Sometimes you have to piss off the president to make sure the country changes for the better.
Fifty years ago, one of the most important TV shows ever debuted to middling numbers. Before long, it caught on like wildfire and had the entire nation talking. Even the people with the most power in the world.
For those of you who have never heard of Archie Bunker or All in the Family, let me paint a picture for you. It's 1971, and a sitcom debuts on network television. It's a show that lampoons bigotry, racism, homophobia, and misogyny by showing us a main character, Archie Bunker, who exhibits all of those attributes. Week in and week out, Bunker is confronted with his own ideas and forced to incrementally change, or not change, but see how the world will change around him.
The show debuted on Jan. 12, 1971, and CBS ran a disclaimer before it aired: “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.”
It's hard to imagine this show today. Nothing about it was politically correct, but it was political. Archie Bunker had to deal with diverse neighbors, cancer, miscarriages, a friend coming out to him, feminism, and the equality movement. All of that and it was the first TV show to have a toilet flush on air.
The show was created by legendary writer Norman Lear. He wanted to put something on the air that reflected the conversations going on in people's homes. Something that confronted the realities we see and helped begin conversations that were tough to have.
"These were not new subjects to the American people,” Lear said. “They just happened to be subjects that television had not touched.”
It inspired teachers to use episodes in class and coworkers to have conversations in the workplace. In the show's nine-year run, it received 55 Emmy nominations, winning 22 of them. The WGA listed it as the second-best sitcom of all time, right behind Seinfeld.
One of the weirdest parts of the show was how a small portion of the public lionized the lead character because they identified with his backward beliefs. This was a small portion, and as the show continued, they worked hard to make sure that while you might like Archie as a person, you always saw he was wrong.
This angered the people who couldn't see the comedy. One of those people was Richard Nixon.
Just five episodes into the show's run, Archie is shocked to discover one of his best friends is gay. The fifth episode is the one Nixon caught, and he didn't like it at all.
Yes, the President of the United States watched the show, and he didn't like the way they treated Archie Bunker, a guy he thought represented a lot of his viewpoints. It was almost as if the sitcom was making fun of him!
A few days after All in the Family won their first Emmys, Nixon can be heard on White House audiotapes released to the public, trashing the TV show. As Time Magazine puts it, "Nixon was caught on his Oval Office tapes talking with his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, about All in the Family, with the President praising Archie as 'a hard hat,' and Haldeman noting that the show seeks 'to downgrade him and make the square hard hat out to be bad.'"
One of the things we talk about here is writing stuff you believe in and telling stories you think might be a part of making the world a better place or helping people see your point of view. That's that All in the Family captured, and 50 years later, it's hard to imagine what the world would be like if we didn't sit with Archie week in and week out.
Aside from other lasting legacies, the one you probably know of is the sitcom, The Jeffersons. That story of a Black family began on All in the Family, where the character of George was so beloved he got his own show, which went on even longer than All in the Family. It was a show that demanded that change happen, even if the lazy ones of us were not courageous enough to act.
So if you have twenty minutes to spare, go back and watch an episode. Then see if it inspires you to write or create a story that changes the world.
Were you a fan of the show or do you see a contemporary title that's similar? Let us know in the comments.
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