Saturday, May 24, 2014

Turning Siamese Would Have Been Quite the Coup d'Etat for All in the Family

Amid the current political upheaval in Thailand, capped by the military coup d’etat of May 22, this is the optimal time to examine why Chang and Eng Bunker, the original Siamese twins, would have made an even better Archie Bunker than Carroll O’Connor. Sure, O’Connor earned four Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe for his timeless and beloved portrayal of Archie Bunker, who, in turn, helped make All in the Family one of the most culturally significant programs in television history. America laughed for a decade at Archie’s convoluted logic, malapropos and mannerisms, his equal-opportunity bigotry, and his big-hearted narrow-mindedness—all of which mirrored a nation struggling with its own hypocrisy and neuroses by finding the right way to reflect all that was wrong with America.

Still, Chang and Eng Bunker, twin brothers conjoined at the chest by a large segment of cartilage, seem even better suited to the role. Born to Chinese parents in Siam (present-day Thailand), in 1811, the brothers found worldwide celebrity exhibiting themselves on tour as the “Siamese twins” (even rating a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records a century later as the source of the term). The Bunker twins later immigrated to antebellum North Carolina, becoming successful plantation owners—and slave owners, oddly enough, in view of the similarly low status of “Orientals” in that age—as well as naturalized U.S. citizens. Proving more desirable than many “single” men, they fathered twenty-one children between them—literally between them, considering the logistics involved—and died in 1874.

For a show called All in the Family, what could have been more familial than conjoined twins sharing the lead role? Especially with the ability to call Edith a dingbat and Mike a meathead simultaneously? Perhaps even opting for the comedic drama of one brother a hard-line, war-hark conservative and the other a bleeding-heart, pinko-commie liberal, verbally battling each other between orders to Stifle yourself! and moans of Aw, geez, huh? (Their inevitable problems with enunciation hardly would have been worse than Archie’s butchering of the English language.) I don’t know if the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences would have awarded each brother his own Emmy, presented the two of them with a single prize, or, most likely, bestowed the twins with two individual statuettes soldered together, but Chang and Eng surely would have carted off during the series’ run an armful of them—carried with each lending one arm, of course.

During that narrow, 100-year window between Chang and Eng’s death and the mastering of special effects that now might allow twin Thai actors as talented and charismatic as Carroll O’Connor to appear conjoined—or, in lieu of expensive technical wizardry, at least have them share an XXXXXXXXXXXXL shirt—we certainly were fortunate that O’Connor gave the world Archie. But in a medium in which twins have long been prized both as a source of comedy and conflict, Change and Eng Bunker—the first of their kind, on the first show of its kind—would have yielded twice the laughs.

Boy, the way Yul Brynner played
Years on Broadway Mongkut stayed
Thais like us, double we weighed
Those were the days

And you knew Siamese twins
Didn't quite move like Errol Flynn
Messrs., we could use a man
Like Naresuan the Great again

Didn't need no coup d'etat
Everybody smiled through Buddha
Gee, Bangkok was Shangri-La

(Chang puts stogie to mouth with available hand as Eng leans head on Chang’s shoulder)

(Image of Archie Bunker copyright CBS.)

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