Vox's Todd VanDerWerff has a nice interview with 92-year-old television producer Norman Lear, who created All in the Family, Maude, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, and other landmark series in the 1970s. As VanDerWerff writes, Lear "took a medium that seemed stuck on avoiding the perils of the present and dragged it, kicking and screaming, toward confrontation with the important political and social issues of the day."
For years, I've been defending the three-camera, live-studio-audience sitcom format (as have VanDerWerff and other TV critics like Jaime Weinman), so I liked this quote from Lear:
When you look at those shows, you see those immense closeups of Maude, or of Archie, or Edith, and the camera's hovering there, while the actor is—the best way of being able to put it—riding the emotions of the audience. The audience is laughing longer than expected. The actor is holding onto that. He's got a nose twitch where there wasn't a nose twitch, because they weren't laughing that long. And they're laughing a little bit more to that nose twitch. It's something that can only happen between a live audience and the onstage performer. I think that's why the shows feel so different, because they were made where the audience and the actors were working together.
That view is not shared by many people under 40. Now audiences want comedies that move fast and aim for unpredictability rather than emotional resonance.
As a huge fan of The Simpsons, I was disappointed by Ken Owen's 2000 New Yorker profile of George Meyer, one of the show's original writers, in which he says that live studio audiences "have ruined television comedy" because you "always end up with hard-edged lines that the audience knows are jokes." Meyer's sister recalls that he hated All in the Family as a child because "he could see the jokes coming a mile away."
"There was one episode where Archie is tempted to have an affair with a waitress, and then Edith finds a piece of paper with the waitress's phone number written on it and asks him, in this trembling voice, 'Archie, whose phone number is this?' We all used to repeat that line, and George would crack us up by screeching it, in this quavering imitation of Jean Stapleton's voice."
To me, this is as if Adele told an interviewer that she didn't understand all the fuss about Aretha Franklin. Just as modern pop music evolved from mid-century soul and R&B, current TV comedy shows evolved from All in the Family and other 1970s sitcoms that broadened the genre's subject matter and tone. (If All in the Family is too predictable to be enjoyed, there's almost nothing worth seeing from the first 20 years of television.)
I enjoy not only The Simpsons, but plenty of fast-paced, absurdist TV comedies from Arrested Development to Comedy Bang! Bang! But most successful comedy has been, and always will be, based on jokes you can see coming a mile away. Audiences like to see variations on beloved comic tropes, and performers like to play with them.
Still, I can understand why something like All in the Family isn't as bracing as it was 40 years ago. When I was in elementary school in the 1970s, All in the Family fascinated me because it showed adults as I rarely got to see them: depressed, angry, frightened, and often shocked into speechlessness. There was a brighter line between children and grown-ups then, with topics like impotence and menopause not discussed at the dinner table and parents trying harder to maintain a Ward Cleaver-like calmness and authority around kids. So even though I knew what Archie Bunker's reaction would be to his niece dating a black neighbor (or getting a surprise kiss on the cheek from Sammy Davis Jr.), I still enjoyed Carroll O'Connor stretching out Archie's discomfort and playing off the audience laughter.
I enjoyed Jean Stapleton giving Edith a long moment of realization that her cousin Liz was more than just friends with her roommate Veronica, since it gave me plenty of time to imagine how my mother would react to similar news. I generally didn't find Maude as funny, but it was even more intriguing in how it showed people of my parents' age getting drunk, talking about sex, and making passive-aggressive snipes at each other. The theatrical style of the performances seemed just right for such revelations of behind-closed-door behavior.
Now it's easy to find adults going off the deep end. They have loud arguments about the most intimate matters on cellphones, and they have screaming matches in the middle of Market Basket. We can see more exaggerated, theatrical behavior on reality TV than Norman Lear would have dreamed of. Bill O'Reilly, Nancy Grace, and other cable-news loudmouths make a blustery fictional character like Archie Bunker superfluous.
So the sophisticated TV viewer searches for fluffy, escapist entertainment: New Girl, Modern Family, Scandal ... shows where characters are superhumanly quick with dialogue and always ready to do something surprising. It's not Norman Lear's style, but then today's sex-and-shock-filled shows wouldn't exist without All in the Family paving the way.