Today's Dumbos/Morons are the virtual descendants of Archie Bunker, the virulent bigot, who was the pater familias of the 1970s sitcom, "All In The Family." The spirit of Archie Bunker still lives in private Dumbo/Moron conversations. The animus toward the POTUS 44 is grounded in racism and xenophobia. If this is (fair & balanced) repudiation of everything Dumbos/Morons believe, so be it.
[x New Yorker]
The Great Divide
By Emily Nussbaum
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
“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.”
This nervous disclaimer, which was likely as powerful as a “Do not remove under penalty of law” tag on a mattress, ran over the opening credits of Norman Lear’s new sitcom. It was 1971, deep into the Vietnam War and an era of political art and outrage, but television was dominated by escapist fare like “Bewitched” and “Bonanza.” “All in the Family” was designed to explode the medium’s taboos, using an incendiary device named Archie Bunker. A Republican loading-dock worker living in Queens, Bunker railed from his easy chair against “coons” and “hebes,” “spics” and “fags.” He yelled at his wife and he screamed at his son-in-law, and even when he was quiet he was fuming about “the good old days.” He was also, as played by the remarkable Carroll O’Connor, very funny, a spray of malapropisms and sly illogic.
CBS arranged for extra operators to take complaints from offended viewers, but few came in—and by Season 2 “All in the Family” was TV’s biggest hit. It held the No. 1 spot for five years. At the show’s peak, sixty per cent of the viewing public were watching the series, more than fifty million viewers nationwide, every Saturday night. Lear became the original pugnacious showrunner, long before that term existed. He produced spinoff after spinoff (“cookies from my cookie cutter,” he described them to Playboy, in 1976), including “Maude” and “The Jeffersons,” which had their own mouthy curmudgeons. At the Emmys, Johnny Carson joked that Lear had optioned his own acceptance speech. A proud liberal, Lear had clear ideological aims for his creations: he wanted his shows to be funny, and he certainly wanted them to be hits, but he also wanted to purge prejudice by exposing it. By giving bigotry a human face, Lear believed, his show could help liberate American TV viewers. He hoped that audiences would embrace Archie but reject his beliefs.
Yet, as Saul Austerlitz explains in his smart new book, Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from "I Love Lucy" to "Community" (2014), Lear’s most successful character managed to defy his creator, with a “Frankenstein”-like audacity. “A funny thing happened on the way to TV immortality: audiences liked Archie,” Austerlitz writes. “Not in an ironic way, not in a so-racist-he’s-funny way; Archie was TV royalty because fans saw him as one of their own.”
This sort of audience divide, not between those who love a show and those who hate it but between those who love it in very different ways, has become a familiar schism in the past fifteen years, during the rise of—oh, God, that phrase again—Golden Age television. This is particularly true of the much lauded stream of cable “dark dramas,” whose protagonists shimmer between the repulsive and the magnetic. As anyone who has ever read the comments on a recap can tell you, there has always been a less ambivalent way of regarding an antihero: as a hero. Some of the most passionate fans of “The Sopranos” fast-forwarded through Carmela and Dr. Melfi to freeze-frame Tony strangling a snitch with electrical wire. (David Chase satirized their bloodlust with a plot about “Cleaver,” a mob horror movie with all of the whackings, none of the Freud.) More recently, a subset of viewers cheered for Walter White on “Breaking Bad,” growling threats at anyone who nagged him to stop selling meth. In a blog post about that brilliant series, I labelled these viewers “bad fans,” and the responses I got made me feel as if I’d poured a bucket of oil onto a flame war from the parapets of my snobby critical castle. Truthfully, my haters had a point: who wants to hear that they’re watching something wrong?
But television’s original bad-fan crisis did not, as it happens, concern a criminal bad boy, or even take place on a drama. It involved Norman Lear’s right-wing icon, Archie Bunker, the loudmouthed buffoon who became one of TV’s most resonant and beloved television characters. Archie was the first masculine powerhouse to simultaneously charm and alienate viewers, and, much like the men who came after him, he longed for an era when “guys like us, we had it made.” O’Connor’s noisy, tender, and sometimes frightening performance made the character unforgettable, but from the beginning he was a source of huge anxiety, triggering as many think pieces as Lena Dunham. Archie represented the danger and the potential of television itself, its ability to influence viewers rather than merely help them kill time. Ironically, for a character so desperate to return to the past, he ended up steering the medium toward the future.
