The Family in Situation Comedies; the 1970s to the 1990s
I. THE 1960S: SOCIAL AND CULTURAL TRANSITION
During the 1960s the concept of the “All-American family” which appeared so often in the 1950s sitcoms underwent a radical change. This change was brought about in part by social and cultural alterations that had a far reaching effect on American culture (Huston).
Three significant pieces of legislation were passed during this time, which helped to bring about cultural and social transformation: the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the Immigration Act (1965) (Tindall and Shi 1177). According to historians, Tindall and Shi, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the “most far-reaching civil rights measure ever enacted” (1177). This act aided in the reduction of discrimination and segregation in the United States. The 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed after the Civil Rights march to Montgomery, Alabama. This act ensured equal voting rights and privileges to all citizens, including African-Americans, who had previously been discriminated against at the polling booths. The Immigration Act of 1965 increased immigration by eliminating numerous limits, and adopting several amendments allowing the families of current immigrants freer entry into the United States. The Immigration Act of 1965 led to a larger influx of immigrants both from the Eastern Hemisphere and from South America and Mexico. The liberation movements of the 1960s and the resulting legislation as well as the resulting social changes allowed the diversity of the American population to emerge into American consciousness more fully than previously. During this time period, issues of race and equality appeared for the first time in prime time sitcoms.
Also, during this decade of transition, a division between parents and children began to emerge. This division divided the traditional nuclear families often in very radical ways. Issues that split many American families included race, war, and questions of civil rights. War, in particular the Vietnam War, split numerous families, especially families with children in high school or attending college. The division between parents and children influenced concepts of the family life in subsequent decades. The result was a far more differentiated perception of the family. The former vision of a unified nuclear family with very few problems and troubles was shattered. This breaking of the traditional image, like the issues of race and equality, began to make an appearance on prime time sitcoms during this time (Wober).
1. RACIAL DIVERSITY
Sanford & Son
With the new awareness of diversity, equality and the recognition of African-Americans as full citizens with full civil rights, sitcoms began to reflect these new concepts as well. The 1970s and the 1980s became the decades where these issues were confronted, and at times, violently. One of the first and more memorable sitcoms reflecting a new awareness of the civil rights issues was Sanford & Son (1972-1977) (Internet). Sitcoms of the 1950s featured a nuclear family, traditional gender roles, an all Caucasian cast, and a small-town all white neighborhood. The characters and families were the epitome of the definition of the family. Social issues were not addressed. The complete location of the sitcom was limited only to the household and immediate neighborhood. Even places of employment came into play none too often. The fathers went off to work, but we never saw them at work. Sanford & Son breaks with a majority of these traditions, including breaking the definition of the nuclear family. Rather the family in the sitcom began to emerge into the latter part of the Webster definition of the family “one’s husband (or wife) and children”. It features not an all white nuclear family, but an African-American father and son, with no mother figure. This show, however, allowed African-Americans to appear for the first time in all the program’s leading roles on main stream television. Sanford & Son challenged the image of the “All-American family” that the Andersons and Cleavers had set in previous decades. The first ideas challenged by the sitcom were the concepts that America is all white, that American families all reside in suburbs, and all families face no real crises. Furthermore the concept that all families are nuclear and intact is put to the test. Not only are Sanford and his son African-Americans who live in an African-American neighborhood, but they form a non-nuclear family. The mother has died. This is emphasized by the fact that Fred Sanford often raises his eyes toward heaven and proclaims comically “Elizabeth, I’m coming to join you, honey!” He generally says this during a crisis when he has one of his unjustified heart attacks. Thus, the family is comprised of a father and an orphan son.
Furthermore, Fred’s relationship to other members of his extended family, are far from harmonious. He has a bitter hatred for Aunt Edith, his crusty and hyper-critical sister-in-law. She is the only consistent “motherly” figure in the sitcom. Unfortunately she is far from motherly in the traditional sense of the nurturing, kind, and loving figure to be found in such fifties television sitcoms as Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver, and is sarcastic and harsh.
