All in the Family is on my mind today — not so much the book by Robert O. Self, but rather the 1970s television show, produced by Norman Lear, starring Carroll O’Connor as “Archie Bunker” and Jean Stapleton as his long-suffering wife “Edith.” Stapleton died today of natural causes; she was 90 years old.
When I read Self’s book last semester, I assumed that Self would at least mention the television show. However, unless I missed it in a footnote, Self never invoked Edith or Archie Bunker, Gloria, Meathead — nor even Norman Lear, who brought them to the television screen from 1971 to 1979.
Perhaps he didn’t need to; perhaps he didn’t dare to. For the show Self quite deliberately invoked and, I think, honored in his title stands as both a remarkable text of its time and an often astute commentary on its time.
Sometimes All in the Family doesn’t stand as good TV. The screenplays can get a little preachy, the contemporary social commentary a little heavy-handed, the characters too much of a caricature in their dialogue to seem like anything more than vehicles for delivering a message.
But living actors, and very fine ones indeed, brought depth and dimension and pathos, humor and humility, to even the most sermonic scenarios. By all accounts, the over-the-top bigotry of Archie and the deeply loving yet dimly discontented ministrations of Edith elicited hearty laughter from those who watched the show — laughter perhaps partly in ridicule but surely also in recognition — recognition of the bigoted “Other” in Archie, and maybe sometimes even of the “othering” bigotry in themselves.
As Lawrence Levine points out in Highbrow / Lowbrow, “It is difficult to take familiarities with that which is not already familiar; one cannot parody that which is not well known.” So the near-vaudevillian exaggeration of Archie Bunker’s bigotry, class resentment, patriotism, and Hofstadter-scaled anti-intellectualism, wedded to the near-cartoonish naivete of a mystified but not-altogether-mastered Edith, were nevertheless rooted in the collective anxieties and aspirations, in the affirmations and delusions and denials, of the national audience for whose entertainment and edification they played themselves out. Archie Bunker and Edith Bunker were not just caricatures, nor even television characters from the 1970s, but (presumed?) archetypes who portrayed something of the felt experience of at least some segments of the American populace, segments which Self examines in his book.
Indeed, Self’s All in the Family, tracing the transformation of hard-hat New Deal liberals into Nixonian silent-majoritarians, could be viewed as an extensive exegesis of the fictional Bunker family’s fears and failings and feisty but differing responses to the threat — or promise — of change. But I think Self’s book probably better demonstrates that All in the Family was a fictionalized expression of many of the very real tensions and conflicts of the era in which it aired — including, perhaps, a “transatlantic” or “transnational” element to national anxieties. Like NBC’s The Office, which just aired its final episode this spring, Norman Lear’s All in the Family was a show imported from across the pond. This aspect of All in the Family as an “imported” (if transmuted) sitcom receives some attention from Jeffrey S. Miller in Something Completely Different: British Television and American Culture (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000). In 2004, historian Josh Ozersky published Archie Bunker’s America: TV in an Era of Change, 1968-1978. But Aniko Bodroghkozy, reviewing Ozersky’s book for the AHR, was disappointed:
Serious, historically rigorous studies of American television, both as an industry and as a cultural force, are still scant. This is a shame, considering, as Ozersky points out, the profound importance of the medium to American social and cultural life for the past fifty years. Ozersky’s book, while useful as popular history for general readers, adds very little to the scholarly literature that does exist in the field….However, this book is the product of a university press rather than a trade press, so a higher degree of historical scholarship seems appropriate. The historiography of television studies also needs it.
Indeed, based on an admittedly cursory JSTOR search, it seems that outside of television/film history or media studies, the Norman Lear show has not been closely or extensively examined by U.S. cultural historians, never mind U.S. intellectual historians. (If I have missed an important title in this search, please correct my omission in the comments section below.) The sociologist Todd Gitlin looked at the show alongside other American sitcoms in a 1979 article, so All in the Family at least merits attention as something that was paid attention to by those who proclaimed that the whole world was watching. But “the literature” on the sitcom as a telling text of its time seems rather scant considering the apparent ubiquity of the show as a cultural referent.
For Self can offer his title-as-homage without ever discussing the sitcom to which it seems to refer only because he is doing what Levine describes in the passage quoted above: telling a joke that “everyone” gets, making a reference that “everyone” recognizes. But for the sake of future generations of scholars who haven’t seen All in the Family in reruns on TVLand, never mind when it originally aired, I wish that Self had taken a moment to point out the significance of what seems to be an obvious allusion to the show.
And as mass media continues to fracture into a multiplicity of non-simultaneous, idiosyncratic, customizable channels, the very ability to imagine or understand something like a “shared viewing experience” for anything other than a live sporting event — and even the Olympics are now televised with delays — will become less and less accessible to students of history. It may be an easy enough imaginative leap for those of us who can remember a world before YouTube and iTunes (or before DVRs, or before VHRs, or whatever). But it is important to emphasize how differently TV shows were consumed and considered in that vanished cultural moment. “Those were the days.”
In the meantime, there is some historical work that could be done with this television show. Norman Lear’s All in the Family might prove particularly helpful for U.S. intellectual historians looking at the 1970s — or at least for those who recognize that something as “lowbrow” as a television sitcom can be treated as a text which can shed light on the sensibilities of the era in which it was produced.
 Lawrence Levine, Highbrow / Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988), 15-16.
 Aniko Bodroghkozy, review of Archie Bunker’s America: TV in an Era of Change, 1968-1978, by Josh Ozersky, The American Historical Review, Vol. 109, No. 2 (April, 2004), 563.
Todd Gitlin, “Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment,” Social Problems, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Feb., 1979), pp. 251-266