Are you old enough to remember the TV sitcom “All in the Family”? Or have you managed to catch an episode or two on late-night TV?
This sitcom was a number-one hit on TV in the 1970s (it debuted in ’71 and lasted till ’79), and it became an honest-to-goodness phenomenon. Produced by Norman Lear, it featured movie and TV actor Carroll O’Connor as the irascible Archie Bunker. Archie was a working-class bigot, openly racist and sexist. Sitting in his favorite living-room chair (now enshrined in the Smithsonian), chomping on a cigar, he belittled gays and intellectuals and anyone else who lived outside his narrow world in Queens, New York.
Why did a sitcom revolving around this character become an Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning hit? Probably because audiences felt comfortable laughing at Archie’s appalling antics. Audiences could watch Archie clumsily try to maneuver through a rapidly changing world, feeling smugly superior to him while we grappled with many of the same troubling issues in our own lives.
Archie was surrounded by a memorable family, notably his long-suffering wife Edith, whom Archie called “the dingbat.” Edith was played by Jean Stapleton as a somewhat flaky but kind-hearted helpmeet who tolerated her husband’s offensive behavior because she truly loved him. Archie’s daughter Gloria, portrayed by Sally Struthers at the outset as a miniskirted twenty-something with corkscrew blonde curls, and Gloria’s husband, college student Mike, played by Rob Reiner in much slimmer times, completed the family circle. Without enough money to afford their own place, Gloria and Mike lived with Archie and Edith, creating a situation rife with conflict.
Archie and Mike (dubbed “Meathead” by Archie) constantly clashed, their different world-views colliding on a daily basis. Gloria was caught in the middle, sometimes siding with Archie but usually backing up her husband Mike. This dynamic provided considerable comic fodder for the audience. When, later in the show’s run, Mike and Gloria left Archie’s house and moved to their own place, a lot of the comedy went with them.
A few years back, someone asked me which TV show I would choose to inhabit if I was suddenly transported into a TV sitcom. My choice was easy: “All in the Family.”
I knew precisely where I wanted to go: 704 Hauser Street, Queens, New York, plunked down in the Bunker household as a newly minted version of Archie’s daughter, Gloria.
In my version of the Bunker family, Gloria would no longer be Archie’s relentlessly cute but somewhat uncomplicated daughter, declaring “Oh, Daddy!” whenever Archie did something that baffled or annoyed her. I’d be a smarter, savvier Gloria, bringing a dose of common sense and a measure of sensitivity to the Bunker household.
Instead of running off to Mike, as Gloria was wont to do, I’d give Archie a hug, then sit down with him and offer him my empathy. I’d let him know I understood how hard it was to be a blue-collar white male in a world that was spinning around him, changing by the hour. I’d try to reassure him that he still had his place in that world, and that nothing would ever change my daughterly love for him.
I’d empathize with Edith, too, trying to reassure her as well. I’d let her know it was okay for her to be content–for the moment–in her current role, that of a housewife whose focus was cooking, cleaning, and helping her husband deal with his daily defeats at home and at work. At the same time, I’d encourage her incipient efforts to become more assertive, no longer entirely dependent on Archie and therefore no longer the willing target of his insults and disparaging attitude.
As for the Meathead, I’d struggle to keep our marriage intact, constantly reminding myself how much he loved me, calming him down whenever Archie was on the warpath, serving as a buffer between the two of them more effectively than Gloria ever did.
In sum, I’d bring tranquility and order to the Bunker household, thereby transforming the Bunker family into the kind of family I always tried to create in my own home.
There’s just one problem: “All in the Family” wouldn’t be funny anymore. The Archie that I loved to laugh at would be buried under a cloak of rationality, with only bits and pieces of funny stuff breaking through now and then.
My family shared a house much like the Bunkers’, but our dynamic was nothing like theirs. We bounced ideas off of each other, not always in total agreement but open to what each of us had to say. As my children grew and the world evolved, we evolved, too. We shared a home full of love and a minimal amount of conflict.
So, although we had loads of fun together, we were pretty boring compared to the Bunkers—not at all the stuff of a successful TV sitcom. I guess I would have liked to see the Bunkers become more like us, but let’s face it: The result would have been much closer to “Little House on Hauser Street” or “The Waltons of Queens,” and nothing like the very funny “All in the Family.”