All In The Family Essays

Forty-three years ago, a groundbreaking television show transformed the American viewing audience when All in the Family debuted in 1971. By the end of the first season, 60 million people were watching it. After 212 ground-breaking episodes that depicted most topics affecting the turmoil in our country, the show ended in 1979, spawning numerous spin-offs that lasted several more years. The show's enormous success was based on the writers' aptitude to depict the unrest in the country and the characters' ability to stay true to their strong personal beliefs. Topics like equal rights for both minorities and women, Watergate and Vietnam, dominated the news, as well as the show's plotlines.

All in the Family, a sitcom that dealt with contemporary cultural issues like no other show had dared, was popular because it focused on everyday concerns and their effect on an average middle-class family of that era. The show is primarily from the viewpoint of Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), a hard working family man in Queens, New York who just can't catch a break. Does this scenario sound familiar to you or anyone you know? History repeats itself even when lessons from the past should have been learned.

Archie, a WWII veteran, is an outspoken bigot, prejudiced against everyone who is not a U.S.-born, politically conservative, heterosexual White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) male, and dismisses everyone who doesn't agree with his view of the world. He believes wholeheartedly in his government and is a strong supporter of President Nixon. Ironically, Nixon hated the sitcom.

Archie's household consists of his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), his daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) and her radically liberal husband, Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Michael, who is often referred to as "meathead" and "Polock," is a constant target for Archie's bigotry.

On the political scene, Michael's views don't sit well with Archie, who believes the American government can do no wrong. Archie, a staunch conservative, and Michael, a liberal, discuss how the Presidential Campaign funds are unequal... "the Republicans have so much more money to run TV ads, than the Democrats do." After the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court opened the flood gates, not much is different today.

Archie, like many of our Republicans, votes against his own best interest. Voting for tax breaks for the wealthy, while decreasing money needed for social and job programs to help the poor, elderly and middle class, didn't make sense then, and still doesn't today.

In one episode, Archie struggled to pay his taxes. Michael, his son-in-law, pointed out that hardworking people's taxes would be lower if large corporations and the rich paid their fair share and Congress would just close the tax loopholes. Nearly 50 years later, tax loopholes and inequitable tax laws that favor large corporations, and the rich, still exist. In addition, they are creating an income inequality in this country that is eliminating the middle class.

When All in the Family tackled the subject of a woman's right to control her own body, and to decide on whether to have an abortion, it was a controversial issue. Surprisingly, it continues to be an issue in 2014. Even though the Supreme Court upheld its legality, many state governors and legislatures are following their own beliefs, deliberately destroying women's health care, and defying the highest court in the land.

While medical issues have made enormous progress in some realms, in others they have taken a step backwards. When Archie needs emergency surgery, the doctor available is female, and his prejudice about a woman's role comes into play. But as Michael cheerfully points out to the cash-strapped Archie, being a woman, I'm sure she makes less than her male counterparts. Sound familiar in 2014?

All in the Family pushed the envelope on other controversial issues as well. When African-American neighbors Louise (Isabel Sanford), George (Sherman Hemsley) and Lionel Jefferson (Mike Evans) move into Archie's previously all-white neighborhood, racial stereotypes and bigotry, become recurring themes.

Throughout the years, All in the Family mocks Archie's blatant racism as he refers to Lionel as "yous people," and other derogatory innuendos. Archie expresses his disdain for affirmative action with "if [they] want to make it in this world, let 'em hustle for it like I done." The show skillfully combined these serious topics with laughable moments. One such moment occurred when Sammy Davis Jr. came to Archie's home. While honored to have such a famous celebrity in his home, he is still bothered by the color of Davis' skin. The crowning moment of the show unfolded when Archie asked Mike to take a picture of them so he can show the guys at work. Just as Mike snaps the picture, Sammy leans in and kisses Archie, capturing a bewildered Archie for all eternity. Today, racism still exists, but there are no comedic moments to offer.

Instead, racism seems like it is on the rise along with gun sales and gun-related deaths. Archie's solution to gun violence, unfortunately, matches our NRA's stance today. Archie feels: "All the airlines have to do to end skyjackings is arm the passengers." And a NRA spokesman recently stated "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

All in the Family dealt with topics that were taboo at that time: divorce, breast cancer, rape, women's liberation, the gay rights movement, and racism.

Nearly 50 years later, we are still tackling many of these same issues. But even Archie's strong support for the government may wane a little if he was faced with today's dysfunctional, do-nothing Congress.

Follow Gerry Myers on Twitter: www.twitter.com/glmyers

For five years, All in the Family, which aired on CBS from 1971-1983 (in its last four seasons under the title Archie Bunker's Place), was the top-rated show on American television, and the winner of four consecutive Emmy Awards as Outstanding Comedy Series. All in the Family was not only one of the most successful sitcoms in history, it was also one of the most important and influential series ever to air, for it ushered in a new era in American television characterized by programs that did not shy away from addressing controversial or socially relevant subject matters.

