"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Didn't Need No Welfare State

“All in the Family” debuted 40 years ago today. Over at Salon.com, Matt Zoller Seitz writes about why the show still matters:

TV today is inhospitable to series like “All in the Family.” This is only partly due to TV’s splintering from a handful of channels into hundreds. An equal or larger part of the blame can be laid at the feet of broadcast network executives and their marketers, who figured out (sometime in the late ‘80s) that they could make more ad money by junking the “Big Tent” model and appealing to white college graduates with loads of disposable income – a description that rules out anyone who looks or sounds like a character from “All in the Family” (even Mike or Gloria). Except for certain corners of cable – specifically channels that thrive on shows about violent crime and/or revolve around working-class or poor characters – you don’t hear people talking about race, class, religion or politics unless the dialogue is jocular and sarcastic and “just kidding” (like the banter on “Glee” and “Community”) or the earnest centerpiece of a Very Special Episode. And can you remember the last time a broadcast network built a sitcom around fiftysomething, pear-shaped, working-class married people — of any color? Pretty much every modern sitcom lead is under 40 (or trying hard to look it) and fashionably thin or buff.

Since the early ’80s, the networks have done their best to gentrify prime time, banishing demographically déclassé characters and subjects while retaining elements that marketers call “sexy” (code for “flashily empty”). Little remains of Lear’s legacy but cursing, innuendo, and the sound of flushing toilets. The template for most modern network sitcoms is “Friends” — which, contrary to the “Seinfeld” mantra, truly was a Show about Nothing. Modern network sitcoms are mostly about dating, parenthood and office politics; they deal with hot-button issues in a glancing, glib way if they address them at all. Some are lame. Some are amusing. A few are brilliant. None is the equal of “All in the Family.” Those were the days.


1 YankeeAbby   ~  Jan 12, 2011 2:27 pm

Just looked up some of the "memorable quotes" on IMDB from that show...it's amazing what Archie Bunker got away with saying 40 years ago. And yet, I'm not offended by it. Case in point:

"That ain't the American Way, buddy. No, siree. Listen here, professor. You're the one who need an American History lesson. You don't know nothin' about Lady Liberty standin' there in the harbor, with her torch on high screamin' out to all the nations in the world: "Send me your poor, your deadbeats, your filthy." And all the nations send 'em in here, they come swarming in like ants. Your Spanish P.R.'s from the Caribboin, your Japs, your Chinamen, your Krauts and your Hebes and your English fags. All of 'em come in here and they're all free to live in their own separate sections where they feel safe. And they'll bust your head if you go in there. *That's* what makes America great, buddy."

2 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 12, 2011 2:40 pm


3 Sliced Bread   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:05 pm

Brilliant show. I'm 44, and remember watching it as a very young kid. I lived in Flushing, and it must have been mandatory viewing in Queens. I remember watching my parents watching the show, and taking laughing cues from them. That's how young I was. I watched it over and over when I was older.
When I worked in L.A. in the late 90's, I once lingered in Norman Lear's parking spot on the Sunset-Gower lot for a minute or so, just to check out his view and say thanks.

4 Sliced Bread   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:10 pm

[3] for anti-stalker clarification, Lear's parking spot was clearly marked - and I'm certain I'm not the only fool who's stood there for a sec.

5 YankeeAbby   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:15 pm

Pretty close in age there, Sliced (I'm 42) and now *I* live in Queens (Forest Hills representin'!) for the last 6 years.

6 Sliced Bread   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:28 pm

[5] great neighborhood, Forest Hills, one of my favorites in NYC. My sister lived there for years, as did one of my best friends. I also saw one my favorite concerts there, too - Talking Heads at the Tennis Stadium in August of '83. That was a Friday night - then went to see the Police do one of their "farewell" shows (w/Madness, REM, English Beat) at RFK Stadium in Philly the next day. Funny story, I'll try to make it quick.

I asked my parents if I could go to the Philly show,and they said no. So what did I do? I went. Told them I was going on one of my friend's boat for the day. Long day. Over 100 degrees. Violent thunderstorms that evening. My parents worried and called guess who? The parents of my friends with the boat, who informed them their son was in Philly at a concert.

