Al and Peg Bundy are no Ward and June Cleaver, no Cliff and Clair Huxtable. Sniping, bickering, belching anti-heroes, Al constantly grumbles that his wife of 16 years is the worst cook/maid/mother/lover ever to call herself a housewife, while Peg makes no secret that she considers her husband woefully inadequate as a provider, as a companion, as a man.
Nonetheless, Al and Peg are one of the hottest couples on television--the centerpiece of Fox Broadcasting's "Married . . . With Children," which has of late been beating two of the three major networks in the Sunday night ratings. In the last week, they have also become TV's most controversial duo, thanks to a Michigan woman's letter-writing campaign to advertisers protesting the couple's crude put-downs and innuendoes.
What's all the fuss?
In the last few months, "Married . . . With Children" has been screeching up the Nielsen charts. On Fox's ragtag collection of independent stations that reach fewer than 90% of the nation's households, the show now usually beats ABC's "Mission: Impossible" and NBC's "Day by Day" at 8:30 p.m. Sundays. For the past two weeks, the show actually has outdrawn all three networks in Los Angeles.
"After 10 to 12 years of what I consider the more preachy situation comedies, people are ready to laugh again," said Michael Moye, co-creator and executive producer of the series. "They don't have to worry about a character on this sitcom having a heart attack or getting raped. They don't have to worry about learning anything. They can just sit back and laugh for 30 minutes."
"People tell us all the time that they have a father or an uncle who is just like Al," said Katey Sagal, who plays Peg. "We all laugh at what we can relate to and the audience is seeing something that's familiar to them. Maybe that's why the show is catching on. Not everyone out there is young doctors and lawyers and two income families and therapy. That's not the norm. We're not all 'thirtysomething.' "
The people involved with "Married . . . With Children" drop names like "The Honeymooners" and "All in the Family" when describing the program, but they ultimately insist that there has never been anything like this sitcom that was designed to be anti-sitcom.
Moye and his partner, Ron Leavitt, formerly writers for "The Jeffersons," "227," "Diff'rent Strokes" and "Laverne & Shirley," created the series two years ago in rebellion against the onslaught of sweet family sitcoms that had come to dominate prime time.
"We would just go wild," Moye said, "because people on these shows would be hugging and groping and saying 'I love you' to the dog, to the bird, to the house plants, to the kids, to the neighbors' kids. And we would just say, 'What has happened?' "
"Married . . . With Children," the story of a disgruntled shoesalesman, his lascivious wife, two kids and a dog, premiered as part of Fox's first prime-time lineup in April, 1987. Its lower middle-class family setting is similar to ABC's more popular "Roseanne," which debuted last fall, but Moye insists that "Roseanne" is closer to "The Cosby Show" than his series, in that it always concludes with what he calls the inevitable episode-ending "group grope that infects" most network sitcoms today.
"Married . . . With Children," on the other hand, regularly plunges off the deep end--venturing into a kind of absurd family hell for jokes, put-downs and the kind of wacky, way-out-there satire reminiscent of some of the weirdest "Saturday Night Live" sketches.
On one episode this season, the Bundys and their neighbors went off for a weekend in the woods. When Mom, daughter and friend all began menstruating at the same time, wild animals flocked to the cabin, trapping the humans inside. Undaunted, Al pasted spoons on his head for antlers in an effort to disguise himself as a moose and made a futile dash for the car.
The Christmas episode featured a man dressed as Santa Claus crashing to his death in the Bundys' back yard after his parachute failed during a promotional stunt for the local shopping mall.
Another show had the luckless couple skipping out on an expensive dinner at a swanky restaurant by using one of Al's smelly shoes as a weapon.
Every episode is peppered with ribald talk about sex as Al and Peg constantly berate each other for their swelling waistlines and deteriorating libidos. Al is blatantly sexist, just as Archie Bunker was blatantly racist. And the Bundy's promiscuous 16-year-old daughter even refers to herself as a "slut" in front of her parents.
Ed O'Neill, the actor who plays Al Bundy, defends the raffish jokes by saying that theirs is the one TV couple to deal honestly with their sexual relationship--by not pretending that, after 16 years of marriage, they are still as "hot" for each other as on the day they wed.
Besides, he said, the show is so deliberately cartoonish that it is obviously not designed to be taken literally.
But it is the never-ending barrage of tawdry jokes, Al's unabashed sexism and Peg's refusal to cook, clean, work or do anything other than watch "Oprah" and badger Al into bed with her, that has incurred the wrath of Terry Rakolta, a Michigan housewife and mother of four, who has denounced the series as "offensive, (filled with) gratuitous sex and anti-family." Last week, Rakolta made national news after she had persuaded one advertiser to pull a commercial from the program and two others to announce they would not buy time on the show in the future.
Fox officials have apologized publicly for one episode in which a young woman trying on underwear in a lingerie shop removes her bra while the camera shoots her from behind. But, pointing to other programs such as "Eye on L.A." and the sexual bondage scene in NBC's miniseries "Favorite Son," Fox executives insist that the typical "Married . . . With Children" episode is tamer than what is commonplace on television today. And they vowed not to alter the program's usual content.
"We want to remain within the boundaries of good taste as defined by our viewers," said Kevin Wendle, executive vice president of Fox Entertainment. "We do not want to plant a flag beyond where the flag has already been planted by other networks. (Rakolta) is entitled to her opinions, but I think this show is fine for the 8:30 p.m. time period."
The show's producers and executives at Columbia, which makes the show for Fox, declined to comment on Rakolta's attack, but in an interview the day before her denunciation became public, actor O'Neill acknowledged that the show's brand of humor might not appeal to everyone. If that's the case, they simply shouldn't watch, he said. But he rejected the suggestion that his character should be expected to project a positive image.
"The last thing I think Al should be is a role model," O'Neill said. "Were Laurel and Hardy role models? Is Elmer Fudd a role model? These characters are just supposed to make people laugh, not teach or enlighten anyone.
"I always thought that comedy is basically mean-spirited. You don't have anything happy and sweet that's very funny. Jackie Gleason, the Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, all that stuff was based on something bad happening to somebody else."
"These are jokes and people watch simply because they think it's funny," agreed Sagal, who argued that Peg Bundy is blessed with a healthy dose of self-esteem, has a "gas" of a time no matter what and therefore is not a bad model for anyone. "We're not tapping into some sadistic undertone out there."
In fact, O'Neill, Sagal and executive producer Moye joke that too much "sweet and nice" like they see on most sitcoms puts too much pressure on people. Moye said he has actually seen couples get into a fight while watching the typical network sitcom.
"The wife will say, 'Why can't you be more like him? See, he brings her flowers every day,' " Moye said. "And he'll say, 'well she cooks him a meal every day.' They actually will start arguing. Occasionally, I think people want to watch a family that's a little worse off than they are so they can sit back and say, 'Honey, at least we're not like that.' " So if we're here to do any public service, we're putting back together some marriages that those other shows are breaking apart."