Astonishingly, for the time period, the program raised questions on “reverse racism”, a concept that came as something of a surprise to people living in the frequent isolated all white neighborhoods. Fred Sanford, portrayed by the well-known comedian Redd Foxx, is a cantankerous old man who detests white people and finds other ethnic groups a threat (Brooks 900). His detest is so significantly pronounced, that it is humorous, allowing a difficult racial issue to be addressed but softened by laughter. Season Two’s “The Puerto Ricans Are Coming!” reflects, even in the title, Fred Sanford’s prejudice against all other races, and his exaggerated fear of the threat they pose to the “American way of life” (Internet).
While the world of the fifties sitcoms was limited to all white middle class suburbs, Fred owned a junkyard in a rundown part of Los Angeles. His son, Lamont, portrayed by Demond Wilson, helps his father with the family business (Brooks 900). Fred’s role as a junkyard operator takes him out of the white collar category of previous sitcom “fathers” and places him into a social environment not previously portrayed in television comedies. Sanford & Son takes the location to the Los Angeles ghetto, and additionally shows not only the inner city neighborhood, but also the place of employment. The Sanford’s are not wealthy individuals, by any means. They are of lower middle class, this being reflected in the run down appearance of the junkyard, their working class clothing and the shoddy living room, which forms the main setting for the comedy.
Finally, unlike the unnaturally happy families of the 1950s with their upbeat, always smiling, uncomplaining fathers, Fred is not a happy man. This show found its comedy in the stark bluntness of Fred Sanford’s blatant disregard for etiquette, respect and his often discontent with people and life. The often used phrases; “…evil and ugly Aunt Esther…” and “I’m coming to join you, Elizabeth!”, Elizabeth being his deceased wife, were constant reminders of the old man’s sour disposition (Museum). He was irascible, often depressed, and frequently complaining. He was a caricature of the testy old codger. He was a direct descendant of some of the sidekicks who appeared in 1950s western shows such as Gunsmoke. The humor has an entirely different base. It did not have the gentle laughter of sweet, kind, unrealistically good-humored cute characters.
The result was an atmosphere completely opposite of the sitcoms of the 1950s. The titles are indicative of the reversal of expectations in almost every program of the series. Season One includes “Here Comes the Bride,” but instead of ending there, the title continues, “There Goes the Bride,” suggesting a failed engagement rather than the expected successful marriage. Season Three’s “This Land Is Whose Land?” echoes the well known 1960s song, This Land Is Your Land, which over zealously celebrates harmony. “Once A Thief” from Season Four, “A Pain in the Neck” from Season Five, and “Funny, You Don’t Look It” from the sixth, and final season of the series, are all wry commentaries rather than factual titles describing cute family conflicts (Internet).
The Cosby Show
Unlike Sanford & Son which shattered the nuclear family, removed the location from the affluent suburbs, and placed the action in an African-American ghetto, The Cosby Show (1984–1992) continued the 1950s tradition by showing a strong nuclear family, living in an affluent lifestyle in a beautiful Brownstone house in New York City (Brooks 215). The nuclear family aspect of the 1950s sitcoms held strong ties to The Cosby Show. The definition of the family was truly upheld by this family; “a social unit consisting of parents and the children they rear” (Webster). The episode titles enforced this motif. Titles included “Father’s Day” from Season One, “Mother May I?” from Season Three, and “It’s A Boy” and “Home Remedies” both from Season Seven (Internet).
The major difference with The Cosby Show is the fact that it featured an almost all African-American cast. Traditionally African-Americans were always portrayed as lower class, comedic characters, as the previously mentioned Sanford & Son. The Huxtable family, by contrast, is highly educated within the professional arena. The family continues the image of the “All-American” family with two loving parents, and five generally obedient children. The humor of the show didn’t find itself in one liners and short quips as did the previous 1950s families, rather in the everyday occurrences and habits of life.
