Not in a long, long time has a series scored with the impact of “All In the Family,” sneaked in by CBS-TV last midseason. “Sneaked In” is a phrase used advisedly, since there was no advance publicity, no promo, as a nervous network didn’t quite know what to do with a show in which the hero is a bigot. The web expected an avalanche of protests, and hired extra operators to handle them. There was an avalanche, but 99% of the callers liked the show, recalls producer Norman Lear, adding with justifiable pride: “That’d never happened before.”
‘The Audience Laughs’
No one is better qualified to assess the reasons for the success of “Family” than Lear. He states: “A —it’s a funny show. The audience laughs. I never missed a ‘Bilko’ show because it was funny. There are very few shows on tv that are really funny. Lucy, Jackie Gleason and the ‘Honeymooners,’ and ‘Family’ are funny. We have a most gifted cast, a wonderful comedy director (John Rich) and we work very hard on scripts.
“B—the show has surprises. The content is different week to week. You don’t know if one week there will be a miscarriage on the show, or the young couple is going to be really intimate, or it might be Archie Bunker losing his job. There are so many different situations— all in one half-hour comedy.
“Archie is a lovable bigot. Most bigots are human. They are usually portrayed as one-dimensional bigots whom you are supposed to hate. People are more complicated than that. Most people are bigots because of fear, of apprehension, not because of hate. They hate what’s different. There’s a little bit of Archie Bunker in all of us somewhere. If anyone is not like Archie, they can recognize in him someone they know who is, even though most won’t admit it.
“I am aware if a man is black, and to me that’s a residual, tiny prejudice. I don’t like it but I can’t help it. I won’t act out on the residual prejudice that is still in me. Perhaps it’s because I’m 49, and I grew up in a different world. My kids are growing up in different circumstances. They don’t know or care who is black.
‘He’s A Fool’
“There is no reason bigots shouldn’t have a hero, too, and if they are going to have a hero, thank heavens he’s a fool, like Archie Bunker. Archie is a fool. Every week he is a fool. The world is changing so fast around him, attitudes on everything are changing, that’s why he is lashing out at everything.
“The symbol of change is provided by these two kids. He is holding on for dear life to the ’40s. That’s why while you dislike and hate his prejudice, you have to feel some empathy, for his whole world is changing, and he doesn’t understand it. You can identify with Archie. They all know Edith. Everybody identifies with the kids, because they fight with the parents and vice versa.”
“Next season, I see Archie losing his job and being retrained— if the state of the current economy continues. There is a possibility of his moving to the southwest—to California or Arizona, but that would be in the third season. But I see him out of work next season. I’m looking for that set of problems to motivate our new shows.
“How can you be funny in those circumstances? Most people find great humor in adversity. You have only to look at the black community and see how much humor and laughter stems from it, despite their problems. Many people have laughed before at problems.
‘Even Homos Loved It’
“We had a show last season about the girl losing her baby. It brought laughter and tears; it was tender. But they had said at the network, ‘how can such a story be humorous?’ We did one on homosexuality, and the network had said the public finds that repulsive and repugnant, and wouldn’t laugh at it. But the audience liked it. We even got mail from homosexuals saying they loved it.”
Lear recalls that in addition to their opening night, there were two other times when the CBS switchboard lit up because of “Family.” One was because the show had been pre-empted, and viewers called in to complain about it being off. The other time was just recently, when the repeats stopped (they only made 13 firstruns), and switchboards lit up as viewers called to complain because the show wasn’t on.
All of which pleases the comedy producer, who admits “The reaction was much more favorable than I expected.” But, he continues, “What I didn’t anticipate was that certain parts of the eastern press wouldn’t like the show. I thought they would love it. It took the N.Y. Times 6-7 weeks to like it. Since then, they’ve done three pieces on the show.”
“Family” is loosely based on the former British series, “Till Death Do Us Part.” Lear notes a bit wryly that his series has received bad reviews in England. Since success of his show, he has gotten offers to produce and direct pix about prejudice and bigots, but has declined. He doesn’t want to be typecast as a specialist in this sort of thing. Meanwhile, the series is renewed for 22 segments as it heads into its first full season.