I have mentioned before in this space my fondness for the TV sitcom Married…with Children, which had a “reunion special” on Sunday. In case you never saw it, the show — it ran eleven years, 1987-97, on the Fox channel — featured the Bundys, a low-class family living in the Chicago suburbs. The husband, Al, worked as a sales assistant in a shoe store. Al’s life had peaked with his high-school football career and been pretty much downhill thereafter. The wife, Peg, was an empty-headed bimbo, who tottered around the house in high-heeled mules and tight pants, suffered from chronic sexual frustration, and occupied her time sitting on the sofa eating bonbons and watching Oprah. The daughter, Kelly, was a teenage slut with a shaky grasp of the English language — liable to describe herself as being “on the horns of an enema,” for example, or to express a flash of insight by jumping up and shouting: “Urethra!” The son, Bud, was the only family member with any brains; but his brains were constantly being overruled by his raging hormones. The family dog, Buck, watched it all with a sardonic eye, and provided a sort of Greek chorus to the goings-on.
I was genuinely surprised, when I started getting hooked on Married…with Children in the early 1990s, to find that it was unpopular with a lot of conservatives. It poked fun at the nuclear family, these people told me, which, after all, is the basic building-block of a civilized society. It promoted parental irresponsibility and teenage promiscuity, they said. The Bundys were crude, antisocial, and occasionally criminal in a mild way. The show held up to ridicule all that we hold dear, etc., etc. (Some of these complaints look a little quaint up against, say, South Park. But this was network TV, remember.) Why didn’t I watch The Simpsons, a much more wholesome show?
Well, I tried The Simpsons but (sorry, Jonah) just couldn’t get on with it. Unless the two or three episodes I saw were untypical, The Simpsons never quite let go of the sentimental, moralizing tradition of American TV sitcoms. I was raised on the much more tart British variety — Till Death Us Do Part, Steptoe and Son, One Foot in the Grave, etc. — and prefer my comedy without the sugar coating. I’m not claiming any particular superiority for the British product; it’s just what I’m used to.
In any case, it seemed to me that Married…with Children was one of the most conservative shows on TV. I could make this case at some length, but I don’t actually need to. The case was made for me 61 years ago by George Orwell, in an essay titled “The Art of Donald McGill,” which is in Vol.2 of CEJLGO. Orwell was not, of course, writing about the Bundys. His subject was the “naughty postcards” that were a feature of low-class English life in the 1940s (and well into the 1970s, in my own recollection). These postcards were basically colored cartoons, populated by stock characters like henpecked husbands, domineering fat wives, shrewish mothers-in-law, busty dumb blondes, lecherous young men, indefatigable newly-weds, red-nosed drunks, mean Scotsmen, crooked lawyers, and so on. The jokes are mostly about sex, and lean heavily on double entendre. Samples:
Young man, to busty-blonde young female librarian: “I say, young lady, do you like Kipling?”
BBYFL: “Oooh, I don’t know, you naughty boy, I’ve never kippled.”
Young couple at seaside, standing very close together in the sea, which comes up to their chests. She: “Come on, George. The deeper in you go, the nicer it feels.”
Orwell analyzes the world pictured in these postcards at length, and much of what he says applies equally well to Married…with Children. Here he is after describing one of the newly-wed jokes. “This is obscene, if you like, but it is not immoral. Its implication — and this is just the implication that Esquire or The New Yorker would avoid at all costs — is that marriage is something profoundly exciting and important, the biggest event in the average human being’s life. So also with jokes about nagging wives and tyrannous mothers-in-law. [Al Bundy, after Peg has declared that her mother is a little shy: 'Of what? A metric ton?'] They do at least imply a stable society in which marriage is indissoluble and family loyalty taken for granted.”
A normal human being, Orwell points out, is a mix of the noble and the ignoble, of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. One part of us wants to perform stirring deeds, to pursue noble causes, to commit heroic acts of self-sacrifice. Another part — the Sancho Panza part — wants “safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer, and women with ‘voluptuous’ figures.” We exist in a state of constant tension between the two sides of our personalities, between our soul and our belly. No society founded on just one of these aspects could possibly be stable. The people of China discovered thirty years ago that a society which demands constant acts of selflessness and public spirit is untenable. So is a Brave New World society founded on pure hedonism.
Married…with Children was a funny show because it showed us the Sancho Panza side of our natures in all its aspects, male and female, sexual and gluttonous, irreverent and work-shy. It showed it in proper social context, though, just as those seaside postcards did. Al hates his work, but he goes to work every day none the less. The Bundys’ marriage is stale, but they stay married anyway. The kids are slaves to their own libidos, but it’s hard to imagine them doing anything unkind or seriously illegal, or turning into dope addicts.
You might even stretch a point and say that the show was a celebration of marriage, as that institution has been experienced by most Western people through most of history. I am thinking of an exchange in one of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time novels. The narrator, Nick Jenkins, a sophisticated metropolitan type, has been commissioned in a Welsh regiment during WWII. He is in conversation with one of his sergeants, a man with a working-class background, from a small town in Wales. The sergeant has mentioned a relative of his, who got married a few years previously. “And how are they now?” asks Jenkins. “Why, all right,” replies the sergeant, somewhat puzzled. “Why should they not be?” For the worldly, upper-crust Londoner it is natural to ask how a marriage is going; for the provincial proletarian, the question is baffling. They met, they got married, that’s the end of it. How could anything else happen to them now? The sergeant has, to use Orwell’s words again, “the working-class outlook which takes it as a matter of course that youth and adventure — almost, indeed, individual life — end with marriage.”
You can take resignation too far, of course. There is a story about an old Vermont farmer whose wife died suddenly after 50 years of marriage. A neighbor, trying to console him, said: “Well, Zeke, I guess you’ll be missing her.” Zeke, after a few moments’ thought: “Can’t really say so. Never did get to like her much.” I don’t think Zeke’s attitude has much to commend it; but without knowing more details, I hesitate to condemn him out of hand. My own parents were happy for the first four or five years of their marriage, I think, and thereafter miserable together. I have had a running argument with my sister, through all our adult lives, about whether they did the right thing in staying together, with me taking (approximately) the Don Quixote side, my sister speaking for Sancho Panza. My parents were both people who took their marriage vows seriously, though; and in any case, working-class English people in the mid-20th century had no culture of divorce. (They have since acquired one.)
For the principle underlying Married…with Children — it would be too much to say that the show actually celebrated it, but it was there anyway — was the principle of duty. This is not a very fashionable principle in an age like ours, an essentially hedonistic age; but without some widespread sense of duty, of selfless adherence to custom and principle and social obligation, no civilization could persist for long. Orwell:
When it comes to the pinch, human beings are heroic. Women face childbed and the scrubbing brush, revolutionaries keep their mouths shut in the torture chamber, battleships go down with their guns still firing when their decks are awash. It is only that the other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.
I’d like to thank the producers, writers and cast of Married…with Children for showing us that “other element” in all its unlovely and hilarious variety, in all its [Orwell again] “unredeemed lowness.” I’m sorry the show ended, but in a way it doesn’t matter. For as long as human beings exist, Al, Peg, Kelly, and Bud will always be within easy reach — sharing our skins with us, in fact.