Bill Cosby led the cast, as the distinguished head of the family, Dr. Heathcliff ‘Cliff’ Huxtable, gynecologist (Brooks 215). His wife, portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, continued the role as the supportive wife, as June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson portrayed in the 1950s (Internet). However, in addition to the role as the traditional supportive wife, Phylicia Rashad was presented with a challenge. Clair Hanks Huxtable was a successful lawyer, who faced the same challenges as her husband when it came to balancing family and work issues. Despite the challenges of two working parents, the home was generally clean, organized and welcoming, reflecting their upper middle class stature. With both parental units being professionally employed, the viewing audience was able to take a glance outside of the confines of the family home. Unlike the fantastical office of Ward Cleaver, which we never see, we are taken to the office of Cliff Huxtable and its humble furnishings, this made easier by him being self-employed and his office at the home. At times, throughout the duration of the sitcom, the show moved into the office, where hilariously comical patients walked into his practice. Even episode titles refer to the work of Dr. Cliff Huxtable, such as the episode from Season One entitled “Physician of the Year” (Internet). Often times the balance which he attempted to achieve between the family environment and the professional often fell into comical chaos when many times the children would step in and interrupt the doctor while he was seeing a patient, which eventually resolved at the end of the episode.
In comparison to the 1950s sitcoms, where social issues were not addressed, The Cosby Show probed the emerging social issues, including drugs, sex and changing gender roles. Most times these issues centered around the children. Many times the titles of the episodes described these social issues. For example, in the first season, Episode 17, entitled “Theo and the Joint”. This episode dealt with the publicly growing issue of drugs amongst young people. “Planned Parenthood” and “Theo and the Older Woman” from seasons Two and Three, described the influential pressure young people and even adults receive as single individuals about sex and the consequences thereof. With the topic of changing gender roles, the episodes entitled “Clair’s Liberation” from season Seven and “For Men Only” from Season Eight heightened the awareness of gender role equality (Internet).
The Cosby Show continued the traditional family roles and portrayals, while adapting to issues of race, raised in the 1960s. For the first time, an African American family was portrayed as affluent, professional, informing a cohesive family unit. In contrast to Sanford & Son, with its lower class and broken family unit, The Cosby Show places the African-American family in the main stream both of television and of views about the importance of the nuclear family.
2. FAMILY DIVISION AND THE DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY
All in the Family
As already indicated, sitcoms of the 1950s featured traditional views of families, gender, and race. The nuclear family dominated the television screen, presenting a unified front of homogenous family lifestyles of traditional values and roles. They took place in small protected environments and limited the world to all white neighborhoods. Social issues and discord were absent.
Originally a British television comedy, entitled Til Death Do Us Part (1966-1975) (Wikipedia), All in the Family (1971-1992) (Brooks 32) breaks with several of these traditions; the family is all white, but issues of race, gender, and politics are raised in every episode. This sitcom emerged as an “alternative choice” of family, which began a trend of dysfunctional family television shows which include Roseanne and Married… With Children, all of which we will discuss later in this thesis.
Instead of idealizing the limited views of the all white neighborhood, the series satirizes the racial bigotry of such families. It did so by a father who was not only racist but also sexist. It also portrayed a division between family members and generations. In the case of All in the Family, the division existed between parents and children.
Archie Bunker, as head of the family, sets a firm and constant perception on conservative views, as did the fathers in previous television sitcoms. However, unlike previous fathers, Archie Bunker portrays his views by verbally assaulting those around him, often times creating humorous tension and an obstinate sense of pessimism. Carroll O’Connor humorously portrayed this bigoted character whom became the opposite of what Ward Cleaver and James Anderson were; ideal, tolerant, and reserved gentlemen (Brooks 32). Archie Bunker was not so reserved. His vocabulary and mannerisms were uneducated and prejudiced. Frequent nouns used by the head of household included “Jungle Bunnies”, “Spades”, “Spics”, and “Chinks” (Brooks 32). Often times, the episode titles referred to the racial slurs, such as Season One’s “Judging Books by Covers” (Internet). With such offensive vocabulary, Archie’s place of employment created much of the show’s comedy. For the duration of the first half of the show’s existence, Archie was a dock foreman, forcing him to integrate and work with the individuals he could hardly tolerate. The remaining seasons of the show, Archie was the proud owner of a bar which was appropriately dubbed “Archie’s Place”, where a variety of individuals, as well as issues, took a seat at his bar, where he continued his tradition of blatant verbal assaults.