All in the Family's storylines centered on the domestic concerns of the Bunker household in Queens, New York. Family patriarch and breadwinner Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) was a bigoted loading dock worker disturbed by the changes occurring in the American society he once knew. To Archie, gains by the "Spades," "Spics," or "Hebes" of America (as he referred to Blacks, Hispanics, and Jews, respectively), came at his expense and that of other lower middle class whites. Countering Archie's harsh demeanor was his sweet but flighty "dingbat" wife, Edith. Played by Jean Stapleton, Edith usually endured Archie's tirades in a manner meant to avoid confrontation. But that was hardly the case with Archie's live-in son-in-law Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner), a liberal college student who was married to the Bunkers' daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers). The confrontations between Archie and Mike ("Meathead") served as the basis for much of All in the Family's comedy. As surely as Archie could be counted upon to be politically conservative and socially misguided, Mike was equally liberal and sensitive to the concerns of minorities and the oppressed, and, because both characters were extremely vocal in their viewpoints, heated conflict between the two was assured.

Producers Norman Lear and Alan (Bud) Yorkin brought All in the Family into being by obtaining the U.S. rights to the hit British comedy series, Till Death Us Do Part, which aired on the BBC in the mid-1960s and featured the character of bigoted dock worker Alf Garnett. Lear developed two pilots based on the concept for ABC, with O'Connor (Mickey Rooney had been Lear's first choice to play Archie) and Stapleton in the lead roles. But when ABC turned down the series, then known as Those Were the Days, it appeared that it would never get off the ground. Luckily for Lear and Yorkin, CBS President Robert D. Wood was in the market for new shows that would appeal to the more affluent, urban audience the network's entrenched lineup of top-rated but aging series failed to attract. As a result, CBS jettisoned highly rated programs like The Red Skelton Show and Green Acres in an effort to improve the demographic profile of its audiences, and All in the Family seemed a perfect, though risky, vehicle to put in their place. CBS therefore made a 13-episode commitment to air the series beginning in January 1971, as a midseason replacement.

The network had good reason to be wary of reaction to its new show. All in the Family seemed to revel in breaking prime time's previously unbreakable taboos. Archie's frequent diatribes laced with degrading racial and ethnic epithets, Mike and Gloria's obviously active sex life, the sounds of Archie's belching and of flushing toilets--all broke with sitcom convention. They also and made people sit up and take notice of the new CBS series. In fact, its unconventionality caused All in the Family's pilot episode to consistently rate below average in research tests conducted by both ABC and CBS. Nevertheless, CBS went ahead and debuted the show on 12 January 1971, though with relatively little fanfare or network promotion.

Viewer response to All in the Family was at first tepid. CBS's switchboards were prepared for an avalanche of calls in response to the show's initial airing, but this onslaught never materialized, in part because of the poor 15% audience share garnered by the first episode, which put it a distant third in its time period behind movies on NBC and ABC. But while the show continued to languish in the Nielsen ratings in its first few months, TV critics began to take notice. Despite the negative reviews of a small number of critics, such as Life's John Leonard ("a wretched program"), the critical response was generally positive. Combined with strong word-of-mouth among viewers these evaluations helped the show's audience to slowly grow. The May 1971, Emmy Awards helped to cap All in the Family's climb. The midseason replacement was featured in the opening skit of the Emmy telecast, and earned awards in three categories, including Outstanding Comedy Series. All in the Family shortly thereafter became the top-rated show in prime time, and held onto that position for each of the following five seasons.

The program was able to keep an especially sharp edge over its first half dozen years thanks to the evolving character development of the series' primary cast members and the infusion of strong supporting characters. Both the Bunkers' African American next-door neighbors, the Jeffersons, and Edith's visiting cousin, Maude Findlay (played by Bea Arthur), eventually went on to star in successful spin-off series of their own. All in the Family also benefited from an occasional one-shot guest appearance, the most memorable of which featured entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., written by comedian Bill Dana.

All in the Family's impact went beyond the world of television. The show became the focus of a heated national debate on whether the use of comedy was an appropriate means by which to combat prejudice and social inequality. In addition, the character of Archie Bunker became nothing short of an American icon. While Till Death Us Do Part's Alf Garnett was generally unlikable, producer Lear chose to soften the character for American TV, patterning him in many ways after his own father. As a result, Carroll O'Connor's characterization of Archie contained notable sympathetic qualities, allowing many viewers to see Archie in a favorable light despite his obvious foibles.

By the late 1970s, however, it was becoming clear that the show had lost much of its earlier spark. Major cast changes occurred in 1978, when Struthers and Reiner left the series, and again in 1980, when Stapleton departed. (The fact that this contractual arrangement was written into the show as Edith's death allowed Lear and company to show once again what had made this series truly memorable.) Archie quit his job in 1977 to buy and run a neighborhood tavern, and the series was retitled Archie Bunker's Place in 1979 to reflect the changed nature of the program. By that point, however, though still highly rated, the show no longer stood out as unique, and had become what seemed to many a rather conventional sitcom.