Got home late that night. House was dark. Dad's cigarette was burning. He asked how was my day on my friend's boat. I came clean. Told him I went to Philly. He told me to go to bed. No punishment.
It was then I knew I was too old to be grounded. But I apologized profusely the next day, and the day after that. Fuggin teenagers. I have three boys who are not teens yet, but I'll keep this story in mind when they lie to me about going to a concert. If it's a good one, I won't bust them either.

7 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:29 pm

Me gunna be 40 this year. I remember that show well from my early TV watching years.

8 YankeeAbby   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:31 pm

Embrace that number Alex! 40 was awesome for me!

9 Sliced Bread   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:32 pm

[7] dude, my only advice on turning 40 is watch yer weight. You can't get away with anything after 40. You eat or drink too much one night, it sticks with you. Don't get me wrong. You won't lose your mojo, but you'll misplace it from time to time, and you'll have to work harder than ever to keep it where ya want it.

10 bp1   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:40 pm

45 here. Watching All in the Family is like putting on home movies. My Dad and Mom served their respective roles pretty well, Dad a working class stiff who managed to provide a comfortable home (with considerable help from Mom of course) yet held some pretty old school views on things, and Mom, who although she worked a job my entire life at home nevertheless was expected to do the "women's work" as well. Mom was never a naive Edith type, however and Dad knew better than to tell her to stifle herself.

Classic show. I watch it on occasion now with my kids and they just don't get it, and sometimes they're even shocked at the language. They've never heard the words, and have no clue of the context. Nothing like kids to remind us how much the world has changed.

11 Sliced Bread   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:44 pm

[10] yeah, bp. that show hasnt crossed my sons' radar. Now that you mention it, I'd have to explain it to them. These are different times. They understand that - they "voted" for Obama and understand what a big deal that was, but they don't really understand how much things have changed in the past 40-50 years.

12 Chyll Will   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:45 pm

There were shows I was compelled not to watch as a child, and this was one of them. Archie's racism stood out more than anything to my family, growing up in the suburbs and being subjected to much worse than what he could have said or done, but it was a annoying reminder to them that we were in somewhat hostile territory even if we could afford to be there like everyone else. The perspective that film school brought me has unhinged the pain if you will; it is a great show as was the Jeffersons and even the seasons of Good Times when the father was alive (Hilarious that I went to an elementary school named James S. Evans, but I didn't get that until high school). The closest I can think of to any of Lear's shows that's playing now is House of Payne by Tyler Perry; which like his movies and plays is closer to minstrel material than classic sitcom. It's unfortunate that the major broadcast networks are focused primarily on a particular demographic, but with strong competition from cable channels and a growing presence from the internet, I don't really care anymore. I think if people were to complain about the dearth of diversity on ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX or some of the other broadcast networks, well don't watch them, watch the other channels or get Netflix/Hulu. There's TV Land, Nick at Nite, TCM and so on.

It's sad we have to pay for good programs where less than a generation ago we didn't, but at least I can find what I want when I want to.

13 Sliced Bread   ~  Jan 12, 2011 3:52 pm

[12] yeah, that show probably better served Whites, giving them a funhouse mirror in which to recognize, and laugh at racism. I can definitley see why Blacks were turned off by it. Archie's racism was more out of ignorance than hate. But in real life, there's plenty of hate (too much) to overshadow comedic ignorance.

14 Sliced Bread   ~  Jan 12, 2011 4:46 pm

[13] fumble... ?

15 Alex Belth   ~  Jan 12, 2011 4:49 pm

13) Good point. The show was too abrasive for me as a kid. Abrasive and drab. Those sets always depressed me and the constant yelling just made me want to hide (or change the channel). Later on, I got to dig it more.

16 Matt Blankman   ~  Jan 12, 2011 4:56 pm

[12,13] If I recall correctly, Bill Cosby was not a fan of the show and worried that too many people were watching and agreeing with Archie's viewpoint rather than seeing him for what he was. While the show and Archie certainly did draw some fans like that, I don't think it negated the frank discussion of race and bigotry.

17 Matt Blankman   ~  Jan 12, 2011 4:59 pm

[15] Yeah, I definitely remember being too young to "get" the show. It wasn't until my teens that I came to see just how great it was. A huge amount of credit has to go to that cast. They created real characters, not just talking points.

