The Bad & The Bumbling Classic TV Dads We Still Love

Everett Collection

Early TV dads were of a common stock — in black and white and pure through and through. They were tall, chiseled and white, fonts of pipe-smoking wisdom and wry, kids-will-be-kids humor. They worked day jobs and drove home to suburbia, where they were greeted by loving housewives while the young’uns flooded round.

By the time the ’60s was picking up steam, it was time to let some air out of their stuffy image. The first in this evolution was the Bumbling Dad, poking fun at these lovable figures by clowning with their established moves.

On The Dick Van Dyke Show, Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) literally falls all over things trying to play Dad. Maybe it was because series creator Carl Reiner asked cast members to bring in real-life experiences, which he scripted into the show; life, we found out, is loaded with shtick. 

THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, Dick Van Dyke, on-set, 1961-66 (1965 photo).

ph: Zinn Arthur / TV Guide / courtesy Everett Collection

Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne) of The Munsters is the dumbest of the lot, a grownup juvenile whose size and appearance is just another thing to trip over. In the wake of Vietnam War protests and Watergate, Dad as an authority figure had lost some of his shine. In the ’70s, we began to see a new version of TV dad: the Grumpy But Lovable Old Dad. Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) of All in the Family is a loading dock worker whose blue-collar upbringing isn’t sitting well with a rapidly changing America. Living with Archie and his long-suffering wife Edith are grown ‘60s kids, their daughter Gloria and son-in-law Mike. Every week the nation’s clash of cultures played out with Archie on his easy-chair throne, taking all comers and showing all his frailties — and ours.

In a similar vein, on Sanford and Son, Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) is a cranky old junk dealer still in business with his son Lamont (Demond Wilson). Querulous, grandiose and silly, he doesn’t give much credit to his son, whom he usually refers to as “dummy.” But it is Fred who is usually in trouble and Lamont bailing him out of one mess or another. 

In the ’80s, Danny Tanner (Bob Saget) of Full House played the uncoolest of Bumbling Dads, most so because he actually thought he was the coolest daddy of ’em all — a cringeworthy assertion in any house. 

FULL HOUSE, clockwise from upper left: Jodie Sweetin, Bob Saget, Candace Cameron, Mary-Kate/Ashley Olsen, 1987-1995.

ABC /Courtesy Everett Collection

By the end of the ’80s, the Grumpy Old Dad morphed into an even more problematic father figure: the Bad Dad. These guys are lovable because they are so horrible. 

First there’s Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) of The Simpsons. Homer’s a lousy provider — he held about 188 jobs in roughly 400 episodes — is lazy, has a zeal for instant gratification, is prone to fits of anger, loves beer too much and is a real dummy to boot. Yet for every banana peel of character Homer routinely slips on, he has genuine affection for his family and strives to do right by them, as when he sells his ride on the Duff Blimp in order to enter his daughter Lisa in a beauty pageant so she could feel better about herself. 

Al Bundy (Ed O’Neill) of Married With Children is an even more sour father figure, stuck in a lousy day job selling shoes at the mall. All of Bundy’s cherished memories are back on his high school football field. He proposed to his wife Peggy in a drunken mistake. His daughter is a flaky bimbo and his son a lustful nerd. If that’s not enough, Al is cursed with a bad back and pathological need to fix things around the house with absurd results. But the biggest joke of all? Al Bundy loves his family and secretly knows his lousy life is his own fault.

MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN, (aka MARRIED WITH CHILDREN), from left: Christina Applegate, David Faustino, Ed O'Neill, Shane Sweet, Katey Sagal, (1992-1993), 1987-1997.

Variations of the Bumbling Dad appear in many other classic roles, like Tim Taylor of Home Improvement and Phil Dunphy of Modern Family. Many Bad Dads also followed, like Tony Soprano of The Sopranos and Arthur Spooner of The King of Queens. Cringeworthy and wretched as they are, they remain cherished in memory — maybe because they make our own bumbling and bad attempts at fatherhood look that much better — and forgivable. 

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TV's Best Dads

June 2020

Celebrating TV's best dads from the 1950's-1990s

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