Welcome to Summer Of Reruns. For the next few weeks, I’m going to devote my television column at l’étoile to looking at several shows and looking at why they’re important; not only in the history of the medium, but also why they’ve stuck around.
In the 1970 – 1971 television season, CBS aired two very different comedies. One would focus on an anti-social bigot in Queens and the terror he would reign on his family and neighbors. The other would focus on a young woman terminating an engagement and running away to Minneapolis to start a new life. Both of these shows would receive their shares of controversy and criticism. Both would be embraced by audiences and critics and would win boatloads of Emmy awards. And both would change the face of television (and television comedy in particular) as we know it since both are considered among the greatest shows ever made in the history of the medium. To be blunt, every single sitcom on the air owes part of its DNA to one or both of these shows, and it would be the guide posts that you could divide all sitcoms by.
Archie versus Mary. Or, to be more blunt about it, producer Norman Lear versus MTM Productions.
To understand this divide between these two titanic producers of the 1970s and their impact, we have to look at their signature shows and how they have influenced the medium. And while we’ll look at MTM Productions in another column, today we shall look at iconic producer Norman Lear and his greatest triumph; All In The Family.
First, a little history. Lear and his frequent collaborator Bud Yorkin had acquired the rights to the British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, and created an American adaptation originally for ABC called Justice For All, then it was remade as Those Were The Days (taking the name from the soon-to-be iconic theme song by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse). Eventually CBS, who had tried to acquire the rights to Till Death Do Us Part, bought Lear’s pilot from ABC, and with a slight recast, All In The Family debuted on January 21, 1971.
Imagine being in the audience for those initial tapings. Set in small Queens house of the Bunker family, the show centers around Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), a working class WASP who dismisses not only the “spics and spades” that are threatening his country, but regularly gets into arguments with his progressive son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) who is also living in the house with his wife (and Archie’s daughter) Gloria (Sally Struthers). Lear had meant for the arguments between Archie and Mike to be uncomfortable, and they were; if you watch the first episode you can hear the unease of the audience. The saving grace was Archie’s wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), a.k.a. “Dingbat”, whose slightly daffy observations and commentary would turn mildly funny lines into gut-bustingly funny moments (thanks also to Stapleton’s peerless timing). While it received some controversy and circled the threat of cancellation, it would be the critics and The Emmys that saved the series which would run for nine seasons and go on to dominate the television landscape of the early and mid 1970s.
Here are some of the reasons why All In The Family, and Norman Lear’s other projects, were so important to television as a medium (along with shows that owe a debt to All In The Family):
* The British-ness Of It All. All In The Family would be among the first American shows that would be adapted from a British television show. Lear would go back to the well again with Sanford and Son, which was adapted from the British comedy Steptoe and Son. Nowadays, you can’t turn on the television without watching a show that has been adapted from a British show, though none have done it as well as Lear and his team of writers and producers.
* The Subject Matter. Racism, class warfare, homosexuality, the women’s liberation movement, rape, miscarriage, abortion, breast cancer, the Vietnam War, menopause, and impotence had been tackled by television before, but never had anyone attempted to wring comedy from it. Lear and his writers had intended this show (and the other shows produced under Lear’s aegis – more on that in a minute) to reflect and provoke the debates that Americans were having at the time. Lear’s genius was that he took it to drastic extremes reflected in the near-brawls that Archie and Mike have, while still being laugh out loud funny. As a prime example, the first four episodes of Season 5 tackled the recession that was crippling the economy at the time. All In The Family allowed sitcoms to take on more dramatic subject matter without sacrificing any humor.
* The Tone. As I said All In The Family and the other Lear comedies could and did swing violently in tone from uproarious to melodramatic to earnest; often within the span of seconds. While the tonality could be over the top, it served to sell the satire of the show. There are so many shows that owe this debt to All In The Family, but South Park has taken the satirical tonal shifting set by Lear and ran with it to the logical conclusion.
* Working Class Woes. Not since The Honeymooners has there ever been a sitcom that was so patiently blue class. The Bunker’s house was worn in and helped to ground their lower-middle class lives, complete with the first flushing toilet ever heard on national television. (Side Note: CBS had tried to get the rights to Till Death Do Us Part for Honeymooners star Jackie Gleason, who was under contract with them at the time.) In fact, Roseanne, the great blue-collar comedy of the 80s, could easily be seen as a gender-swapped take on the Bunkers.
* The Phenomenal Cast. It would be one of the great ironies of all time that Carroll O’Connor, one of the most astute and liberal actors in Hollywood, would be best known for playing the poster boy for conservatives in the 1970s. It would be another irony that Jean Stapleton, one of the most intelligent actresses ever, would be Archie’s beloved Dingbat. It is a testament to O’Connor and Stapleton’s immense talent and palpable chemistry that they never wink at the audience and commit to all of the lovely and ugly sides of Archie and Edith. As Mike, Rob Reiner never plays the moral superior hand against Archie; time and again Reiner and Lear show that Mike can be just as tyrannical in his own way to Gloria as Archie is to Edith. Speaking of Gloria, Sally Struthers does the surprisingly impossible and manages to make her performance indebted to both O’Connor and Stapleton. It was no surprise then that all four of them would win Emmy Awards for their performances; a trick that wouldn’t be repeated until The Golden Girls (which was created by Lear acolyte Susan Harris).
* The Spinoffs. In the age of producer/writer Shonda Rimes getting an entire night devoted to her shows this coming fall, it pays to remember that Lear basically took over television first. No other show in television history had as many spin offs as All In The Family. The first was Maude, based on Edith’s cousin, who was basically a female, liberal, affluent take on Archie Bunker. That would in turn spin off Good Times, which followed Maude’s former maid Florida as she dealt with life in the Chicago projects. Then there was The Jeffersons, which followed Archie’s neighbors George and Louise Jefferson (which were basically an affluent African-American take on Archie and a more assertive take on Edith) as they came to money and moved on up (to the East Side, to a deluxe apartment in the sky) and out of the neighborhood. And that’s not counting the non-Archie shows that Lear produced. Sanford and Son, One Day At A Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman would all combine Lear’s notion of satire as a way of dealing with the issues of the day.
* The Ratings Dominance. All In The Family was the first show to truly dominate the Nielsen Ratings, holding the #1 spot for five consecutive seasons. This feat wouldn’t be matched until The Cosby Show matched it in the 1980s and then American Idol beat that record with eight consecutive seasons in the top spot.
In breaking the mold of sitcoms as they were at the time, in its detailed examination of blue-collar lives, in its stunning use of satire to tackle subject that would have been impossible before (delivered by an amazing cast), and in its dominance of the television airwaves, All In The Family is worthy of being watched (and re-watched) again (and you can on Hulu).
Next Time: While All In The Family dominated the 1970-1971 season, it ran smack into the other 1970-1971 hit television comedy. But the story of WJM Television will have to wait till later…