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In Her Shoes: Katey Sagal

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On this episode of In Her Shoes, Nishat Kurwa, executive producer of the Vox Media Podcast Network, sits down with actress Katey Sagal, who played the beloved Peggy Bundy in the Fox sitcom Married … With Children. Together, the two discuss the impact the show had on women during its 11-season run, Sagal’s problematic experiences on set, and the difficulties of remaining relevant as a 60-something woman in Hollywood.

To hear more about Sagal’s experiences fighting for equal pay and why she sought more serious roles following Married… With Children, listen below, and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also find the full transcript below.

The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more.

NISHAT KURWA: Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Nishat Kurwa, executive producer of the Vox Media Podcast Network. On this podcast, we talk to ambitious women about how they’ve come this far and where they’re going next. Today’s guest, Katey Sagal, has been a near fixture on prime time TV for more than thirty years, starting with Married … With Children, one of the longest-running sitcoms on Fox. In her most recent leading role, she played the title character of the ABC drama Rebel. The show debuted in April of this year. It felt pretty timely after the social uprisings and corporate reckonings of summer 2020. Rebel is inspired by the life of Erin Brokovich, and Sagal’s character is a former detective turned consumer advocate who works to help ordinary people take power against malfeasance and corruption.

KATEY SAGAL: I think one of the main things that attracted me to the project was the social-advocacy part of it. She’s a fighter for social justice, and she also gives voice to people that feel that they are powerless and have no voice, which is also a sign of what has been going on this last year. I think a lot of people just feel helpless and like nobody’s listening, and “what is the truth?” and all those questions. So this character, Rebel, stays in the truth. That’s her thing. Even when a bunch of people are telling [her] “It’s not what you think it is,” She stays on point. She empowers people, which is very important in the world we’re in right now. She gives you the fishing pole rather than catches the fish for you. That completely inspired me to do the part.

What we deal with in Rebel in the first season, in the major arc, is this idea of faulty medical devices and things that are not tested on people. They’re just grandfathered into the system. That is a huge problem and something that people don’t really feel that they’re heard about. The Erin Brockovich of it all, which, Rebel is inspired by her. That’s what Erin does. People reach out to her on email and she answers all the emails and she’ll get involved in your problem if she feels that she can shine a light on it, no matter how big or small. Real people stuff. I really love that about Rebel and I feel like it’s also timely that she is a woman with three children and a messy personal life and a couple of ex-husbands and a current husband, and she’s trying to juggle it all. Personally, as a working mom with three kids myself, I know what that juggling looks like, and somebody always gets pissed off and then you try to smooth it. You do the best you can. We are multi-tasking women, but we are doing the best we can. And that’s what Rebel is. She doesn’t always succeed, which is good because that is the truth.

The actual core character of this very intense, rapid fire, clumsy, well-rounded but flawed woman, some of that is from the Erin Brockovich character of who she is. When I met her, I was like, Oh, you really do talk that fast. She’s very intense about what she’s passionate about. Which as an actor, it was great for me to play because I’m actually not that way. Maybe my husband thinks differently, but I believe that I’m very laissez-faire about things. I’m a bit diplomatic, I’m a bit chill. I’m just like, Whatever. Everybody’s got an opinion. It’s okay. We can all get along. I’m like that. So it’s been an interesting and very invigorating role to play, because it’s all that inner-voice stuff. You know when you scream at people in your head? She says it [aloud].

NISHAT: Loudness is one of the defining attributes of the character that made Sagal famous back in 1987. Loud sartorial choices, and loud defiance of what domesticity had conventionally looked like on TV.

CLIP FROM MARRIED…WITH CHILDREN: Let’s clear up a few misconceptions. There are two things Peggy Bundy doesn’t do. Number one: cook, clean, sew, vacuum, iron, and parent. And number two: exercise.

NISHAT: Married … With Children was one of the shows that launched the Fox network. Jen Chaney, Vulture’s TV critic, says it poked fun at the notion of the squeaky-clean, moralizing sitcom.

