Brief thoughts on An American Family

Watch Revisit the Loud Family on PBS. See more from An American Family.

Today in my Age of Warhol class we talked about the PBS series An American Family (1973), generally regarded as the original reality TV program, which followed the Loud family of Santa Barbara, CA, for seven months in 1971 as it slowly began to fall apart. It’s now fully 40 years since the 12-hour miniseries first aired, though the 40th anniversary of the filming was celebrated by PBS a couple years ago with a marathon screening — the show still isn’t available in full on DVD or online — and with a 2-hour distillation of the its best moments, which I’ve embedded above. Here are the show’s opening credits:

An American Family‘s relationship to Warhol registers on multiple levels. First, its approach — simply to film several months in the lives of a real family and then to distill the footage into a series that, in many ways, feels pretty unscripted — recalls Warhol’s earliest films, such as Eat or Sleep or Empire, in which single actions or figures are shot for extended durations, or even the Screen Tests, which seem simply to be experiments in what happens to people when you train a camera on them, even for a couple minutes. Maybe it most closely resembles some of the early Warhol films with Edie Sedgwick, such as Beauty #2 or Poor Little Rich Girl, which use the camera both to provoke her and to document the results of that provocation. Warhol had wanted to film an entire day in Sedgwick’s life, but was apparently never able to make it happen. He did carry out a similar experiment in his 1968 novel, a: a novel, which is more or less an unedited transcription of a tape-recorded day in the life of Ondine, one of his drag queen superstars. Unlike contemporary reality TV, An American Family, like much of Warhol’s work, dwelt on the mundane and tested viewers’ patience. (“Always leave them wanting less.”) It was real in the sense that reality is often boring. But — more like our own era’s reality TV — the Louds were also primed to melt down in a national spectacle, which they proceeded to do on cue.

The star of the show, in many ways, was the oldest son, Lance, who provides additional connections to Warhol. Along with the Louds’ eventual divorce, the most controversial aspect of the show was Lance’s coming out, which made him the first openly gay character in TV history. Here’s a passage from Andreas Killen’s 1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol, and the Birth of Post-Sixties America, from which my class read a couple chapters for today:

Lance Loud’s coming out on television would become one of the landmark events in the medium’s history, and his public avowal that he was homosexual would make him a hero of the gay community. Lance eventually parlayed his status as television’s first gay icon into a career as a journalist, writing a column for Andy Warhol’s Interview and performing as a lead singer of the punk band The Mumps. … He also served as a mouthpiece for a Warholian perspective that called into question television’s role in naturalizing [conventional images of masculinity and gender orientation]. In interviews and articles subsequent to the series, the full story of Lance’s infatuation with Warhol emerged. At the age of thirteen, after seeing a Time article on Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, he had dyed his hair silver and began sending Warhol lengthy letters. Warhol eventually responded by asking Lance to call him one night. Their subsequent correspondence and late-night phone calls continued until Warhol was shot in 1968 and he became more reclusive. By the time An American Family went into production, Lance had developed a well-honed Warholian sensibility that he used to great effect on camera: “When the cameras were on me,” he wrote, “I was really thinking, you know, Chelsea Girls.” In a real sense Lance was now living out a wish that Warhol had once expressed concerning his desire to make a movie of a whole day in the life of Edie Sedgwick. Ironically, in the series’ final segment, Lance and Edie briefly crossed paths, the very night the former Superstar died in her sleep. (71-72)

In the show’s second episode, Lance’s mother, Pat, visits him in New York, where he is, of course, living at the Chelsea Hotel after having moved to New York in hopes of joining the Warhol underground. In this 10-minute clip from the episode, Lance greets his mother and tells her he’s planning to take her to the experimental theater La MaMa, where they’ll see “all the underground stars” in Jackie Curtis’s Vain Victory:

Watch An American Family: Pat and Lance in New York on PBS. See more from WNET.

The 2-hour distillation at the top of this post includes the sequence in which they do, in fact, see Curtis’s play and talk about it afterward. (It made his mother uncomfortable, for sure, but you have to give her props for going.) Later, long after the series had aired, Lance would carry on a highly publicized affair with Jackie Curtis.

The Loud family’s encounter with television fascinates me. Killen quotes Lance as saying, in retrospect, that “television ate my family,” and that the “Andy Warhol prophecy of 15 minutes of fame for any and everyone blew up on our doorstep.” But Killen also suggests, more provocatively, that the Louds could simply be representative of the first generation of Americans who grew up taping and filming their families ad nauseum. They suffered, in his terms, from a “condition” that “predated the onset of [the series’] filming, given the proliferation of devices in the family’s household, from TVs to Super 8 cameras, to recording studios.” Their condition consisted of an ambivalence toward television. Lance describes it as swallowing their family, but at the same time, their entire lives seem to have been rehearsals for their roles on TV. I’m not clear exactly when this footage was taken — the comments say 1971, which is the year the series was filmed and seems a little early — or where or whether it ever aired, but here we find Lance performing, pre-Mumps, with his sisters as backup singers and his brother, Grant, on bass. They’re kind of like a glam Partridge Family, recording in a Santa Barbara TV studio:

And clearly they’re old TV pros by the time they pioneer the genre of the post-reality series talkback, which is supposed to fool us into thinking they’re not still on camera:

Killen also suggests that TV may have given some of the family members — Pat, the mother, in particular — a stronger sense of self, perhaps enabling her to leave her cheating husband.

Of course my students drew connections not just to reality TV but to our era’s propensity to confessional social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, which confirm our sense of self-hood based on likes or followers or reblogs or comments. (Ahem, comments. It’s been kind of quiet around here lately.) It’s commonplace to think about ourselves as still living in the Age of Warhol: is our condition so removed from the Louds’?

I’m curious to know if any of you remembers the series in its original broadcasting or if you’ve encountered it somewhere along the way. Ever listen to Mumps? (I loved “Crocodile Tears” for years before I knew Lance’s story.) Other thoughts?

Even more on Lance — a true American hero — at

9 responses to “Brief thoughts on An American Family

  1. T-Mo says:

    This is coincidental, in that just yesterday I was discussing the Loud family and the show with my in-laws. I remember when the show was airing, but I never watched it extensively. I was 8, so it wasn’t exactly my speed. I’ve only seen clips here and there over the years, mostly extended, very slow pivotal scenes (the big convo when the dad leaves is especially memorable for its poor audio and stilted expressions of emotion). I don’t have the time or space to watch the extended summary you linked to, but will when I can.

    I never knew about Lance’s pre-fame association with Warhol, which makes for some fascinating points of contact. That Lance was actually thinking about playing a part in one of Warhol’s films while he was on camera during the filming of the show turns Andy into a true prophet of the self-fulfilling nature. Bizarre.

    Sadly,that Loud died young of HIV-related illnesses — combined with The Mumps, the Warhol connection, the show(s) about his family, etc. — makes him a kind of tragic nexus of the late-20th c. clash between subcultures and the mainstream, the underground and the overground.

  2. T-Mo says:

    P.S. If that SB TV footage is from 1971, then Iggy Pop ripped off Lance Loud in a big way. I think that’s gotta be 1974. Isn’t that Jay Dee Daugherty on drums? I’m not too up on the band’s history, but I think this was an early incarnation of The Mumps, back home to visit their folks and getting the family involved.

  3. Bryan says:

    Hey, Tim. I love such coincidences. I had thought that you, Swells, Parrish, and maybe Stella had come across it somehow. I was only 3, so I didn’t watch it either, and I’m not sure my parents would have been inclined, since the thesis of the whole thing seemed to be that the nuclear family was coming to an end. It documents everything they defined themselves against.

    I think you’ve got to be right that the clip is from 74 or so. Def post-show. The kids look older than they did in the series. Yes, it’s Jay Dee, and Kristian Hoffman (Mumps) is in there too. The Mumps members would have relocated to NYC in early 1975, so I think 74 sounds about right. I didn’t realize until I watched the highlights special that Lance had already been living in NY in 71 and was already angling for entrance on the Warhol scene.

    I’m still fascinated with the question of the impact of super 8s and tape recorders on late boomers like Lance & co. My family wasn’t rich enough to make movies of ourselves. We didn’t even really hit the home video recorder phase. But I think for a demographic that included the Louds, that kind of technology made it possible for them to think of themselves as just like the Kennedies or Princess Grace’s family for something. The drive to be on camera or tape — and especially to be on TV — really runs through the Warhol material we’ve been reading for class. Warhol’s TV fantasies are terrific, especially considering how odd his shows eventually were. Or that he guest-starred on Love Boat. Fantastic.

  4. Farrell Fawcett says:

    What I like about this post is how much I just learned. I knew only the very briefest outline about the American family series and had never seen anything but still photos. Watching these videos was great (also, is it just me or do Lance and his mom look super foxy with their fabulous hair, clothes, and glasses? Do you think the show’s hair/make-up artist helped Lance get his hair looking so Pantene-gorgeous at the Chelsea or was it him–and are we too old to pull off that look now and does it require a blow dryer? a lady’s perspective here please.) It’s so interesting to see how Warhol so thoroughly influenced this show–both personally and paradigmatically. He was just fucking everywhere in the 70s. Kind of like the Judd Apatow effect on comedy in the past 5 or so years. I wish I could audit your class Bryan. There’s so much interesting/important cultural history that I am ignorant of, but that has such an effect on the present. Thanks for writing this.

  5. Bryan says:

    I also love it that he calls his mother things like “honey” and “darling,” as if he’s a real housewife of Santa Barbara. I’m glad there was new stuff here. I really wish the whole series came on DVD. But the two-hour thing, if it eliminates much of the slow pace of the original, is still pretty rich.

    RE: Lance’s hair: I’m sure I’m not the only guy on this site who entered puberty with a blowdrier in hand.

  6. Autumn says:

    Like Farrell, I only knew the basics on the show. Reading this post over coffee this morning made me wish it were the weekend so I could watch the whole 2 hour mixed tape.

    I’m curious, did anyone see the 2011 film based on this program, Cinema Verite?

  7. Bryan says:

    I ordered a copy last week and it just arrived, so I hope it’s worth watching. The 2-hr hits reel is def worth watching.

  8. Bryan says:

    Hey, Autumn — We watched Cinema Verite tonight. Totally worth it.

  9. Autumn says:

    Bryan, so cool. I’m going to watch it.