"Edith, I'm always nice. Go let the jerk in."
Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)
Like most sitcoms — well, most TV programs, regardless of genre — All in the Family seemed to run out of gas near the end of its run.
But on this day in 1971, it was still a new program, a social phenomenon. Developer Norman Lear had tapped into something new. Sitcoms weren't going to be just silly anymore — at least not for awhile. There would be a purpose behind the humor.
In the case of All in the Family, it was an opportunity to examine the warts of American society through a humorous lens. Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) and his son–in–law Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner) represented the extremes of the political and social spectrums of the day, and their arguments followed the logic of both sides, thereby shining a spotlight on the weaknesses — as well as the strengths — of both.
It really was fair and balanced. Lear is politically progressive, but his stories often lent credence to positions he did not hold.
All in the Family aired some of its best episodes in the 1971–72 season. In the episode that aired 45 years ago tonight, "Flashback: Mike Meets Archie," the audience got the chance to see how Mike and Archie met through a TV flashback. The Bunkers and Stivics were observing Mike and Gloria's first anniversary as a married couple — "It's like celebrating the 365th day of a toothache," Archie said. He compared it to other events like Pearl Harbor and the crash of the Hindenburg.
Mike was bringing home Chinese takeout food for dinner.
But Archie refused to eat with chopsticks as Mike and Gloria had requested so Edith (Jean Stapleton) went to the kitchen to get a fork for Archie. While she was gone, Mike and Archie got into one of their typical arguments over Archie's language. Archie, you see, used the slang word Chink instead of Chinese. Mike said Archie was "putting away" people with roots in Asia, a region that was not confined to China. Archue was pigeonholing people with roots in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Mike said.
Archie protested that he never called those people Chinks. Edith, who had returned to the room, observed in her truthful way, "No. He calls them Gooks."
Such a program almost certainly wouldn't last today. Few people at the time thought it would last. But it did, and it made a huge difference in the way Americans spoke about each other and looked at each other.
I've always felt that it survived largely because it pointed out failings without making it personal, without putting people on the defensive. If they recognized themselves or others in the stories, that was OK, but the point of the humor was not to make anyone feel foolish. It was to make people see the foolishness in some attitudes, not in some people.
Anyway, the episode that aired 45 years ago tonight answered a lot of unasked questions about Archie's relationship with Mike.
It was the first time Archie called Mike a meathead — and a Polack. Viewers were used to both, but they didn't know how or why Archie started calling Mike those words — until this night in 1971.
And Mike left the house while Archie was reciting, then singing "God Bless America."
But I guess the moral of the story was that love will find a way. Mike went to a pay phone and kept calling the house. Archie answered each time and said it was a wrong number. Gloria tried to intercept one of the calls, but when she finally did so, it turned out the call was for Archie.
A discouraged Gloria sought comfort from her mother. "How could everything go so wrong?" Gloria asked through her tears.
"Easy," Edith replied, adding, "but life goes in circles, and when things get wrong enough, then they start getting right again."
Gloria said she didn't believe that. Edith said she was still basting the duck because if she was right, Mike would be back. And about that time the doorbell rang.
It was Mike, of course.
And he had dinner with the Bunkers — and, of course, Mike and Gloria eventually got married.
And viewers gained some insight into Mike's relationship with Archie.