JEN CHANEY: In this really interesting way, she leaned into and also subverted certain stereotypes, because one of the stereotypes in a traditional sitcom is the nagging wife or the wife who is the more responsible one, and the husband gets to be this sort of a man-baby. She was always kind of nagging Al, but in this way, that gave her more agency in the context of the sitcom. It didn’t feel as much like “this is Al Bundy show,” it felt like it was more about the couple and the family. I think a lot of that can be attributed to just what a good performance that was. I think maybe people didn’t appreciate it as much at the time because they were pushing boundaries in a lot of ways in terms of the language that they used, even in terms of some sexual innuendo type things that at the time were very shocking to people.

BRENDA MARTIN: She wasn’t she wasn’t your typical housewife, I’ll put it that way.

NISHAT: This is my friend Shanté’s mom, Brenda Martin, who loved Married … With Children.

BRENDA: I would go to work and we talk about what we watched on TV and stuff, and the white girls at work, they didn’t particularly care for Married … With Children because the wife was sleazy and she didn’t work and she just sat around the house and didn’t do nothing but gossip and polish her fingernails and stuff like that.

NISHAT: Miss Brenda says a big part of what interested her about the character, and the show, were how they broke the mold of what TV families had historically looked like.

BRENDA: They were raunchy white people. They always want to portray white people as middle class, upper-middle class [in] comedy shows. Then, years ago they had Black shows with Black comedies. But they would always portray us as poor people with no education, cleaning white people’s houses and stuff like that.

NISHAT: Married … With Children’s co-creator Michael G. Moye is a Black man who had written on some of those shows, like Good Times. He was also a producer on The Jeffersons. He and co-creator Ron Leavitt called Married … With Children “the anti-Cosbys.” The show ran for 11 seasons on Fox. Sagal says five years into that success, the actors renegotiated their contracts — but she always knew her pay wasn’t on par with her co-star, Ed O’Neill.

KATEY: I can tell you that I’ve played a lot of people’s wives and a lot of people’s mothers and a lot of people’s… you know, the second to a very strong man. I’ve done that a lot. I’m going to say the men always make more money. They always have. You start at a certain number and then you get more money, but you never get what they’re getting. The way that I’ve ever asked for more money is to have really great representatives that just tell me to hang tough. I’ll never forget, on Married … With Children when we were all trying to get more money. This was in the day—I guess I can talk about this—when you’d tell the network or the studio that you were sick, that you couldn’t come to work, that you couldn’t show up. Really, what you were doing is trying to get what you were worth. The things that I would hear like, “Well, we’re going to write her out,” or “There’s going to be a new wife.” or “He’s going to get divorced.” All this stuff. You just have to hold your ground. I can remember literally having to stay home and having to get in my car with my husband at the time and hide my face so that nobody could see I’d left the house because I had told my work [I was sick]. This was paparazzi time. There were those conversations, but I’ve always had really good representation that has backed me up on that and been probably stronger than me in terms of, No, you deserve to get this. 

NISHAT: It was early on in the show when your pregnancy was written into the show, and you had a stillborn daughter after you were seven months pregnant. Then, it sounds like you had to go back to the show. If you could take us through what it was like to have to go through personal trauma and have it be so intertwined with your creative and professional life and how involved you were in writing the new arc for the character and what that process was like.  

