Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Those were the days
By Edward Copeland
Forty years ago tonight, CBS put extra operators in place at switchboards across the United States, anticipating the commotion that would rock the world when a new situation comedy called All in the Family made its debut. With its lead character, a loudmouth, blue-collar bigot in constant conflict with his liberal son-in-law, and broaching prejudice and other touchy topics, the network feared that they wouldn't hear the end of it. Surprisingly, most of the calls they received were favorable, Archie Bunker became a household name and new ground was broken on what could be discussed on a network television series. Unfortunately, when you scan across the dial today, I fear that much of that ground has been lost and a series such as Norman Lear's American take on the British comedy Till Death Do Us Part would never make the network air today.
When All in the Family debuted, its immediate lead-in, unbelievably, was the country music variety series Hee-Haw. Before we "Meet the Bunkers" (the title of the first episode), CBS placed a note on the screen that read as follows:
"The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It attempts to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are."
Then viewers were treated to that familiar opening number, re-shot several times over the years as the characters and actors aged, of Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie and Edith Bunker sitting at the piano and warbling the words to "Those Were the Days."
songs that made the hit parade,
guys like us we had it made,
those were the days.
And you knew where 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!"
There were other verses, but those were the ones audiences would come to know. Something I'd long forgotten until I started re-watching episodes for this piece is that this song was written by composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams, the team best known for the Broadway musicals Bye Bye Birdie and Annie, among many others. Strouse even composed some film scores solo including Bonnie and Clyde and Ishtar. Strouse also scored the movie The Night They Raided Minsky's, which was co-written and produced by Norman Lear, the mastermind who brought All in the Family to the small screen.
For such nervous executives, All in the Family had an extraordinarily long and fruitful run of nine seasons and 201 episodes and that doesn't count its mutation into the four-season, 97 episode run of Archie Bunker's Place. It, alongside other 1970s hits Happy Days and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, proved extraordinarily successful when it came to spinning off characters into their own series. All in the Family begat Maude (which itself begat Good Times), The Jeffersons (which begat the short-lived Florence spinoff Checking In) and, even though they were less successful or downright flops, a much later series called Gloria and a brief one called 704 Hauser Street, which only took place in the same house in which the Bunkers had lived but was now occupied by an African-American family with a old-style liberal father (John Amos) clashing with his conservative college-age son.
Since it began midseason, that first season had a mere 13 episodes and, as still is the case with most shows today, it usually takes a few episodes for a new series to find its sea legs. Various reference sources will give you different titles for some of the episodes. The episode titles on the DVD won't necessarily match those in the book Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria by Donna McCrohan or the IMDb or episode guides Web site. Regardless of its title, having re-watched the entire first season (time constraints prevented me from re-visiting all the episodes (at least that's my excuse for avoiding the Danielle Brisebois season), the fourth episode, which I'll call "Judging Books By Covers," is the episode when they really had all the cylinders humming. Archie finds himself annoyed when Mike's flamboyant friend Roger (Anthony Geary in his pre-General Hospital days) visits and Archie assumes by his dress and the way he carries himself that Roger must be gay, despite Mike and Gloria's insistence that he's straight. Archie finally seeks refuge at his favorite place of refuge, Kelsey's Bar, where he gets to hang with his old friend and former football star Steve (the late Phil Carey, in his pre-One Life to Live days) who now runs a photography store and knows Roger through it. When Mike and Roger drop by, Kelsey (Don Hastings) pulls Mike aside just to be reassured that Roger isn't gay, because he doesn't want Kelsey's to become known as one of those bars because Steve is gay, even though Archie is utterly clueless about it. Eventually, Mike and Archie argue and Mike blurts out the truth and Archie sees Steve again and is laughing, saying that Steve will want to sock Mike for what he said about him. Then Steve tells Archie that it's true and turns Archie's world asunder. It's a landmark episode. Compare it to the very funny first season Cheers episode "The Boys in the Bar," where rumors of gay men frequenting the bar prompt fears that the whole bar could go gay. It's a very good episode and while there is an element of homophobia addressed, less than 11 years after "Judging Books By Covers," it's a sort of defanged homophobia, afraid to push the boundaries of hate and ignorance that dwells beneath.
