TV's Greatest Philosopher?
"Life is suffering. . ."
- The first noble truth of Buddhism
"Once upon a time, there was a man who sold shoes. He was a good man, but somehow, good things never came to him. Did I mention he was a great athlete in high school? People cheered him. That was before the. . .red thing appeared. Darkness fell on shoe town. Who would take on the red beast? Who would battle it? Who would marry it? The little shoe man stepped forward. Or perhaps the others just stepped back? At any rate, an unholy union was born. So were two unholy children. And the lowly shoe man, who once had been a mighty athlete in high school and scored 4 touchdowns in one game and had many offers to junior colleges and could've made something of his life, laid down, and died. The end."T
- Alfredo Bundy
here are very few characters out there that I like as much as Al Bundy. To me, the character played by Ed O Neil on Married. . . With Children is not only one of the most iconic characters in television history, but one of the greatest depictions of the American working man in ANY sort of media. Certainly, it helps that Married. . . With Children is one of the greatest shows ever, and that Ed O Neil is every bit as awesome in real life as the character he portrayed on TV. Even so, the character of Al Bundy stands out as one of the few truly transcendent characters in television, and in a weird way, as one of the most poetic and philosophical figures in sitcom history.
Before you can talk about Al Bundy, you have to talk about Married. . . With Children. The show debuted on the fledgling Fox network in 1987, and remained on the network for a decade, outlasting scores of programs (including Alien Nation, 21 Jump Street, In Living Color, Get A Life, Parker Lewis Can t Lose, The Tracy Ullman Show. . . the list goes on and on, really). The show was really the first dysfunctional family sitcom of the timeframe, although Roseanne, a show that debuted years later, was given credit for popularizing the format. The show was created by a gaggle of writers with the sole intent of producing the anti-Cosby Show sitcom. In fact, the working title for the program was Not The Cosbys for quite some time.
Like most shows on Fox, the program struggled until 1990, when the Simpsons arrived on the network. Around the same timeframe, the show received national attention after it was boycotted by a concerned mothers group - an act that eventually caused ratings for Married. . .With Children to spike, and gain the show a legion of hardcore followers.
Married. . .with Children is really a program that is split into two epochs: there is the Steve era (which went on until about 1992), and the Jefferson era, which runs from 1992 until the end of the series. The eras are named after the next door neighbor characters, whom changed when the actor playing Steve left the show in the early 90s. Ultimately, Married. . . With Children fans are pretty split on which era was better for the program; for me, I kind of preferred the Jefferson era, since the show took on a more social satire theme around the point. Even so, one thing did not change throughout the transition, and that was the character of Al Bundy.
No matter which direction the show took, a number of things remained consistent for Al. He was always employed at Gary s Shoes, a women s footwear shop at the New Market Mall in Chicago. He always drove a Dodge, a lackluster vehicle that he somehow managed to accumulate over 999,999 miles on. He always dreamed about his glory days as a standout player at Polk High, reminding anyone he came into contact with about the time he once scored 4 touchdowns in a single game. He always read Big Uns, he always watched TV with his hand in his pants, and he had a thorough disdain for his wife and children, even though at the end of the day, he did somewhat care about them.
Al Bundy was very much what you would call a traditionalist. He hated computers, he hated cable programming (especially anything involving Oprah) and he constantly pined for the good old days. His favorite movie was Hondo, and at one point, he confessed to owning a copy of Ned Beatty Sings The Blues. According to the episode where Al gets a satellite TV deal called the Man Package, his favorite things to watch on TV are pro wrestling, monster movies, and of course, Psycho Dad, a violent Western themed program about an outlaw that supposedly shot his wife because she weighed a ton.
Al was also a fairly political sort. Even though his party affiliation was left sort of vague (despite displaying a deep appreciation of Dwight D. Eisenhower), Al was at the heart of numerous social upheavals during the programs run, including getting a number of Memorial Day motorists to destroy the Interstate with tire irons and of course, his establishing of the Church of NO MAAM. Al even testified in congress once to speak out in defense of violent television, in addition to serving as a member for a number of social causes, including an environmental group and a pro carpooling organization. . .although briefly, of course.
ED O NEIL FACT: Although it is insinuated that Al Bundy is a Republican, Ed O Neil is actually a staunch democrat. In 2008, O Neil reprised his role as Al Bundy for an internet video in support of Barrack Obama's 2008 Presidential campaign.
There is no denying that Mr. Bundy is an interesting character, but what does Al Bundy really say about American culture? Is he an exaggeration of working class anger, or is he really the poetic conscience of the blue collar worker? Is he really a misogynist, or is he simply stating double standards about the advent of political correctness? Was Married. . .With Children just another entertaining satire, or was it a significant work of art with something highly important to say about politics and American society? As it turns out, there may be a lot more wisdom behind Al Bundy than we initially assumed.
