How One Nervous Mother Almost Got ‘Married… With Children’ Canceled

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

The below is an excerpt from Married… With Children vs. the World: The Inside Story of the Shock-Com that Launched FOX and Changed TV Comedy Forever by Richard Gurman.

Season 3 of Married… With Children was to the family sitcom what The Godfather Trilogy was to the gangster film, except Married had more senseless violence, gratuitous sex, and a less sympathetic family.

The blood started flowing early on Married when we shot what was supposed to be our third season (1998–1999) opening episode, “A Period Piece.” The period in question was a shared menstrual cycle—Peggy, Kelly, and Marcy—which came, as fate and sitcom traditions would have it, at the worst possible time. Not only did it disrupt a temporary truce among the usually hostile Bundy/Rhoades neighbors who had decided to share a weekend vacation together in a one-room cabin in the wilderness, it triggered primal instincts in wild animals that surrounded the cabin, trapping the families in.

Thus, Married… With Children tapped into one of the oldest sitcom tropes in television—“the lock-in show”—a device for characters who are otherwise at odds to bond in their entrapped predicament and become more empathetic to their fellow trapped victims, only to return to being rivals the next week.

In Married… With Children’s version of the trapped show, however, “We weren’t in this to enlighten our characters,” according to co-creator Michael Moye. “We just wanted to make Al’s life miserable,” which we did. Unfortunately, FOX came down hard on the graphic subject matter, demanding significant revisions to the script, including the title which we changed from “A Period Piece” to “The Camping Show.”

In the end, title cleansing still wasn’t enough to calm the choppy waters this show stirred up and instead of promoting it as our Season Opener, FOX chose to run it later in the season where they figured it wouldn’t get as much attention. What FOX didn’t figure, however, was that later in the season, Married… With Children would gain more attention than it ever had when a protective mother from Michigan, Terry Rakolta, launched a one-person moral crusade against Married… With Children that threatened to get our show canceled and bring the network down with us.

Married… With Children vs. the World: The Inside Story of the Shock-Com that Launched FOX and Changed TV Comedy Forever.
The Daily Beast/Permuted Press

It all started the night when Rakolta, looking to watch something “family friendly” with her young kids turned on an episode where Al and Steve travel to a lingerie showroom a hundred miles away in Wisconsin to buy Peggy her favorite bra because it had been discontinued at local stores and was driving her (and subsequently Al) crazy.

Once Al and Steve enter the store they are pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a parade of models and customers wearing revealing lingerie. “I’m shocked,” Rakolta told me. “Seeing that in my living room and not choosing it. I thought it was porn.” Terry then recited a very detailed and, for the most part, accurate account of the rest of the show which included: a man wearing a garter belt; Steve twirling pasties on a nude mannequin’s breast; a young woman with her back to the camera who asks Al “if her boyfriend would like her better with or without the bra,” which she removes (covering her breasts with her hands), causing Al to faint on the floor.

Meanwhile back at the Bundy house, a male stripper, who is a birthday present from Marcy to Peggy, strips down to a G-string in front of the equally delighted women.

Ed O'Neill, Christina Applegate, David Faustino, and Katey Sagal.

Ed O'Neill, Christina Applegate, David Faustino, and Katey Sagal.

Fox Network/Getty Images

The next day, an incensed Rakolta started a letter-writing campaign, shooting off twenty missives to the show’s advertisers, accusing the sponsors of “supporting softcore pornography.”

“My problem wasn’t really the show itself,” she told me. “I wouldn’t have cared if it was after 9 PM. We have the Family Viewing Hour. You take it from 9 o’clock on. Show what you want. Who cares?”

When Rakolta couldn’t get any satisfaction from the network, she immediately reached out to the sponsors she had already written to, including Coca-Cola, Kimberly-Clark, Mitsubishi, Wendy’s, Tambrands, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, and Procter & Gamble, threatening: “If you indeed support this type of programming message, I will be obligated to take the next step, and start a boycott of all your products.”

Katey Sagal, Ed O'Neill, and Amanda Bearse.

Katey Sagal, Ed O'Neill, and Amanda Bearse.


Rakolta’s campaign soon broke on the front page of the New York Times, followed by TV interviews on Larry King Live, ABC’s Nightline, and all the morning TV talk shows, culminating in a major sponsor boycott that threatened to derail both the show and the fledgling FOX network.

“At first,” Moye said, “it pretty much amused me because here was one woman’s opinion and, suddenly, it was on the front page of the New York Times. I mean, did anybody kill anybody in Lebanon today? This is the best you can do for the front page?”

The fallout was swift and strong. Shots in the culture wars were fired from predictable sides. Jesse Helms, the ultraconservative senator from North Carolina, who had previously called Married… With Children, “trash,” extolled Rakolta’s virtues on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Penthouse Magazine, famous for featuring a Pet of the Month, dubbed Rakolta Asshole of the Month. She was also called “The Ayatollah Rakolta.”

Meanwhile, the president of Coca-Cola, Ira C. Herbert, personally apologized to Rakolta, saying: “I am corporately, professionally, and personally embarrassed that one of our commercials appeared in this particularly unsuitable program episode.”

David Garrison and Ed O'Neill.

David Garrison and Ed O'Neill.


Procter & Gamble canceled further advertising on Married “…due to its negative portrayal of the American family.” Kimberly-Clark took “action” after reviewing the “offending” episode.

FOX was now backed into a corner—it either had to ride out the storm of controversy or abandon ship and cancel Married… With Children. Rob Kenneally, executive vice president of FOX, recalled that, at the time, “The future of the show was up in the air. Married… With Children could have stayed or gone. It did not have national awareness.”

FOX Broadcasting president Jamie Kellner’s response to the media was: “Although Married… With Children stretches the limits of acceptable programming, its provocative scripts are merely a realistic depiction of lower middle class family values. Al Bundy is not supposed to be a sophisticated man.” He likened the show to All in the Family and Maude, “which explored controversial issues in a humorous, yet trenchant way.”

Rhetoric alone, however, was not going to fly in the face of this highly visible national controversy. Some extremely influential sponsors had already pulled out and FOX decided it had to make some significant moves or pack up its tent.

FOX’s first offering was to say it would “look at the show’s scripts more carefully” and make sure the producers “tone them down”. The concession that turned out to be much more effective, however, came when FOX moved Married… With Children’s time slot from 8:30 to 9 PM, essentially honoring the traditional Family Viewing Hour, one of Rakolta’s key demands.

Soon thereafter, Coca-Cola, whose president was so “personally embarrassed” by Married… With Children, ran more than 25 commercials for its products on the “unsuitable” show. Kimberly-Clark, which told Rakolta it had no further plans to advertise on the “offending” Married… With Children, started running ads for its Huggies brand diapers. Mitsubishi followed suit as did almost every other advertiser that had toadied up to the Michigan housewife, plus dozens of new advertisers that lined up to buy commercial time on the show…at now-inflated rates.

Lest you think these companies were convinced that Married… With Children and FOX were going to do a total 180-degree turn in the content department, or that moving to 9 PM insulated the show from family sensitivities, the real story was that all of the publicity Terry Rakolta brought to the show significantly boosted our ratings. After the short-lived boycott, Married… With Children set an all-time television record by increasing its overall ratings by a whopping 117 percent.

Head of FOX programming Garth Ancier noted: “Terry Rakolta didn’t realize she was actually helping us on multiple fronts: she was publicizing the show by vilifying it and she was helping us get more money for the commercials because the people who were pulling out as advertisers had the lowest rates.”

The Rakolta incident “was a barometer that you were on the right track,” according to TV critic Jackson Upperco. “It was like a rite of passage that you finally got someone to complain that the content wasn’t what we were getting on Family Ties and the rest of the audience would say, ‘Thank God’ for that.’ Today you would have had thousands of that woman on Twitter doing the same thing.”

Rakolta soon faded from the headlines and stopped appearing on talk shows, but the “Rakolta Effect” would still have a direct and negative impact on our show. The biggest fallout was that FOX refused to air a different show we had already shot—“I’ll See You in Court.” This episode, though no racier than any show we had shot before, was clearly a token gesture by FOX to make good on its other promise to “tone down” the series.

“I’ll See You in Court” wasn’t merely pushed to a later date, it was never broadcast on the network or anywhere else until 13 years later when the entire Married… With Children series appeared on FOX’s FX channel, was sold as a boxed DVD set and also went into syndication on independent and cable TV outlets where it has since taken on a mythical status among fans as “The Lost Episode.”

Excerpt copyright 2024 by Richard Gurman. Published by Permuted Press.

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