Despite the expected controversy, All in the Family did not become a ratings juggernaut during its initial run and it wasn't even certain that a renewal was in the offing. Critical reaction was mixed. Some thought it was endorsing Archie's prejudice, while others felt it was soft-pedaling it by having him use "softer" epithets for various groups instead of harsher terms. Still, as the series stayed on, its numbers grew and at the Emmys (which actually were held in May back then), it picked up outstanding comedy series and outstanding actress in a comedy series for Jean Stapleton as well as the defunct Emmy category of outstanding new series. When the 13 episodes were rerun during the summer, its numbers skyrocketed and by the time of its second season premiere in September, it was the No. 1 rated series on television. It stayed at the top or near the top for most of the rest of its run and retained much Emmy love. The following year, it practically swept the Emmys, winning series, actor (O'Connor), actress (Stapleton), supporting actress (Sally Struthers in a tie with Valerie Harper for The Mary Tyler Moore Show), writing (for "Edith's Problem") and directing for the classic "Sammy's Visit" when none other than Sammy Davis Jr. winds up in Archie Bunker's living room. Over the course of its nine seasons, it won four Emmys for comedy series, O'Connor won four times, Stapleton won three times, Rob Reiner and Struthers each won twice, it won three times for writing and twice for direction.
What remains astounding though are the topics that it worked so openly into conversation as part of an overriding story. Sex probably is the only topic the networks still feel safe in touching in the same way. Are there any other open atheists on network television now other than Dr. Gregory House since Dr. Perry Cox and Scrubs left the air? When there was a report that The Simpsons discussed religion more than any other series, there was more truth in that than you know. Certainly, no series would attempt an episode such as All in the Family did when Archie, concerned that his new grandson's soul was doomed because of nonbelieving father Mike, sneaked the infant to a church to perform his own baptism. Nor would they tackle the loss of faith the truly religious Edith faced when their friend, the cross-dressing Beverly LaSalle, was murdered. (Archie, for all his bluster about about the Bible and his misquoting of it, seldom actually attended a service.) Vietnam came up in the Bunker household far more often and earlier than it got any serious treatment in films. Once again, Scrubs was one of the few recent series to touch on that sort of subject when it had an episode where the staff took sides on the Iraq war.
Of course, the topic that came up the most frequently was Archie's bigotry, but the secret is that Archie doesn't know that he's a bigot. When he and Edith sing "Those Were the Days," they are referring to the Great Depression and World War II, back when Bunker thought the future would be great and before he realized that his blue-collar life would be a struggle. He would never be the type to burn a cross, though he'd sign petitions to try to keep blacks and Jews out of his neighborhood. In fact, when a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan comes to Queens and sees Archie as a potential recruit, they want him to pressure Mike by burning a cross on Stivic's lawn because Mike wrote a letter to a newspaper that the racists didn't agree with. Archie, in one of those rare moments of being on the right (as in correct) side of things, stands up for Mike, refusing to aid them or join them, telling them he's part black because he once received a blood transfusion from a black person, meaning he wasn't "pure white." In the episode that more or less served as a pseudo-pilot for The Jeffersons, The Bunkers and the Stivics attend an engagement party for Lionel (Mike Evans) and Jennie (though Jennie and her parents are all played by different actors than the ones who would play them in The Jeffersons) where George (Sherman Hemsley) learns for the first time that Jennie is the product of a mixed marriage. Being as prejudiced against whites as Archie is against blacks, George stirs up a hornet's nest to the point that Tom and Helen Willis start arguing. George is the first person in the series to use the 'N' word when he suggests that Tom will call Helen that at any moment as Archie proudly makes an aside to Edith that he hasn't used that word in years.
Part of the show's brilliance was that it didn't fall into the trap of always making Mike the voice of reason either. You could see that he had his own prejudices, such as in the episode when Gloria gets into women's lib and he tries to explain to her, "I believe in total equality but it can only come about when you admit your total inequality." When two unmarried hippie friends of Mike and Gloria come by and ask to stay, Archie has a conniption over their lack of a marriage license and the Stivics side with their friends for a while, until the girl, who chooses not to communicate with words, finally gets on their nerves as well with her intransigence over proposed compromises. Mike also can be so self-righteous that he can shock himself when, while playing a Scruples-like game, Lionel wishes Mike treated him more as a friend than as a spokesman for the black race and Mike storms out of the room. Archie also gets to goad him when Mike loses a teaching position to an equally qualified black candidate, which Mike at first finds unfair but eventually comes to accept.
It's truly amazing, considering that All in the Family at its core was a comedy, the number of topics it touched upon during its nine season run. In fact, remove the live studio audience, and you at times could call it TV's first dramedy. Here's a cursory list of subjects culled from perusing the episode guide: homophobia, miscarriages, premarital sex, keeping neghborhoods racially and ethnically pure, job layoffs, women's liberation, disliked relatives who die during visits, impotence, loss of home insurance, choosing which employee to fire, menopause, gun control, swingers, hate crimes, vigilantism, returning to high school, attempted rape, menstrual cycles, gambling addiction, Vietnam, Watergate, defining pornography, breast cancer, the mentally challenged, mixed-race couples, striking unions, adultery, transvestites, medical costs, vasectomies, draft dodging, after death revelations, the Ku Klux Klan, pill addiction, crises of faith and end of life care. However, it wasn't just the mentioning or tackling of these topics that set it apart, it was part of a trend among many sitcoms in the 1970s where, while they certainly earned their laughs, they weren't afraid of genuine emotion either. All in the Family paved the way for the serious moments on non-Norman Lear shows such as Henry Blake's death on M*A*S*H, many moments on Soap and episodes such as The Who concert on WKRP in Cincinnati.
Those emotional moments on All in the Family could be its strongest ones, topping the laughs. Seeing Archie's tender side when Gloria loses the baby. Edith explaining to Mike what he should have been bright enough to see already: That Archie's frustration with him doesn't stem as much from what he stands for as from the chances he has that Archie never did, having had to quit high school to support his family before serving in World War II and then moving immediately into unsatisfying blue collar work. Then there was that moment, the moment at the end of the eighth season (when the series really should have ended gracefully) as the Stivics moved to California and off the show, and Mike admits to Archie that he knows he always thought he hated him, but he didn't. He loved him and was like a father to him and Archie did his best to stay stoic, adding that he was like a son, he never did listen to anything he said.
ARCHIE: Maybe so, but I make a lot of sense.
Still, that central conflict between Archie and Mike (or Archie and just about anyone) powered most episodes and the series, in the most entertaining way possible, showing the audience the error of Archie's ways even if Archie himself remained oblivious. Imagine if the networks had the guts to air a series with an Archie Bunker equivalent today (and they wouldn't) and he was an ignorant Birther, being easily debunked by his son-in-law? It's hard to imagine since the national discourse has become so coarsened that many elected officials make statements that come off making Bunker sound like a beacon of reason. In many respects, with the amount of misinformation on all sorts of subjects that enter the national bloodstream, America is almost malnourished for a program of that sort that entertains large audiences and manages to show them things they didn't know without making it painful. Then again, is it too late? Since what passes for television news has been destroyed and divided into camps, would anyone already leaning to one side of the political spectrum or the other give such a series a chance? If we lack anything, it's tolerance and understanding of other points of view, but in today's political climate, that's viewed as a weakness worthy of excommunication from the party of your preference.
Forget the issues. Forget the ground that was broken. Forget that you actually heard the flush of an upstairs toilet (which occurred for the first time in the 12th episode). What All in the Family did really well and did often was make us laugh with a plethora of classic episodes. One of my personal favorites, "The Bunkers Meets the Swingers," came in the third season. Edith, feeling lonely since Gloria has gone to work answers an ad for a couple seeking friendship, not realizing that the ad is for spouse swapping. The swinging couple, delightfully played by Vincent Gardenia and Rue McClanahan, come over expecting something quite different than Edith is and the miscommunication between all the various characters (even Isabel Sanford's Louise Jefferson stumbles upon the situation) makes for one of the series most hilarious episodes. Gardenia must have been a true casting favorite as he played three different characters over the course of the series: The neighbor who moves and sells his home to the Jeffersons in the first season, telling Archie that he's tired of hating people; the wife swapper in this episode and later the recurring character of Frank Lorenzo, the proud Italian husband of Irene Lorenzo (the great Betty Garrett). The show would never have been able to make its points if it hadn't been as funny as it was — and this was smart, character-driven comedy, not just waiting for the punchline to a gag. The reason it was so successful at this was because its casting was so peerless from the starring quartet to all the other characters who ventured in and out of the Bunker living room throughout the years. The true genius though lay in the four actors Norman Lear and his collaborators tapped as the regulars to bring life to these iconic characters.
Sally Struthers hasn't had much to show in her post-All in the Family career beyond being lampooned for her weight gain on South Park and her commercials for starving African children, but when you catch a rerun you remember what a talent she was as Gloria Bunker Stivic. Her comic timing excelled as her character displayed equal parts Edith and Archie at times while she tried to stay true to her husband Mike's points-of-view (except when they turned out to be as pigheaded as her dad's). It's also wild to watch the various hairstyles that would top Gloria's head over the years, especially when she practically resembled an overgrown Shirley Temple in the Mike and Gloria flashback episode. It's telling that though three out of the four characters were tempted to stray during the course of the series that it was only Gloria who actually broke her wedding vows and cheated on Mike, prompting Archie to unbelievably say that Mike was too good for her when he learned of it.
Rob Reiner's career, unlike Struthers', has flourished since he left Meathead behind, though he's largely abandoned his life in front of the camera for one behind it. While it's been some time since he's directed a feature of really great worth, he began with a great run that included This Is Spinal Tap!, The Sure Thing, Stand By Me and The Princess Bride. It's a bit of a shame he doesn't act more, because when he does venture on screen, such as in Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, he hasn't lost that comedic knack that he no doubt inherited genetically from his brilliant father Carl. While he got to show all sides as Michael Stivic, he may have had the best gift for the double take of anyone in the talented ensemble. Though he was only 22 when he began playing Mike, he had to grow the mustache because he was thought to look too young to be believable otherwise. I don't know if that would have been true, because I think his talent would have saved the day. He never directed on All in the Family, but he did get the chance to write, including many of their best episodes starting with the first season's "Mike's Hippie Friends Come to Visit" and both flashback episodes to Mike and Gloria's wedding and Mike and Archie's first meeting. His writing extended beyond his own show. He also penned a script for Happy Days and before All in the Family was even on the air he was a staff writer for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, so controversial television came naturally to him.