18 Sliced Bread   ~  Jan 12, 2011 5:04 pm

[17] that's why I say it was a brilliant show - through laughter (most us us were laughing at Archie's ignorance) it provoked honesty about bigotry, which was very much needed at the time (and sadly, even now).

19 RagingTartabull   ~  Jan 12, 2011 5:43 pm

I adore the show and do agree that its brilliant, but I absolutely do think Lear unwittingly gave the Silent Majority a mascot on national television that they fully embraced without even a hint of irony.

Then again, if you voted for Nixon chances are you didn't "do" irony in the first place.

20 Matt Blankman   ~  Jan 12, 2011 5:50 pm

[18] It also hit home for a lot of white viewers who had an Archie in their lives, often someone very near and dear to them. The laughter helped to ease that - and the struggle of reconciling your feelings towards someone you loved despite an aspect to him you found despicable.

What's the line about Archie's racism in the Sammy Davis episode? I believe Lionel says Archie's not that bad, that he talks a lot, but he'd "never burn a cross on your lawn." To which Davis replies, "No, but if he saw one burning, he might toast a marshmallow on it."

21 Matt Blankman   ~  Jan 12, 2011 5:51 pm

[19] That's no doubt true, but that's always a risk you run with edgy material. Think of "Taxi Driver."

22 RagingTartabull   ~  Jan 12, 2011 5:59 pm

[21] oh definitely, I mean thank God that Lear went out on a limb and did this (and hey its not like George Jefferson was played as Mr. Enlightened either), I just always found it funny/sorta sad that there were so many people who looked at Archie as their surrogate.

Really though I think 99% of the credit has to go to Carrol O'Connor for making the whole thing click, I still think his performance and James Gandolfini's are the two most "important" in American television history. Thats just me.

23 RagingTartabull   ~  Jan 12, 2011 6:04 pm

I still remember watching the episode "Archie Gets Branded" when I was about 10, when a Jewish radical who is basically supposed to be Meir Kahane moves into the neighborhood, and being absolutely freaked out by the whole thing. So its not like I always "got" it either.

24 Matt Blankman   ~  Jan 12, 2011 6:05 pm

[22] I don't know about "important," but they're two of the greatest in TV history, that's for sure.

I think O'Connor agreed. Which season was it that he held out for more money and they excused his absence for a couple episodes by saying he was at a convention or some such thing?

Here's a question - could Archie Bunker have existed without Ralph Kramden as a TV forefather?

25 RagingTartabull   ~  Jan 12, 2011 6:14 pm

[24] yeah maybe "important" isn't the right word...either way, they're tough to top.

26 Bruce Markusen   ~  Jan 12, 2011 8:37 pm

My sister had the fortunate chance to meet Carroll O'Connor i NYC just a few years before he passed away. They talked for quite awhile. Mr. O'Connor talked a lot about his son, Hugh, and the anger he felt toward the drugs (and the drug dealer) that ultimately cost Hugh his life. He was really driven to bring that dealer to justice; losing Hugh at such a young age must have really been devastating.

Carroll O'Connor's brilliance as an actor was really embodied in that role of Archie Bunker. He made that character funny, sad, dramatic, pathetic, sometimes all within the same episode. (Just the way that he mispronounced certain words was brilliant.) And as the series progressed, the character grew and became more likeable. O'Connor pulled off those changes in a remarkably skillful way. I'm not sure that many other actors could have shaped Archie Bunker the way that he did.

27 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jan 13, 2011 7:42 pm

I watched the show religiously in my adolescence and even got a reference to Archie Bunker in my college admissions essay, characterizing Yonkers, where I grew up, as "filled with Archie Bunkers."

Those were the days.

28 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jan 13, 2011 7:50 pm

And thanks to everyone for all the great, apt comments. I especially have to echo the praise of O'Connor. Absolutely. And not only did he convey so many different emotions and induce genuine emotional responses (pathos), but he did it within the formulaic constraints of a bloody sitcom.

And Matt, yes, excellent point about the character's likely debt to Ralph Kramden. Very nice.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver