As the camera starts rolling, Ed O'Neill's face takes on its trademark Cro-Magnon expression. Al Bundy, his inept shoe-salesman character, scours the X-rated section of a video store. ''Schindler's Lust,'' he reads aloud approvingly. ''Booty and the Beast, and ah, my favorite, Forrest Hump.''
The studio audience, heavy with baseball-cap-wearing dudes, whoops it up like a bunch of Raiders fans after a sack. (Taping sometimes has to stop so they can be asked to pipe down.) A whiskey-breathed woman from Kentucky leans over, fanning herself with a ''Hell Yes I Watch Married...With Children'' bumper sticker. ''I want to make love to Al Bundy,'' she confides.
Such is the fervor Married...With Children still inspires. Now in its ninth season, Fox's half hour of crassness is the longest-running sitcom currently on network TV, having racked up more seasons than either The Mary Tyler Moore Show or I Love Lucy. Not bad for a show its creators expected would be canceled after 13 episodes, a show even its stars don't hesitate to call ''the ugly stepchild of Hollywood,'' a show that has yet to win a single Emmy. The secret? A hint can be found in the staff's original nickname for the program: The Anti-Cosby Show.
''We started the show as a response to the wave of sitcoms with an idealized family the kind with clean sweaters, clean teeth, and clean hair,'' says Michael Moye, who created the show with then partner Ron Leavitt. ''They were 22-minute morality plays that ended with a gang hug. We thought somewhere out there, there's a group of people not being represented.''
Enter the Bundys. There's Al, who makes Archie Bunker look downright debonair; Peg (Katey Sagal), the Oprah-addicted housewife who, in the first episode, replaced her husband's alarm clock with a hand-slicing cactus; Bud (David Faustino), the son who, his father says, would ''have sex with a fire hydrant''; and Kelly (Christina Applegate), the bouncy, peroxided half-wit with a talent for mangling English (e.g., ''I hope he doesn't make a testicle of himself'').
The formula worked. Married snagged an audience that often makes it one of Fox's highest-rated shows. In syndication, the program trails only Roseanne in popularity-which explains why 177 stations pay a total of $1.5 million per episode to rerun it. Married has even helped give Fox an identity, adolescent though it may be.
Who exactly is watching? According to Moye, Married found its first fans at ''colleges, the military, and in prison.'' Network suits describe it a bit more dryly: Married's core viewers, they say, are 18- to 49-year-old men a coveted demographic for advertisers. Usually, sitcoms appeal more to women, but Married hooks the testosterone crowd for several reasons: Its humor is locker-room, aggressive, insult driven. On every episode, you'll see at least one gratuitous cleavage shot or exposed navel. And Married's network competition Sunday night movies-is geared to women. The show also grabs a younger audience than do most sitcoms. ''The MTV generation appreciates a little sicker sense of humor,'' says Larry Gerbrandt, a senior analyst with Paul Kagan Associates, a media consulting firm.
Still, Married might not have become a success were it not for Terry Rakolta. In 1989, outraged that her kids were exposed to such naughty bits as leather pasties and garter belts, the Michigan housewife sent protest letters to all the show's advertisers. In the resulting brouhaha, one advertiser pulled out, and an episode about motel Peeping Toms was shelved. But the publicity gave Married a huge ratings boost. ''I look for my fruit basket from Fox every Christmas,'' Rakolta says, laughing, though she still carries on the fight against the show.
Today, Married continues to spark occasional controversy. Witness the trickle of hate mail from a fat-women's group or Fox execs' freak-out over a two-parter in which Al lobbies Congress to keep violence on TV. (Slated for last year, the disputed shows will finally air Dec. 11 and 18.)
But for the most part, America has accepted the Bundys. In fact, Married's white-trash ethos-its brutish, dark, etiquette-free, politically incorrect manner-has spread across the airwaves. The Simpsons, Beavis and Butt-head, The John Larroquette Show, and Roseanne followed in the wake of Married's success. (Married, by the way, was originally written for Roseanne and the late comedian Sam Kinison.) Seinfeld may have achieved notoriety with an episode about masturbation, but as Married's Applegate points out, ''We've been doing masturbation for years.''
''We really led the way,'' adds Amanda Bearse, who plays the Bundys' neurotic neighbor Marcy. ''We ushered in another cycle (of cynical shows). But we're still probably the most mean-spirited. Everyone on our show is humiliated on a weekly basis.''