“All in the Family” began as a British show called “Till Death Do Us Part,” a hit comedy about Alf Garnett, a Cockney xenophobe who had a sharptongued wife, a hip daughter, and a socialist son-in-law. The show, which first aired in 1965, was a ratings hit, spawning catchphrases (“You silly moo”) and mass British identification with Garnett—a response that troubled the show’s creator, Johnny Speight, even as he made the case for its pungent zingers. “To make him truthful, he’s got to say those things, and they are nasty things,” Speight argued.
By 1967, Norman Lear, a Second World War veteran who never finished college, had spent years cutting a path through show biz. As recounted in Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria (1988), by Donna McCrohan, he began by collecting gossip tips, ghostwrote syndicated columns, and then jumped into comedy, having scammed his way into the office of the comedy bigwig Danny Thomas by pretending to be a reporter. After a successful stretch working on nineteen-fifties showcases, including “The Martha Raye Show,” he teamed up with the producer Bud Yorkin. The two became industry machers, packaging TV specials and making movies, such as “Divorce American Style.” When Lear read about “Till Death” in Variety, he felt a stab of identification. His father, Herman Lear, a Jewish salesman from Connecticut, was a “rascal,” in Norman’s words, who went to prison when Norman was nine, convicted of shady dealings; like Alf Garnett, he was at once loving and bigoted. Lear bought the rights to Speight’s show, without ever having seen it, and hammered out a treatment. He gave Archie one of his own father’s favorite insults for him—“you meathead, dead from the neck up”—and Archie, like Herman Lear, called his wife a “dingbat” and demanded that she “stifle.” It’s the origin story of nearly every breakthrough sitcom, as recounted in Austerlitz’s book: memoir mined for a resonant, replicable pattern—in this case, the clash between the Greatest Generation and the emerging Baby Boomers, embodied by Archie Bunker and Michael (Meathead) Stivic, his son-in-law.
ABC was interested, but the network was concerned about the show’s raw language. For the next two years, the executives and Lear went through an elaborate production process, taping two pilots—the first in September, 1968, titled “Justice for All” (Archie’s last name was originally Justice), the second in February of the following year, called “Those Were the Days.” Lear wanted to cast Mickey Rooney as the lead, but the actor thought it was too risky. (Rooney did offer to make a different show: “Listen to this—Vietnam vet. Short. Blind. Private eye. Large dog!”) So Lear offered the part to O’Connor, an Irish-American actor whose rare mixture of “bombast and sweetness” he described to reporters as being ideal for the role. Lear cast Jean Stapleton as Edith, who transformed the British show’s battle-axe—she resembled the tart-tongued Alice, of “The Honeymooners”—into a figure of genuine pathos, a quavery-voiced housewife whose tenderness cut through the show’s anger, and who gradually became its voice of reason.
In those two clunky early pilots, Archie’s son-in-law is Irish, not Polish. In one version, he sports a hilarious puka-shell necklace; in the other, he’s a clean-cut jock. The chemistry is all wrong, a testament to how much of comedy is casting: when Archie and these lesser Meatheads spar over the insult “the laziest white man I ever seen” (another Herman Lear original), there’s none of the electrical fury that the show gained once the hulking, manic Rob Reiner took the role. ABC killed the project, and Lear went back to making movies. The experiment seemed to be dead until the CBS president, Robert Wood, stepped in, in 1970. Wood, who had just taken the job, was seeking a hip property that could replace the shows that skewed to older audiences—sitcoms like “Green Acres” and tentpoles like “Lassie”—which he planned to cancel, in what would become known as “the rural purge.” He pulled Lear’s project from the scrap pile, and a third pilot was thrown together, with the script essentially unchanged, at Lear’s insistence (although the network balked at his request to film it in black-and-white). O’Connor was so sure that it would be another dud that he bargained aggressively for a clause guaranteeing his family plane fare back to Europe, where they were living at the time.