AL BUNDY ON MODERN EXISTENCE
"Son, always remember the Bundy credo: Lie when your wife is waking, lie when your belly is aching, lie when you know she s faking. Lie. Sell shoes. And lie."
Needless to say, Al was never a really happy person. He always longed for what could have been, and the anchor of the show is ultimately Al s dissatisfaction with the world he, basically, created for himself.
Al is what we call a regressive figure, meaning he is ALWAYS trying to obtain value by reverting to prior achievements. Anything that reminds him of his Polk High days is good, and everything after, fundamentally, is bad. Although it is quite clear that Al really draws a lot of agony from his past, could Al s perpetual sadness and anger be a reactionary statement to modernity in general?
Let s start off with Al s hatred of women. Now, Al really isn't a traditional misogynist, at least in the classical sense of the term. He admires and respects women to certain degrees, and even shows signs of servility to a number of female characters throughout the course of the show. And despite Al s omnipresent loathing of his wife, he never, ever cheats on her, despite the fact that he has had the opportunity on several occasions. That, and he seems to genuinely care about his daughter, even if the extent of his affection is centered on beating up all of her boyfriends.
Throughout the show, Al s three primary targets of wrath are his wife Peg, his next door neighbor Marcy, and fat women, particularly the ones that frequent his shoe store. Naturally, you can include Peg s unseen mother as a fourth target of rage, although she definitely fits the criteria for the third category listed above (since in the latter episodes, she actually moves in with the Bundys. . .every time she moves, the house quakes). She was also a phone sex operator for quite some time, which certainly adds fuel to Al s conflagration of hostility towards females - namely because Al was one of her unknowing customers.
Al's antipathy towards Peg seems to be pretty straightforward. Al feels as if he had not had gotten drunk one night and proposed to Peg, he could have gone on to become a big football star in college. As such, Al looks at Peg as the root cause of the death of his dream life, and at times, it seems pretty obvious that Peg bemoans the marriage, as well. However, as much as Al claims to hate Peg, he never seems to stray from her, and for whatever reason, they never even contemplated the idea of getting a divorce. Outside of a few verbal barbs, Al and Peg get together quite well for two people that supposedly hate each other s guts.
Now, Al's resentment of Marcy Darcy, the next door neighbor, is MORE than understandable. Marcy is really the direct antithesis of Al - not only physically, but ideologically. She supports environmental programs and hates violent television. She works at a bank, and thinks that all women are objectified. Long story short, there is no way these two people could ever possibly coexist (even in TV land), and their rivalry is as natural as the one between the cobra and the mongoose.
Can you really blame Al for hating the fat women that frequent his shoe store? They have outlandish demands, they refuse to acknowledge their own appearances, and on top of it all, they feel as if they have protection from less than civil discourse. Although the show maintains that Al s dismay of fat women is merely that, I think any sociologist would be quick to explicate this recurring element of the show as a statement about political correctness (keep in mind, one of the co-creators of the show was African American, so that should give you a pretty unique angle on the matter). The ultimate irony of Al s job is that as much as he can t stand demanding women, he actually shows a lot of respect for the owner of Gary s Shoes. . .who, as it turns out, just so happens to be a woman.
AL BUNDY ON WORKING CLASS STRIFE
"When hooters jiggle around and I find nickels on the ground, I care. When a Mustang engine purrs and the bathroom is not hers, I care. When the pitcher s on the mound and the wife is underground, I care. But when I've been playing this for days I will kill anybody who stays, I swear. . ."
So, a few things we know about Al for sure. Whenever he is around Marcy, he mocks her by making chicken noises. He often gives ill thought out advice to his son. He believes that Amazonian Masterhood is destroying what it means to be an American male. And of course, let us never forget Al s immortal reason detre for alcohol consumption: pretty women make us buy beer, and ugly women make us drink beer.
Of course Al is disgruntled, but could there actually be a granule of validity to his perpetual rage?
Al has a lot of reasons to be upset. His family is less than desirable, his car is a POS, and his job absolutely sucks. He also claims to be in massive debt, threatening his children that they will be added TO the will if they don t straighten up. The catch here is, although Al is besieged by a number of personal setbacks, he often finds ways to overcome them, if only temporarily.
Who can forget the episode where Al got revenge on Peg for remodeling the bathroom by going in there after eating a bag of cheap Mexican food? And what about the episode where Seven (geez, whatever happened to him?) had his birthday overtaken by a yuppie family? Al did not settle the socioeconomic stratification problem in America that evening, but he did do the next best thing: he kicked their asses.
