1. It’s Thursday, July 27, 2017.
2. It’s Norman Lear’s 95th birthday.
He is best known for his run of socially conscious sitcoms in the 1970s, foremost of which is “All in the Family.”
In other words, Norman Lear gave us Archie Bunker – who was a Trumpista before anyone knew who Trump was.
3. This generation of TV watchers would laugh at the thought that “All in the Family” was controversial in 1971.
Its focal point character was a loading dock foreman whose prejudices – against anyone who wasn’t white, male, straight and his brand of Protestantism – leaked from every sentence he spoke. He said things that Ozzie Nelson or Ward Cleaver wouldn’t have dared say in their 30 minutes on your TV set.
So CBS required a disclaimer before the first few episodes. “The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks 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.” (Got the text from Emily Nussbaum’s 2014 New Yorker piece on the show.)
Can you imagine that running before “South Park”? “Veep”? Even, 20 years ago, “Seinfeld”?
And yet, Archie Bunker remains the shorthand for a certain type of bigot. A narrow-minded fool who wants the world the way he imagined it was before African-Americans – he sure as hell didn’t call them that – and Latinos and women and others began their effort to share in the American dream.
It all crystalized in the song he and his wife, Edith, sang to start the show. References to Glenn Miller and La Salle automobiles. And likes such as today’s title, reflecting a society in which everyone thought gender was really clear cut.
The idea behind “All in the Family” was that by laughing at prejudices, they would break down and be seen as the foolishness they are. Every week, Archie’s comments would get him in trouble with somebody, and yet he didn’t seem to come around.
4. And therein lies the problem with “All in the Family.”
Lear’s intents were fantastic and they were certainly worth a try. The first couple of seasons were genuinely funny and the characters resonated with the American public.
“All in the Family” was consistently the top-rated show in the country and eventually anchored CBS’ classic Saturday night comedy block that also included “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Bob Newhart Show.”
But people liked Archie. And they weren’t supposed to. Lear himself wanted people to dislike Archie the way Britons disliked the main character in the show on which “All in the Family” was based, “’Til Death Do Us Part.”
Archie became a hero – or maybe an antihero, a word that came in vogue about that time, describing a character you’re not supposed to like but do. People loved to mimic his gruff tone, his sniping at his liberal son-in-law, his malaprops.
And therefore, not only did the show not breakdown the prejudices it sought to vanquish, it might have reinforced them.
A generation of Americans not as familiar with “All in the Family” as it is with “The Simpsons” and “Friends” would still recognize the character of Archie Bunker.
It’s the type of person you would have expected to see Tuesday night at the Trump rally in Youngstown.
Someone who thinks the nation at some mythical previous point. Someone who believes the solution to the nation’s problems is not to pander to nonwhite people seeking their peace of mind in 21st century America, That government is always the problem and never a solution – government is just inherently inept, except when it comes to bombing people in some distant country.
Archie Bunker’s prejudices didn’t go away. If they had, Trump would just be a failed real estate dealer who would have settled for running his daddy’s apartment houses in Queens.
And while Archie’s foibles might have been laughable in 1971, what we see in 2017 is in no way funny. It is a tragedy. It is a disgrace. It is an embarrassment.
That all seems underlined today. The day after Trump woke up and decided thousands of transgender troops weren’t good enough for the U.S. military, despite showing their willingness to die for this country. Another day in which the health care on which Americans depend hangs by a partisan thread in the U.S. Senate. Another day in which you don’t know if a tweet will trigger a nuclear war with North Korea.
Norman Lear isn’t the reason Trump is where he is. His contributions to television and to advancing free speech in this country should be remembered as he celebrates this milestone birthday. Lear sure tried hard to make sure Trumpism never happened.
Unfortunately, like the rest of us watching this debacle unfold, he failed.
UPDATE: 9:10 P.M. ET
I received a comment about this post on my Facebook page. It took me to task for my comments about Norman Lear. I decided, instead of annoying people in my Facebook feed with a long-winded answer, I’d annoy people on the blog itself.
Here it is:
Thank you for reading the piece and the comment.
I don’t believe I blamed Norman Lear for American prejudice. There’s no question his intent with “All in the Family” was noble.
It’s just that, as with so many other things in life, we can’t know if there are unintended consequences. In the case of Archie Bunker, his being viewed as lovably incorrigible might not have helped get the result that Mr. Lear sought.
Remember, that Archie wasn’t viewed with contempt; he was beloved. Because of that, when he was diminutive of African-Americans, Jews, women, Hispanics, gay people, Asians and others, they were laugh lines and not the cause for offense that they should have been.
And because of that, it might have given license to people who were similarly inclined to utter the same insulting terms, but then laughing it off as a joke. I’ve seen it happen. If Archie can say that and get a laugh, the argument goes, I can, too.
Back in 1972, the production company marketed paraphernalia promoting Archie Bunker for President; I actually got the mug as a gift. But 44 years later, we elected someone who sounded worse than Archie Bunker as President of the United States – the guy even came from Queens.
So I’m wondering whether the lesson “All in the Family” was supposed to teach America was the one the nation absorbed. Although, frankly, after Nov. 8, 2016, I’m also wondering who won the Civil War and the Cold War.
As for your comment about whether I’ve done anything to remedy prejudice in the United States, I also refer to the post. It’s obviously not just Norman Lear’s failure – the failure belongs to all of us, because we clearly haven’t brought society to a point that people are judged solely by the quality of their work and character.
This doesn’t just apply to race. It applies to gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, hometown, religion and anything else you can name.
I do know this. Everyone I’m close to or consider a friend does her or his part to make our society more fair. I’m proud of that, and I sincerely hope that despite the current climate, that doesn’t change.
In fact, I hope we’ll redouble our efforts. I know I’ll do that this fall when I teach my writing class to, if the past is any guide, as diverse a group of students as one can imagine.
So if “All in the Family” had a positive impact, maybe it’s as a reminder that the battle against bigotry is long and hard. It’s also one worth waging – and even when we fail, we have the nobility of knowing we’ve tried and we’re starting over.