How to Build a Lovable Bigot
by Erin MacKinnon
What happened to the lovable bigot? In the 1970s, Archie Bunker ruled television with his fiercely conservative views on every and any topic. The sitcom All In the Family was his soapbox, and his views frequently contained misogyny, homophobia, and racism. Mike Baxter is the twenty-first century Archie Bunker, the conservative patriarch, all-around "man's man" and main character of the show Last Man Standing. Though similar to his 20th century counterpart, MikeBaxter's reception differs markedly from that of Archie Bunker. While the 70s patriarch was beloved by television audiences for decades, his contemporary counterpart has never been widely accepted.
In the forty odd years that passed from one series to the next, social change took the words right from Archie Bunker’s mouth and labelled them as inappropriate slurs. To label the change simply as a sign of the times appears to be an oversight of larger issues at play. What those larger issues are, however, requires further examination. What exactly separates television’s lovable bigots from its irritable ones? Can examining other sitcom characters provide insight? Does the difference lie in audiences or the series themselves? Will the lovable bigot ever return to television again? Should he?
Tim Allen’s latest turn at the family sitcom came to an end in early 2017 with the cancellation of Last Man Standing. For many, the cancellation came as a surprise. Over the course of its six seasons, the ABC (American Broadcasting Corporation) series had remained successful, even after a move to Friday nights, a spot known to be deadly for sitcoms since the end of the days of TGIF –the channel’s popular 1990s Friday night comedy lineup. ABC executives blamed high costs of production due to the involvement of an outside company, but the show’s star Tim Allen had other suspicions. The series had always been clear in its stance and its intentions to portray a blue-collar, Republican household. Allen’s character, Mike Baxter, refuted Obamacare and dressed like Donald Trump all to the sound of laughter from a live studio audience. In an interview with Norm MacDonald shortly after the show’s cancellation, Allen claimed “he always wanted Last Man Standing to be like Archie Bunker,” the gruff patriarch of the 1970s sitcom All In the Family, because “Archie Bunker pushed boundaries.”[i]
Throughout the 70s, Archie Bunker became the face of America’s conservatives. Alongside his long suffering wife Edith, Archie tackled just about any and every issue up for debate amongst liberals and conservatives. Despite his staunchly conservative views, however, Bunker was loved equally by both ends of the political spectrum. The unlikely favourite was given the label of television’s “lovable bigot.” All In the Family ran for nine seasons and spawned five spin-offs including Archie Bunker’s Place, a series which focused on the titular character after the death of his wife. The character has become an icon of popular culture and of the American sitcom, and consistently finds a place on various lists of the greatest television characters of all time. Mike Baxter, however, did not. Somewhere between inception and the final product, the character of Mike Baxter strayed from his path to universal success. The character never followed in the bigoted footsteps of his predecessor, but that produces a variety of questions. First, what separates Mike Baxter from Archie Bunker and the moniker of “lovable bigot”? Are Tim Allen’s beliefs for the cause of Last Man Standing’s cancellation? Second, will the “lovable bigot” ever make a return to television? Should he?
Despite their difference in reception, the similarities between Bunker and Baxter are numerous. Allen’s character, described as a “man’s man,” works at an outdoor sporting goods store. Mike has a vlog (video blog) which he produces for Outdoor Man, the company where he is employed. His family consists of his wife, Vanessa, and his three daughters, Kristen, Mandy, and Eve. His eldest daughter, Kristen, has a young son, Boyd, and an on-again/off-again boyfriend, Ryan, who is a consistent liberal voice to counter Baxter. Archie Bunker cycled through a number of jobs throughout “All in the Family” including lineman, cabbie, and bar owner. He lives with his wife, Edith, their daughter Gloria, and her hippie husband Michael. Much like Baxter, Archie is often mediated by his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. Both characters are unapologetic in their conservative political standing as it acts as one of their primary characteristics.