Morally, Al is sort of a hard figure to pin down. He has no problem stealing (did you ever see the episode where he raided a bar to score his family Christmas presents?), but he does seem to go out of his way to help out people, even people he doesn't really like (as with the time he helped Steve retrieve a Barbie doll for Marcy on the streets of Chicago).
The show really fluctuates with Al's back story. At one point, the show blamed all of Al's problems on an English curse, and at certain junctures of the show, Al's annual income is reported to be as low as 14 grand a year (in one episode, a dirt vendor is said to make more money than Mr. Bundy). Although Al has unbelievably bad luck (like the time he blew up a scoreboard that was dedicated to himself, or the time he had photographic proof of aliens overexposed while developing them, or the time he crashed his Dodge while trying to accumulate miles on the odometer to win a contest, etc.), you really cannot say that Al ISN'T cleverly pragmatic in some instances. For example, who did not want to take Bundy's advice and move INTO a grocery store during the middle of a heat wave after seeing THAT episode?
Ultimately, Al feels emasculated. That s why he started NO MAAM, the National Organization of Men Against Amazonian Masterhood, and that s why he sought out the legendary Iron Head Hayes (even if he did burn his sacred nine commandments as firewood just a few hours later). He hates being placed into a subservient role, which if you ask me, is a metaphor for the way political correctness hampers the ability for people to express themselves. Is Al really upset with a crappy job and controlling women, or is he upset that the world around him is discarding all of the values and ideals he grew up with? When you really think about it, Married. . .with Children covers the same sort of ground the Michael Douglas movie Falling Down did, only from a (more) comedic aspect. Laugh if you want: behind all of the shenanigans, Al Bundy is making a very poignant statement about the changing of the times, specifically regarding the nature of cultural roles.
ED O NEIL FACT: Playing a high school football star on TV really wasn't a stretch for Ed. Not only was he a star player on his actual high school team, he also played college ball and, at one point, found himself on the practice squad of the Pittsburgh Steelers!
AL BUNDY ON AMERICAN POLITICS
"To tell you the truth, I m never voting again. Like marriage, no matter who you choose, it turns out bad. . . unless you re rich. They get everything they want. Well, fine! Let them have their birds and their air and even their presidents. We cared about beer, and they took it away from us. Yeah, sure, what do they care if a man who sells shoes, or fixes cars, or totes those bars, or spears that doodie in the park has to use his whole paycheck to buy one beer. What do they care? They re at their outdoor restaurants, eating their little pizzas and drinking some fine wine in the no smoking section with their sexy, skinny second wives, but we re breeding with peasant stock! No offense, Peg. One thing I know, we re never going to win through the system. Voting has never been the American Way. We didn t get away from that pansy country England by voting. We did it by throwing their stinking tea in our American harbor! And why? Because Americans don t like tea. We like coffee, and Americans don t like wine, we like beer, ice cold. Ice cold, best in a bottle, but fine anyway you can get it, gulp it burp it, and wake up in a pool of it beer. So let s show them how a beer man votes, let s get blitzed and take it to the streets. . . let s strike a blow anywhere they dine al fresco, anywhere they eat brie cheese, and anywhere they wear their pants up high around their waists in the European way. The only thing Americans understand is mindless, Tom and Jerry like cartoon violence. So let s go kick some elite butt. Give me beer, or give me death. . . or both. Let s pillage."
For a guy that possesses the motto of "hooters, hooters, yum yum yum, hooters, hooters, on a girl that s dumb", Al really does have his thumb and forefinger on the pulse of the American conscience (well, the American conscience from about 20 years ago, anyway).
I think Al voices a dissatisfaction with politics that a lot of people at the time frame had, and a lot of those complaints and concerns are still valid today. Also, Al seems to represent the proletariat figure, the forgotten, downtrodden working man - the uneducated, unappreciated backbone of industry that believes that he is not having his voice heard in a world that seems to be turning away from the daily laborer.
Now, that does not mean that Al Bundy is the archetypical Marxist hero - far from it, actually. Instead, Al represents a weird mixture of revolutionary American patriotism (imagine, if you will, Patrick Henry, only with a penchant for Girlie Girl beer), and some of the American social reformists during the 20th century - for me, Cesar Chavez immediately springs to mind.
Sure, it is sort of ridiculous to equate a shoe selling, self-loathing ex high school football star with one of the nation s foremost labor leaders, but that is precisely the point: I think the character of Al is sort of a statement about how culture has abandoned the value and needs of the average working man, the non-professional, non-academic workhorse of the American infrastructure. Remember, in the USA, approximately only 20 percent of the population has a bachelor s degree or higher, meaning the overwhelming majority of the country is comprised of the working class laborer. In many ways, I believe Married. . .with Children was sort of a caustic reaction to all of the highfalutin, socially elitist programs of the time frame, a sort of contra-Frasier, in many regards. And at the end of the day, I think you walked away with a whole lot more to think about the concurrent society after watching Married. . .with Children than you did Seinfeld, Friends or Home Improvement.
