Confronts Controversial Issues

Norman Lear’s All in the Family revolutionized the content of situation comedies by dealing with currently controversial topics, many previously taboo for television, in both humorous and touching ways.

Summary of Event

On January 12, 1971, the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) broadcast the first episode in a situation comedy (sitcom) series that would soon change the course of television comedy. Critic Dwight Newton said of this show, All in the Family, “In one half hour, CBS destroyed old taboos and liberated comedy writing.” Television;comedies
Television;relevance programs
Television;relevance programs
Lear, Norman
Wood, Robert D.
Yorkin, Bud
O’Connor, Carroll
Stapleton, Jean
Struthers, Sally
Reiner, Rob

The program had a simple premise. A working-class family of father, mother, and daughter, in a blue-collar neighborhood of New York City, portrayed the ambitions, concerns, and fears of millions of Americans who faced the changing social values and conditions of the 1970’s. The father, Archie Bunker, was especially concerned over the changes wrought by the Civil Rights movement and the youth culture prevalent on many college campuses at that time. The very forces he feared were brought into his own home as his daughter, Gloria, fell in love with and eventually married Mike Stivic, a liberal college student. When the young couple moved in with Archie and his wife, Edith, the stage was set for regular confrontations between the reactionary views of Archie and the liberal opinions of “Meathead,” as Archie referred to Mike.

Television critics and social commentators noted that the broadcast of this program represented a new peak in the social revolution of the 1960’s and that the medium of television entertainment would now aid in spreading the revolutionary liberal views. The basic theme of the show was that of young people with 1960’s values trying to make a life for themselves while being forced by circumstances to live under an imposed arbitrary authority. Unlike the popular television series of the 1950’s Father Knows Best, Father Knows Best (television program) on All in the Family, the daughter, the son-in-law, and even the mother all had something to say about what was “best.”

“America’s favorite bigot” Archie Bunker, as played by Carroll O’Connor.


Jean Stapleton, in the role of Edith Bunker, portrayed the changes affecting millions of American women at that time. Edith was a housewife, and she knew herself to be one of a dying breed. Many of her fictional contemporaries worked outside the home. Edith did not expect her daughter, Gloria, to have the same relationship with her husband, Mike Stivic, that she had with Archie. Although not ready to join the National Organization for Women or to demonstrate in the streets, Edith still saw new vistas of opportunity opening before her as a woman, and she occasionally shocked her husband by exploring one of those new avenues. Although bumbling in physical actions and often under assault from her husband as a “dingbat,” Edith maintained her essential personal dignity and often brought to the resolution of problems a warmhearted dose of common sense.

If television critics and social commentators thought All in the Family to be new and wonderful, the public had different views. The pilot episode for the series had been offered to the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which showed it to a test audience and received such poor responses that the network declined to purchase the show. Some sociologists have suggested that many members of the test audience probably actually liked the show but were ashamed to say so because some of the opinions expressed by the actors were not considered socially acceptable, even though many viewers agreed with those opinions.

Robert D. Wood, president of CBS, was determined to replace the aging stories and actors making up the CBS lineup with fresh, contemporary material. He saw the social mood of the United States in 1971 as a mixture of anxiety and hope. To him, All in the Family reflected these dual notes. Bud Yorkin, producer and director of All in the Family, agreed. He believed that young people in particular were ready for a new approach to television entertainment. Many of them were challenging established assumptions or had peers who were, and they wanted entertainment that dealt with these same real issues.

On these assumptions, CBS purchased the show. In a move unusual for television, the network allowed the show to stay on the air despite a slow start. Its audience grew as viewers became accustomed to the radical change in television conventions represented by the show. These changed conventions included episodes in which the show dealt with abortion, homosexuality, impotence, menopause, civil disobedience, and a host of other topics not previously dealt with in any depth by television shows, either drama or comedy. Archie Bunker’s blatant racism was featured in virtually every episode, and other previously taboo topics were fair game. Among other “firsts” on the show were the sound of a toilet flushing and a discussion of toilet paper. Never before had there been any evidence on American television that people go to the bathroom.

All in the Family was not an original idea. Norman Lear, creator of the series, stated that he was inspired by the British program Till Death Us Do Part, which featured a blue-collar worker in an urban setting. Topics were updated, however, for relevance to contemporary American life.

Despite its ever-increasing popularity, CBS was not always comfortable with the content and direction of the show. Numerous battles were fought within the standards and practices division of CBS over the content of various episodes. All in the Family, however, became the nation’s most-watched regular television show in its first season, and it retained that position for five seasons. After that, it was consistently in the top fifteen shows in viewership until it was canceled at the beginning of the 1982-1983 season.


The enormous popularity of All in the Family made it clear that people were ready for a new approach that dealt with contemporary issues in a way that reflected the concerns of society. Rather than restricting comedy to sanitized presentations of family life as in previous shows, All in the Family allowed reality to tint comedy to some extent. This does not mean that the show offered solutions to social problems. Archie Bunker was a narrow-minded character who often expressed bigoted views. He portrayed those views honestly and unapologetically. Because he was also a lovable and ineffective character, his views were not taken seriously or viewed as threatening. Some viewers saw Archie as a hero, able to express opinions no longer socially acceptable even though they were still commonly held. Others reveled in the put-downs that Archie suffered as a racist.