In addition to being prejudice and having few manners, he was a non-religious man. Many times, his humor gravitated around Christianity and other religions. A popular, yet ironic, phrase for the character became “I just thank God I’m an atheist” (Internet).
In spite of the faults, career moves, and harsh words, there remained one character who loved Archie Bunker, for the bigoted and racist man he was; his wife Edith Bunker. Jean Stapleton brought Edith to life for nine years (Internet). Though perhaps slow, and a “dingbat” as Archie dubbed her on many occasions, she was the glue that held the family together. During the arguments of Archie and Mike, his son-in-law, and the radical ideas of Gloria, she was the wife who ensured that despite disagreement they were family. She held the traditional concept of the 1950s family mother, holding the family together and ensuring the survival of the family, while adding sarcasm and humor to the role. Stapleton honed this character to perfection until her character’s death in 1980 (Brooks 33). Edith’s death brought a new twist to television sitcoms. While being the wife who attempted at holding the traditional roles and chores of the household, her sudden death mid-way through the series brought a challenge as to how to portray her absence. The beginning of the 1980-1981 season began with the mourning of Edith, the beloved wife with the episode entitled “Edith’s Death” (Internet). However life went on, for all the characters, including Gloria and Mike Stivic, who the audience would learn about through dialog.
Gloria was the independent and spirited daughter of Archie and Edith. Portrayed by Sally Struthers, Gloria became the “bread-maker” for the younger couple of the household (Brooks 32). Growing up as a child through high school, her parents had loved her, but were eagerly awaiting to see her married, with the hopes she would move out and begin her own life. Unfortunately their glee was short lived. After marrying her “debonair” husband Mike, the couple moved into the basement of Archie’s house. For the next six seasons, the daughter would remain near her family nest, accompanied by her husband.
As Gloria’s husband, Mike Stivic received little to no respect from his father-in-law. Rob Reiner played the character of Mike Stivic, or who was more commonly referred to as “Meathead” by Archie (Brooks 32). The disrespect and contempt Archie and Mike held for one another was a steady constant. The respect that children and in-laws were to have for one another as presented in the 1950s sitcoms disappeared and disconnect replaced it. Gloria and Mike continually siphoned their living from their parents, while holding extremely liberal views of both politics and values, contrasting immensely with the ultra-conservative views of Archie and Edith. Due to the vast contrast of topics, it became evident that issues were brought out in the episode titles, including Season Two’s “Gloria Poses in the Nude” and Season Seven’s “Draft Dodger” (Internet). Until the younger generation couple left after the 1977-1978 season, shortly before Edith Bunker would pass away, much of the show’s humor was found in the vast differences between the generations (Brooks 33).
Despite the contrast of family image All in the Family portrayed, it flourished on the television screen. After Gloria and Mike left home, and Edith’s sudden death, the show began treading into un-chartered territory. Archie began a journey as a single, widowed man, who lived with extended relatives and housekeepers. After the void of family became permanent, the place of employment for Archie became a major setting location. Nonetheless, the show continued to be a success while continuing to introduce a non-nuclear family. In its final seasons, the show would be comprised of two nieces, a housekeeper, and eventually a new wife. By adding these external family members, it altered the show’s family status into the realm of the non-nuclear family and extended family. With such vast changes to the dynamics of the nuclear family, both intentional and unintentional, the image of the All-American family on the television screen began to emerge into the new decade, where divorce was on the rise, and family values began to deteriorate. This thus ushered in the other popular “dysfunctional family” shows, Married…With Children (1987-1997), and Roseanne (1989-1997) (Internet).
