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?
“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.
“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].”
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.
“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.