The return of Archie Bunker
Since the 2016 presidential election, images, memes and stories involving the infamous television character Archie Bunker, the notoriously blunt, occasionally racist patriarch of Norman Lear’s iconic 1970s show “All in the Family,” have been circulating on the internet and across social media.
For many, his reappearance indicates a sad state of affairs when it comes to American politics. To them, Bunker famously embodied the same brand of resentment, anger and misunderstanding that seems to saturate the populace at the expense of rational, sustained dialogue. To others, Archie’s image functions as a rallying cry of sorts, one that gave frustrated working-class whites a symbol to identify with and support during the 1970s. The seventies were a difficult time economically for the nation — Archie included. His foreman jobs were drying up while others seemed to be stepping ahead of him in the proverbial line.
But while Bunker, portrayed by Carroll O’Connor, has become a more familiar sight on Facebook these past few years, the initial conservative reaction to and appropriation of Bunker on behalf of a “silent majority” remains largely forgotten in the annals of television history. “Archie for President” bumper stickers, T-Shirts, and buttons were made following the show’s premiere on behalf of a fictional character who spoke to the anxieties of countless working- and middle-class families across the country — anxieties more recently embodied in the figure of a real-life President, Donald J. Trump.
“All in the Family” both confronted and contributed to our polarized moment by placing a bigot in front of America in the name of satire. Many laughed at Archie, the show’s larger didactic aspiration. But many also laughed with him. This historical tension demands greater attention in our own moment, especially when we see its echoes playing out in contemporary politics.
These resonances between then and now are apparently evident to the show’s creator as well. On a recent episode of his late night television show, host Jimmy Kimmel announced that he and “All in the Family” creator Norman Lear would be working together in producing a live television special that would reimagine episodes of both “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” the latter being one of Lear’s more successful spin-offs (All in the Family had a total of five). A star-studded lineup awaits the show’s viewers including Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, and Wanda Sykes.
For the special’s producers, including Lear, the production is less about the show itself, and more about the fact that socially relevant programming can still be made today — even on network television. “They have said over and over again that these two shows were meant for the ’70s and would not work today,” Lear observed. “We disagree with them and are here to prove, with two great casts depicting “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons,” the timelessness of human nature.”
As of late, such programming has largely migrated to premium channels and streaming services, but back when “All in the Family” reigned supreme, sitcoms including the likes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “M*A*S*H” made contemporaneous events part of their weekly plots. As such, both the women’s movement and anti-Vietnam movement received free publicity packaged as political critique in prime time.
In short, the two shows’ reappearance on network television speaks to the value that Lear himself finds in situational comedy, and the various contributions he’s made to American television history. In fact, he takes great pride in his ability to speak to, and program in, the drama that is the human condition. For literary critic Geoffrey Wolfe, “It was just this power to shift from tears to laughter, and mean it, that tapped into that huge, unprecedented audience.” In essence, if you weren’t crying or laughing, than you weren’t truly living.
Unlike those who identified with Bunker, Lear and company have brought the show back, Bunker and all (played by actor Woody Harrelson), to remind us that television does not simply have to be a series of flashing colors and complex circuitry. Television can also have a didactic purpose — one that seeks to educate as much as it wants to entertain. For Lear, it has always been the duty of television to not only make people laugh, but also to report on the times in which it finds itself. The question for us to consider collectively is whether we are ready to acknowledge the complex racial legacy of “All in the Family,” and the role that such a legacy continues to play in our contemporary politics.
In other words, Archie’s reappearance in public life is noteworthy because it is troubling. Lear did not place a bigot in front of American audiences because he agreed with Archie’s claims; he did so because Archie’s views were not meant to endure in the public eye. In fact, many at the time, including actor Carroll O’Connor, thought they were ultimately destined for the dustbin of history. “The lesson is — if you think this way, change,” O’Connor admitted in an interview in Ebony Magazine. “That’s the lesson. But we don’t come out and say so, because that is a very bad way to teach.” By bringing attention to bigotry, Lear hoped to combat its nefarious character in an age of culture war, but the results of his intentions have been less than clear.
While the show may have helped confront disagreement and polarization at the time, and it most certainly did, it also contributed to them at the same time by relying on satire to deliver a message of understanding and racial tolerance. As a powerful tool of social commentary, satire only works if its audiences understand it as such. Otherwise, satire can often cultivate the very thing it seeks to examine critically, such as bigotry and racism.
It will be quite revealing to see how Archie is portrayed in this live iteration of the show in 2019. Will Archie be as coarse and honest as he once was? Which episodes will be chosen? What will be their respective plots? Will we come to see Archie in a different light? And will contemporary standards and practices allow such programming and content to grace their airwaves in the age of the alt-right? I sure hope so, because if so, we could finally have a conversation about what continues to divide us, and why, in an age of intensified division and polarization. The networks once did — we’ll see if they’re willing to do so once more.
Editor’s note: L. Benjamin Rolsky is a research fellow at Lehigh University, and an adjunct professor at Monmouth University and Rutgers University. His book, “The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond,” will be published in the fall of 2019 by Columbia University Press. The views expressed here are his.