As long as there’s been TV, the family has been one of its favorite go-tos. All week long, Vulture is exploring how it’s been represented on our screens.
With a few notable exceptions, family sitcoms shy away from frank talk about money. Generally, viewers aren’t supposed to think too hard about the upper-middle-class lifestyles on display. We’re meant to assume these families can afford everything we see onscreen, unless we’re explicitly told they can’t.
It’s fun, then, to figure out exactly how much the most famous sitcom families were actually pulling in — so we used salary figures at Glassdoor and elsewhere to do just that. To make comparisons easier across the board, I’ve estimated how much each TV dad and TV mom’s professions pay in 2018. I’ve also tried to note the few occasions where jobs don’t pay as well as they used to, relative to inflation.
Would a single-income family be able to support six children and a live-in housekeeper today? Sure, Jan. These days, a California architect with 10 to 14 years of experience can expect to make around $90,000. Add in Mrs. Brady’s occasional freelance checks, and you’ll get a family income just shy of six figures, plus however much money Carol inherited from the husband she killed.
The original plan for The Cosby Show was for the Huxtables to be a blue-collar family. To put it mildly, that didn’t end up happening. As an obstetrician in private practice in New York City, Cliff could expect to pull in about $250,000 a year, and Claire, a partner at her law firm, would make at least that much, depending on how many units she held. And you don’t even want to imagine how much that Brooklyn Heights brownstone would go for today.
In the four decades since All in the Family aired, the kind of lifelong union job that Archie Bunker enjoyed has steadily disappeared. Today, a loading-dock foreman can expect to make in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year, while Edith would make around $12 an hour in her role as a part-time caretaker.
The relaxation in standards for proper workplace attire has made millions of Americans much more comfortable, but it hasn’t been great for dry cleaners, who don’t take in the kind of profits they did in the days when officewear was much more formal. Still, an owner these days can expect to take in around $30,000 in profit per cleaner, which means that George Jefferson’s chain of seven would net him more than $200,000 a year. Maybe not enough for a deluxe apartment in the Manhattan sky, but not too shabby, either.
Unlike many fictional TV dads, our beloved Raymond works at a real business, the Long Island paper Newsday. That means we don’t need to work too hard to guess his salary: A real sports reporter at Newsday makes around $90,000 a year, according to Glassdoor.
One of the first family sitcoms to put money problems front and center, Roseanne saw its lead couple bounce around a variety of different jobs during its first nine seasons on the air. In season one, Roseanne worked on the assembly line at a plastics company, a job that would pay around $18 an hour today if it still existed. (In Roseanne canon, the company went under in the early ’90s.) After quitting that job to protest her terrible manager, she tried out a bunch of different fields before finally landing a waitressing gig, which in 2018 pays $2 an hour plus tips. She eventually opened a restaurant, the Lanford Lunch Box, which seems to have given her a little more financial security — though not much because profit margins in the restaurant industry are razor-thin. Meanwhile, Dan Conner spent most of the series as a freelancer contractor, which would earn him roughly $50,000 a year. Together, the couple also spent a season running a motorcycle repair shop, but that venture quickly failed before it could earn them any real profits.
Leave It to Beaver is one of those sitcoms that purposefully keeps its setting vague: It takes place in the postwar suburb of Mayfield, which is supposed to be a sort of Anytown, USA. (Exteriors of Main Street were shot in Skokie, Illinois.) It stays equally vague about what exactly family patriarch Ward Cleaver does for a living, leading some fans to speculate that he was actually a spy. However, there are two clues: At one point, we learn that Ward works for a trust company; at another, his co-worker complains that Ward has a corner office. It’s not a lot to go on, but it’s enough to indicate that Ward would make something in the low six-figure range today.
Another family that’s so rich it can afford live-in help, but in this case, the Bankses have both partners contributing. Uncle Phil started the series as a law-firm partner, making somewhere at least in the mid-six figures and possibly in the millions, depending on how senior a partner he was. He then ran for office as a judge, and thanks to California’s public-records laws, we know that he would make $235,000 as a superior court judge today. Aunt Viv, in both her incarnations, is a professor at UCLA, which pays somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000. It’s a lot, but hey, Geoffrey doesn’t come cheap.
