In 1970s America, how could any TV comedy show be based on such sobering subjects as abortion, anti-Semitism, breast cancer, homosexuality, impotence, menopause, racism, rape, religion, the Vietnam War and women’s lib?
CBS’s television comedy “All in the Family” was.
For nine seasons, the show highlighted those controversial subjects in the context of an average middle class working family in Queens, N.Y. Nielsen rated it No. 1 in five of those seasons.
The show never made a pretense of being politically correct.
Just the opposite.
You might not notice that they wouldn’t be PC when the show opens however, with the main characters — Archie and Edith Bunker — playing the piano and singing the theme song:
“Boy the way Glenn Miller played
Songs that made the Hit Parade.
Guys like us we had it made,
Those were the days.
“And you knew who you were then,
Girls were girls and men were men,
Mister we could use a man
Like Herbert Hoover again…”
“All in the Family” was the creation of writer and producer Norman Lear.
It wasn’t easy.
But in the end, the show was an iconic success and had spinoffs and spinoffs from the spinoffs — seven spinoffs total.
They were: “Maude” (1972), “Good Times” (1974), “The Jeffersons” (1975), “Archie Bunker’s Place” (1979), “Checking In” (1981), “Gloria” (1982) and “704 Hauser” (1994).
Remarkable — and historic.
Norman Lear, patriarch of them all, was born in New Haven, Conn., in 1922, son of Jewish Russian father and Ukrainian mother immigrants. He modeled Archie and Edith after his parents.
Biographers describe his father as a “rascal” and a “bigot,” who was imprisoned for selling fake bonds when their son was only 9. Lear’s parents regularly called each other “Dingbat” and “Meathead.”
During World War II, Lear was a tail gunner and radio operator on a B-17 bomber, flying on 52 missions, earning the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters.
His career after the war led him into comedy writing and hob-knobbing with the stars and movie and television big-shots.
He hit the big-time writing comedy for the “Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis Show” on NBC in the early television days, and for Dan Rowan and Dick Martin’s popular “Laugh-In” on NBC in the late ’60s — with other jobs writing, producing and acting.
“All in the Family” started in 1971 and aired 205 episodes over nine seasons.
When it was ready to be aired for the first time, CBS was nervous about how audiences would react to the controversial subjects, so in their publicity they put out a disclaimer:
“The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are.”
Jittery network execs even hired extra phone staff to handle the expected flak.
CBS needn’t to have worried though — audiences liked Archie, and complaints were few. The execs weren’t happy with the lukewarm ratings, but that changed after the show started winning Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
Ratings rocketed the sit-com up to No. 1.
During its nine-year run, they won 42 awards and were nominated 73 times.
The Archie Bunker character was a factory worker, whose bigotry had many targets, including most minorities — Blacks, Hispanics, Latinos, Jews and Asians, as well as most white ethnic groups like the English, Germans, Irish and Polish — usually referring to them by their uncomplimentary nicknames.
Edith on the other hand was by nature tolerant and tended to stay out of those touchy conversations.
But not her outspoken liberal college student son-in-law Michael — “Meathead” as Archie called him — who was always confronting Archie for his outlandish statements.
Michael was married to the Bunkers’ daughter Gloria and working his way through college. All four were living in a two-story house with an attic at 704 Hauser St. in Queens.
The verbal combat was always to the point — and funny — and Archie’s facial expressions priceless.
Maureen Stapleton, who played Edith, said the series exposed bigotry through humor, which she said “reduces it to nothing.”
Monmouth University and Rutgers adjunct professor L. Benjamin Rolsky wrote in PIX-TV Online that, “Bunker famously embodied the same brand of resentment, anger and misunderstanding that seems to saturate the populace at the expense of rational, sustained dialogue.
“To others, Archie’s image functions as a rallying cry of sorts, one that gave frustrated working-class whites a symbol to identify with and support during the 1970s.”
Clearly, “All in the Family” was a satire on bigotry of those times, but might not be taken as funny in today’s hyper-sensitive culture.
Here’s Archie arguing with son-in-law Michael “Meathead” Stivic played by Rob Reiner:
Archie (looking at a political leaflet): I call this representative government. You’ve got Feldman, Salvatori, O’Malley and Nelson: A Jew, an Italian, an Irishman and a regular American. What I call a balanced ticket.
