All in the Family Chair
Watching All in the Family was a family viewing event, and it’s coincidental, in my mind, that the Watergate hearings in ’74 were also family viewing. They’re merged together in my mind because it was the first time that I realized that people lied. For some reason, that was my biggest takeaway from Watergate at the time. I was always told, “Don’t tell lies; always tell the truth.” Then I realized some people didn’t. One happened to be the president.
At the same time, related to All in the Family, was that there were roles written for people where you could not guess what kind of person they were from the role they were playing. They were performers, actors. At 10 years old, my big revelation in that show was that Jean Stapleton [had] a high IQ [and was a] fully functioning woman. I remember seeing her in a rerun of some movie, and it was the same person. I just couldn’t believe that the All in the Family character was this same actor.
So altogether, I recognized that politics had entered entertainment, that it was very heavy, and that there were not only biased people in the world but also liars in the form of our government. Cut to years later when we did my TED Talk data. The fact is that 1974, the minute of Watergate, was the literal end of an era of earnest television and ushered in this age of cynicism and deep questioning.
When you see this chair, you can visualize Archie Bunker sitting in there, spewing out all sorts of politically incorrect statements, statements that made us aware of some of the negative things in our society, and just a great overall voice for television. It shows how television can really change people’s points of view.
I remember the first time I was looking at media that had great social stories, and All in the Family and Norman Lear is the gospel of that; he just did it so brilliantly. He talked about abortion, he talked about race, he talked about so many different things. The fact that he paved the way for that, in that era, is wild, and he’s obviously an incredible person.
All in the Family is one of the shows I would watch with my folks as a little boy. I remember we laughed so hard. The first TV show I did called The Powers That Be was a Norman Lear show, and I was very aware of him and his lineage. He and I are still pals, and he’s still going strong as I say this. I think All in the Family is an extraordinary example of how arts in America can both reflect and influence who we are as a nation.
That chair is a symbol of an iconic television show the entire country watched; groundbreaking television that addressed prejudice head on. That infamous kiss with Sammy Davis was certainly one of the most talked about TV episodes at the time. Yet, when you look at the chair today, in the 21st century, you realize a show like All in the Family probably could not get on television. We are so politically correct. The kinds of utterances that Archie Bunker made, thanks to the brilliance of Norman Lear, reflected an archaic way of thinking, but it was also a prevalent way of thinking in those times. I would dare to say that many of the people who watched the show then absolutely embraced Archie Bunker’s point of view. They thought that hippie “Meatloaf, Meathead” Rob Reiner character was a Communist and did need to be dressed down. They prayed that their daughter would marry better. There were a lot of touchpoints in that TV show that folks could identify with. Today, you couldn’t do a TV show with a bigot like that as the star. You wouldn’t be able to portray the wife and mother as a dingbat, and you certainly couldn’t call her that. If you go back and listen to how much fun was made of the absurdity in the liberal politics – and I consider myself to be a liberal and progressive – it makes me laugh and it hurts.
I remember both chairs. All in the Family is the perfect example of something that was impossible to get made, finally got made, and then was very culturally important. People tend to remember it as the way in which it skewered and called into question Archie’s statements and sort of ridiculed him for the silliness of the statements. But people don’t pay enough attention to what it was also saying about the absurdity of the liberal culture. If you go back and listen to how much fun was made of the absurdity in the liberal politics — and I consider myself to be a liberal and progressive, and it makes me laugh and it hurts.