"Life is a serious matter, but I see it through a prism that finds comedy in anything."
About This Interview
Regarding his contribution to television, Norman Lear notes: "Flying across country [one] night I remember looking down and thinking, 'hey, it's just possible, wherever I see a light, I've helped to make somebody laugh.'" Norman Lear's writing career began in the 1950s, and reached its zenith with a series of socially conscious sitcoms, the crown jewel of which was the highly rated, multi-Emmy Award-winning All in the Family.
In his five-hour Archive interview, Lear speaks about his early work in publicity and his move to Los Angeles, where he teamed up with comedy writer Ed Simmons. He recounts how he broke into the business by finagling Danny Thomas's phone number from his office and pitching a comedy routine idea to him personally. He enumerates his continued television writing jobs for such stars as Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis on television's The Colgate Comedy Hour. He fondly recalls writing for The Martha Raye Show, which he also directed, and describes how the show ran afoul with its ad agency and was cancelled. He outlines the creation of his own production company, with producing partner Bud Yorkin, and his work on The Andy Williams Specials and The George Gobel Show. Regarding All in the Family, he discusses the creation of the show (based on a British series but inspired by his own family), the struggles to get it picked up by a network and the show's impact. He discusses his collaboration with Carroll O'Connor on the iconic Archie Bunker and candidly comments: "When Carroll O'Connor realized he had to embrace the script, not without some of the changes he suggested but without the wholesale changes he would insist upon; that when he finally accepted it and slipped into the character, none of us could write Archie Bunker the way it flew out of him— in his understanding of the character, and the idiom, the language, the malapropos. It was worth all of the aggravation to get to that moment. I'd wait for that moment with awe." He outlines the conception and casting of the numerous successful series he subsequently launched, including: Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2-Night. Lastly, he comments on series he refers to as the "misses and near misses." Morrie Gelman conducted the interview in Brentwood, CA on February 26, 1998.
Video: Watch a clip from an eipsode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Norman Lear (airdate: September 25, 1976). In this very funny clip, the stars of many of his then-current series give their opinions on working with Lear:
Norman Lear had one of the most powerful and influential careers in the history of U.S. television. Lear first teamed with Ed Simmons to write comedy (he tells numerous stories relating how he persisted in seeking the attention of comedians like Danny Thomas, trying to convince them he could write their kind of material). After a time it worked and Thomas bought a routine from Lear and Simmons. David Susskind, too, noticed their work, and signed them to write for The Ford Star Review, a musical comedy-variety series that lasted only one season, 1950-51, on NBC. Lear and Simmons then moved to The Colgate Comedy Hour, a high budget NBC challenge to Ed Sullivan on Sunday evenings. It was a success, lasting five years. The partners wrote all the Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin material for the famous comedy team's rotating regular appearances on the show.
After the Colgate years Lear began writing on his own and in 1959 he teamed with Bud Yorkin to create Tandem Productions. Tandem produced several feature films and Lear selectively took on the tasks of executive producer, writer and, on the film Cold Turkey, director.
In 1970 Lear and Yorkin moved into television. While in England Lear had seen a comedy, Till Death Us Do Part, which became an inspiration for All In The Family. ABC was interested in the idea and commissioned a pilot, but after it was produced the network rejected it, leaving Lear with a paid for, free standing pilot. He took it to CBS which had recently brought in a new president of the network, Robert Wood. The timing was fortuitous. Anxious to change the bucolic image cast by shows like The Beverly Hillbillies, Wood reacted positively to Lear's approach and gave Tandem a green light.
All In The Family first aired on 12 January 1971. Wood commented in a 1979 interview that CBS had added several extra phone operators to handle an expected flood of reactions. They never came.
The series did, however, attract its share of protests and strong reactions. Over its early life there were a continuous flow of letters objected to language and themes and challenging Lear for his "liberal" views. Looking back in 1979 Lear remarked that he responded to such criticism by stating, "I'm not trying to say anything. I am entertaining the viewers. Is it funny? That was the question." Later, when attacks on the show asked how he dared to express his views he altered his response. "Why wouldn't I have ideas and thoughts and why wouldn't my work reflect those ideas?" And of course they did.
Lear's pioneering television work brought an even more controversial series, Maude, to CBS in 1972. Lear once described the acerbic and openly liberal Maude as the flip side of Archie Bunker. Perhaps in his mind that was true in the beginning, but unlike Archie, Maude's positions on issues were not presumed to be ridiculous and her approaches to social issues were almost always presented sympathetically. The most famous episodes of Maude dealt with her decision to have an abortion. Reflecting the Supreme Court's abortion decision of 1973, Maude and husband Walter worked out their response to her mid-life pregnancy with dignity and compassion. That show sparked a storm of protest from Roman Catholics. If some viewers accepted Archie as the bigot he was, some of the religious community took Maude equally seriously.
Lear and Yorkin also moved black families to network prime time with Good Times and The Jeffersons. And Lear's satiric bent was evident in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a pioneering show he wanted to air in the daytime as part of the soap-opera scene. When that attempt failed he syndicated the series, and found it frequently relegated to late night fringe time schedules. Still, Lear saw the show as depicting "the worst of what was going on in society." At the other end of the spectrum Lear collaborated with Alex Haley and brought a classy drama, Palmerstown, USA, to the air in 1980.