In the same way, Mike Stivic represented new liberal values but also could not support his views completely. As a student who had not yet assumed the responsibility of holding a job and supporting a family, his liberal views could be seen as idealistic but not practical. All in the Family thus effectively presented the controversies of the 1970’s without being didactic. This approach reflected the social and political interests of the show’s creator, Norman Lear. Lear described himself as a social and political liberal whose politics informed his sense of comedy. Lear believed that people laugh hardest when they are the most concerned.

Going beyond his television presentations, Lear founded the political lobbying organization People for the American Way. People for the American Way He brought to this organization all the skills of Hollywood in raising money, recruiting celebrities, and producing advertisements capable of conveying a powerful message in a short time. The most notable activity of this group was its successful opposition to the nomination of Robert H. Bork Bork, Robert H. to the Supreme Court of the United States. Such political involvement, along with continuing frank discussion of sexuality and changing forms of the family, made Lear, by the 1980’s, one of the chief targets of the religious and political fundamentalist right. The controversy, however, did not prevent Lear from producing other shows in the mold of All in the Family or from keeping up his constant barrage of social commentary from the mouths of his characters. Lear and All in the Family proved that controversy can be the stuff of comedy.

All in the Family had a continuing impact by bringing social tensions into the open. Many critics have assumed that Lear meant to discredit conservative views by placing support for them in the hands of Archie Bunker, an obviously flawed character tending toward bigotry. Other critics argued that All in the Family took on issues only tangentially instead of confronting them head-on. These critics point to evidence that there was widespread sympathy for Archie Bunker and his views.

In reality, the narrow-minded character of Archie Bunker raised sensitive social issues and got people to talk about them. Carroll O’Connor, in a superbly shrewd performance, kept Archie from becoming a buffoon. Archie expressed some viewers’ anxieties about the changes sweeping across the nation. As these changes and issues were introduced on the show, and as various aspects of them were raised by the show’s characters, the fallacies of beliefs of both the left and the right were exposed. As one critic stated, “The best preachers deliver sermons without preaching.” Lear and his show helped the nation look at problems and deal with them within the family.

The popularity of All in the Family seems to have come from its ability to transform, or even deform, the tensions of real-life conflicts. The predictable, almost ritual, confrontations between Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic were actually taking place across the country. The social and psychological cracks in the nation’s cultural landscape were real. The reaction to the show, and its characters, was ambivalent because the United States was and is a mixed culture, with few ideas approaching anything near universal acceptance.

All in the Family prompted a new wave of television situation comedies dealing with relevant subjects. Having proved that society would accept such shows, All in the Family set the stage for Sanford and Son, Sanford and Son (television program)
Maude, Maude (television program)
M*A*S*H, M*A*S*H (television program)[Mash (television program)]
The Jeffersons, Jeffersons, The (television program)
Good Times, Good Times (television program)
Married . . . with Children, Married . . . with Children (television program)
Roseanne, Roseanne (television program) and The Simpsons. Simpsons, The (television program) Lear showed an uncanny ability to reach American audiences through comedy. Social relevance and an acceptance of controversy are now a part of television comedy and are no longer subjects limited to drama or documentaries. Television;comedies
Television;relevance programs

Further Reading

  • Fiske, John. Television Culture. New York: Methuen, 1987. Interesting analysis of the fantasy culture that television creates and the ways in which that culture is accepted as true and valid by viewers.
  • Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983. Provides good description and analysis of how television functions. Draws on more than two hundred interviews the author conducted with people who work in television and who described for him their search for hit shows.
  • Goldstein, Fred, and Stan Goldstein. Prime-Time Television. New York: Crown, 1983. Combines text and pictures to present a vivid history of television from 1948 to 1983. Almost every program or series that was on the air for at least one season is included in this comprehensive work.
  • O’Connor, John, ed. American History, American Television. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. Collection of essays discusses television both as a force in recent social history and as a matter to be studied. Contributors deal with a wide range of topics, from the Amos ’n’ Andy show to the Watergate hearings.
  • Rose, Brian G., and Robert S. Alley, eds. TV Genres: A Handbook and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. Useful guide discusses various genres of television programs, including police shows, docudramas, and news. Analyzes specific shows and discusses the differences among types of programs. Addresses the ways in which lines between various genres have been blurred, as in the case of socially relevant comedy programs.

Relevance Programs Change Entertainment Standards

M*A*S*H Reflects Antiwar Sentiments

Happy Days Exemplifies Escapist Television

The Jeffersons Signals Success of Black Situation Comedies

The Cosby Show Makes Television History

The Simpsons Debuts, Anchoring the Fledgling Fox Network

Seinfeld Takes a Regular Slot on NBC