There were a few more last-minute skirmishes, since Lear was determined to set a precedent for network non-coöperation: in an industry that liked to sand down the pointy, he wanted to provoke viewers. He refused to eliminate what the censor called “explicit sex” (innuendo that would seem prudish these days), and he threatened to quit rather than run the milder second episode, about Richard Nixon, as the show’s début. CBS caved. In the pilot that ran, it’s Archie and Edith’s wedding anniversary. They return from church early, catching Michael and a miniskirted Gloria on their way to the bedroom. There’s a loud belch—Lear’s shows pioneered TV toilet humor—and Archie and Michael fight about atheism and Black Power. “I didn’t have no million people out there marching and protesting to get me my job,” Archie sneers. “No, his uncle got it for him,” Edith replies. Some jokes stick, others fizzle, but it’s Archie’s volcanic charisma that lingers—at moments, it’s easy to imagine him hitting Edith, though the sitcom rhythms reassure us that he won’t.
Right away, critics were split. Variety raved that “All in the Family” was “the best TV comedy since the original ‘The Honeymooners.’ ” Its sister publication, Daily Variety, called it “nothing less than an insult to any unbigoted televiewer.” In Life, John Leonard wrote a virulent pan, in which he sounded a theme that became a chorus on op-ed pages: that a show like this demanded a moral response. “Why review a wretched program?” he wrote. “Well, why vacuum the living room or fix the septic tank? Every once in a while the reviewer must assume the role of a bottle of Johnson’s No-Roach with the spray applicator: let’s clean up this culture.” The Times flooded the zone with pieces, from “Can Bigotry Be Laughed Away? It’s Worth a Try” to “The Message Sounds Like ‘Hate Thy Neighbor.’ ” One side felt that the show satirized bigotry; the other argued that it was bigotry, and that all those vaudevillian yuks and awws were merely camouflage for Archie’s ugly words.
As the show’s ratings rose, it began to saturate American culture, high and low. In 1971, the Saturday Review reported that teachers were requesting study guides, to use the show to teach their students lessons about bigotry. The literary theorist Paul de Man quoted Archie and Edith’s dialogue to dramatize a point, appropriately enough, about the slipperiness of meaning: the idea that the intent of words was endlessly interpretable. A paperback called The Wit and Wisdom of Archie Bunker (1971) became a best-seller (“Move Over Chairman Mao—Here Comes Archie Bunker!”), with quips like “I never said a man that wears glasses is a queer. A man that wears glasses is a four-eyes. A man that’s a fag is a queer!” In 1973, a poll found that Archie Bunker’s was the most recognized face in America, and for a while there was a craze for bumper stickers reading “Archie Bunker for President.” At the 1972 Democratic Convention, in Miami, the character got a vote for Vice-President.
The weightiest criticism came in another Times essay, by Laura Z. Hobson, the elderly author of Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), the source for Elia Kazan’s earnest Oscar-winning 1947 film about anti-Semitism. In September, 1971, she published a five-thousand-word critique called “As I Listened to Archie Say ‘Hebe’ . . .” Hobson argued that Lear had attempted to “deodorize” bigotry, to make it safe and cute: among other things, Archie used words like “coon” and “yid,” but he didn’t say “nigger” or “kike.” Rather than puncturing hatred, she argued, Lear had made Archie into a flattering mirror for bigots. “I don’t think you can be a black-baiter and lovable, or an anti-Semite and lovable,” she wrote. “And I don’t think the millions who watch this show should be conned into thinking you can be.”
