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Honoring a Man Who Helped Make Dysfunction Fun

From My Netflix Queue

Posted: February 25, 2008 3:40 p.m.
Updated: April 24, 2008 5:02 a.m.
 
Even though "Married with Children" aired from 1987 to 1997, and I grew up in the midst of those years, I never knew about it.

My choices in programming on Fox, mostly on Saturday mornings, were "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers," "VR Troopers," and "Masked Rider," another Haim Saban production that wasn't as successful as the Power Rangers. And of course, "The Simpsons," on Thursday nights.

There may have been commercials for the Bundy family-there obviously had to be commercials-but I don't remember them.

It was in October of 2003, two months a resident of Valencia and the state of California, while living in the left-side apartment complex behind the Pavilions shopping center that I finally heard about "Married with Children" at length. Our mail was delivered by Brenda, who was always good for a conversation about whatever was on TV, the movies out in theaters, movies in general, and TV from the past.

She would often express her love for the Bundys, of the pleasure in watching it with her husband in the evenings, and overjoyed in learning from me that the show would soon be on DVD. She decided to make the first season a birthday gift for him.

It wasn't until last year, though, that I finally saw an episode, at 11:30 p.m. on the local Fox affiliate. It was entitled "Movie Show," from the seventh season, and saw the Bundys out at the movies to celebrate Kelly's (Christina Applegate) birthday, while Bud (David Faustino) tried to pick up seemingly every girl he came across, and in one instance, a Bud stunt dummy sailed over the seats in the movie theater, after Bud had been rejected by yet another girl, and her boyfriend.

I couldn't believe that these moments of genuine hilarity had been on TV all this time and it took me this long to discover it.

"Movie Show" had a rambunctious, reckless spirit that I'd never seen in any of the other TV shows I'd watched. To me, this was entirely fresh, and consistently funny. There was a structure that you could see if you watched closely enough, but also a sense of anarchy.

These memories resurface because Ron Leavitt, the co-creator of "Married with Children," died of lung cancer two Sundays ago at the age of 60. You wouldn't have known it at the time it was announced, because his passing was overshadowed by actor Roy Scheider, who followed him almost immediately after and received nearly all of the media attention, because of his performance as Sheriff Brody in "Jaws," and a wide-ranging career in other films like "The French Connection."

There was a brief article I'd found from the San Diego Mercury News about Leavitt, but that was it until the Tuesday after, when the L.A. Times finally picked up on his death and in his case, it was better late.
They did a careful job, getting quotes from Ed O'Neill, who played Al, the Bundy patriarch, shoe salesman, and former high school football player (always harping on the four touchdowns he made in one game), and many archival quotes from Leavitt himself from a Times interview in 1997.

After that seventh-season episode, I was hooked. I wanted more and more and more, and got just that for two episodes every night until late last year, when Fox decided to showcase the televised gossip rag "TMZ" and push "Married with Children" to midnight, allowing it only one episode thereafter.

But during that glorious hour, watching the put-upon Al being used even more, Kelly being even dumber than seemed possible, Bud trying for every woman in the known universe, and matriarch Peggy and her bon-bons, I laughed more than I thought 23 minutes could ever give. And they gave, over and over again.
Leavitt, with co-creator Michael G. Moye, considered the series the "anti-Cosby," according to the Times obituary, as "The Cosby Show" was still airing when "Married with Children" was put on the air. The Cosbys were close-knit, whereas the Bundys were outrageously dysfunctional. Leavitt's death caused the first disc of the first season to shoot up to the top of my queue. I was curious, after all the constant laughs, why it kept working, why it would obviously still be appreciated even 30 years after it ended (it'll still be seen in 2027; I've no doubts).

It's a number of things right in the first episode. There's the marital discord between Al and Peggy, with there being nothing in the fridge for Al to eat for breakfast before heading to the mall for the "minimum-wage slow death" of selling women's shoes. He wants juice too, and Peggy promises that by the time he gets home, but what good is it for her to go to the store when Oprah's on and she can lay back on the couch, eating her bon-bons?

The dissatisfaction between the two in their marriage was one aspect of the never-dried-out comedy. Peggy wanted more intimacy, and Al wanted none of that, only giving it when it was absolutely necessary, and then to his benefit, such as when a boxing match is being shown only on Spectravision, a hotel room TV service, and Al takes Peggy to the motel over the state line in Wisconsin that he knows is showing the fight. There's time for intimacy, but only during the playing of the national anthem before the fight, and enough for Peggy to agree not to ask for another round at Al's behest.

Plus, of course, the battle of the sexes. In the pilot, Al wants to go to the Bulls/Lakers game, but Peggy tells him that he's not going because their new next-door neighbors are coming over.

And with that comes the other dynamic.

Peggy and Al, being what they are, need a contrasting couple. Steve (David Garrison) and Marcy (Amanda Bearse) are just that, being two months into their marriage, and not having had the Bundy experience yet, which comes soon enough, with Al and Peggy taking pleasure in putting a few chinks into their marriage. What they don't know yet may hurt them if they remain ignorant of what the Bundys already know.

Just as equal to that brand of comedy was the sibling hatred between Bud and Kelly, Bud pretending to kill Kelly in that pilot episode, only later to serve as a warning system for her at a price, when the parents get home and she needs to get a boy out of the house. Five dollars takes care of that.

I can understand why Brenda and her husband love the show so much. You work hard all day, you want to come home to something that'll make you laugh and forget about what you've done for eight hours.

There's also a kind of communal feeling to the sitcom. It's not just the insights about men and women that may ring true to the average Joe and Josephine, such as a few scenes about men and sports involving Al and Steve, who previously swore them off because Marci asked him to, but also the audience reaction. They howl at the insults, laugh at Al's stupidity, as well as everything else there is to laugh at.

The first season's audiences were getting into the show, latching on gradually to their favorite characters, but by that seventh season, the audience sounded like it was made up of rowdy frat boys. Oh they loved it, frat boys or not.

Most importantly, above everything else about "Married with Children," the writing holds up strong, again like in that first episode. By the end of those first five minutes, you know everything you could want to know about Al and Peggy's marriage, and you want more. We watch sitcoms for the foul-ups, the half brained schemes, the situations that we find strange, yet entertaining for the characters we love, and that's enough to keep us watching, long after the show has gone off the air.

This is some legacy Leavitt has left behind. Thank goodness for DVD, and thank goodness for his existence. We have been blessed, in a terrifically twisted manner.

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