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A half-century after its bracing debut, sitcom ‘All in the Family’ speaks to today’s conflicts

The issues and lessons of ‘All in the Family’ still resonate

Actor Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker in "All in the Family."
Actor Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker in "All in the Family."AP

One of them spewed ethnic slurs. Another was flighty and yet grounded. A third loved to dance, and danced around her parents’ bickering. And the last of them was a rebel without a pause.

They were Archie, Edith, Gloria, and Meathead. Actually the fourth one’s name was Mike but few today remember that. Even now, a half-century later, they need no introduction, nor a last name, though two of them carried the enduringly famous surname Bunker. They were the principals in “All in the Family,” and for a remarkable nine years they held the attention of nearly every American family, even as they reflected just one kind of American family: white, working class, and marinated in the prejudice — and protests against prejudice — of its time.

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“All in the Family” surfaced the barbed edge of a divided nation in a way that no TV show had done before, and somehow also made that hard work hilarious. Its creator, Norman Lear, doubtless hoped that the America of his day would evolve for the better, that Bunkerism would fall out of favor, maybe in part because of his show’s brazen honesty. But the rise of Trump and Trumpism, culminating in the unthinkable events of last week, tells another story. And so now, as the 50th anniversary of the first episode approaches, the story lines and the punchlines remain strikingly fresh and relevant.

The generations still collide, the bigots still bluster, the genders still clash, the American dream and who owns it still are the topics of the American conversation, though today those conversations usually occur online, the modern equivalent of the Bunker family dinner table at 704 Hauser St. in Queens.

“To some degree, we still contend with these issues,” Lear said in an interview for this retrospective. “They haven’t gone away. We’ve moved on but we haven’t moved off these questions. It isn’t as if the world is rid of Archie Bunker.”

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Nor is the world rid of the unexamined prejudice Archie personified — far from it. Nor of deep, abiding worries that defined Edith. Nor of a sunny outlook amid the gloom, which was Gloria’s gift. Nor even — especially — of dissent, perhaps the longest-lasting American cultural attribute, as ancient as Boston’s pre-Revolutionary Committees of Correspondence and as recent as the country’s 21st-century racial reckoning, which Mike surely would have embraced. Can anyone doubt that Archie and Meathead would have sparred last summer over whether to place a Black Lives Matter lawn sign outside the three-story house in Astoria?

“This show normalized battling over current events in the living room,” said M.V. Lee Badger, director of the School of Policy at UMass Amherst.

Its 205 episodes were groundbreaking in the world of television but would only spotlight, not shatter some of America’s most persistent instincts and impulses.

“We broke ground but we didn’t erect a building,” said Sally Struthers, who played Gloria, in a recent telephone conversation. “It takes a long time for social justice to permeate every human soul. We still have a lot of the Archie Bunker problem, and the big change I expected the show would help promote never happened.”

Even scholars too young to have viewed the series when it was recorded, live in front of a studio audience — but who have reviewed it since — believe “All in the Family” was an unusually significant television undertaking.

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“It was one of the first shows that was explicitly political and it dealt with generational conflict at a time when generational conflict was raging,’' said one of them, Boston University sociologist Deborah Carr, who studies couples conflict.

***

Mike, holding an art book: We’re going to see something you know nothing about: culture.

Archie: Oh ho ho, look at this. No wonder he’s getting himself so excited, it’s one of his own here: A Polack art exhibit.

Mike: That’s “Pollock.” Jackson Pollock. He happens to be a great American artist.

Archie: Well he sure paints Polish. Look at this: He splashes and smears the paint over everything here. What do you mean? A monkey could do that. A great American artist? There ain’t a tree or a president in the whole damn book.

Mike: I’d explain it to you, Arch, but first you’d have to move your brain ahead two centuries.

* * *

Ten years before “All in the Family” debuted, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Newton Minow, rebuked an audience of broadcasting mandarins.

