I vividly remember the night “All In the Family” premiered on CBS in January 1971. I loved every minute of it, from the opening bars of “Those Were the Days” to the closing notes of “Remembering You,” and all that came in between. Even though I lived in an upper middle-class suburb in the Midwest, I knew a lot of people like Archie Bunker; they just had different accents and incomes. Edith reminded me very much of a favorite aunt, and Mike and Gloria were my contemporaries, if not in age at least in spirit. (My mother, on the other hand, didn’t care for the show because she said Archie skated a little too close to her own father.)
I would like to think that was what Norman Lear had in mind when he came up with the idea of lifting it — or borrowing it — from the British sitcom “Til Death Do Us Part” that employed the same type of in-your-face bigotry and racism played for laughs. He wanted to wake us up from the stupor of “Green Acres,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and “The Brady Bunch” where everything was comfortably numb and the biggest crisis was someone burned the dinner. “All In the Family” and the series he launched that came after — “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” — broke the mold and broke the barriers of polite social comedy, not unlike the way the 18th Century comedies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan and George Farquhar did by satirizing the rich and the clueless.
Mr. Lear understood that the best way to attack stupidity and bigotry was to show it as it was and let the laughter come from the realization that Archie Bunker was not so far removed from the real people who were running the country — or are trying to again. His genius was presenting every character in full, flaws and all, including those he may have agreed with such as the braying Maude Findlay or bombastic George Jefferson. No issue was off the table: civil rights, gay rights, reproductive choice, gun control, religious bigotry, and the loss of a loved one. I believe that if someone approached a broadcast network today with the pilot for “All In the Family,” they’d have a hard time getting it on the air: it’s too true to be seen on CBS, NBC, or ABC. Sure, you can say “penis” now, but just try telling the viewers what you’re actually going to do with it… especially in Florida.
Norman Lear lived 101 years, but the gifts he gave us set the standard for the next 101 and beyond. Those will be the days.