We actually know how much Al Bundy made in his job as a woman’s shoe salesman: $12,000 a year, which comes out to $20,000 in 2018 money. That’s not too far from what a shoe-store employee in the Chicago area would make today, though depending on commissions Al could wind up taking home close to $40,000. Peggy, as viewers know, never held a job for long.
Can you afford to raise seven children in Southern California on a minister’s salary? I guess, but you might want to try practicing a different religion: The median rabbi makes about $140,000 a year, while the median pastor makes a fraction of that. For Protestants who want to get into the upper-middle class (which is to say, most Protestants), the best solution is to get a job at as big a church as possible. The Camden family’s church, which is played by the First Christian Church of North Hollywood, seats about 350 people. It’s not nothing, but a minister at a megachurch can make in the hundreds of thousands annually.
To quote LFO, Michael J. Fox was Alex P. Keaton. But what about his parents? Despite being former hippies, by the mid-’80s they were both doing pretty well for themselves: Dad Steven was the manager of a PBS station, while mom Elyse was an architect, a pair of jobs that would pull in around $100,000 each today.
Much like Leave It to Beaver, the exact details of Malcolm’s family’s situation were never revealed. We never learned what state the show was set in, and we never quite figured out what Hal’s job was. Some fans believe that this was on purpose; instead of being defined by what he does for a living, Hal is defined by his odd passions and his love for his family. Sweet, but not very helpful for our purposes today. However, we do have one tiny hint: Hal is said to work in “systems management,” a field that I’m sure was chosen for its sheer opaqueness. According to my research, I was able to find that the median worker in systems management makes around $100,000 a year. (Finding out exactly what “systems management” is was … slightly harder.) Lois’s job is a bit easier to figure out: She works at a drug store, which should pay anything from $9 an hour if she’s a regular cashier, to $18 an hour as an assistant manager.
Another show where wealth is a big part of the plot. As an advertising executive, Dre can be expected to pull in somewhere in the six figures, while an anesthesiologist like Bow can command around $400,000. The Johnsons aren’t rich-ish — they’re just plain rich.
All three of the families in Modern Family are quite well-off. Phil manages to support all the Dunphys on his real-estate earnings, which, if we work backwards from the fact that their house is worth $1.4 million, comes out to north of $200,000. (Maybe less if Jay helped with the down payment.) As a lawyer, Mitchell probably makes somewhere around there as well, while Cam likely earns somewhere in the high five figures as a high-school phys-ed teacher and football coach. (Plus whatever unofficial compensation he receives from local Buddy Garrity types.) How much Jay makes is a little less clear, but based on what we know about Pritchett’s Closets and Blinds, it’s at least in the mid-six figures.
It’s easy to forget now, but Family Matters began as a spinoff of Perfect Strangers, where Harriet Winslow was the elevator operator for the Chicago Chronicle, a job that seems a little ridiculous today. She was fired early in Family Matters’ first season, but soon made head of security for the paper, a gig that would probably pay in the high five figures today. (Also, Harriet in 2018 would almost certainly not work for the paper itself, but for a subcontractor, which comes with a whole bunch of other financial concerns.) A few seasons in, she was fired again and started working at a department store as a customer-service manager ($15 an hour, maybe more if she was salaried) before being promoted to head of sales (above $100,000). Meanwhile, Carl probably earned around $100,000 as a police sergeant in season one, and got in the neighborhood of $120,000 by the time he was promoted to captain.
How much money a restaurant owner makes varies widely, but thanks to the tourist trade, Florida is one of the better states to try it: The median restaurant owner in the state makes $79,000, and given that Cattleman’s Ranch was able to attract Kenny Rogers as a silent partner, you’ve got to figure Louis Huang is doing better than that. Real estate is another high-variance business, but Jessica too is likely taking home more than the Florida median of $45,000 a year.
Here’s where this game gets wonky. The median salary for a TV or radio host is $55,000. As the host of Tool Time, “the fourth-most-popular cable-based tool show in all of Michigan,” you would expect Tim “the Tool Man” Taylor to be making somewhere around there. And yet, Taylor was also portrayed as a credible rival to Bob Vila, and Tool Time often played host to A-list guests like Mario Andretti, Jenny McCarthy, and Alan Jackson. Plus, he eventually got a book deal! For some reason, I suspect that airtight world-building was not at the top of the Home Improvement writers room’s priorities.