KATEY: Yeah, that was a pretty dark period there. When they decided to write the pregnancy in, that was very exciting. That was great. Then the outcome of it was horrible. They decided to deal with it as a dream sequence. Like, there was a dream pregnancy. I mean, it was this … it was actually clever at the time, but it was no less heartbreaking. It was weird. Then, I had my other two — I have three children. I had two of them while I was on the show the rest of the time. At that point, we were all so freaked out because stillbirth is something that they call an “act of God.” Out of 60 percent of stillborn children, there’s no medical reason. And with my Ruby—I called her Ruby—there was no medical reason. It was a very difficult thing to wrap your brain around, because I felt like I did something wrong. The big lesson I learned is that, no, I didn’t. But, we were all very scared after that, because it took me another year to get pregnant. I didn’t even want to try. I was just so freaked out. So then [with] my other two, the show was equally as freaked out. So, I got pregnant and then they’d send me home. I’d do all my stuff on the phone. I think with Sarah, they sent me home at five months of pregnancy and I just laid around the house and still got paid, which was awesome, which was great. Then with Jackson also, they kind of sent me home early. With Ruby, I worked the entire time until there was a problem so nobody knew if that had contributed. Yeah, that was a horrible time. It was horrible to be in the press with it. It was horrible to have it so public. It’s the mixed blessing and the curse of being successful. Sometimes people know too much.

NISHAT: And this decade of success Sagal had playing Peg Bundy had its professional drawbacks too. She says she developed a lot of bad habits as an actor that were difficult to shake later on.

KATEY: I sucked. I was terrible. I never went to acting school really. I just learned on the job. So I’ve worked with a coach ever since and I still work with a coach because I want to learn more. And so with every role that I’m offered or anything that comes my way, now I feel like I know how to do the work of an actor, which is a real craft.   

I really wanted to be a dramatic actor. Nobody would take me seriously. I had been Peg Bundy, this bigger-than-life character for so many years. It took a minute. I didn’t really have a plan. Well, I’m sure I told my agent, “This is what I want to do next,” but I don’t think any of it worked out that way. I think that what happens is you do some jobs you don’t really want to do, but they’re jobs, and you need a job. So I would do that. My biggest goal was I didn’t want to keep doing comedy. I wanted to broaden my own creative space. So I remember I got a part on Lost, on that TV show, and I had to audition like two or three times. They had to see me before they would believe it, that I could come in and do a dramatic arc. So I got that job. It was a little creak in the door of getting away from my bigger-than-life Peg Bundy. Then fortunately, my husband, after I got married to Kurt [Sutter], he wrote me that part in Sons of Anarchy, which really kind of opened a big door in terms of dramatic work as well.

NISHAT: Sagal is 67 now. She’s been a near-constant on television since 1987.

KATEY: There’s not many roles written for women over 60 — over 50 and then into your sixties. One of the things that was so appealing about Rebel is that they came to me and were age appropriate. They were like, “We want you to be number one on the call sheet, the show’s named Rebel. You are in your sixties. That’s what we want.” Ageism is a trope that has to change. Just as we talk about diversity and so much of the conversation, ageism for women is just as much a conversation. I think that a role like Rebel, where she is a full-rounded person, she’s a working person, a mom, a wife and everything — she’s an everything person. Most of the women my age I know are everything-people. They are that. So if we’re looking to have a world where we’re all represented, this is another area that has to be represented. In the entertainment industry, they’ve got this stigma about getting older, that suddenly you’re older and you’re no longer viable or sexy or smart or anything. It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous. I do believe that for me, it’s changing, for me personally, and I hope that that is a representation of what can happen further on.

NISHAT: It won’t happen on Rebel. In September of last year, ABC ordered a ten episode first season, and this May, the network canceled the show after airing just five episodes. More than 75,000 people have signed a petition asking ABC to give the show a second chance. Which seems like a long shot. But you’ll still see Sagal on prime time TV this fall. Like in the role that made her a star, she’ll play a brash and endearing woman from a white, working class, suburban Illinois community. What would it look like if Peg Bundy had never had kids, or never become a Bundy in the first place, and ultimately landed in a caring family?

CLIP FROM THE CONNORS: Look, I know you’re just looking out for Dan. But don’t you want him to have someone to spend the rest of his life with? 

NISHAT: That’s “Dan,” as in Dan Connor. Sagal will reprise her role as his fiancee, Louise, on The Connors. Which is, of course, the spinoff of Roseanne, the show that debuted a year after Married … With Children and soon secured its own place in the pantheon of dysfunctional American TV families.

In Her Shoes: Katey Sagal