“I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there. ... Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.”

Six decades later, the phrase “vast wasteland” still rings in the American memory. But what was overlooked then, and is forgotten now, is what Minow said right before that blast: “When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.”

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Today — with an “All in the Family” commemorative television show, a coffee-table book, and scores of newspaper reflections being prepared — Minow’s “nothing is better” remark seems especially prescient.

“The brilliance of the show was enlightening these battles with great comedy, undergirded in fundamental family warmth and commitment,’' said Dawn O. Braithwaite, a University of Nebraska specialist in interpersonal and family communication. “Fifty years later, calls to ‘Make America Great Again’ reflect the same futile attempts to return to an America that ... never existed and cannot light our path today.”

So much has changed since the debut of the pathfinding show that Lear created and that his stellar cast animated. Changes, often, not for the better.

“You could see the human side of both Archie and Meathead — and the foolish side of both,” said Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. “Today their heirs would not want to see the human side of their opponents and would not want to see any humor in their opponents.”

For that reason, Hubie Jones, dean emeritus of Boston University’s School of Social Work and for decades a prominent figure in Boston’s Black community, doesn’t believe the show would succeed today. “It was a civil way of looking at uncivil thoughts,” he said. “There’s no laughing today. That’s what we’ve come to.”

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But humor was the lubricant of a show that — like the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” which ended its run two years before “All in the Family” began, and “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which coexisted with the Lear show for two years — examined the squeaky gears of an America struggling with racial issues, gender roles, and a war that, when the show began, had 334,600 US troops in Vietnam.

* * *

Mike: When the hell are you going to admit that the war was wrong?...

Archie: I don’t want to talk about that Goddamn war no more!

* * *

Lear was a prominent presence in Hollywood — he had worked with Martha Raye, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Henry Fonda, and Dick Van Dyke — before “All in the Family.” But he struck a chord, and struck gold, with this series.

The idea had its origins in his own childhood, and there were strains of his mother, the former Jeanette Seicol, in Edith, while in some respects Archie Bunker reflects Hyman Lear, a Connecticut salesman. “My father would say on Sunday nights he wanted to go out for ‘Chinks,’ ” Lear said, employing the crude ethnic slur for Chinese people and, in his father’s usage, Chinese food. “That’s the way he put it. And there were a thousand other things like that. He wasn’t a bad guy. He was just [pause] an Archie Bunker type.”

Archie had some of the power of an archetype because there were so many like him. The father of UMass president Martin T. Meehan worked in the composing room of the Lowell Sun newspaper for 43 years and looked just like Carroll O’Connor, the actor who played Archie. “The show made me realize where I come from and who I really am in terms of race issues,” said Meehan, who still watches “All in the Family” in reruns. “You could see Archie eventually getting an education and you could see the rest of the country getting an education.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was conducting services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh when 11 congregants were killed two years ago, also watched Archie when he was growing up. “This show,” he said, “told America what a bigot looked like.”

The seed for the show came from a British sitcom, “Til Death Do Us Part,” that began airing in 1965 with an East End, London, family at its center. Lear watched it and — instantly! — conceived of an American version that would be even more influential — even more Arch, if the phrase be forgiven — than the British original.

“All in the Family” was stunning from its first episode, and it stunned many viewers. CBS hired extra telephone clerks at its affiliates across the country to answer critical calls. Cast members worried the show would be canceled after its first week. Network officials held their breath.

“We found the show to be hilarious but it was so terribly controversial that we knew we might not stand a chance,” said Struthers. “We had fear in our hearts that first week.” But Lear — later the creative force behind “Sanford and Son,” “Maude,” and “The Jeffersons” — knew he had created something important, enduring — and different.

“Nobody had seen anything like this before,” he said. “The theater allowed this sort of social commentary but television didn’t.” The reason: Television executives resisted shows like “All in the Family” because “they felt they had a responsibility to the American family. ... There was nothing we did in “All in the Family” that you couldn’t hear on the street or on the school playground. But Archie was a brand-new experience [on TV], as was Edith.”

