The Brady Bunch

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The Brady Bunch

The Brady Bunch was one of the last domestic situation comedies which populated television during the 1950s and 1960s. While it flew below Nielsen radar in its original run, its popularity in syndication led to frequent reincarnations through the 1990s. Generation X viewers treated the series with a combination of irony and reverence.

In 1966, Gilligan's Island executive producer Sherwood Schwartz read a newspaper item stating that 30 percent of American families were stepfamilies—where one or both parents were bringing into a second marriage children from a first marriage ended by death or divorce. Schwartz quickly realized that while TV sitcoms either featured traditional, two-parent families (Make Room for Daddy, Leave it to Beaver) or families headed by a widow or widower (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, My Three Sons), no comedy had yet focused on a merging of two families. He spent the next three years developing a series based on this premise. By the time The Brady Bunch debuted in the fall of 1969, Hollywood had explored the subject with two boxoffice hits, With Six You Get Eggroll and Yours, Mine, and Ours (Schwartz planned to call his sitcom Yours and Mine).

The simple theme song laid out the storyline: Mike Brady (played by Robert Reed), a widower architect with three sons—Greg, Peter, and Bobby—met and wed Carol (Florence Henderson), a single mother with three blonde daughters—Marcia, Jan, and Cindy. The series never explained what happened to Carol's first husband; Schwartz intended Carol to be TV's first divorcee with children. The blended family moved into a giant house designed by Mike in the Los Angeles suburbs, complete with a practical and seemingly tireless maid, Alice (Ann B. Davis).

Most of the plots dealt with the six Brady children and the travails of growing up. Schwartz has said the series "dealt with real emotional problems—the difficulty of being the middle girl, a boy being too short when he wants to be taller, going to the prom with zits on your face." Frequently the storylines centered around one of the children developing an inflated ego after receiving a compliment or award; Greg becoming a baseball maven after being coached by Hall of Fame pitcher Don Drysdale, or Cindy turning into an arrogant snob upon being chosen for a TV quiz show. Invariably public or private humiliation followed and, with the loving support of parents and siblings, the prodigal child was inevitably welcomed back into the Brady fold. In contrast to the "real" problems dealt with on the show, The Brady Bunch explored more fantastic stories on location several times, including vacations to the Grand Canyon (where the family was taken prisoner by a demented prospector) and, more famously, to Hawaii (where the Brady sons were taken prisoner by a demented archaeologist).

The series never cracked the Top 25 ratings during its initial run, but was enormously popular with the 17-and-under age group. The child actors were prominently featured in teen magazines of the early 1970s, and even formed a pop music group in the style of such TV-inspired groups as The Monkees and The Partridge Family. Barry Williams, who played eldest son Greg, received upwards of 6,500 fan letters a week. There was also a Saturday morning cartoon spun off from the show, The Brady Kids.

The show was cancelled in 1974, and that fall entered syndication, generally airing during the late afternoons. In this child-friendly time period, The Brady Bunch became a runaway syndicated hit. In 1977, the cast (minus Eve Plumb, the original Jan) reunited on ABC for The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, a bizarre hour-long series featuring inane skits and production numbers; most of the cast could not even dance in step. It was cancelled after several months and is often considered the worst variety show in television history.

The original series' popularity in reruns spurred more reunions, however. The Brady Girls Get Married was a 1980 NBC special where Marcia and Jan find husbands. The special led to another short-lived sitcom, The Brady Brides, with the two newlywed couples sharing living quarters (in typical sitcom fashion, one husband was an uptight academic, while the other was a laid-back toy salesman).

The biggest Brady-related TV event came in December 1988, with the broadcast of the TV movie A Very Brady Christmas. The six children (most with spouses, significant others and children in tow) congregated at the Brady manse to celebrate the holidays. While working at a construction site, Mike was trapped under debris after an accident. Carol and the extended family sang Christmas carols as he was rescued; ironically enough, the location of this Christmas miracle was on 34th Street. It was the highest rated TV movie of the 1988-1989 season, and launched yet another Brady series. The Bradys (CBS, 1990) was an hour-long drama attempting to bring serious problems to the Brady landscape. In the series debut, Bobby, now a racecar driver, was paralyzed in a NASCAR accident. Jan and her husband tried in vain to conceive a child. Mike ran for Los Angeles City Council, and stood accused of taking bribes. Marcia became an alcoholic. The series lasted only half a season.

