Friday, March 26, 2010

January 12, 1971

January 12, 1971. The following words appeared on a television screen:
"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”.

“All in the Family” premiered. At the time, it was shocking, controversial, considered subversive by some….brilliant by others. If you don’t know what this series is, look it up.

I remember watching it weekly a couple of years later. Mostly, I caught the daily reruns CBS “stripped” after the game shows during the summer.

In a nutshell, Archie was a bigoted, profane conservative. Mike, his son-in-law was a long-haired, liberal academic. Their arguments were well-written, timely, and very very funny. I have written ad nauseum about how our current “culture wars” simply regurgitate Archie and Mike. I’m not going to wax politic about that particular dynamic here. I want to talk about comedy and satire.

Norman Lear’s series, which included “Maude”, “One Day at a Time”, “Good Times”, “The Jeffersons”, “Sanford and Son”, and
“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” were different than previous sitcoms. They were videotaped and looked very much like stage plays. The live audience was very present. You not only heard laughter but gasps and groans. They were not always funny, sometimes they were mini-dramas (and not very good ones at that).

But the comedy, the satire. Lear has been labeled a liberal. He is. He founded People for the American Way, a First Amendment-protecting organization. He owns the Constitution, literally. He also served in World War II, flying 52 combat missions and being awarded the Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters. He comes from a generation where liberal/conservative labels didn’t define someone to the point of derision or ridicule. He paid his debt to his country. His point of view was reflected in his works.

Archie Bunker (although based on a British character) was inspired by Lear’s own father. Maude Findlay, Archie’s sister-in-law, a liberal whose politics outmatched Archie’s in terms of self-immolation, was inspired by Lear’s wife. The art is personal.

Lear’s early sitcom work was extremely well-written, funny, and character-driven. It was topical and dealt with the issues of the day. Later, it became rather stagy and pedantic. But look:

1971: “All in the Family”: Racist Anglo blue-collar man shares house with Liberal “hippie” son-in-law and progressive daughter. They both fall on their face sometimes, mostly Archie though.
1972: “Sanford and Son”: Racist African American runs a junk yard with his son in Watts, as in riots Watts. He falls on his face sometimes with his son saving his ass.
1972: “Maude”: Politically correct liberal woman deals with being a feminist in a world not ready for her. And sometimes falls on her face with her family saving her ass.
1974: “Good Times”: An African-American family deals with the trials and tribulations of living in the projects. Striving and struggling for the American dream. Nobody falls on their face here because hypocrisy isn’t an issue.
1975: “The Jeffersons”: An African -American family has made it and moves to a high-rise in Manhattan. The patriarch, an elitist racist, often falls on his face, saved by his wife.
1976: “One Day at a Time”” A newly-divorced young woman with two daughters tries to make it on her own in a world of changing sexual politics. The only one falling on his face is the nosy, lecherous super.
1976: “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”: A middle-American housewife has the longest nervous breakdown in TV history.

So, you see this isn’t “Beverly Hillbillies”, “Andy of Mayberry”, “Bewitched” or “Leave it to Beaver”. While the concurrent stable of Mary Tyler Moore-produced sitcoms were intelligent and slick, they rarely ventured into controversy. Garry Marshall’s sitcoms wallowed in nostalgia. Others of the era were awash in titillation, innuendo, and insults. “Barney Miller” stood on it’s own as an understated comic masterpiece. “MASH” was irreverent and subversive, eventually leading to preachy literate boredom (and, the highest rated finale of all time, go figure).

You could not put these shows on now. Oh, sure, we live in the most permissive TV environment blah blah blah. No, we don’t.

Lear, an avowed liberal, created shows that were SATIRE. “All in the Family” was the perfect example. He made fun of ALL types of characters. Like real-life, everyone had flaws. No one was a saint. No one was pure evil. It was a reflection of society. It mirrored the dichotomous nature of humanity. He didn’t just trash conservatives. He trashed liberals. He trashed minorities. He trashed them all lovingly. What does this mean? It means he loves people, regardless of who they are. That’s why he’s a great American. I remember seeing an interview with a WW 2 veteran who said that the famous “Vietnam” episode of AITF aided and abetted the enemy during the final years of that war. No. He humanized the conflict that Americans were experiencing during one of the most horrific times in our history.

And you see, the thing is….this is where nothing has changed. When anyone tries to examine the human condition….from a political satire standpoint…it is considered seditious. Why? Unless an observor follows a “formula” of red or blue, they are fringe.

So where are we now? What is shocking and subversive (in the good sense of course). Oh, “South Park”, torture porn, something on HBO or Showtime because it allows profanity and nudity. Bullshit. This is shock. How far can we go? No redeeming message comes out of this. No enlightenment. But, you say, it’s “entertainment”. Fine, and I feel sorry for you. But don’t fool yourselves into thinking it is daring, thought-provoking, or groundbreaking. It’s just childish and prurient. “All in the Family” could not get greenlit today. It has no nudity, graphic sex, f-bombs, torture, gore, rape, bodily fluids, racial insults, humiliation, pornography, or disembowelments. Wake up, America. These “daring” elements are corporate-borne profit-makers. It takes no intelligence or thoughtfulness to write this tripe.

Norman Lear was a pioneer. And he blazed a trail that would soon be covered up and forgotten for the sake of profit and sensationalism.

Yeah, he was a consultant on South Park for a while. I guess he understood that those guys were satirists in their own way. At least they make fun of EVERYONE, even if it’s done in a juvenile way. And Sarah Silverman, as funny as she is claims it’s ok to make fun of EVERYONE EXCEPT WOMEN. Well, that’s fine…but if you make fun of disabled and mentally retarded people, all religions, all ethnicities…..and give exception to any one group, you are not a satirist but a self-indulgent comic.

And, yeah, as Lear’s shows grew older they became more silly (see “The Jeffersons”) ar more soapy (see “One Day at a Time”) or ruined by showcasing one badly-drawn character (see “Good Times”) or more star-driven (see “Archie Bunker’s Place”).

But he did something no one has done since. He examined the American condition without prejudice, without cruelty, with humor, with pathos, with talented acting and writing, with thoughtfulness, with fairness, with bravery. Sounds like the American ideal to me. Thank God he owns the Constitution.


  1. Good essay. For once I agree with all of it.

    Where does Taxi fit in with those 70s sit-coms?

  2. For once?

    Taxi was the tail-end of the decade, the chid born of the Mary Tyler Moore creators. Taxi was quality stuff.....workplace as family, dialogue and character reigned. Taxi (with Jim Brooks at the helm) led to Cheers which led to pretty much all workplace comedies in the 90's. As literate as these shows were, they led to a trend in sitcoms that was detrimental to the form. A group of people that insulted each other (sure, with wit), were involved in sexual hijinks with each other, mostly resided in uppper white middle class environs, But it was all for laughs. If one of the stars happened to have a cross-over film career, even better.