Mike: Why do you always have to label people by nationality?
Archie: Because how else are you gonna get the right man for the right job? See, they’ve got Feldman up for Treasurer. That’s perfect. All them people know how to handle money. You know what I mean?
Mike: No, I don’t.
Archie is shocked when he learns that the Jeffersons — a black family — are moving in next door. Then when Edith, Michael and Gloria welcome them warmly, Archie can’t believe what’s happening.
The Jeffersons take it all in stride:
Archie: Say, Lionel, you never told me you had a cousin in the police force.
Lionel Jefferson: Yeah, he’s the white sheep of the family.
Malaprops were a staple of Archie Bunker’s lines — using similar sounding words that have a different meaning:
Archie: It’s not irreverent to the conversation.
Archie: Whatever; it’s not German to the conversation.
Archie: You think I was Lazarus rising up from the bed.
Archie: It ain’t enough that he’s a pinko and an Atheist, you’re gonna turn him from a man into a morphadite.
Gloria: What’s a morphadite?
Archie: A freak with a little bit of each… and not enough of neither!
Archie: It’s a well-known fact that capital punishment is a detergent to crime!
More funny mix-ups in Archie’s thinking:
Edith: Maybe the Chinese say, “Buddha bless you” when they sneeze.
Archie: No, they just sneeze and say nothing. They don’t speak English.
Mike: Couldn’t they say Buddha bless you in Chinese?
Archie: They just don’t. Or if they say anything at all, it’s “sayonara.”
Mike: That’s not Chinese, that’s Japanese!
Archie: Same thing.
Mike: No it’s not!
Guest stars to the show added their touches as well:
Archie: I think that if God had meant us to be together, He’d have put us together. But look what He done. He put you over in Africa, and He put the rest of us in all the white countries.
Sammy Davis Jr.: Well, you must have told him where we were, ‘cause somebody came and got us.
Variety Magazine says that most of the characters in Norman Lear’s shows “barreled headlong into the most contentious issues of the day, grappling with their differences by airing them out in hilarious, sometimes excruciating detail.
“That model of family sitcom has endured ever since; today’s TV shares its DNA, whether in literal reboots like Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” or spiritual descendants like ABC’s “Black-ish.”
“Didn’t need no welfare state,
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee, our old LaSalle ran great.”
An ABC special featuring remakes of scenes from “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” was aired in May 2019, starring Woody Harrelson as Archie Bunker and Marisa Tomei as Edith.
The show was well received, according to Variety. They liked Harrelson’s “Archie” and Tomei’s “Edith,” but the show biz magazine also noted that CBS kowtowed to today’s TV standards of political correctness, bleeping out the N-word.
Gloria: Wait a minute; I want to hear the truth.
Archie: Forget the truth! Listen to me!
Gloria: “Catch you later Daddy, Michael’s tweeting me…”
It’s nice to think that even on the most serious subjects, we can take a deep breath and crack a smile … like in earlier times.
“Those were the days….”
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com to share your comments.
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“Anybody that goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined!”
— Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), “All in the Family,” Season 3
• Carroll O’Conner (Archie): 1924-2001
• Jean Stapleton (Edith): 1923-2013
• Mike Evans (Lionel): 1949-2006
• Sherman Hemsley (George): 1938-2012
• Isabel Sanford (Louise): 1917-2004
Archie Bunker trivia…
Producer Norman Lear modeled Archie Bunker after Alf Garnett, a working-class bigot, the main character in the BBC sitcom “Till Death Do Us Part.” When the show first started, there was some feedback about the lyrics of the “All in the Family” theme song — they didn’t understand “Gee, our LaSalle ran great.”
Mickey Rooney was the first choice to play Archie Bunker, but he turned it down, commenting that the show “had a strong potential for controversy” that he believed would doom it to failure. Harrison Ford rejected playing Meathead for similar reasons.
Is Variety right?
“The fact that these sitcoms can be recited verbatim almost 50 years later only proves just how much of our world is, despite such intense and ongoing efforts otherwise, the same as it ever was.”
— Caroline Framke, Variety
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