The similarities between the basic structure of Last Man Standing and All In the Family are relatively obvious. The resemblance only makes sense, as Allen has said he hoped to create such a comparison. Last Man Standing appears to have been the product of this desire for comparison, as well as the inclusion of elements of Allen’s previous ABC sitcom, Home Improvement. His character in Home Improvement, Tim Taylor, is a former tool salesman who becomes the star of his own television series called “Tool Time.” As with Mike Baxter’s vlogs for Outdoor Man, the series contained a show within the show. Furthermore, Tim Taylor had three children, all boys, Brad, Randy, and Mark. While the gender is flipped for the 21st century sitcom, this repetition is one of the reasons that it has been noted on more than one occasion that Last Man Standing is “not unlike his 1990s sitcom Home Improvement.”[ii]
These similarities should have worked in the show’s favour. Both All In the Family and Home Improvement are beloved cultural artefacts, their combination should have produced an equally beloved product. Yet, it’s unlikely that Last Man Standing will ever be remembered so universally, save for perhaps the drama which surrounds its abandonment following the sixth season. It is more likely, in fact, that this crossover of shows contributed to the poor critical reception which often cited the sitcom as being “orchestrated and dated.”[iii] Nevertheless, the show carried out its six seasons of content and managed to avoid too many comparisons with the prior series from which it was so obviously inspired. What contributed to its ability to keep such strong similarities relatively unnoticed may have simply been their even more obvious differences.
Archie Bunker was politically incorrect for the culture of the 1970s, let alone any modern standard of behaviour. His use of slurs and derogatory language were the fuel for laughs, even for those he was meant to be offending. Take, for example, the season one episode “Judging Books by Covers,” which deals with Archie’s opinions towards members of the LGBT community, specifically gay men. Archie is faced with the friend of his daughter and son-in-law, Roger, whom he refers to as “Roger the fairy.” He also refers to their friend as “sweetie-pie Roger,” a “strange little birdie,” “as queer as a four dollar bill,” “a fag,” and “a pansy,” all within the first half of the episode.[iv] Archie continues to make remarks expressing his opinions of the young man before he eventually leaves in favour of visiting with friends at the local bar. In his retreat, it is revealed that one of Archie’s drinking buddies, Steve, a former professional football player, is in fact gay himself. The issue is not discussed in much detail before the end of the episode, however, it is made clear that Archie will have to face his opinions head on.
Series creator Norman Lear, the man who first coined the term "lovable bigot," said that following the episode’s release they received “mail from homosexuals saying they loved it.”[v] Beyond the gay community, the episode was well received by the wider audience despite fears expressed to Lear by CBS executives. The episode came to be in a time when networks felt the audience would receive storylines on homosexuality as “repulsive and repugnant.”[vi] Archie, much like the audience, had more than a few preconceived notions as to what the gay community looked like. While Archie’s choice of words are no longer typically acceptable for jokes about the gay community, it was that attitude which drew in an audience that may not have typically wanted to listen.
Last Man Standing never got close to the same level of using slurs or derogatory language. While terms such as those used by Archie Bunker are not erased from television entirely, they are often no longer seen as appropriate to be used for comedic purposes. On a number of occasions the show featured plot points revolving around gay characters including the friend of Mike’s youngest daughter, Eve, having a crush on her, and a lesbian couple who move in next door to the Baxter family. In the case of the latter, the variation between each of the two series’ is highlighted. While Mike is hesitant at first, he does soon find a friend in Charlie, the more traditionally masculine of his new neighbours. When Mike later insults her, implying she has a large butt, Charlie retreats to her own home. The episode then becomes focused on a “battle of the sexes”[vii] and the fact that, despite their shared interests, Mike and Charlie will never be the same because Charlie will always be a woman. There is undoubtedly some amount of progress from Bunker to Baxter evident in this episode. Mike almost instantly clicks with Charlie and is comfortable around her without any concern towards her sexuality. However, that appears to be all he learns.
To be a lovable bigot requires two key factors, to be a bigot and to be lovable. While the two ideas may seem at first conflicting, we know it is entirely possible to have both in one individual character. Mike Baxter is, in this case, neither a bigot nor lovable. Over the course of one dinner unseen by the audience, Mike and Charlie become friends and are able to bond over their shared love of motorcycles and football. There is nothing inherently bigoted about that. While he did have clear prejudice towards his new neighbours based on a look of pure shock at opening the front door to let Charlie, whom he had assume was going to be a man, into his home, Mike is never intolerant towards either Charlie or her wife Rebecca on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Furthermore, the problematic language which was employed by Archie Bunker was a part of the equation towards the sum of a “lovable bigot.” Conservative types who aligned with Archie’s opinions were drawn in and in the end were faced with the same ultimatum as the father. Liberal oriented viewers were drawn by his attempt to make sense of this forced change of opinions, as was the case for the men who wrote in to praise Lear following the show’s airing. While this cannot be understood as a reasonable excuse to make use of slurs, it does provide substantial evidence of just how Bunker earned the title of “lovable bigot” so unattainable by Baxter. That is not to say, however, he did not try and stir up his fair share of controversy.
In prior episodes, Mike had made some of his opinions towards the LGBT community known, by implying he would not want his grandson to be gay. In a particular joke, which earned a fair amount of criticism online following the episode airing, the Baxter patriarch made it known he did not want his grandson “dancing on a float,” implying he did not want Boyd to take part in a Pride parade.[viii] Yet even his snide remarks come nowhere near the levels of hatred expressed by Archie Bunker. Whether or not Mike Baxter is a bigot is highly debatable. In certain instances, the answer is obviously yes, but his behaviour often shows he that he is not quite at the level of being a bigot, instead perhaps just grumpy, prejudiced, and highly judgemental. Therefore, it can be acknowledged that the character could never be a “lovable bigot” given that he is not a bigot.
The other element of the “lovable bigot,” were it to be argued that the character of Mike Baxter is in fact a bigot, is ubiquitous likeability. The standard for likeability and lovability begins before the parameters of the series are even set in place with the actor portraying the character in question. This point, again, reveals a key difference between All In the Family and Last Man Standing. The actors portraying each show’s respective bigots, Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker and Tim Allen as Mike Baxter, had very different involvement in the world of politics beyond what their character said each week. In the same interview he gave with Norm MacDonald, Tim Allen went on to highlight this difference exactly. While he recognizes that “Carroll O'Connor was not that guy at all,” that guy being the bigot O’Connor was portraying, he also indicates that he himself is “a version of that guy.”[ix] This one important difference between both of the shows at hand may be another prominent feature that made the shows, so similar in premise, avoid comparison for so long. Tim Allen openly recognizes his own affiliation with many of his characters’ morals and ideals. Distance between the actor and the character disappears and at once they become almost too similar to distinguish one from the other. Carroll O’Connor, on the other hand, remained relatively vague in his own beliefs when speaking towards the public. This purposeful distance maintained boundaries as to where Archie ended and Carroll began. There was no confusion of one for the other, even if Archie Bunker was his most memorable role. Tim Allen has been very vocal before and after the series’ cancellation of his own political affiliations and its probable that it undermined his own broad likeability.
Tim Allen has made some highly controversial claims over the course of his career. In recent memory, the focal point of this variety of claims was a statement made by Allen on Jimmy Kimmel Live! during a 2017 interview. After Kimmel brought up Allen’s attendance at Donald Trump’s Presidential Inauguration, Allen quickly went on the defensive and said “you get beat up if don’t believe what everybody believes, this is like ’30s Germany”. [x] For many, including Steven Goldstein of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, this claim was a breaking point of sorts. Goldstein’s response stated that the injustices faced by the victims of the Nazi party in 1930s Germany were “not the same as getting turned down for a movie role.”[xi] Allen later spoke on the topic again in an interview with The Tribune where he argued Hollywood placed him “in a defensive posture” because of his opposing opinions.[xii] The opinions he holds do certainly have influence over Allen’s career, though quite not how he supposes they do.
What separates Mike Baxter from earning the title of “lovable bigot” he was designed to acquire, or at the very least the universally lovable part, are Tim Allen’s political beliefs. When there is confusion within an audience over which opinions are the actor’s and which are his character’s, the audience becomes polarized. While that may have been a successful way to obtain and maintain a conservative minded audience, it did little to appeal to liberal minded viewers. To be considered lovable in the same way as Archie Bunker does not mean simply appealing to one subset of the population, but to be well-liked by a varied audience regardless of political alignment. Archie Bunker found success as a caricature of America’s conservative, but Mike Baxter missed out on such success because he is the real thing. Whether or not that was also the cause of the entire series end, however, remains a separate issue.
The first and most obvious answer given as to why Last Man Standing was canceled are changing times. However, time is too simple an account of the show’s cancellation. Any argument of time has to first agree with Tim Allen that the series’ cancellation is the product of a rejection of conservative values on television. Of course, over the over forty years that have passed from one series to the next, American culture and television have evolved. That change is exactly the reason the words constantly being used by Archie Bunker are no longer acceptable to be used by the likes of Mike Baxter. But Mike Baxter never called anyone “ a fag” or “a pansy” over the six seasons of Last Man Standing. If time were the culprit for the show’s cancellation, then Mike Baxter and Archie Bunker should be comparable in their severity. Change is inevitable, and time is bound to produce cultural shifts that will take shape in a variety of cultural artefacts available for consumption. But if time is not the cause of the cancellation of Last Man Standing, then what exactly is?
It is important to remember that Last Man Standing was not cancelled because of any issue with viewership, even after its move to Friday nights. The show was “ABC’s second most watched comedy” in its final season “with 8.1 million viewers.”[xiii] Its end despite a reasonably devoted audience does provide at least some validity to Tim Allen’s argument. ABC’s parent company is Disney and the house of mouse’s reputation may not necessarily be capable of taking the potential hit of being associated with a conservative oriented show. In fact, it would not be the first time Disney and ABC’s own interests decided the fate of a series regardless of its own quality or success.
In 1998, after the now infamous coming out episode, Ellen DeGeneres’ ABC sitcom Ellen was cut from the channel’s lineup over what many believed were “concerns about content.”[xiv] After the titular character came out as a lesbian, a “special viewer's advisory about content” was added to each episode.[xv] This all came to be despite the episode in which DeGeneres’ character came out having been “the highest-rated episode of any show on the network” at the time of its broadcast.[xvi] While DeGeneres and Allen’s concerns with ABC come from very different perspectives, both do have a similar circumstance. Despite maintaining success in ratings, both of their shows were axed. The potentially controversial nature of each of the series had to have at least partially contributed to their final conclusions. Whether or not Mike Baxter achieved the success of Archie Bunker in a hierarchy of cultural characters becomes almost secondary in this debate. Even if that similarity was only realized artificially, the show’s sudden end is an important moment on which to reflect.
Does the potential bigot, lovable or otherwise, become extinguished when networks prioritize their own reputations over the series’ themselves? If so, then does the issue at hand extend to all supposedly controversial series or simply those which are conservative? If the case of Ellen should be taken into evidence, then it becomes clear that this issue of reputation is not isolated to the likes of Mike Baxter or any other attempts at an Archie Bunker copycat. It becomes an issue that concerns any and all contentious narratives, not just those who posses conservatism in cultural content, but anything which could be dubbed controversial by an audience. Last Man Standing may just be one of many series to fall victim to this logic of television and with it goes the potential for a new “lovable bigot.” If a character such as Mike Baxter, who has already been relieved of any seriously justifiable association with the label of “lovable bigot,” cannot maintain an overly lengthy stay on network television, then it would be misguided to assume any other characters of similar intentions could relive the television success of Archie Bunker and All In the Family. There remains, however, the possibility that studio censorship had little to nothing part in the show’s cancellation. In which case, alternatives must be explored. Alternatives, such as that fact that the “lovable bigot” never really went away.
Despite Tim Allen’s claim that “there is nothing more dangerous (...) than a funny, likeable conservative”[xvii], television has produced any number of likeable conservative characters with very few repercussions. From Alex P. Keaton, the Young Republicans member of the 1980s sitcom Family Ties, to Ron Swanson, the taxation hating government employee of the mockumentary series Parks and Recreation, it proves fairly easy to find not only liked but beloved conservative characters in popular television. Often times, they act as a main character in their respective series and are typically audience favourites. They do not create a divide in viewership anymore than any liberal character does and its likely their character development was not a worrying factor for anyone involved.
This leaves one last possibility, likely overlooked by Allen and those who agree with him that the show’s politics were the sole cause of the show’s cancellation. Last Man Standing and Mike Baxter may not have been good enough. It is entirely possible that those who support the series have given it too much credit where credit is simply not due. The notion that networks have a hidden agenda to suppress conservative television characters or series first requires that the series in question have successful ratings, not just with audiences but with critics as well. The show was an undoubted flop with critics, nearly all of whom panned the show for its lack of imagination and its insistence that despite Mike’s controversial opinions he is still the nice guy an audience should be rooting for.[xviii] It is decidedly more likely that ABC canceled the show to maintain its reputation by avoiding poor quality content than to avoid controversial or conservative viewpoints. By the same token, controversy caused by the series and by its star Tim Allen outside of the show likely did provide some level of influence to the show’s cancellation. However, there is no substantial evidence to prove that ABC sought to cancel the series because of any desire to silence conservative opinions.
