I know Jean Stapleton was 90 when she died, living well beyond the Biblical three score and ten, but I am still reluctant to let her go. And so, as a viewer and one who wrote about her, I want to share a few thoughts about my slight involvement with her most famous character Edith Bunker .
I am old enough to have watched All in the Family when Norman Lear’s show was smashing the social and media taboos of the time. What a joy it was to behold! Jean Stapleton’s Edith, married to TV’s most famous bigot, always tried to defend those whom Archie was attacking–the gay friend of Mike; the new African American neighbors, the Jeffersons. At first she was depicted as, in Archie’s words, “a dingbat,” but as the show evolved, she became more than just a doormat for her husband to tread on. Her naive but honest remarks often deflated Archie or brought him around to do the right thing. She frequently became the mediator between Archie and whomever he was feuding with–usually Mike.
I became so intrigued by her character that I wrote an article in 1974 for the Christian Century entitled “The Gospel According to Edith Bunker.” A friend and I had been intending to write a book about the show itself, but he kept putting it off, so I settled for an article instead.
My editor was very creative, suggesting that instead of chapter titles, the contents would be: “Sign On,” serving as a first chapter; WSAD Channel 2 “Life Can Be Rotten” The Soap Opera; KZAP Channel 3 Adventure Series; WLIE “Promises, Promises” Television Advertising and Values; KKID 5 “Suffer the Little Children” Children’s Programming & the Kingdom; WYUK 6 “A Laughing Matter” Situation Comedies and the Gospel; KNEW Channel 7 “And That’s the Way It Is” Man’s News & God’s News–Fact & Faith; Sign Off.
The book was intended not so much to be about TV as it was to involve the readers in group engagement with the various types of programming. I wrote two skits as examples of what readers might create, “The Loves of David,” a soap opera based on King David’s infamous affair with Bathsheba, and an episode from a sitcom based on Jesus’ Parable of the Two Men Praying in the Temple. It was the latter with which I partially satisfied my desire to write about All in the Family.
We couldn’t actually use the series’ title, so our series was called “A Fall in the Family,” and the skit involved Arnie and Enid Clunker discussing with Glory and Mack how upset Arnie was in church that morning when a dirty hippy came to the worship service. I was surprised that the staff artist left no room for doubt as to who were the source of my Clunker family.
I’ve used that skit in a lot of churches and numerous retreats myself, and have heard from a few readers who reported that they had fun with it too. (Insert shameless commercial: both skits are part of a “Gospel and Comedy Retreat Kit” available from my Visual Parables.)
Meanwhile, the book that I originally wanted to write came out–God, Man and Archie Bunker by Spencer Marsh. And a very good one it was, too. Soon it was accompanied by a tape with sound bites from the show and a study guide for group use. I usedthe book and tape with both adults and youth, the latter especially in confirmation classes.