Al Bundy represent the old way of life, the kind of life where disputes were not settled with litigation, but knuckle sandwiches. Married. . .with Children probably featured more knock down, drag out fight scenes than the entire Jean Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris filmographies combined - whether it was at the movies, the nudie bar, the park, or at a bar on Christmas Eve, you knew that at any given point in the series, an ass kicking could break out, which is something that made the program infinitely more entertaining than Perfect Strangers of Full House.
ED O NEIL FACT: Although Al Bundy was known for kicking ass on Married. . .with Children, the man that portrayed him kicks even more: not only is Ed O Neil a keen martial arts enthusiast, he even holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu!
AL BUNDY ON LIFE, IN GENERAL
"You think I m a loser? Because I have a stinking job that I hate, a family that doesn't respect me, and a whole city that curses the day I was born? Well, that may mean loser to you, but let me tell you something. Every day when I wake up in the morning, I know it s not going to get any better until I go back to sleep. So I get up. I have my watered-down Tang and my still-frozen Pop Tart. I get in my car with no gas, no upholstery and six more payments. I fight honking traffic just for the privilege of putting cheap shoes onto the cloven hooves of people like you. I ll never play football like I wanted to. I ll never know the touch of a beautiful woman. And I ll never know the joy of driving without a bag over my head. But I m not a loser. Because, despite it all, me and every other guy who ll never be what they wanted to be, is out there, being what we don t want to be, forty hours a week, for life. And the fact that I didn t put a gun in my mouth, you pudding of a woman, makes me a winner!"
At the end of the day, is Al Bundy a tragic hero, a comedic hero, or somewhere in between? Very few sitcom characters toe that line between sadness and humor the way Al does. Are we laughing at his misery, or are we commiserating with his woes?
Ultimately, I think we identify with Al more than we would like to. In fact, Al is so relatable that to many fans, he has become something of an archetypical display of modern manhood, a leftover from the good old days when guys where guys and no one had to be ashamed to like women, beer and football. In many ways, Al is something of a reactionary figure to all of that schmaltzy, sugary claptrap poured down our throats following the end of the Reagan era. Had it not been for unbearable crap like The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Cosby Show or Growing Pains, it s somewhat unlikely that Married. . .with Children (and by proxy, the character of Al Bundy) would have ever made it to the airwaves.
A lot of times, we feel sorry for Al. When he has to host a midnight shoe sale, we can relate. Who among us has not had to do something ridiculous at our place of employment before? Of course, Al is anything but a saint, but he never presents himself as anything other than a self-described lowly shoe man. Deep down, he is a miserable human begin, but at the same time, we appreciate his honesty, and his humor, and his ability to persevere through things that would've sent lesser men into an early grave. If Tim Taylor had to face a fraction of the hardships Al had to go through, there probably would've been an episode of Home Improvement in which the kids found their dad hanging from the ceiling with a Binford tools branded extension cord wrapped around his neck. It's not so much schadenfreude with Al as much as it is a sense of admiration and catharsis. Al has a lot of bad weeks, and so do we. Sometimes, not only is seeing someone sharing the misery on television refreshing, but in an odd way, sort of therapeutic, too. If you are looking for an explanation to the program s popularity - and by extent, the popularity of the Al Bundy character - I think that s as good an answer as you re going to come across.
ince Married. . .with Children went off the air in 1997, the show has lived on in syndication, perhaps drawing more fans through affiliate reruns than it did during its heyday. There is no denying the gross charm of the Al Bundy character - in a TV landscape dotted with perfect dads and impossibly functional families, seeing a hopeless, dejected shoe salesman coping with the crappiest family this side of Charles Manson s brood is a breath of fresh air. Whereas a lot of shows from the 90s have lost a lot of their appeal - try watching an episode of Herman s Head or Drexler's Class sometime - Married. . .with Children is one of the rare programs that does not feel outdated or humorless. In fact, in today s ULTRA politically correct climate, the show s irreverent brand of social commentary is probably even MORE effective now than it was during its network run.
More so than just about any television figure I can think of, Al Bundy really speaks for himself. There isn't much I can say about him that he has not already said himself, so I won t try to outdo the man himself on his unique, and surprisingly profound, school of philosophy. In fact, at the end of the day, there s really only one thing I can think of when I think about Al. . .
James Swift is a twenty something freelance writer currently living in the Metro Atlanta area. He is the author of How I Survived Three Years at a Two Year Community College: A Junior Memoir of Epic Proportions and Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks.