Married with Children vs. Modern Family: Which Ed O'Neill Sitcom Is Better?

Ed O'Neill made himself a TV legend on FOX's Married with Children, then later revitalized his career starring on ABC's Modern Family. O'Neill will perhaps always be best known for his role of financially strapped, always irritated dad Al Bundy on Married with Children, the show that became FOX's first hit. On TV for 11 seasons, Al became an unlikely idol for the average American man, someone whose life probably is not as terrible as Al's, but who has struggles balancing work and family all the same.

O'Neill by no means vanished after Married with Children ended, continuing to work consistently in films and on TV shows since. It was not until debuting the character of Jay Pritchett on Modern Family that O'Neill's second career act truly began though, with the ABC sitcom quickly becoming one of the highest rated shows on TV and running for its own 11 seasons before Modern Family ended. Jay was very much a different character than Al, allowing O'Neill to show his range, but did sometimes show flashes of a Bundy-esque outlook.


Related: Why The Office Writers Weren’t Fans Of Modern Family

Married with Children and Modern Family are comparable in many ways, even beyond sharing O'Neill as a star. They are both family-centered sitcoms, they both ran 11 seasons, and they both stood out in their contemporary TV landscape. The question is though, if both earned similar acclaim and high ratings, which of the two is actually better?

Married with Children vs. Modern Family Comedy & Humor

Cast of Married...With Children sitting on an old couch

Married with Children and Modern Family share a primary mission as TV shows: to make anyone watching laugh, hopefully multiple times. How they go about that mission represents a big distinction between the two, though. Married with Children and Modern Family both feature verbal jokes delivered in a rapid-fire style that can sometimes be overwhelming, as well as sight gags and the occasional instance of physical slapstick, something that will likely continue in Married with Children's animated revival. However, their overall styles of humor are quite different. Married with Children's comedy is much more mean-spirited in general than Modern Family's, with characters constantly trading insults, and also never being afraid to tell guest characters off too.

Married with Children's stated intent was to offer an alternative to things like The Cosby Show, which presented a sanitized and somewhat idealized view of American family life. Crude language and sexual humor also played a big role, much to the chagrin of those who preferred the alternative version of things. By contrast, Modern Family operates on a subtler wavelength. Modern Family cracks a lot of sex jokes too, but does them through wordplay and is generally less overt in that regard. The comedy generated by the Dunphys and Pritchetts up until Modern Family's ending is also less about insults and verbal jousting, and tends to be much more of the laugh with someone than laugh at them variety. Modern Family is also more akin to The Cosby Show in that its characters are financially well-off and rarely deal with the struggles of the working class. Ultimately, the point goes to Married with Children for sheer barrage of laughter as it is perhaps the more comedu-focused of the two, but it is a close race.

Married with Children vs. Modern Family Characters

To be sure, Married with Children and Modern Family both found success in part thanks to great casting, as all the regular cast members on both shows just ended up clicking with each other. This led to them being more believable families, as the actors' onscreen chemistry was clear. Character wise, though, the edge definitely has to go to Modern Family. That might sound like blasphemy to those who worship at the altar of Ed O'Neill's Al Bundy and the rest of the Married with Children cast, but Modern Family's characterizations were deeper in general, and also saw the characters develop as the years went on. None of them are really the same people by season 11 that they were in season 1.

Related: Why Married With Children Never Had A Series Finale

By contrast, Married with Children's characters, while funny, were very thinly sketched and seemingly existed more to facilitate laughs than anything else. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it is safe to say the Bundys are basically the same at the end as they were at the beginning - arguably even worse off, especially Al. Compare that to O'Neill's Jay Pritchett, who by the end of Modern Family has become much more open to showing emotion for those he cares about, and has come to terms with some of the aspects of his personality that he would rather not indulge. There's also the matter of supporting characters. Outside of neighbors Marcy, Steve, and Jefferson, most of Married with Children's guest characters were only there to join up with or get antagonized by the Bundys, with little lives or motivations of their own. Many Modern Family recurring or guest characters ended up explored almost to a level on par with the leads.

Married with Children vs. Modern Family Impact & Legacy

Peg Bundy in Married With Children

Married with Children and Modern Family both cast long shadows and carry with them large legacies, even aside from Ed O'Neill's work at the center of their casts. Married with Children threw a huge monkey wrench into the TV comedy landscape of the late-1980s, and also helped established FOX as a fourth major broadcast TV network, setting the stage for future iconic hits like The Simpsons and The X-Files. It also helped set the template for dark and/or mean-spirited comedies to follow. Without Married with Children, there might never be It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Curb Your Enthusiam or arguably even Seinfeld.

Meanwhile, Modern Family opened up TV comedy to more diversity, featuring a gay couple with adoptive children and an interracial and inter-generational marriage at its core. Even in 2009 when Modern Family premiered, things like that were not too common to see on broadcast TV. Mitch and Cam's portrayal was especially positive for gay representation in mainstream sitcoms, even if criticize the decision to cast straight actor Eric Stonestreet as Cam has seen some questioning in recent history. Still, Married with Children is probably more important to TV history overall, as well as pop culture. Ed O'Neill commands the screen in both shows, but Married with Children has a greater influence over the genre than the comparatively far more recent Modern Family.