad: Webster's biological parents, Travis and Gertrude Long, died of injuries in a car accident. Webster actually does not learn of their deaths until the fifth episode, where George finally realizes he has to explain the heartbreaking news to the tyke. Prior to this, Webster believes his parents are merely "away".
- New Parent Nomenclature Problem: The titular kid refers to the woman who adopted him as Mam. Because it was "close to Mom"
- Poorly Disguised Pilot: In the episode "Almost Home", Webster visits Jack, a close friend of his father who never appeared in any other episode. Jack, played by country musician Mac Davis, is a country musician who now works at a foster home. The whole episode revolves around the people at the foster home and Webster is an extra. Besides Davis, two other potential regulars included Norman Fell, best known previously for playing Stanley Roper on Three's Company and The Ropers, and Faith Ford, later to gain greater recognition for playing Corky Sherwood on Murphy Brown.
- Thematic Theme Tune: "Then Came You"