Bunker humor isn't very funny in 1994

April 11, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Let it rest already, Norman. Let it rest.

You don't need me to tell you that "All in the Family" and Archie Bunker were landmark TV when they arrived in 1971. Your formula launched a thousand spinoffs, such as "Maude," "Sanford and Son" and "The Jeffersons." You practically owned prime time.

But somebody needs to say that your recent attempts to revisit the well just aren't making it.

"Sunday Dinner" three years ago -- strike one.

"The Powers That Be" two years ago -- strike two.

And, now, "704 Hauser," which debuts tonight on CBS -- steeeerike three and yer out of there, Norman.

The cutting edge can move quite a distance in 20 years of television.

It's not that "704 Hauser" is downright terrible.

In fact, on paper it seems like it might be a neat idea:

Some 20 years later, we revisit the Bunkers' old house in Queens and find an African-American family living there.

Yikes. Remember when Sammy Davis Jr. collided with Archie, the bigot? And let's not even talk about Archie and George Jefferson butting heads time and again like two slightly crazed old rams.

Naturally, you've got another larger-than-life, fire-breathing father sitting in an old chair in the middle of the living room ranting and raving just like Archie.

And I have to admit John Amos brings a lot to the role of Ernest Cumberbatch, the father. Lynnie Godfrey is OK, too, as Rose Cumberbatch.

The problems, Norman, start with your notion that what's funny is that while Ernest is a liberal, his 23-year-old son, Thurgood Marshall Cumberbatch (T. E. Russell), is an ultra-conservative.

And to make matters worse, as far as the old man is concerned, the kid is dating an outspoken Jewish woman (Maura Tierney).

Sure, it's the same four-way dynamic as the Bunker-Stivic household -- only the liberal-conservative matter is reversed in terms of generations, and you've added race to the equation. But it just has no edge.

The main reasons for the lack of edge are how much America and prime-time network TV have changed in the past two decades.

In 1971, a black man and white woman kissing on TV was still a big deal. It tapped into feelings left over from not-so-long-ago social taboos. On-the-edge humor could be found there in jokes that pricked at feelings whites and blacks harbored on the matter but were uncomfortable expressing.

In today's far more multicultural country, with its more diverse landscape of TV programs, seeing a black man and white woman kissing is not likely to interrupt most folks' channel surfing.

I know, Norman, who am I to lecture you on humor? I'm sorry, but I'd like to see another great Norman Lear sitcom in my lifetime. This one, with the Cumberbatches as the Bunkers, isn't it.

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