But the original series continues to fascinate. During the early 1990s, theater groups in New York and Chicago staged The Real Life Brady Bunch, reenacting complete episodes of the series, on occasion using actual Brady Bunch actors in cameo roles.

The series was something of a touchstone to people born during the 1960s and 1970s, many of whom grew up in single-family households or who, like the children in the series, became part of a stepfamily. "The Brady Bunch, the way I look at it," Schwartz said in 1993, "became an extended family to those kids." Brady Bunch fans developed the singular ability to identify a given episode after only the first line of that episode's dialogue. The 1970s dialogue ("Groovy!" "Far out!") and outrageously colored polyester clothes inspired laughs from 1980s and 1990s audiences. Many of the curious production elements (Why would an accomplished architect such as Mike Brady build a home for six teenagers with only one bathroom? And why didn't that bathroom have a toilet? Why was the backyard lawn merely carpeting? Why didn't any of the windows in the house have panes?) were cause for late-night debate in college dorms and coffee shops. Letter to the Next Generation, Jim Klein's 1990 documentary on apathetic college students, had a montage of disparate cliques of Kent State University students singing the complete Brady Bunch theme song.

In the spring of 1992 Barry Williams's Growing Up Brady was published, a hilarious bestseller recounting the history of the series and reflecting on what being a "Brady" meant. Williams shared inside gossip:

Reed, a classically-trained actor and veteran of the acclaimed TV drama The Defenders (1961-1965), regularly sent sarcastic notes to Schwartz and the production staff attacking the simplistic storylines and character development. Had the series continued for a sixth season, Schwartz was willing to kill off Mike Brady and have the series revolve around the six kids fixing up the newly single Carol.

The 15-year-old Williams went on a chaste date with the married Henderson. Williams also stated that he dated "Marcia," and that "Peter" and "Jan," and "Bobby" and "Cindy" had similar relationships during the show's run.

Williams admitted that he filmed part of one 1972 episode ("Law and Disorder") while under the influence of marijuana.

Shortly after Williams's book was published, Robert Reed died of colon cancer at age 59. It was subsequently announced that Reed's cancer was caused due to the AIDS virus. The revelation that Reed, the head of TV's most self-consciously wholesome family, had a hidden homosexual life was as stunning to Generation X viewers as news of Rock Hudson's homosexuality had been to many of their parents.

In the tradition of Star Trek and The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch became fodder for a full-length motion picture. To the surprise of many, The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) was a critical and box-office smash. The film wisely took a tongue-in-cheek approach to the material, planting the defiantly-1970s Brady family smack dab in the middle of 1990s urban Los Angeles. "Hey there, groovy chicks!" the fringe-wearing Greg courted grunge classmates. There were numerous references to Brady Bunch episodes, and cameos from Williams, Henderson, and Ann B. Davis. A Very Brady Sequel (1996) continued the approach to equal acclaim.

Schwartz came to comedy writing after receiving an master's degree in biochemistry, and began as a writer for Bob Hope prior to World War II. He won an Emmy as a writer for The Red Skelton Show in 1961. The knack for creating popular entertainment clearly runs in the family—brother Elroy wrote for The Addams Family and My Three Sons, son Lloyd co-produced The Brady Bunch, and two of his nephews created the international hit TV series Baywatch.

—Andrew Milner

Further Reading:

Bellafante, Ginia. "The Inventor of Bad TV," Time, March 13,1995, 111.

Hillard, Gloria, "Brady Bunch Still Draws Crowds," segment on CNN's "Showbiz Today" series, April 20, 1993.

Moran, Elizabeth. Bradymania! Everything You Always Wanted to Know—And a Few Things You Probably Didn't (25th Anniversary Edition). New York, Adams, 1994.

Owen, Rob. Gen X TV: The Brady Bunch to Melrose Place. Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Williams, Barry. Growing Up Brady: I Was A Teenage Greg. New York, Harper Perennial. 1992.

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