The premier of the rashly dysfunctional family could be, by many, attributed to Married…With Children (1987-1997) (Internet). This show instigated stressing the polarization of roles within the traditional family, as well as continued the prominent growing gap between the parent and child generations. Married…With Children maintained the nuclear family form, according to the dictionary definition, where there was the father, the mother and the children. However, unlike the Cleavers and the Andersons and even the Cosbys, the Bundys were a family of nontraditional family and gender roles, which during this time, America was changing the workforce and home. The nation had an increase of women in the labor force by close to 10,000 jobs, helping to increase the workforce population of the nation by 5%, while males increased the workforce by 9,000 (Chao). Meaning less mothers were staying at home with the children, holding true to the traditional motherly roles as set by preceding mothers, June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson.
Taking place in suburban Chicago, Married…With Children became a show where individualism and separation of tradition became the essence of the sitcom (Internet). Al Bundy, portrayed by Ed O’Neill, broke away from the traditional father figure (Brooks 646). Al Bundy was a lazy, chauvinistic shoe sales man, who was discontent with himself, his job, and with life. His attitude almost aligned itself with Archie Bunker, though, however discontent he may have been, he loved his family. The execution of affection was rarely an “I love you” rather it often came in bouts of belittling and arguing on sensitive issues. He had little verbal respect for his wife, who was consistently confrontational and unpleasant. The interactions Al Bundy had with his children portrayed a father who cared for his children, but had no inclination in proper execution of emotions. Often times he was sloppy and unshaven, unlike the clean cut Ward Cleaver. In addition to nontraditional television fathers, Al Bundy unfailingly had a Get-Rich-Quick scheme. To exert the least amount of physical or mental exertion for millions of dollars was the main objective for Al Bundy.
Laziness and procrastination did not cease with Mr. Bundy. Mrs. Al Bundy was the epitome of languor. Her attitude and personality is easily summarized in the titles of Season Two’s, Episode 17, “Peggy Loves Al – Yeah Yeah Yeah” and Season Four’s, Episode 5, “He Ain’t Much, But He’s Mine” (Internet). Katey Sagal portrayed Peggy Bundy, a mother who’s continuing vocation in life was to remain young and hip, rather than accept the duties of a dedicated mother (Brooks 646). Her aptitude for motherhood held a dissonant cord in relation to the television mothers who came before her. June Cleaver and Margaret Anderson were consistently and consciously concerned for their family and the household. Most times the mothers of the 1950s found comfort in household chores and caring for their children. In this sense, Peggy Bundy was not a traditional mother. She rarely cooked or cleaned, and took minimal interest in the care of her two semi-delinquent children, Kelly and Bud, portrayed by Christina Applegate and David Faustino (Brooks 646).
The dynamics of this family of four had only one similarity with the wholesome families of the 1950s; the composition of the nuclear family, according to the definition previously given. There the similarities ended. The house was persistently in disarray and unorganized. The yard was small and unkempt, similar to their dress. The kids wore skimpy, fad-style clothing while Al wore grungy and wrinkled shirts and ties. Peggy was the character who was the most brilliantly dressed. In accordance with her character holding to an image of youthfulness in her thirties, she wore tight, fashionable, brightly colored clothes. The family rarely spoke with one another, though once every now and then a comment or two would slip out revealing the love they truly had for one another.
Despite the harshness of the show, it was remarkably popular and successful, many times due to the issues it undertook.
“The most successful series on the fledging FOX network, Married…With Children drew the wrath of many for its unabashed raunchiness” (Brooks 646). For the occasions when the family did interact, issues which were brought forth had very little, if any, similarity with the issues previous television families had undertaken. Frequent topics between Peggy and Al included their sexual activities, how troublesome their children had become, needing the credit card to shop, and Al’s Get-Rich-Quick schemes. Issues and situations the children undertook with their lazy parents included sex, drugs, and other delinquent-related situations.
