'All in the Family' Brought America Together

Much has been said this week about the national discourse. Well, the rules for what you can and can't say on television all changed 40 years ago this week with a sitcom so controversial it debuted with a disclaimer "this program is meant to make our prejudices a source of laughter, to show how absurd they are."

It was January 1971 and American television viewers had never seen or heard anything like it, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone.

"God bless America -- you dumb polack," sang Archie.

"You're prejudiced! You're prejudiced!!! You're prejudiced!!!" said Mike.

As Americans argued over the Vietnam War and the struggles for women's rights and civil rights, All in the Family unflinchingly held up a mirror to a divided nation.

"In my day, nobody went around calling themselves Chicanos, Mexican Americans, Afro-Americans -- we was all Americans," said Archie. "After that if a guy was a jig or a spic it was his own business."

Archie Bunker played by Carroll O'Connor was in constant conflict with Mike, the son-in-law he called Meathead, played by Rob Reiner.

"I'm sure people still call you 'meathead'?" asked Blackstone.

"You're the first one today," answered Reiner, smiling.

Archie was the patriotic conservative, who sang, "This is America, land that I love..."

"Archie was the buffoon if you were a Mike fan and Mike was the buffoon if you were an Archie fan," said Reiner, "and that's what was good about it."

"We wanted to make an audience laugh and make them think," producer Normal Lear.

Lear created All in the Family. It took him three years to convince CBS to put it on the air. No wonder!

"I never said a guy who wears glasses is a queer," quipped Archie. "A guy who wears glasses is a four-eyes, a guy who's a fag is a queer."

While the show seemed to have something to offend everyone -- it became a hit -- number one for five years with up to sixty million viewers a week. A divided country was united watching All in the Family.

"People on the left and people on the right laughing together -- for the moment they're laughing together, they are one," said Lear.

Lear doesn't claim that his situation comedy changed anybody's mind but he says it was like getting everybody sitting in the same pew.

"While they're laughing, they're together," said Lear. "This is the important thing: laughter is like a church service."

"We'd get upset, we'd get crazy and angry but eventually we saw that the other person was a human being," said Reiner.

And that may be a message from Archie and Mike worth remembering today:

Though we have our differences, we're all in the American family.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.