Five distinguished panelists — two bearded authors, a venerable TV producer, and two theater directors from Chicago, one of whom is wearing a funky hat — are holding court during a symposium at New York City’s American Museum of the Moving Image. ”Florence Henderson is not naturally funny,” intones the TV producer. ”But Ann B. Davis is funny when she walks into the room.”
A question from the audience: ”What ever happened to Tiger?”
”There were two Tigers, actually,” answers one of the authors. ”The first one got iced.”
Readers between the ages of 20 and 35 know exactly what we’re talking about here — that Tiger, for example, is a shaggy dog who all but disappeared without explanation after the first season. For the rest of you, the subject of this solemn discussion is a silly sitcom about a widower with three sons who marries a woman with three daughters. Running on ABC from 1969 to 1974, and in syndication forever after, the show was called The Brady Bunch — a simpleminded trifle that somehow went on to become a shared reference and calling card of coolness for a whole generation, as well as one of the unlikeliest pop-cultural touchstones in TV history.
Just how deep the Brady roots run became apparent on May 12, when Robert Reed, who played family patriarch Mike Brady, died at age 59 in Pasadena, Calif., of colon cancer. Next to his obituary, The New York Times ran pictures of Reed with his TV wife, Florence Henderson, and MTV reported the tragedy for days afterward. In an interview with this magazine a month before his death, he defended the white-washed Bradys this way: ”In children’s theater, you show the ideal. The very idea is to aspire to it.” Though he played many roles (most notably in CBS’ The Defenders, 1961-65), Reed was remembered by Bradyphiles not only as a surrogate father but as the Platonic ideal of a father.
We are a generation obsessed with the Bradys. We watched them religiously — after school, every day, sometimes twice a day, five days a week, singing that ”Here’s the story” theme song, effortlessly memorizing the pilot and 116 subsequent episodes, turning The Brady Bunch into one of the most successful syndicated shows ever to be delivered over American airwaves. Now we have come of age. Nostalgia-hungry and shy of the real world, we retreat back to the Brady home, where there’s a live-in maid to serve us Kool-Aid and a really cool freestanding staircase designed by our fabulously successful architect dad.
And we have so many tools to help us go back; Bradymania is everywhere. Published May 20, Growing Up Brady — a memoir by Barry Williams, who played the eldest son, Greg — is already in its fifth printing. Actress Melanie Hutsell made Jan Brady a recurring character on NBC’s Saturday Night Live this season. The Bradys have a whole category to themselves on MTV’s game show, Remote Control. The Real Live Brady Bunch, a play that originated at Chicago’s Annoyance Theater a year and a half ago, consists solely of entire Brady episodes acted out verbatim; it’s now playing in New York and Los Angeles, doing for the Bradys what Andy Warhol did for the Brillo box — turning them into pop art.
Why does this sitcom play such a major role in the psyche of a generation? Because the show was a picture of stability while Vietnam and the sexual revolution rocked the rest of the world. While our real-life parents were splitting up at an alarming rate, those goody-goody Bradys were telling us a shameless lie about family life. We desperately believed it. Most of all, this was the family that the latchkey kids came home to every day after school, the family we could always count on. At the symposium in New York, producer Sherwood Schwartz, who created The Brady Bunch, said, ”People who are now 28 and 30 saw it every day, five times a week. The impact on them is exponential.” And lasting. And perhaps deeper than any of us had ever imagined.