Lear responded with his own Times essay, “As I Read How Laura Saw Archie,” arguing that of course bigots could be lovable, as anyone with a family knew. If Archie Bunker didn’t use harsher language, it was because those words were “from another decade.” Besides, Michael and Gloria, the bleeding-heart liberals, always got the last word. Despite Lear’s playful response, later episodes of “All in the Family” contain many echoes of this debate. The show’s tone gradually softened, and the more caustic slang dropped out; Archie even stopped telling Edith to “stifle.” (As with “m*a*s*h,” its creators were influenced by the rise of feminism.) In Season 8, there’s a trenchant sequence in which Archie, drunk and trapped in a storage room with Michael, talks about his childhood. Yes, his father said “nigger” while he was growing up, Archie says—everybody did—and when Michael tells him what his father said was wrong, Archie delivers a touching, confused defense of the man who raised him, who held his hand, but who also beat him and shoved him in a closet. It was all out of love, Archie insists. “How could any man that loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?” he murmurs, just before he passes out. The scene should have been grotesquely manipulative and mawkish, but, strengthened by O’Connor’s affecting performance, it makes Lear’s point more strongly than any op-ed, even decades later: bigotry is resilient, because rejecting it often means rejecting your own family.
Civil-rights advocates, including the National Urban League and the Anti-Defamation League, tended to share Hobson’s distrust of the series. (In contrast, the A.C.L.U. awarded Lear the Freedom of the Press Award, in 1973.) Bill Cosby, who was a major TV star after “I Spy,” downright despised Archie Bunker. Even a decade later, on “The Phil Donahue Show,” Cosby was still expressing frustration that Bunker had never apologized for anything, making him “a hero to too many Americans for his shortsightedness, his tunnel vision.” He added, “And I’m really a believer that the show never taught or tried to teach anybody anything.”
To critics, the show wasn’t the real problem: its audience was. In 1974, the social psychologists Neil Vidmar and Milton Rokeach offered some evidence for this argument in a study published in the Journal of Communication, using two samples, one of teen-agers, the other of adults. Subjects, whether bigoted or not, found the show funny, but most bigoted viewers didn’t perceive the program as satirical. They identified with Archie’s perspective, saw him as winning arguments, and, “perhaps most disturbing, saw nothing wrong with Archie’s use of racial and ethnic slurs.” Lear’s series seemed to be even more appealing to those who shared Archie’s frustrations with the culture around him, a “silent majority” who got off on hearing taboo thoughts said aloud.
This clearly wasn’t true of every bigot—at least, not Richard Nixon, who eagerly recapped the series for H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman. In the Watergate tapes, Nixon describes in detail an episode in which a gay friend of Michael’s comes to visit, leading Archie to discover that his own football-player buddy is gay. The series “made a fool out of a good man,” Nixon grumbles. He theorizes that Michael probably “goes both ways” and worries that the show will corrupt children, just as Socrates did in ancient Greece. Ehrlichman interjects, in Socrates’ defense, that at least “he never had the influence that television had.”
“A vast wasteland”! It’s impossible to discuss TV, even today, without stumbling upon the medium’s most famous libel, its own version of “meathead.” The context has been lost, though. That description comes from the first official speech given by Newton Minow, shortly after President Kennedy appointed him chairman of the F.C.C., in 1961. Minow wasn’t arguing that what aired on television was bad; he was arguing that it was amoral. He said, “Program materials should enlarge the horizons of the viewer, provide him with wholesome entertainment, afford helpful stimulation, and remind him of the responsibilities which the citizen has toward his society.”
From a modern perspective, the passage feels prissy and laughable, the residue of an era when television was considered a public utility: it was in everyone’s best interest to keep it pure, and then add fluoride. No critic could support that approach, least of all those who see TV as an art form, and want to free it from anxious comparisons to novels and movies—to celebrate TV as TV. During a recent visit to a university, I bridled when an ethicist praised me for taking a moral stance. (I’d called a network show “odious torture porn.”) I told her that I wanted originality, even if it was ugly, and that I’d rather watch a show that unsettled me than something that was merely “good.”