The history and the future of the "lovable bigot" skim Last Man Standing as simply an attempt to relive the glory of Archie Bunker and his counterparts on television. The show did not manage to achieve that level of praise, nor did it need to given the numerous lovable bigots who have been roaming through the TV land in the decades since the end of All In the Family. Nevertheless, Tim Allen's moderate success in the 21st century sitcom will not be the last to try and continue the tradition of the "lovable bigot."
[i] Parker, Ryan. “Tim Allen on 'Last Man Standing' Demise: "Nothing More Dangerous Than a Funny, Likeable Conservative Character." The Hollywood Reporter, 26 Sept. 2017, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/tim-allen-last-man-standing-cancellation--nothing-more-dangerous-a-funny-likeable-conservative-charac-1043231
[ii] Bendix, Trish. “ABC puts lesbian couples on its “man” shows.” After Ellen, 30 Nov. 2011. http://www.afterellen.com/tv/94301-abc-puts-lesbian-couples-on-its-man-shows.
[iii] Owen, Rob. "2 ABC 'men' shows stumble with tired ideas, poor acting." Pittsburgh Post Gazette, 10 Oct 2011. http://www.post-gazette.com/tv-radio/2011/10/08/2-ABC-men-shows-stumble-with-tired-ideas-poor-acting/stories/201110080183.
[iv] “Judging Books by Covers.” All in the Family, written by Norman Lear and Burt Styler, directed by John Rich, Tandem Productions, 1971.
[v] Kaufman, Dave. “‘All In the Family’ Producer: ‘Archie a Lovable Bigot’.” Variety, 3 Aug. 1971. http://variety.com/1971/tv/news/all-in-the-family-producer-archie-a-lovable-bigot-1201343375/.
[vi] Kaufman, Dave. “‘All In the Family’ Producer: ‘Archie a Lovable Bigot’.” Variety, 3 Aug. 1971. http://variety.com/1971/tv/news/all-in-the-family-producer-archie-a-lovable-bigot-1201343375/.
[vii] Bendix, Trish. “ABC puts lesbian couples on its “man” shows.” After Ellen, 30 Nov. 2011. http://www.afterellen.com/tv/94301-abc-puts-lesbian-couples-on-its-man-shows.
[viii] “Pilot.” Last Man Standing, written by Jack Burditt, Eben Russell, Mary Ann Barnes and Sheila Barnes, directed by John Pasquin, 2011.
[ix] Parker, Ryan. “Tim Allen on 'Last Man Standing' Demise: "Nothing More Dangerous Than a Funny, Likeable Conservative Character." The Hollywood Reporter, 26 Sept. 2017, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/tim-allen-last-man-standing-cancellation--nothing-more-dangerous-a-funny-likeable-conservative-charac-1043231
[x] "Tim Allen on Going to Donald Trump's Inauguration." YouTube, uploaded by Jimmy Kimmel Live, 17 Mar 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7rpWLLPQSA&t=13s.
[xi] Mumford, Gwilym. "Tim Allen condemned for comparing Hollywood to 1930s Germany." The Gazette, 21 Mar 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/21/tim-allen-urged-to-apologise-for-comparing-hollywood-to-1930s-nazi-germany-jimmy-kimmel.
[xii] Linn, Sarah. "How Tim Allen really feels about his axed TV show — and President Trump." The Tribune, 20 Sept. 2017. http://www.sanluisobispo.com/entertainment/tv/article174492846.html
[xiii] Andreeva, Nellie. “Tim Allen Comedy ‘Last Man Standing’ Canceled By ABC After 6 Seasons.” Deadline, 10 May 2017. http://deadline.com/2017/05/last-man-standing-canceled-by-abc-after-6-seasons-1202089263/.
[xiv] Carter, Bill. “ABC is Canceling ‘Ellen’.” The New York Times, 25 Apr. 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/25/arts/abc-is-canceling-ellen.html.
[xv] Carter, Bill. “ABC is Canceling ‘Ellen’.” The New York Times, 25 Apr. 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/25/arts/abc-is-canceling-ellen.html.
[xvi] Carter, Bill. “ABC is Canceling ‘Ellen’.” The New York Times, 25 Apr. 1998. https://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/25/arts/abc-is-canceling-ellen.html.
[xvii] Parker, Ryan. “Tim Allen on 'Last Man Standing' Demise: "Nothing More Dangerous Than a Funny, Likeable Conservative Character." The Hollywood Reporter, 26 Sept. 2017, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/tim-allen-last-man-standing-cancellation--nothing-more-dangerous-a-funny-likeable-conservative-charac-1043231