CBS is planning a special next month celebrating All in the Family's 20th birthday with all the fanfare that classic deserves, but on January 12, 1971, the network didn't exactly blow trumpets to announce its arrival. In fact, they put a disclaimer on it: ''(All in the Family) seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show in a mature fashion just how absurd they are.'' The wish was granted: For 13 seasons (the last four as Archie Bunker's Place), the show managed, in the words of Entertainment Weekly TV critic Ken Tucker, ''to disapprove of bigotry in a more explicit way than had ever been done on television.''
The episode that made CBS so uneasy began with Archie (Carroll O'Connor) and Edith (Jean Stapleton) coming home to find their daughter and son-in-law (Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner) getting ready to make whoopee. In the next half-hour, Archie vastly increased TV's vocabulary, using words like ''spades,'' ''yids,'' and for his son-in-law ''meathead'' and ''the laziest white man I ever seen.'' Time called it ''boring and predictable,'' but the Bunkers' fights about race, Vietnam, women's lib, and gay rights reflected the times. The show hit No. 1 the next fall and stayed there for five years. By the time it left the air, Edith's and Archie's chairs sat in the Smithsonian Institution. It spawned five spin-off sitcoms, earned 21 Emmys, and delivered six of the top- rated shows of all time. Says Reiner: ''We came out every week and kicked some butt.''
The Bunkers' follies were taped as one-act plays, usually in less than an hour. ''Out of 200 shows, Jean Stapleton didn't forget one line,'' says Reiner, who recalls the moment when he knew they had something rare: ''I was with Jean and Sally in an airport. We walked into a lounge and the entire place stood up and applauded.'' Creator Norman Lear knew it when he got an anonymous postcard reading, ''You're full of s---. Archie is a good man. Why do you make him look like a fool?'' then noticed a note scribbled on the front: ''This man doesn't know what he's talking about. Right on. Signed, the Post Office.''
Jan. 12, 1971
Ridiculous to sublime: Hee Haw precedes All in the Family on TV. Deejays are spinning George Harrison's No. 1 single ''My Sweet Lord/Isn't It a Pity,'' bookstores are peddling Erich Segal's top tear-jerker, Love Story, and M*A*S*H keeps moviegoers laughing