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Happy 40th Anniversary, Archie Bunker
January 10, 2011  | By David Bianculli

Hard to believe, but the pioneering CBS sitcom All in the Family turns 40 years old Wednesday, having premiered as a midseason entry with a timid disclaimer on January 12, 1971. Harder to believe, but some of the stuff in that pilot wouldn't pass today's politically uber-correct prime-time broadcast TV standards...

The history of All in the Family, in which Carroll O'Connor embodied one of television's most original and iconic roles as cab-driver bigot Archie Bunker, is as unusual and unlikely as the series itself.


A British series called Till Death Us Do Part, about a mouthy, conservative bigot (Warren Mtchell as Alf Garnett) with a wife, daughter, and live-in liberal son-in-law, was a hit overseas in 1965. Producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin thought the premise of the series would work well if adapted for American audiences, in the same way The Office, American Idol and other transplanted shows are today.

It took a few tries, a few different pilots, and a few pitches to a few different networks, but eventually CBS put the show on the air.

Ironically, the network executive who made the decision to fly in the face of TV conservatism was Robert S. Wood, the very same executive who, newly promoted at CBS in 1969, had fired the Smothers Brothers for doing the same thing. Yet less than two years later, Wood felt the time was right for a bold new kind of comedy, and All in the Family certainly provided it.


Co-starring with O'Connor were Jean Stapleton as Archie's subservient wife, Edith; Sally Struthers as their grown daughter, Gloria; and Rob Reiner as Gloria's husband, Mike, a liberal thinker whom Archie called Meathead, just as he called his own wife Dingbat. Most episodes had Archie and Meathead, especially, fighting about current events and issues -- rather than ignoring them, as most TV did at the time, All in the Family hit them head on.

By fall 1971, it was the No. 1 hit on television. And throughout the 1970s, it spawned one successful spinoff after another, including The Jeffersons (about Archie's former neighbors), Maude (about Archie's ultra-liberal cousin), and Good Times (about Maude's former maid), all hits.

Norman Lear sort of took over comedy TV in the 1970s, and maintained a strong foothold on the genre until Bill Cosby came along and took control in 1984 with The Cosby Show. Some of Lear's shows don't age well, while others are surprising, even shocking, in the language and subjects they present.

In my 1992 book Teleliteracy: Taking Television Seriously, I interviewed, among others, Norman Lear, Bill Cosby, and Mary Tyler Moore and Simpsons co-creator James L. Brooks, all of whom had intriguing takes on All in the Family and, in particular, the character of Archie Bunker.


Lear thought the laughs in the show would hold up ("Foolish human behavior is eternal"), but didn't necessarily think the show itself would -- and was surprised its reputation had lasted a generation. (Now, it's lasted two, and counting -- and a quick look at the brilliant episode in which Sammy Davis Jr. visits suggests it'll last a lot longer.)

"Nothing is made for posterity," Lear said. "That's a consummation devoutly to be wished."

Cosby's approach to TV comedy was directly and intentionally opposed to the kind of content he saw on All in the Family, which he considered detrimental to society.

"Archie never said he was sorry," Cosby said flatly. Cosby also was concerned that while many viewers got the satire behind Archie's bigoted remarks, other members of the TV audience were laughing with Archie, not at him.

"If you don't tell people that this guy needed some help!" Cosby said, adding, "And year after year, the jokes continued to flow. Yes, there was another viewpoint on the show, but that kind of flip-flopped so my man could get on with what he was doing."

Yet Brooks, whose keen sense of comedy includes both writing and directing the movies Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, watched the same show but had a vastly different reaction.


All in the Family, Brooks told me, contained "very literate observations about the life of anybody who's grown up in a lower-middle class background, as I did and a lot of other people did. And you know, Archie's chair was an observation that nobody made in any other place -- and I don't know any home of my class that didn't have that one reserved seat that was for the leader of the household."

Archie's chair, by the way, is still around. It's on exhibit -- in the Smithsonian.

Happy 40th, Archie.




Neil said:

>> Norman Lear sort of took over comedy TV in the 1970s...

Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker's MTM Productions was no slouch in that same time period either, producing the eponymous MTM Show, Bob Newhart Show, Rhoda, Phyllis and the "dramedy" shows Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere.

Nor were the people who produced Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, or Three's Company over at ABC.

Comment posted on January 10, 2011 1:04 PM

I tend to agree with Bill Cosby's viewpoint on the show. Conservatives could laugh along with Archie ignoring other viewpoints on the show by considering all of the viewpoints to be equal. As Archie was also the main character of the show, its protagonist, it is understandable if people thought that Archie was right. This is also why Robert S. Wood could put All in the Family on the air while canceling The Smothers Brothers. While the Smothers Brother were purely iconoclastic All in the Family had a place for conservative views. Archie was not uniformly taken as the villain as Archie was able to poke fun at liberal views by calling his son-in-law meathead. When I talked to an acquaintance of mine, a fan of Glenn Beck, he reminisced about Archie calling his son-in law meathead, emphasizing that his son-in-law had ridiculous ideas about life. Therefore I think that Cosby is right.

Ironically, people might now see Cosby as the Archie Bunker character of this generation as he talked down to poor black people for buying and wearing expensive shoes.

Comment posted on January 10, 2011 3:16 PM

Forty years...wow. I remember when All in the Family came to my attention, was when the TV Guide critic at the time (Armory Archer..? Dave...help me here...)actually re-visited the show and re-wrote his review favorably after apparently panning it the first time through...

I started to watch as a 14 year old...and was stuck on it (and Sally Struthers - woo-hoo
!) like everyone else at the time...

Dave: did you ever go back and re-review a show and change your original opinion..?


[Cleveland Amory is the name of the critic you're looking for. And did I ever pull a reversal without the show itself getting better or worse? Once. On an ABC comedy whose premise I liked so much, I excused... at first... that it wasn't even remotely funny. Can't even remember the show now, but it was a minor blip, yet only my apologetic second review acknowledged it as such. -- DB]

Comment posted on January 10, 2011 8:52 PM

EricG said:

From the Freudian Slip Department, "where you say one thing, but mean your mother..." Archie, nervous and fixated on that someone might mention Sammy's glass eye in poor taste, leans over and asks, "Do you take cream or sugar in your eye?"

Perhaps one of the freshest, funniest moments in sit-com history, maybe only second to the funeral for Chuckles the Clown on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

[Both TV moments, I'm proud to say, that I show in my TV history classes. And they still work, even with YouTubed 20-year-olds. -- DB]

Comment posted on January 11, 2011 5:51 PM
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