All In The Family at 45: The Show That Couldn’t Be Made Today

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 Based on the Brit-com Till Death Do Us Part (which had debuted in 1965), the CBS series All In The Family (1971-1979) was a no-holds barred sitcom about working-class bigot Archie Bunker, an unapologetic racist, homophobic, sexist lout from Astoria, NY. Archie had an opinion on everything, and never failed to offend everyone. The character used inflammatory, non-PC language on a weekly basis. He regularly squared off with his liberal Democrat son-in law Mike in heated arguments about minorities, immigrants, women, non-Christians and just about anyone who wasn’t a straight male W.A.S.P. (and Republican). 

 The show was under fire from Day-One for its controversial subject-matter. Critics and viewers were divided on what they were seeing; some saw it as comic genius and some reviled it as tasteless bigotry. The backlash did not come only from the public and the reviewers. Several actors—including Harrison Ford—turned down roles in the show because they were offended by the script’s humor. Comedy legend Lucille Ball, star of the 1950s mega-hit I Love Lucy, was appalled by the program and lambasted CBS for running such an “Un-American” show on the same network her own series Here’s Lucy was airing on.

 Despite how polarizing the show was, it became a major hit. All In The Family was the first and only show to be the Number One rated TV program for five years in a row. It was also the first show where all the regular cast members won Emmys for their performances. The series also spawned more sequels than any other TV show ever had—Maude was the first, which spun off Good Times. The next spin-off was The Jeffersons, which spun off Checking In. The other spin-offs were Archie Bunkers Place, 704 Hauser Street and Gloria.

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 Carroll O’Conner excellently portrayed Archie, simultaneously making him an ignorant bigot and also a somehow sympathetic character. That’s a hard balance to accomplish, but O’Conner nailed it. In real life, O’Conner was a liberal Democrat and took the role of Archie as a challenge, to see if he could do it. Well done, Mr. O’Conner.  Jean Stapleton co-starred as Archie’s ditzy wife Edith (AKA the “Dingbat”), and Sally Struthers was his daughter Gloria.

 A young Rob Reiner rounded off the cast as liberal son-in-law Mike, who Archie referred to as “Meathead”. Despite winning an Emmy, Reiner moved away from acting after leaving All In The Family in the 7th season and became one of the biggest directors of the 80s and 90s. His films include This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Misery and A Few Good Men, among others.

 With all the complaints and criticism All In The Family got for its offensive humor, why did it win 42 awards, including multiple Emmys (four of which were wins for Outstanding Comedy Series), Golden Globes, People’s Choice awards, Peabody awards, The Writers Guild award and the Television Critics Association award, among others? As recently as 2013, TV Land viewers voted it as the Best Classic Sit-com.

 Even more significantly, All In the Family won the Humanitas Award for three consecutive years (1977-79). The Humanitas Award is given for writing intended to promote dignity, meaning, freedom and understanding. How does a divisive show about a bigot, which blatantly used a certain ‘N-word’, become such a success? Why would it win a humanitarian award?

 Perhaps the real reason for this is that the controversial humor was not really targeting the groups it insulted. According to producer Norman Lear and star O’Conner, the show was meant to mock bigoted people and point a finger at the many prejudices that society still held in the 1970s (and even today.) The character of Archie never prospered from his racist ideas. His ignorance always backfired on him, leaving him with egg on his face. Far from promoting bigotry, the show mocked it by reducing it to ridicule. The real brilliance of the show lay in the fact that the people it was mocking (bigots, sexists and homophobes) didn’t realize that they were being made fun of. They thought the joke was on women and minorities, but were clueless to the fact that they were the real butt of the gag.

 All In The Family was a show that would definitely not be made today. Despite its efforts to mock prejudice, it would likely be misinterpreted now. In the modern PC era, people are far too over-reactive and overly sensitive to language for them to accept a show that throws around racist terms for comedic effect. Too many people would be offended by the edgy surface layer to see the good intentions that lay beneath the jokes. 

 All In The Family was a comic masterpiece of social satire that came along at the perfect time. With the rise of Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib and other socio-cultural agendas of the ‘70s, the show acted as the perfect mirror to hold up and reveal the many prejudices of American society, and even of human nature. It would never work today but thank goodness people got the joke back then.

 Happy 45th Birthday All In The Family.