That’s true. And yet, like Archie himself, I have to admit to my own fascination with the good old days—in particular, that spiky, surreal moment when people found television so dangerous that they slapped warning stickers on it. Lear and his critics disagreed about how his show affected people, but they agreed that it should affect people. Every day marked a fresh skirmish: Should there be a “family hour”? Were Starsky and Hutch making viewers violent? Back when television was a mass phenomenon, controlled by three networks, watched live by the whole family, it was no wonder that observers wrung their hands over whether it might turn its viewers into monsters. (These days, we reserve those concerns for the Internet.)
Five years after “All in the Family,” Lear launched an even more radical show, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” a prophetic, neglected TV classic stuffed with anti-TV themes. A satire of soap operas, and one of the first truly serial evening shows, it was so loopy and avant-garde that its producers syndicated it independently, airing it on affiliates mostly late at night. Lear explicitly designed it to appeal to two audiences: those who enjoyed it as melodrama and those who took it as social satire. In the finale of the first season, its eponymous housewife heroine (played by Louise Lasser) has a nervous breakdown on David Susskind’s talk show, as moralists hammer her with questions. “Were your orgasms better before Johnny Carson?” the ideologues shout. “Erase! Erase!” Mary Hartman begs, panicked that she has said something wrong. It was a cry of terror that seemed to symbolize the mood of that era: the world was in chaos, and viewers like Mary were tragically vulnerable to the media’s influence. Yet Lasser’s character’s odd, raw humanity—together with the show’s disorienting, deliberately ugly editing rhythms—was a form of resistance. (The next season, she was institutionalized and happily became a member of the hospital’s Nielsen family.)
Decades later, television has a different relationship with its audience. We collect and record it; we recap it with strangers; it pours through hundreds of narrow channels. Perhaps it’s not so odd that, around the time the digital revolution began, another Archie-like figure rose up, as if from TV’s unconscious: the rancorous middle-aged white male antihero, nostalgic for a past when he was powerful—and often conceived by a middle-aged white male showrunner, the demographic with the greatest economic ability to shake things up. As with “All in the Family,” the best of these dramas shoved TV forward with a rough charisma, blasting through piety and formula, frightening us and turning us on—and, often, dividing the audience in two. Then this genre, too, became a pious formula.
In Sitcom, Austerlitz argues that, as important as “All in the Family” was, it is hard to re-watch: among other problems, its racial politics are dated, reducing racism to mere personal prejudice. There’s some truth to that, and yet, these days, Lear’s legacy is everywhere, often in stealthy packages. Lear set the stage for agitating comedies like “Louie” and “Girls,” acrid satires like “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” and boundary-crossers less to my taste, like Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy.” Ryan Murphy, the creator of “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” is a professed admirer of Lear, and his shows feature diva-bigots who are female variants of Archie Bunker. Lear is a hero to Judd Apatow, too. Every time a show crosses the line of good taste, from humane pulp like “Orange Is the New Black” to bleak nightmares like “Hannibal,” it enlarges Lear’s territory. Some of these shows place people who look nothing like Archie at the center, helped by production models that don’t require reaching every viewer.
There is no way—and maybe no reason—to unite TV’s divided audience. If television creators began by trying desperately not to offend, they clearly learned that the opposite approach can work just as well: a show that speaks to multiple audiences can get ratings by offering many ways to be a fan. As for the “vast wasteland” debate, at times it feels as if the balance has shifted so far toward a reflexive cynicism (about torture as entertainment, for example) that it’s difficult even to talk about the subject—at least, without getting called a Margaret Dumont. Perhaps there’s another way to look at it, which is to imagine an ethical quality that is embedded in real originality. The best series rattle us and wake us up; the worst are numbing agents. Sometimes, a divided audience is a result of mixed messages, an incoherent text; sometimes, it’s a sign of a bold experiment that we are still learning how to watch. But there’s a lot to be said for a show that is potent without being perfect, or maybe simply perfect for its moment: storytelling that alters the audience by demanding that viewers do more than just watch. Ω
[Emily Nussbaum is the television critic for The New Yorker. Previously, she worked at New York for seven years, editing the Culture Pages (and creating the Approval Matrix) and writing both features and criticism. Nussbaum received a BA (English) from Oberlin College and an MFA (poetry) from New York University.]
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