Guys Like Us

Still from the opening of the TV show All in the Family

If you’re of a certain generation then you likely recall the theme song to “All in the Family,” a once-popular TV show that aired in the US for 9 seasons, all throughout the 1970s. Sung before a live audience by Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, the stars of the show, it spoke of a nostalgia for the good old days — a past constantly in tension with the present of the series.

In early 2019 the show was recreated for a special live broadcast, this time with Woody Harrelson and Marisa Tomei in the lead roles of Archie and Edith — the latter the eternally optimistic and long-suffering wife of the grumpy (and yes, openly racist and sexist) former. That Archie and his now outdated views were often the butt of each episode’s joke, as they say, was what made the series so popular for many, for it was broadcast at a time when race, gender, class and even generation relationships in the US were very under the microscope.

If it’s new to you, give it a listen — Tomei hits Stapleton’s high notes just the right way:

That the song is ironic needs to be recalled, of course, given the way this nostalgia is regularly lampooned throughout the series — notably by their neighbors’ reactions and responses to Archie and even their grown daughter and her husband’s ongoing criticisms (always loving but often barbed).

But it’s that line near the opening, about “guys like us, we had it made,” that makes the song particularly useful, I think; for it states, right up front, that nostalgia is not really about the past but always about a present that feels it has lost something in an idealized yesterday — and it’s not just any old present but a rather specific present that’s occupied by the one doing the reminiscing. And, in this case, it’s — yes, you called it — a middle-aged, working class white, heterosexual male saying that those were the days, making the song all about guys like Archie. For the song really is sung from his point of view, not Edith’s — a character who isn’t nearly as naive as she might at first seem.

So if you’re trying to mull over — or, maybe, get a group of students to mull over — how the present often longs for a self-beneficial past, thereby making discourses on the past artfully coded attempts to speak of a specific subject’s present — then thinking a little about this old TV show theme song could be a pretty good starting point.

For if we can understand how nostalgia works in this one instance then we might be able to generalize our findings to all sorts of other sites — some of which we’d likely never assume have anything to do with Archie and Edith at the piano.

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