Last December I was happy to see television producer Norman Lear be honored with the Kennedy Center Honors for the ground-breaking television show that Lear produced in the 1970s. The 1970s struggled with many of the same issues facing us today: war, race relations, economic inequality, a declining working class. The Kennedy Center Honors website noted:
America was in a period of post-war prosperity and incredible social upheaval. In the news there were civil rights demonstrations, assassinations, generational divides, a growing war in Vietnam, second-wave feminism, rock-and-roll, and protests…
…Lear displayed an unparalleled ability to both make statements and entertain. In the 1970s, Lear was the mind behind sitcom hit after hit like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, or Sanford and Son…
…Lear’s work touched a broad range of issues from race relations and economic issues to sexuality and abortion. Every week, he battled with network censors, political and TV critics, and sometimes his own cast who asked if this was the episode that would push the envelope too far. But his work never sacrificed its comedy and heart for the bully pulpit, and American viewers watched by the millions.
Lear has said that he sees the comedy and foolishness in the human condition. He’s said that he wasn’t trying to break barriers as much as writing about what he knew and saw happening in the culture around him, and the American public responded.
In this time of exteme partisanship, I think Norman Lear shows like All In The Family are especially timely. Lear’s shows are full of arguments between friends and family members with deeply opposing views. But in showing these arguments, it also shows the love that the friends and family members have for each other in spite of their disagreements. Shows like All In The Family gave a glimpse on how people can still love people whom they deeply disagree.
Emily Nussbaum wrote an insightful New Yorker article titled The Great Divide: Norman Lear, Archie Bunker, and the rise of the bad fan where she points out:
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.
The hope that Lear hopes is that by keeping relationships with family members whom we disagree with, perhaps we can turn them away from the worst racism and bigotry. Robert David Sullivan wrote in the AV/TV Club article Ten episodes that show how All In The Family changed television :
Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was an antihero decades before the term was regularly applied to TV characters. Archie never totally “broke bad,” but he had a deep mistrust of the human race, and he tried to provide for his family by taking advantage of every opportunity he could find, including his inherent privileges as a white man in America. He wasn’t “politically incorrect” just for the fun of it, which is why so many sitcoms with superficial “Archie Bunker types” have failed. In the earliest episodes, his cynical worldview is primarily challenged by liberal son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) and daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), both boarding at the Bunkers’ while Mike attends college. But by the second season, wife Edith (Jean Stapleton) assumes the show’s voice for optimism and compassion, and her slow struggle to pull Archie away from his comfort zone of suspicion and bitterness becomes the main theme of the series.
In a November 2017 interview with Jon Wiener for The Nation Magazine, Lear looked for the humanity in characters like Archie Bunker:
Jon Wiener: When All in the Family was getting started in the early seventies, nobody thought racism or homophobia could be funny on network TV. Today we have a similar feeling. We can have satire of Trump, but we’re worried about the Trump people—we don’t want to ridicule them; we want to understand them. We need to win them back. What was your thinking when you created Archie Bunker?
Norman Lear: There was an antecedent to All in the Family: a British show called, Till Death Us Do Part. But it was very different from All in the Family, because the central character was totally unlikable, and nobody cared that he had a daughter or a wife who loved him. I couldn’t do a show without recognizing the central character as someone who was loved by family—and was, in some ways, lovable for us too, because he was human, and carried all those human frailties with him. Archie Bunker comes out of all of those mixed feelings, and that antecedent.
Here is the Norman Lear Biopic narrated By George Clooney for the 2017 Kennedy Center Honors
Kennedy Center Honoree Norman Lear on the Red Carpet at the 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors.
Here is the All In The Family episode where Mike and Archie are stuck in the basement. Archie reveals his conflicted feelings towards his own father.
Here is the All In The Family episode where Mike, Gloria and grandson Joey move to California. Mike tells Archie how much he loves him