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On Saturday nights in the mid-Seventies, 60 per cent of all television sets were tuned into the landmark sitcom in which a Queens loading dock worker named Archie Bunker was the hero.  All in the Family was simultaneously the most popular and controversial show of the 1970's. Never before had a situation comedy brought Americans face-to-face with each other via the medium of television, utilizing controversial themes such as sexuality and race relations to comprise story lines. 

By 1971, television had become a mix of comedic cardboard cutouts screwing up cozy life in the suburbs and dramatic superman heroes involved in comic book plots. Producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin were afraid that any attempt to lampoon the blue-collar lifestyle would surely fail because Americans had become too dour to laugh at themselves. 

With nothing to lose, Lear and York didn't hold back. CBS unsuccessfully tried to convince them to revise the opening scene of the pilot, which showed son-in-law Mike "Meathead" Stivic (played by Rob Reiner) desperately trying to persuade his wife Gloria (Sally Struthers) to have sex at eleven in the morning while father-in-law Archie and mother-in-law Edith (Jean Stapleton) were at church. When he arrives home, Archie (played brilliantly by Carroll O'Connor) enjoys his Sabbath from his easy chair, supermarket beer in hand, vociferously denouncing the contemporary attack on the white male in general, addressing African-Americans as "black beauties", Hispanic-Americans as "spics" and Jews as "that tribe" in the process. "I'm white, I'm male, I'm protestant. Where's there a law to protect me?" he protests. 

Needless to say Americans had never seen a television character like that on their living room screens. The CBS switchboard lit up following the show, with mixed reviews from viewers and critics. Some said the show went too far with the ethnic and racial slurs, while others said it didn't go far enough, that using Archie Bunker as a representative was putting a tame face on bigotry. In spite of it's controversial subject matter, 'All in the Family' started slowly in the Wednesday 9:30 time slot. CBS moved it to the Saturday 8:00 time slot, where it proceeded to wipe out the competition.

Archie Bunker photoBy the end of it's first season, more people were watching 'All in the Family' than any other show on the air - a viewership of 60 million people. Critical success came as well: "landmark" and "breakthrough" were words used to describe the show.

"Timeless" is another description. Watching old episodes of All in the Family' bring home the old saying "the more things change, the more they stay the same." There is not a controversial '90's topic that Archie Bunker didn't address back in the '70's. He pontificated on affirmative action ("if your spics and spades want to make it in this world, let 'em hustle for it like I done."), gun control ("all the airlines have to do to end skyjackings is arm the passengers"), tolerance of homosexuality ("England is a fag country") and liberal bias in the media ("Pinko Conkrite").

All in the Family castSo why do we never arrive at 704 Howser Street while flipping the remote? It's simple: 'All in the Family' is simply too hot for VH-1, too intelligent for E!, who gets off on running back to back episodes of 'One Day at a Time'.

Producers of Cable channels know their audience and realize that half the people wouldn't get what 'All in the Family' was all about and the half who did wouldn't find it funny. Television viewers today don't have the attention span to look beyond what Archie Bunker says and what he represents. Liberals would immediately begin wringing their hands, worried that lampooning a bigot would merely reinforce and encourage bigoted sentiments inside the common man.

Conservatives would snub the show as a liberal media plot to make them look stupid, despite the fact that liberal son-in-law Meathead wasn't the most loveable liberal in the world. There would be the people who hear one wrong word possibly making a reference to them and would light up the network switchboards in ways CBS would have found unsurvivable twenty-five years ago.

All in the Family cast photoFurthermore, viewers wouldn't understand the humor behind 'All in the Family' and the true genius of Carroll O'Connor's interpretation of Archie Bunker lay in the fact that a sitcom actually had the balls to satirize bigotry.

Television has never been regarded as the proper medium to employ satire as a means of making audiences laugh. The definition of satire is "the use of sarcasm, irony, or keen wit in denouncing abuses or follies". Does that describe any sitcom on television since M*A*S*H went off the air fourteen years ago? Television's version of keen wit today is making reference to body parts without actually mentioning them by name.

Two footnotes. In 1972 President Nixon took the time to view an episode of 'All in the Family' and did not find the show funny. In the nineties, when talk of bringing Archie Bunker back on television in a new setting was circulating, Carroll O'Connor expressed interest but Norman Lear did not. He knows the sad truth: Americans have become too dour to laugh at themselves.

 

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Details

Premiere Date:  January 12, 1971
Description:  1971 sit-com that was created by Norman Lear. The show is a remake of the English sit-com 'Til Death Us Do Part.
Genre:  Comedy, Drama
Studio:  Bud Yorkin Productions , CBS
CastJames Cromwell, Betty Garrett, Mel Stewart, Sorrell Booke, Roscoe Lee Browne, Burt Mustin, Liz Torres, Vincent Gardenia, Gloria Le Roy, Sherman Hemsley, Barnard Hughes, Isabel Sanford, Jason Wingreen, Mike Evans, Bob Hastings, Bill Macy, Allan Melvin
StarringCarroll O'Connor, Rob Reiner, Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers
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review by . March 23, 2009
Archie and Edith
For todays generation of television viewers the numbers seem incomprehensible.  Yet, it is indeed a fact that on Saturday nights in the early 1970's 60% of those watching television in  America were tuned in to producer Norman Lear's groundbreaking situation comedy "All In The Family" on CBS.  "All In The Family" premiered on January 12, 1971 as a mid-season replacement with an episode called "Meet The Bunkers".  Executives …
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