* * *

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.

Didn’t need no welfare state,

Everybody pulled his weight.

Gee our old LaSalle ran great.

Those were the days.

“All in the Family” theme song

* * *

At the heart of the show, of course, was Archie himself, played with deftness but detachment by O’Connor. He would go on to play other roles — a Mississippi police chief, for example, in television’s “In the Heat of the Night” — but in many ways he would be forever Archie.

“He was more than perfect,” Lear said. “It never would have become the Archie that it became with anyone else in the role. ... I would say the same is true with Edith. The gods were speaking when the casting was being done.”

Edith, played by Jean Stapleton, was ditzy in a “to-the-moon-Alice” way that Ralph Kramden barked to his wife on the “Jackie Gleason Show,” which went off the air just six months before “All in the Family” went on. But for all that, Edith was independent in her own way, once saying to Gloria, “Why does everyone around here think they know me?”

They didn’t. And everyone didn’t love “All in the Family.” Though Cleveland Amory, a prominent television critic at the time, praised it in TV Guide (“Not just the best‐written, best-directed, and best‐acted show on television, it is the best show on television”), it did not escape criticism. Fifty years later, the cast and Lear himself still are singed by a New York Times essay by novelist Laura Z. Hobson that bluntly asserted, “I don’t think you can be a black-baiter and lovable, or an anti-Semite and lovable. And I don’t think the millions who watch this show should be conned into thinking you can be.”

But Martin Kaplan, who holds the title of Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, does not believe the show’s effect was to elicit nostalgia for a time when unvarnished bigotry was socially acceptable.

“It’s nostalgia for a time before opposition to bigotry was rebranded, pejoratively, as ‘political correctness,’ ” he said. “Today, Meathead would be dissed as a snowflake for pushing back against Archie’s racism, sexism, and homophobia, but in the ’70s, for many viewers — I’d say most — Archie’s son-in-law gave voice to the authentic American way.”

* * *

Mike: That’s what’s wrong with this country. Nobody asks questions anymore.

Archie: Can I ask you a question?

Mike: Sure.

Archie: Why don’t you shut up?

* * *

Lear himself never shut up. People for the American Way, of course, was Lear’s challenge to the cultural and social initiatives of the religious right and its conservative allies. Indeed, several months ago, in a separate conversation, Lear said of the face of Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and Senate majority leader, “I don’t know anything I want to push a pie into more.”

And the show itself is an implicit violation — a pie in the face — of the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934, which said that “the treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.”

That is part of its significance, argued David Shumway, a professor of literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. “ ‘All in the Family’ was the first product of the American entertainment to expose the casual, everyday racism of America,” he said. “Hollywood had restricted some of the epithets Archie used. Norman Lear’s genius was to bring out in public the kind of language real people used but that the veneer of entertainment had kept hidden.”

For Lear, the personal is political, and the political is personal, even at age 98.

“Norman Lear is a visionary who was able to have the kind of social impact that we all aspire to,” said Carl Kurlander, the television and film screenwriter best known for “St. Elmo’s Fire,” a 1985 coming-of-age film. ”He made you feel warm and outraged at the same time, which is such a hard thing to do.”

Today, the living-room chairs that Archie and Edith occupied during the show rest in the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Today each of the principal characters in the show has a Wikipedia page, as if they were real people, because in a sense they were. O’Connor died in 2001 and Stapleton in 2013. Reiner and Struthers both are 73 — a quarter-century older than Archie was when the show began.

“ ‘All in the Family’ was politically incorrect and yet it touched every political issue of the time,” said Christine Whelan, director of the Money, Relationships and Equality Initiative at the University of Wisconsin. “It was irreverent, it was in your face, and it spoke to the evolution many families were feeling at the time — and still are.”