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Married … with Children

Married … with Children

Out of the sugary-sweet ashes of the "happy family" fare of late 1980s television comedies, epitomized by The Cosby Show, FamilyTies, and Growing Pains and their sweater-wearing characters, the unabashedly raunchy Fox sitcom Married … with Children rose up like a dysfunctional phoenix and outlasted almost every competitor on television.

Married … with Children was created by ex-Jefferson's writers Ron Leavitt and Michael Moye, who were given the green light by Fox to do something other than the standard TV fare. "We tried to take traditional sitcom cliches and subvert them," Michael Moye said in Newsweek in 1996. He and his partner came up with the sexually-charged version of the old radio comedy The Bickersons. The cutting-edge show put Fox on the map (and set its tone, for a while), running from 1987 to 1997.

Married … with Children was set in suburban Chicago. The Bundys (who were named after one of Leavitt and Moye's favorite pro wrestlers, King Kong Bundy) were the anti-Cosbys. Al (Ed O'Neill) was a lowly and chauvinistic shoe salesman with bad breath, armpit stains, and smelly feet. His wife Peg (Katey Sagal) was a lazy housewife with huge red hair and loud sleazy clothing, who never cleaned or cooked and spent the day eating bonbons and watching Oprah. Fifteen-year-old Kelly (Christina Applegate) was beyond stupid and beyond slutty. Eleven-year-old Bud (David Faustino) was a pervert-in-training. Buck was the scruffy, sometimes-voiced family dog. Topics for barbs and insults included Al's lack of bedroom prowess and earning power, Peg's lack of sexual satisfaction, Kelly's lack of brain power and sexual restraint, and Bud's lack of prowess with the ladies. Every now and then, they let it slip that they cared about each other, but not often. On one episode, a parody of It's a Wonderful Life, the late Sam Kinison was Al's guardian angel. Al sees how happy his family would have been had he never been born, and he can't allow it. "I want to live!" he cries.

The Bundys' first neighbors were the perfect counterpoints to Al and Peg, Steve (David Garrison) and Marcy (Amanda Bearse) Rhoades, insufferable newlywed yuppie accountants in love. Al and Peg took glee in bursting their collective bubble. During the 1988-89 season, Steve lost his job because of Al, indirectly; after months of unemployment he left Marcy to go to Yosemite to become a park ranger (in real life Garrison left to be in a play). Marcy later married Jefferson D'Arcy (Ted McGinley), thus making her name Marcy D'Arcy. She met him during a drinking binge at a banker's convention. Jefferson never worked; he lived off Marcy and hung out with Al.

The 1988-89 season was downright magical for Married … with Children. Ratings improved during the 1988 writers' strike when people started sampling other networks. Ratings were also boosted after a Michigan housewife named Terry Rakolta, outraged by a January 1989 episode wherein the female characters purchase bras, started a letter-writing campaign encouraging viewers and advertisers to boycott the show. The ironic result was that more people tuned in to see what the fuss was about; the audience grew and the ratings were strong, thus bringing in more sponsors. Married … with Children became Fox's first program to get double digit ratings (a 10). However, Fox did refuse to air the 1988 season premiere "A Period Piece," wherein Peg, Marcy, and Kelly all have their periods on a Bundy-Rhoades camping trip; after many changes, the show ran in a later timeslot as "The Camping Show." Another episode, in which Al and Peg are videotaped having sex in a sleazy motel room, was never aired.

In the fall of 1991, Sagal became pregnant, so Peg and Marcy became pregnant on the show. When Sagal later miscarried, both pregnancies were revealed to be a dream of Al's, in an homage to Dallas. The next year brought Seven, the six-year-old son of one of Peg's cousins, who moved into the Bundy household. The writers couldn't integrate the character and he was gone, unexplained, a few months later. Al and his pals, Griff, Ike, Sticky, and Bob, hung out at a nudie bar; Al also formed NO MA'AM (The National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood), to preserve their right to drink excessively, act like slobs, and look at porn. As time went on, Kelly managed to graduate from high school, became a model, and lived at home. After getting a job as a waitress in a sleazy diner, she later tried TV commercials, first for Pest Boys Exterminating Co. as the Verminator, then as spokesperson for Ice Hole Beer. Bud actually went to college, but, of course, had no money, and also lived at home. He also worked part time at the Illinois motor vehicle department as a driving tester. He finally lost his virginity to Amber, Marcy's aggressive niece.

The blue-collar sitcom, which tried to reflect a more "normal" American homelife, warts and all, harkened back to All in the Family and broke ground for shows like Roseanne. The lowbrow Married … with Children was Fox's longest running sitcom and TV's longest-running network series, not counting news and sports, when it was canceled in 1997. Its theme song was Frank Sinatra's 1955 recording of "Love and Marriage" by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, with a twist—it was punctuated by the sound of a jail cell slamming shut.

—Karen Lurie

Further Reading:

Brooks, Tim, and Marsh, Earle. The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-present. New York, Ballantine Books, 1995.

"Fox Unties the Knot." Mediaweek. April 28, 1997, 54.

Marin, Rick. "Nuking the Nuclear Family: 'Married … with Children' is Crass, Low Class and the Longest-Running Show on TV. Deal with It." Newsweek. April 29, 1996, 70.

McNeil, Alex. Total Television. New York, Penguin, 1996.

Nelson, Craig. Bad TV. New York, Dell Publishing, 1995.

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