There was a time, long before Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, when Alex P. Keaton was the only conservative on TV. For most of the Reagan era, an estimated 35 million viewers tuned in week after week to watch the teenager, who was the ultimate disciple of the supply-side gospel.
For him, it was always morning in America. He read the Wall Street Journal (of course), wore sweater vests, carried a briefcase to high school, and had a poster of Bill Buckley on his bedroom wall. While Alex’s views frustrated his former-hippie parents, Steve and Elyse, they delighted the tenant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., who considered Family Ties his favorite show.
It was Michael J. Fox who brought Alex to life on Family Ties, which ran from 1982 through 1989 on NBC. But the man who created him was Gary David Goldberg. As it turns out, Goldberg’s life has a touch of the Reagan narrative arc. Born to modest means (in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1944), Goldberg traveled to the West Coast as a young man (initially living in Berkeley, Calif.), landed a contract in Hollywood, worked his way up through the ranks (writing the occasional script for The Bob Newhart Show, M*A*S*H, and The Jeffersons), and with the sensational success of Family Ties rose to a preeminent position at the top of America’s cultural landscape.
So what would Alex make of politics in the Age of Obama? There was some indication last year, when Goldberg sketched out a scenario in the New York Times. “He would be unhappy with the plan to tax the wealthy at a higher rate,” Goldberg wrote. “But Obama’s slogan is very similar to Alex’s own personal mantra: ‘Of Course I Can.’”
To get a better understanding of Alex Keaton, and of the magic behind one of America’s best-loved shows, I sat down with Goldberg in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles on the occasion of the paperback edition of his memoir, Sit, Ubu, Sit: How I Went From Brooklyn to Hollywood with the Same Woman, the Same Dog, and a Lot Less Hair.
NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: You’re a liberal Democrat, so don’t you think it’s strange that you created one of the most famous conservatives of all time?
GARY DAVID GOLDBERG: Friends used to ask me, “What in the world are you doing?!” However, I was struck by how appealing Alex’s political beliefs were. We did one episode where Alex is listing candidates whom he had supported, comparing them to the ones his parents backed. He was trying to show who was more in touch with the country. Steve and Elyse had supported all these losing campaigns — McGovern, Carter, Mondale — but there was Alex, behind all the winners. He was so excited. For whatever reasons, I wouldn’t vote Alex’s way. I vote mostly for Democrats, but not exclusively.
NRO: Reportedly, President Reagan enjoyed the Alex P. Keaton character and considered Family Ties his favorite TV show.
GDG: Yes. I was in Washington the weekend that Reagan made that statement. I must have received a hundred messages at my hotel. People who knew about my Berkeley background were calling and asking, “How do you feel about the President’s support for your show?” (laughs) I answered, “Uh, it’s always good to add older viewers.” (laughs) I said, “On this point, I completely agree with the president.”
NRO: Having the president as a fan of your program has to be gratifying, even if you don’t favor his program.
GDG: It was impossible to spend time with Ronald Reagan and to not like him, regardless of political disagreements. A special tour of the White House was arranged for me, and a young aide who kind of reminded me of Alex showed me around. Then there was a quick handshake from the president, and he waved goodbye from the helicopter. This was during the Iran-Contra scandal, but within 15 minutes of being around Reagan, I was cheering him on: “Go get those guys!” I found that I was on his side. And it wasn’t just the allure of the Oval Office. Ronald Reagan himself was a captivating person.
NRO: Archie Bunker of All in the Family was another TV character who was characterized as right-wing. Do you see similarities with Alex?
GDG: No. Archie was this guy for whom the American dream always seemed to be out of reach. Archie was afraid of change. He didn’t understand young people. But Alex — well, the world was his for the taking.
NRO: It seems that when a TV character leans to the right, he’s usually depicted more like Archie Bunker than Alex Keaton. The conservative Republican is portrayed as a bigot.
GDG: On TV, the Republican party often comes off as a party of bullies. But Alex wasn’t like that. For example, we did this one show about banning books, where a kid is arrested for reading Huckleberry Finn. Alex comes out strongly with the conservative position. He says, “We win by our ideas. We don’t censor anyone. We’re not about that. We’re not about government interfering in people’s lives.” I would call that the Barry Goldwater conservative Republican position, and I really respect it.
NRO: When did you realize that viewers had really started to love Alex?
GDG: When the tapings turned into rock concerts. That’s what they were like. Audiences would line up outside the Paramount studio days in advance. People slept over to get tickets.