While Married…With Children was FOX’s most successful, though raunchy series, at about the same time, one of ABC’s most successful television sitcoms was Roseanne (1988–1997).
“It was the lineal descendent of the blue-collar TV families stretching back to All in the Family and The Honeymooners, but like all great hits it introduce new elements to reflect its times…” (Brooks 886).
These new elements included role reversal, physical image of the characters, and the family atmosphere of the sitcom. With the workforce being more integrated, divorce on the rise, and income on a slow but steady inclination, Roseanne brought out each one of these issues in it’s paralleling world (U.S. Census).
John Goodman portrayed Dan Connor, the husband and father of the Connor family (Brooks 886). As head of the family, Dan brought a new image of the father figure to the family dynamic. James Anderson and Ward Cleaver were loving, affectionate and strong men. They confident, masculine heads of the household, who held a tenderness of the ideal father. Al Bundy and Archie Bunker were sarcastic and mostly domineering father figures. A blue-collar worker, Dan was extremely nonchalant and sarcastic with his child rearing skills, and was often easily influenced by his wife.
Roseanne Connor, played by the sitcom’s executive producer, Rosanne Barr Arnold, was the real head of the household (Butler). Unlike her motherly predecessors, Roseanne was the center of the family. She led and encouraged the discordant and working class atmosphere of the family, which ultimately formulated the atmosphere of the sitcom. A popular philosophy of the matriarch was “‘Cause I hate kids….and I’m not your real mom’” (Brooks 886). Roseanne Connor held the final word and often times overruled her husband, and unlike the paternal figures of earlier television sitcoms, Dan submitted to her final say. Though there were numerous sarcastic parental scenes, they were balanced out by a more affectionate Roseanne and Dan. This brought to light the love they had for their children, as did the parents who had come before them, though the Connor’s chose to show their love in non-traditional ways. Becky, Darlene and D.J., portrayed by Lecy Goranson, Sarah Chalke, Sara Gilbert, and Michael Fishman, were the fortunate/ unfortunate children of the loving, yet rancor parental unit. Their children held an understanding of this vastly strange show of affection, which often times, created multiple situations and issues which were never considered viable cultural concerns to tackle in previous sitcoms. Boy-crazy Becky brought forth issues such as adolescent sex and pregnancy. Tomboy Darlene brought issues pertaining to drugs, guns, and awkward relationships with boys, while D.J., who idolized his father, brought issues such as masturbation, loss of innocence, and childhood dramas to the table. Other social and cultural issues that enthroned the show included parenting, employment, finances, and homosexuality.
Not only were issues tackled, but extended family became more prominent within the sitcom. Strictly according to the definition of the extended family, Roseanne’s sister, Jackie, portrayed by Laurie Metcalf, was a perfect example. The woman was frequently at her sister’s home. More often than not, Jackie was there for advice and guidance from her sister or to complain about her unsatisfied life. She did prove useful at times, and was periodically willing to give advice, whether good or bad, to her nephews and nieces. Jackie was a woman of multiple trades. Her employment was often the center of her problems and unhappiness, for which were frequent topics for her guidance about. Her employment problems tended to align with many issues of economics within the United States, which were reaching a turning point at this time. Her employers varied from plastic works to restaurants to finally a law enforcement. Jackie joined the cast in adding to the melting pot of addressing new issues which included the realm of adult dating, pregnancy, and single working women to the show. In addition to the extended family role, Jackie began a more consistent emphasis of the growing phenomena of the single lifestyle. As Roseanne was harshly captured America’s hearts with jokes and sarcasm, Jackie was relating to the American hearts. Single households were increasing each year at a slowly increasing percentage, while married couple family households were increasing at a slower growing rate (U.S. Census).
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Until next time,
Peace, Love and Pandas!