Archie may have called Edith a dingbat, but Jean Stapleton didn't particularly play her that way, at least in the early episodes as the show was gaining its footing. At first, Edith seems more as if she's in a fog than she's particularly dim, even showing a slight bit of dull cynicism at times. It's over the course of that first season and especially later that the Edith Bunker that America came to love really blossomed into full fruition, not only as someone who missed the point of things but more importantly as the Bunker household's source of essential sweetness and goodness. As the series went on, we also got to see more sides of Edith. Gloria may have accused her mother once of just being there for Archie to abuse (psychologically at least) and worse, but there was more steel in that spine than Edith usually showed, especially in "Edith's 50th Birthday" when she fended off a would-be rapist. Stapleton also had a career that extended beyond this series and dates back to lots of episodic television beginning in the 1950s. The same year All in the Family debuted, she had a brief but memorable role in the movie Klute. She often appeared in television movies, including playing Eleanor Roosevelt in 1982's Eleanor, First Lady of the World. She has occasionally popped up on the big screen in her later years in films such as Michael and You've Got Mail.
Then there was Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker. There really are just a handful of television characters that can truly be called a monumentally successful integration of the actor and the role and O'Connor and Archie belongs near the top of the list, even though the politics of the real-life O'Connor couldn't have been more divergent from that of the role that ensured his status as a television icon. Like Jean Stapleton, O'Connor's career really began as he kicked around episodic TV in the 1950s and the 1960s. He also did land some feature work in films such as Otto Preminger's In Harm's Way, Blake Edwards' What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?, the dreadfully dull epic Hawaii, John Boorman's Point Blank and as part of the large cast of Kelly's Heroes starring Clint Eastwood, all of which were released before All in the Family hit the airwaves. Unlike the other members of the Bunker-Stivic quartet, O'Connor had another hit series after All in the Family in the television version of the movie In the Heat of the Night and it brought O'Connor another Emmy, this time in the drama category. The year before he died in 2001, he had a prominent supporting role in the film Return to Me starring David Duchovny and Minnie Driver and directed and co-written by the wonderful Bonnie Hunt.
Still, Archie Bunker always will be the role that lasts. In fact, you can almost draw a straight line between three of television's most indelible characters that all were similarly linked between actor and role. It began with Jackie Gleason's Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners, a blue collar ancestor to Archie without the prejudice. Kramden dreamed and schemed to try to make himself better much in the way Bunker always wanted to find a way for a quick buck. The crucial difference between the two was that Ralph still believed it could happen; Archie had been disillusioned to the point that he leaped when he could, even if it meant attempting outright fraud. That disillusionment fed his prejudices and resentments. He had to quit high school, he fought for his country and he once believed that he would be rewarded for those selfless acts only to learn a more harrowing truth. The character who in a warped way fulfilled Archie's dreams was James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano on The Sopranos, though he did do it through outright fraud — and worse — but he got rich, supported his family (while being unfaithful to them) and, unfortunately, hung on to Bunker's bigotry. It would be interesting to see what Archie Bunker would make of Tony Soprano, him being a "wop" and all. It's also fascinating to look at the three partners of these men. Alice Kramden never took any crap from Ralph and Carmela Soprano would stand up to Tony, though she enjoyed the fruits of his crimes. In between the two was the sweet one, Edith, who could be a doormat, but really was the spouse who kept her husband the most grounded. Archie may have wanted her to stifle herself, but he'd never threaten to send her to the moon and though he may have been tempted to stray once, he could never cheat on Edith even once, let alone constantly the way Tony did to Carmela. Archie and Edith Bunker were and are a pair for the ages. Norman Lear did television and America a great service with his 1970s comedies (and he still aids American history when he takes a copy of the actual U.S. Constitution on tour). All in the Family may have been based on a British show, but Lear made it distinctly his own and America's own. He created a comedy that not only fulfilled the requirement for being uproariously funny, but was downright challenging. It also served a function that seems to be lost a little more with each passing day: the art of conversation. There still are so-called water cooler shows, but few exist on broadcast television where the lowest common denominator reigns supreme. All in the Family became such an American institution that it was rightly recognized as such. That's why Archie's fabled chair sits alongside Edith's and the table that rested between them in The Smithsonian Institution.