NRO: One of the first episodes of Family Ties was about nuclear arms. Mr. and Mrs. Keaton go to jail for participating in a disorderly demonstration at a nuclear-research laboratory. Did you get any resistance from the network about taking on this topic?
GDG: No. It was the audience that gave us a hard time. Even before the show aired, I realized it was the wrong thing to do.
NRO: What happened?
GDG: Filming before a studio audience is a great litmus test. If a studio audience doesn’t respond, some writers will argue, “The audience didn’t get it.” But my view is, if the audience didn’t laugh, then the show isn’t funny. On Family Ties, I was always searching for what I call laughs of recognition. That’s where a viewer watches a character and says, “I know that guy — he’s my brother.” Or he might say, “There’s a little bit of me in there.” Those reactions go deep, and they’re what make viewers return.
NRO: How did the studio audience react to the nuclear-arms show?
GDG: They were bored with it. And they didn’t want to be lectured. We dealt with the issue in a head-on way, but a much more powerful way to get something across is to do it obliquely.
NRO: Family Ties occasionally tackled some tough subjects (such as alcoholism, drug abuse, grief, and suicide) for a comedy show.
GDG: There are certain things that I’m really proud of about Family Ties, and we didn’t make a big deal about any of them. Characters are reading all the time. Kids do the chores. The father makes supper. But those things are in the background.
NRO: When did politics first begin to interest you?
GDG: Well, in 1968, I was working as a waiter in Greenwich Village, and I really didn’t have any political consciousness. I was basically in favor of meeting girls and having lots of fun. I never got on the bandwagon for Eugene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaigns. Back in those days, I wasn’t going to sleep until about eight o’clock in the morning. I didn’t have a clue about what was going on in America. I was just listening to music.
NRO: Did the Vietnam War influence you?
GDG: Sure. Plus, my wife and I were living in Berkeley, California, in the early 1970s. But please don’t misunderstand: We weren’t ever true believers in politics. I remember those days, seeing some of the really left-wing guys and thinking, “Man, if you’re on that side, then I want to be on the other side.” To me, they seemed fanatical because they were so sure of everything.
NRO: You co-created the comedy series Spin City, which also starred Michael J. Fox, and was set in the New York City mayor’s office. In your book, you write that that you envisioned the program as Alex P. Keaton in the future.
GDG: Well, I saw it as Alex P. Keaton with power. I did a great deal of research for that series, and spent time with political people in New York. I talked to some of Rudy Giuliani’s staff because he was mayor. I remember asking one of them, “What’s the biggest mistake I can make in this show?” And he replied, “Portraying us as if we don’t care. We might be wrong on an issue, but we care. And we actually think we’re making a difference for the good.”
NRO: In film, the romantic-comedy genre has been on life support for a long while. But you rallied it when you made Must Love Dogs in 2004. Why are those kinds of pictures so difficult to get right?
GDG: It’s almost impossible to make a romantic comedy now. So many things have complicated the storyline of “boy meets girl — boy loses girl — boy gets girl back.” None of those things really mean what they meant in my day.
NRO: Before Family Ties, you wrote for some of the top shows on TV. But when Family Ties hit, you achieved an almost stratospheric level of success. What was that like for a writer?
GDG: Mike Fox and I would take everyone out for supper when we finished a show. About 30 of us would go to St. Germain, a restaurant that used to be near the studio. I really believe in the great Italian saying, “Around the table, you never grow old,” so I would order everything on the menu. Mike would buy drinks. One could see the trajectory of our success by the amount of the bar tab. (laughs) Mike was suddenly drinking wine that had been flown in from France, carried by elves! (laughs)
NRO: In your book, you describe in vivid detail the excitement that everyone associated with the show experienced.
GDG: Well, two of the happiest people in the world were Bill and Phyllis Fox, Mike’s parents. They would sit and watch us put Family Ties together — every moment of the run through, the camera blocking — nobody wanted to be there for that stuff, but Bill and Phyllis were because they were so proud of their son. Late one night at St. Germain, Mike and I were in a back booth and we just turned and looked at each other. Everyone around us was having a great time. And Mike looked right at me and said, “It’s like we jumped a life, you know?”
NRO: Alex P. Keaton, and Michael J. Fox, certainly captivated a nation.
GDG: Well, there was just something magical about the Alex character. Mike couldn’t walk down the street because he would get mobbed. The studio audience would literally vibrate when he walked out on stage. I think 99.9 percent of that was because of Michael and his talent. It was spectacular. What we had on Family Ties was once-in-a-lifetime.
– John Meroney, a writer in Los Angeles, is completing a book on Ronald Reagan’s role in the Hollywood labor movement.