All in the Family's lasting impact on American television is difficult to overestimate. It helped to usher in a new generation of comedic programs that abandoned the light domestic plotlines of television's early years in favor of topical themes with important social significance. In this sense, its influence on prime time programming continues to be felt decades later. -David Gunzerath

CAST

Archie Bunker...................................Carroll O'Connor

Edith Bunker(1971-80)......................... Jean Stapleton

Gloria Bunker Stivic(1971-78................ Sally Struthers

Mike Stivic (Meathead)(1971-78).................Rob Reiner

Lionel Jefferson(1971-75)...........................Mike Evans

Louise Jefferson(1971-75)......................Isabel Sanford

Henry Jefferson(1971-73)..........................Mel Stewart

George Jefferson(1973-75)................Sherman Hemsley

Irene Lorenzo(1973-75)............................Betty Garrett

Frank Lorenzo (1973-74)...................Vincent Gardenia

Bert Munson (1972-77)................................Billy Halop

Tommy Kelsey (1972-73).......................Brendon Dillon

Tommy Kelsey (1973-77).........................Bob Hastings

Justin Quigley (1973-76)............................Burt Mustin

Barney Hefner (1973-83)............................Allan Melvin

Jo Nelson (1973-75)...............................Ruth McDevitt

Stretch Cunningham (1974).................James Cromwell

Teresa Betancourt (1976-77).........................Liz Torres

Stephanie Mills (1978-83)..................Danielle Brisebois

Harry Snowden (1977-83).................... Jason Wingreen

Hank Pivnik (1977-81)...........................Danny Dayton

Murray Klein (1979-81)...........................Martin Balsam

Mr. Van Ranseleer (1978-83).........................Bill Quinn

Veronica Rooney (1979-82)........................Anne Meara

Jose (1979-83)..................................Abraham Alvarez

Linda (1980-81)......................................Heidi Hagman

Raoul (1980-83)........................................Joe Rosario

Ellen Canby (1980-82)............................Barbara Meek

Polly Swanson (1980-81)..................Janet MacLachlan

Ed Swanson (1980-81)................................Mel Bryant

Billie Bunker (1981-83).............................Denise Miller

Gary Rabinowitz (1981-83).......................Barry Gordon

Bruce (198Z-83)......................................Bob Okazaki

Marsha (1982-83).................................Jessica Nelson

PRODUCERS

Norman Lear , Woody Kling, Hal Kanter,Mort Lachman, Don Nicholl, Lou Derman, Brigit Jensen Drake, John Rich, Milt Josefberg, Michael Ross, Bernie West, Bill Danoff

PROGRAMMING HISTORY

204 Episodes

CBS

January 1971-July 1971 Tuesday 9:30-10:00

September 1971-September 1975  Saturday 8:00-8:30

September 1975-September 1976 Monday 9:00-9:30

September 1976-0ctober 1976 Wednesday 9:00-9:30

November 1976-September 1977 Saturday 9:00-9:30

October 1977-October 1978 Sunday 9:00-9:30

October 1978-March 1983 Sunday 8:00-8:30

Mar 1983-May 1983 Monday 8:00-8:30

May 1983 Sunday 8:00-8:30

June 1983 Monday 9:30-10:00

June 1983-September 1983 Wednesday 8:00-8:30

June 1991 Sunday 8:30-9:00 June 1991-July 1991 Sunday 8:00-8:30

September 1991 Friday 8:30-9:00

FURTHER READING

Arlen, Michael. The View from Highway 1. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Bedell, Sally. Up the Tube: Prime-Time TV and the Silverman Years. New York: Viking, 1981.

Brooks, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory To Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946-Present. 4th ed. New York: Ballantine, 1988.

"CBS Sked Shake; Shift All in Family to Lead Sat." Variety (Los Angeles), 18 August 1971.

"CBS-TV's Bigot that BBC Begat Figures to Salt Up Second Season." Variety (Los Angeles), 22 July 1970.

"Family Fun." Newsweek (New York), 15 March 1971.

Ferretti, Fred. "Are Racism and Bigotry Funny?" New York Times, 12 January 1971.

Gent, George. "All In The Family Takes First Place in Nielsen Ratings." New York Times, 25 May 1971.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon, 1985.

Hano, Arnold. "Can Archie Bunker Give Bigotry A Bad Name?" New York Times Magazine, 12 March 1972.

Kasindorf, Martin. "Archie and Maude and Fred and Norman and Alan." New York Times Magazine, 24 June 1973.

Leonard, John. "Bigotry as a Dirty Joke." Life (New York), 19 March 1971.

Metz, Robert. CBS: Reflections In A Bloodshot Eye. Chicago: Playboy, 1975.

O'Neil, Thomas. The Emmys. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Shayon, Robert Lewis. "Love That Hate." Saturday Review (New York), 27 March 1971.

_______________. "Archie's Other Side." Saturday Review (New York), 8 January 1972.

Waldron, Vince. Classic Sitcoms. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

Wander, Philip. "Counters In The Social Drama: Some Notes On All In The Family." In, Newcomb, Horace, editor. Television: The Critical View, 1st Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.

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