FLASHBACK: 'Married... With Children' Cast on How Their Unique Humor Was a Recipe for Success

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On April 5, 1987, there was something different about Los
Angeles. The Hollywood sign, perhaps L.A.’s most identifiable landmark, had
seemingly been erased off the hillside it’s resided upon for decades. In its
place was a three-letter word that was easy to read from the city below as
spotlights had been installed for maximum visibility: FOX.

Meanwhile, another longstanding staple of the entertainment
industry was undergoing a change as well. CBS, ABC, and NBC, or the “Big
Three,” were about to face a brand new ratings competitor. In an effort to drum
up publicity for the debut of its primetime line-up, Fox Broadcasting Corp. had
received permission to temporarily black out the iconic sign. For a few days, the
world-famous photo op for tourists would instead read “Fox” instead of “Hollywood.”

Looking back on the marketing stunt, another word might have
sufficed: “Bundy.”

Across town, there was a party at Fox Plaza, home to the
offices of Twentieth Century Fox. While the skyscraper is well known as the
stand-in for Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard,
this was a much less violent affair. Ed O’Neill and Katey Sagal were busy
promoting Married… With Children, a
new show made all the more significant as it was also Fox’s first primetime
sitcom. The question of the night: What could viewers expect from their new
series on April 5, 1987?

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“They’ll see a married couple and their two children living
in a suburb of Chicago, and a different way of communicating than we’re used to
seeing on TV these days,” Sagal told ET at the time. Her comments were an
understatement as big as her character’s signature hair.

O’Neill later clarified, “We yell and scream,” while Sagal
added: “But we love each other.”

Eleven seasons and 258 episodes later, Married… With Children stayed true to that right up until its end on
June 9, 1997. The Brady Bunch had
portrayed the family relationships we were supposed to aspire toward, but the
Bundys looked more like the family you actually had. Being outside of the
establishment came with challenges, but Fox also saw the opportunities for
creative innovation. The show’s creators, Ron Leavitt and Michael G. Moye,
would help them break new ground in sitcoms with a family unlike any that had been
seen on TV before.

There was Al (O’Neill), a shoe repairman who was never
afraid to speak his mind or let his bodily noises do the talking. Peg (Sagal)
was an ’80s housewife with a ’60s housewife’s fashion sensibility. Their kids,
Kelly (Christina Applegate) and younger brother Bud (Dave Faustino), felt the
blunt impact of being raised by the pair, and vice versa. Episodes never
contained a moral lesson at the end, and in fact, most often quite the
opposite. If there was affection between them, many times it preceded an
apology or request for money.

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“I thought the script was really funny, which gave me an
indication that other people wouldn’t,” said Sagal, reflecting on the show’s
success years after that night at Fox Plaza. “Nobody had ever heard of this
network and here was this little show that was way different from anything else
on television at the time.”

“My agent read it and actually didn’t like it. They didn’t
think Fox had a chance,” O’Neill told ET in 1995, mere days after the cast had wrapped
shooting their 200th episode.

“When I read it, I thought it was unique,” he said, echoing
what seemed to be a shared sentiment on set in the early days. “I just didn’t
think we would find an audience.”

Applegate had a hard time envisioning the family hitting airwaves,
as well. The future Anchorman star
recalled noticing that the pilot script didn’t exactly correspond to the tone
of that era’s sitcoms. “You tell people that you’re gonna be on a show that’s
crass and sometimes disgusting and that you’re on a new network and you don’t
really think that nine years later you’d be still doing it,” she said in 1995. “I
don’t think any of us thought it would go past 13 [episodes].”

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More than their shared uncertainty of the show’s future, the
cast could appreciate the thrill of being a part of something radically
different on TV. Sagal recalled, “It was exciting for me to think, ‘Oh, yeah.
Let’s try to pull this off!’”

And there was enthusiasm for pushing the limits of what you
could put on TV. “Some people go, ‘OK, I’m not gonna watch that. That’s
disgusting.’ And I love that,” said Applegate. “I love when people say, ‘That’s
the most disgusting show I’ve ever seen.’ I say, ‘Good.’ I’m glad. We’re doing
it right.”

So they were. The series not only found a loyal audience
that sustained them for over a decade, in addition to several years of
syndication, critics applauded their anti-sitcom mission statement. A permanent
impact could also be felt within pop culture and the entertainment industry at
large. Fox had achieved what many thought was impossible, and it couldn’t have
been done without the Bundys. While Married…
With Children
would launch lengthy careers for its cast, it was also an
extremely successful proof of concept for the baby network. The Simpsons, American Idol, The X-Files
and even Al’s favorite show, Cops, exist
in part due to the show’s one-of-a-kind sense of humor.

O’Neill traced the heart of their popularity with audiences
to a simple cause-and-effect strategy. “I think people find it funny and it’s
not preachy or political or anything. I think they just get a few good laughs
out of it,” said the actor who has gone on to play the patriarch on Modern Family, a show that in some ways
owes its existence to Married.

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“There’s no lesson to learn on this show,” said Faustino.
“You just sit down and watch for a half an hour and laugh.”

Of course, not everyone was a Bundy believer. Mirroring the
world within the show, the family rubbed many people the wrong way and mass
boycott attempts were a regular occurrence. As it turned out to be one of the
longest running sitcoms in TV history, complaints of the show’s “offensive”
material may have had an adverse effect.

While giving ET a behind-the-scenes tour of the set, Sagal
stopped to point out a letter hanging up backstage. The actress, who would go
on to showcase her dramatic chops on FX’s Sons
of Anarchy
, explained that it was piece of hate mail the series had
received years earlier and was now displayed proudly as a badge of honor. The
soundstage filled with Sagal’s laughter as she read it aloud.