Always present at story conferences of every series, even when he had as many as six on the air at one time, Lear's hand could be seen in every show. During most of the 1970s Lear he even performed as the "warm up" entertainer for the audiences assembled to watch weekly tapings of his shows, a production schedule that ran from late summer to early spring. He was fond of describing various episodes as sensitive, requiring his constant attention for just the right touch. He and executive assistant Virginia Carter spent several hours one Sunday evening discussing a single dramatic development--how to treat Walter Findley's alcoholism and Maude's response. When Lear left active involvement in television production in 1978 he left a company without a creative rudder. Few projects reached the small screen and those that did were poorly received. Much of Lear's own attention turned to the development of various media related industries, cable television, motion picture theaters, and film production companies.
But by 1980 he was alarmed by the radical religious fanaticism of Christian fundamentalists. At first he thought he would use a television series to respond. He developed a series concept, Good Evening, He Lied, in which the co-star of the show would be a woman newswriter in her thirties, very professional, trying to do her job--as a writer for an egotistical, airhead, male news anchor. A moralist at heart, Lear also proposed to have the woman be a devout, mainstream Protestant Christian, openly practicing her faith. It was a fine idea and demonstrated anew Lear's genuine respect for sincere religious convictions. NBC approved the idea but Lear did not pursue the production. He became convinced that another approach would be more effective for him, and in 1982 he founded People for the American Way to speak out for Bill of Rights guarantees and monitor violations of constitutional freedoms. By 1996 the organization had become one of the most influential and effective voices for freedom.
In the 1990s Lear returned to television with several efforts. Neither Sunday Dinner, addressing what Lear calls "spirituality" nor 704 Hauser, involving a black family moving into Archie Bunker's old house, found an audience. Lear's voice is still heard through public appearances. He has not abandoned television, but is less frequently involved. Probably, however, no single individual has had more influence through the medium of television in its 50-year history than Norman Lear.
-Robert S. Alley
Adler, Richard. All in the Family: A Critical Appraisal. New York: Praeger, 1979.
Arlen, Michael. "The Media Dramas of Norman Lear." The New Yorker (New York), 10 May 1975.
Cowan, Geoffrey. See No Evil: The Backstage Battle Over Sex and Violence on Television. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Landy, Thomas M. "What's Missing From this Picture?" (interview), Commonweal (New York), 9 October 1992.
Newcomb, Horace. "The Television Artistry of Norman Lear." Prospects: An American Studies Annual (New York), 1975.
NORMAN LEAR. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A., 27 July 1922. Attended Emerson College, 1940-42. Married 1) Charlotte Rosen (divorced); child: Ellen; 2)Frances Loeb (divorced); children: Kate and Maggie; 3) Lyn Davis; children: Benjamin, Brianna, and Madeline. U.S. Air Force, 1942-45, Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters. Career in public relations, 1945-49; comedy writer, various television programs, 1950s; writer-producer, television specials, 1960s; creator, producer, and writer, television series, 1970s, including All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; founded Act III Communications comprised of television station and motion picture theater ownership, motion picture and television production, 1987. President, American Civil Liberties Association of Southern California, 1973; trustee, Museum of Television and Radio; founder, People for the American Way, 1980; founder, Business Enterprise Trust, 1988; member, Writers Guild of America; Directors Guild of America; American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; Caucus of Producers, Writers, and Directors. Recipient: four Emmy Awards, George Foster Peabody Award, Broadcaster of the Year, International Radio and Television Society, 1973; Humanitarian Award, National Council of Christians and Jews, 1976; Mark Twain Award, International Platform Association, 1977; Valentine Davies Award, Writers Guild of America, 1977; William O. Douglas Award, Public Counsel, 1981; First Ammendment Lecturer, Ford Hall Forum, 1981; Gold Medal of the International Radio and Television Society, 1981; Distinguished American Award, 1984; Mass Media Award, American Jewish Committee of Institutional Executives, 1987; among the first inductees to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame, 1984.
1950-51 Ford Star Review (co-writer) 1950-55 Colgate Comedy Hour (writer) 1955-56 The Martha Raye Show (witer) 1955 The George Gobel Show (producer, director) 1971 All in the Family (producer, writer) 1972 Sanford and Son (producer) 1972 Maude (producer, writer) 1975 Hot L Baltimore (producer) 1975 One Day At A Time (producer) 1976 Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (producer) 1976 The Nancy Walker Show (producer) 1976 All's Fair (producer) 1977 All That Glitters (producer) 1978 Apple Pie (producer) 1979 The Baxters (producer) 1980 Palmerstown (producer, with Alex Hailey) 1984 a.k.a. Pablo (producer) 1991 Sunday Dinner (producer) 1992 The Powers That Be (producer) 1994 704 Hauser (producer)
1961 The Danny Kaye Special 1963 Henry Fonda and the Family 1965 Andy Williams Special and Series 1970 Robert Young and the Family 1982 I Love Liberty 1991 All in the Family 20th Anniversary Special
Scared Stiff, 1953; Come Blow Your Horn (co-producer, Bud Yorkin), 1963; Never Too Late, 1965; Divorce American Style, 1967; The Night They Raided Minsky's, 1968; Start the Revolution Without Me, 1970; Cold Turkey (also director), 1971; Stand By Me (exec.producer), 1986; Princess Bride (exec. producer), 1987; Fried Green Tomatoes, 1991.