A WHILE ago I waxed lyrical about Nearest and Dearest, a prime example of the ‘so bad it’s good’ school of TV comedy. From across the Atlantic, here comes another, the toe-curlingly embarrassing Married . . . With Children.
Via 259 episodes aired between 1987 and 1997, Married chronicles the disappointments and disasters of the Bundy family in suburban Chicago. To the sound of Frank Sinatra singing Love and Marriage, the opening credits show the hapless father, Al, handing over all his money to his wife, children and even the dog.
Al, played by Ed O’Neill, is a misogynistic salesman in a women’s shoe shop. ‘Sure, selling shoes is fun. But behind the glamour, it’s like any other minimum-wage slow death.’ ‘This woman comes in, and she is so fat, she actually has three smaller women orbiting around her.’ He bitterly regrets having married the bone-idle Peggy, telling her: ‘Well, Peg, we all have to live with our disappointments. I, of course, have to sleep with mine.’
Red-haired, tight-trousered Peggy (Katey Sagal) prides herself on her inability to cook – ‘Your father will be home soon, and he will be looking for dinner. Tell him I hope he finds it’ – and spends much of her time to trying to get her husband into bed, although she constantly disparages his sexual performance. ‘Unlike you, Al, a shotgun can go off more than once a month.’ She also mocks him about his ill-paid job and his personal hygiene.
Their daughter Kelly (Christina Applegate) is a promiscuous ditzy blonde whose sayings include: ‘Once the Earth goes, the planet is going to be next’; ‘It’s so hot, you can lay an egg on the sidewalk’; ‘Daddy, I just found out I’m dying. I have Bulgaria. The doctor says it’s terminus’; and this glorious exchange with her mom:
Kelly: ‘Topeka! I have found it!’
Peggy: ‘I don’t think you mean “Topeka”.’
Kelly: ‘Oh, yeah. Urethra! I have found it.’
Her younger brother Bud (David Faustino) is, like Kelly, preoccupied with sex. Unlike Kelly, however, he never gets any. The pair are constantly sniping at each other.
Kelly: ‘Do you know what I would do for a house in Jamaica?’ Bud: ‘The same thing you’d do for dinner and a movie.’
Bud also tells his sister: ‘At least, when I was born and the doctor spanked me I cried instead of saying “Thanks, I like it rough”.’
Next door to the Bundys lives Marcy Rhoades, Peggy’s best friend, played by Amanda Bearse. She is a successful banker, feminist and environmentalist, all of which is calculated to get Al’s goat. Marcy is married to Steve (David Garrison), who leaves her during the fourth series to become a forest ranger at Yosemite National Park. She then weds the freeloading Jefferson D’Arcy and becomes Marcy D’Arcy.
The great thing about Married . . . With Children is its relentless political incorrectness – a refreshing antidote to such cosy family comedies as The Cosby Show. Much of its subject matter would give today’s woke warriors conniptions. In a 2018 interview, Amanda Bearse said: ‘It was a mean-spirited and misogynist show. It was just so completely inappropriate. Even then it wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea but for some reason it’s had this amazing longevity.’
Among my favourite episodes is He Thought He Could, in which Al finds a book, The Little Engine That Could, which he should have returned to the library in 1957. Convinced that the fearsome heavyweight librarian Miss DeGroot must have been gone long ago, he takes it back only to find she is still there, having postponed her retirement in the hope of one day punishing him with a hefty fine. Here’s a clip.
The programme contains a classic monologue which defines the essence of Al Bundy and of downtrodden men everywhere. He tells Miss DeGroot: ‘So you think I’m a loser? Just because I have a stinking job that I hate, a family that doesn’t respect me, a whole city that curses the day I was born? Well, that may mean loser to you, but let me tell you something. Every morning when I wake up, I know it’s not going to get any better until I go back to sleep again. So I get up, have my watered-down Tang and still-frozen Pop Tart, get in my car with no upholstery, no gas, and six more payments, to fight traffic just for the privilege of putting cheap shoes on the cloven hooves of people like you. I’ll never play football like I thought I would. I’ll never know the touch of a beautiful woman. And I’ll never again know the joy of driving without a bag on my head. But I’m not a loser. ‘Cause, despite it all, me and every other guy who’ll never be what he wanted to be are still out there being what we don’t want to be forty hours a week for life. And the fact that I haven’t put a gun in my mouth, you pudding of a woman, makes me a winner.’
For various reasons, Married never achieved high viewer ratings but it sparked a plethora of remakes around the world, from Armenia to the UK, where Married For Life ran for seven miserable episodes in 1996. Russ Abbot played Ted Butler, the British version of Al Bundy, while the show featured an early appearance by the comedian Rob Brydon.
If you are unfamiliar with the original Married, I can fairly confidently say that series 4 is the best but I love them all, tacky as they are. Back to Al: ‘I had a dream last night. A big red-haired mosquito in tight pants was hovering over me sucking money out of my wallet.’
And here’s a selection of his finest insults. Enjoy.
Old jokes’ home
Elderly Mr Goldberg is crossing the road trying to get to the bank before it shuts. He is hit by a car and is lying in the gutter where a woman puts a cushion under his head while they wait for the ambulance. She asks: ‘Are you comfortable, Hymie?’ He shrugs and says: ‘I’ve got three shops.’
A PS from PG
My pique vanished. As I have said before, the Woosters are fairminded. I knew what a dickens of a sweat these love letters are, a whole-time job calling for incessant concentration. If Catsmeat had been tied up with a lot of correspondence of this type, he wouldn’t have had much time for attending to my wardrobe, of course. You can’t press your suit and another man’s trousers simultaneously.
PG Wodehouse: The Mating Season