U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Those Were the Days

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.”[1]  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.”[2]  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.[3]

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.[4]  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.


[1] Robert O. Self, All in the Family: Family: The Realignment of American Democracy since the 1960s (New York: Hill and Wang, 2012); All in the Family, 1971-1979, CBS.

[2] Lawrence Levine, Highbrow / Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988), 15-16.

[3] 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.

[4]Todd Gitlin, “Prime Time Ideology: The Hegemonic Process in Television Entertainment,” Social Problems, Vol. 26, No. 3 (Feb., 1979), pp. 251-266

16 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice writing, LD.

    The obvious exception to the rule is Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive, which has a great section on All in the Family.

    there appears to be a relevant article, also, in Camera Obscura 15.1 (2000) 45-93 by Kirsten Marthe Lentz

  2. Thanks Kurt — just what I was hoping for in comments. Haven’t read Cowie yet, but will have to soon (and won’t mind it either). I’ll check out the article too.

    I was just so surprised by the odd combination of allusion / omission in Self. But in one sense his whole project could be summed up as exploring the cultural conditions that made it possible for people to imaginatively enter into All in the Family and its spinoffs — Maude, The Jeffersons, etc.

  3. Lear’s monster slipped from his control–Archie Bunker said what many people were thinking and they loved him for it.

    Meathead was the clown on that show. Nobody loved Meathead.

  4. LD–Great post on All in the Family. I recommend Todd Gitlin’s book Inside Prime Time, which examines television, culture, and politics. He interviewed writers, directors, and producers on shows like All in the Family and MASH.

  5. Having not read the Gitlin book, I can’t say this for sure, but looking at the publication date (1985) and judging from the ’79 article, I would think that, for my purposes, Gitlin writing on M*A*S*H* and All in the Family in the early-mid 1980s would be a “primary source.”

    No knock against Gitlin, of course — but how sociologists “of the time” understood the significance of the TV industry / particular shows for the contemporary culture is something that needs to be historicized right along with the TV shows / culture themselves.

    So I would definitely read Gitlin for a project like this, but would not necessarily allow Gitlin’s take on prime time television to frame my own historical explanation of the phenomenon. It would be a POV I’d need to consider and situate as a part of “the past” under consideration.

    • LD–I agree with you about Gitlin and Inside Prime Time. I prefer his work on the 1960s and the left over his sociological writings. I especially like The Sixties, Letters to a Young Activist, and Intellectuals and the Flag.

      From my dissertation research, I remember a piece that Gitlin wrote on Ed Asner, politics, and television in the early 1980s.

      If you are interested, I can dig into my files and look for other Giltin pieces on television and society.

      • LD–Below are some of the Gitlin citations on television and the media. The first citation concerns the cancellation of The Lou Grant Show. The second citation deals with Tony Randall’s homosexual character on the TV show Love, Sidney. I have others but these are the ones that I found in my electronic files.

        Todd Gitlin, “The Screening Out of ‘Lou Grant’,” The Nation, June 26, 1982.

        Todd Gitlin, “When the Right Talks, TV Listens,” The Nation, October 15, 1983.

  6. After reading half of Penny Lewis’s “Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks,” I believe that the media (Norman Lear included) falsely portrayed all northern working class men as being like Archie Bunker. There was a working class backlash against the Great Society, but it was mainly contained in the south. In American society regional differences count more than one’s class status.

  7. L.D I love this piece; I have to say that part of what I like about the show is its overt politics: if you compare the writing to some Shaw and even Brecht, it isn’t all that different; it isn’t motivated by rounded character or depth psychology but big, sociological ideas. Have you seen the Maude show on abortion called Maude’s decision? A show like that would or could never be done now, though I guess Lena Dunham’s Girls is sort of equivalent but that is cable not traditional network t.v.

  8. Thanks for the interesting comments. Jason, I’d be glad to see your bibliiography of Gitlin’s writings — but don’t rush the search. I start my exams tomorrow, and I have a few other things hanging over my head, so it will be a minor miracle if I can put two thoughts together between now and July — if I survive!

    Mitch, I’m glad you liked the post.

    I spent a few hours today watching several old episodes on YouTube. This show was genius, the principals were absolutely a match made in thespian heaven. The reactions of the studio audience are interesting as well — not just the moments of uproarious laughter, but the long stretches of stunned silence.

    From an intellectual history perspective, and in keeping with much that we’ve been talking about here on the blog, one of the more interesting episodes I saw today was one from 1972 or 1973, “The Battle of the Month.” The dialogue not only referenced Germaine Greer’s work, but also discussed (briefly) her thesis in The Female Eunuch — with predictably reactionary responses from Archie. It’s a great episode.

    After watching several such episodes, it seemed clear to me that while “bigotry” is certainly the stock-in-trade of Archie’s caricature, where the show did its most weighty work was in confronting the anxieties about changing gender relationships.

    As to John’s point or allegation or complaint that Norman Lear, as part of “the media,” “falsely portrayed all northern working class men as being like Archie Bunker.” This is a bizarre claim. Lear’s show is not expected or required to be an “accurate” portrayal of anything. It is a sitcom, prime-time television entertainment. It is a funhouse mirror — reflecting and distorting at the same time. Anyone who views All in the Family as some kind of “evidence” of what the “typical” northern blue-collar family was like — or even what people “believed” that family was like — hasn’t done his or her homework.

    What All in the Family does show us is the kinds of conversations and issues and conflicts that were on people’s minds, and that they wanted to find some way to laugh about. I think that’s worth understanding, and may provide an important perspective on broader cultural discourse.

  9. Hey L.D. Burnett, at the time many politicians and pundits thought that a majority of northern blue-collar whites were very right winged and hence Richard Nixon’s ethnic strategy and courting of the “silent majority.” Also political scientist such as Kevin Phillips wrote that northern working class whites were going to be a vital part of the Republican majority in the seventies and eighties. Art is nothing more than a reflection of reality and Norman Lear was tapping into a popular perception of the northern working class man.

  10. Hey John Henninger, there are so many things wrong with this comment that I hardly know where to begin. And, alas!, I don’t have time at present since I’m an hour into a 24-hour timed exam.

    But if anyone wants to take up the discussion, I’d suggest the comment is particularly weak in two places:

    1) the argument seems to be coming from “memory.” Henninger is telling me, the PhD student, what people thought “at the time,” without any evidence beyond his own word. So I am assuming that he is arguing that his perspective on the 1970s is somehow more authoritative than mine. So here’s the “memory does/doesn’t count as history” problem, like a fat pitch right over the plate, if anybody wants to take a swing at it.

    2) “Art is nothing more than a reflection of reality.” How interesting that a) there is some thing called “reality” that b) does not include “art” as a part of it. From whence does this particular aesthetic philosophy derive?

    Okay, break’s over. Back to my exam.

  11. Pete Hamill’s article “Revolt of the White Lower Class,” which portrayed working class whites as being reactionary was published on April 14, 1969. “The Emerging Republican Majority,” by Kevin Phillips was published in 1969. The popular film “Joe,” which depicts a working class white man killing hippies came out in 1970. Finally Penny Lewis in her book, “Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks,” on page 179 , states that by 1971, “The cultural icon of the reactionary worker had been firmly established.” So far I have mentioned many sources to support my claims that the mainstream view of northern working class whites was that of a extreme right winger like Archie Bunker. The only thing that you have brought up have been personal insults such as stating that my views are “bizarre,” and that I haven’t done my homework. If you are going to refute someone please use facts and published sources.

  12. John, it’s good that you’re following your own advice and citing some sources. This is an improvement upon your earlier offering, “After reading half of Penny Lewis’s ‘Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks,’ I believe that the media (Norman Lear included) falsely portrayed all northern working class men as being like Archie Bunker.” Even in that statement, “the media” and “falsely” and “all” are bizarrely problematic — perhaps doubly so in view of your later statement that “Art is nothing more than a reflection of reality.”

    But this is better — and thanks for the sources! I will check them out when I can.

    Now, back to that exam — 1252 good words written so far, about 3800 to go. I think on my next break I’m going to watch clips from All in the Family, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son.

    • The comment art is nothing more than a reflection of reality is from Tori Amos, a non-academic, but I happen to agree with her.

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