Norman Lear is all over the television landscape, whether you notice his name or not.
The phrase “Developed by Norman Lear” has preceded some of the most popular sitcoms in television history — All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and One Day at a Time. In recent years, Lear has made the shift to Netflix, this time as an executive producer on a all-Latino rebooted of his 1970s and ’80s series One Day at a Time. And Lear’s not done: Next month marks the debut of his new podcast, All of the Above With Norman Lear, which will alternate between comedy, politics, and social issues (Lear is a vocal critic of right-wing extremism). This means that, at 94 years old, Lear will soon be a regular contributor to iTunes.
It’s a fascinating chapter in what’s been a fascinating life. Finally, last year, the longtime storyteller became a subject for the lens. In Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, now streaming on Netflix, Lear reflects on his long, influential career. In Just Another Version of You, talking heads Bill Moyers and George Clooney argue that, with All in the Family, Lear introduced contemporary topics like racism, homophobia, and the Vietnam War into sitcom plots at a time when escapist shows like Bewitched and The Flying Nun ruled the air. In Good Times, he broadcast TV’s first African-American family; but with The Jeffersons, he made his first show geared toward African-American viewers.
Last week, Ewing and Lear brought the documentary to the Ebertfest film festival in Champaign, Illinois, which seeks to highlight overlooked films. After the festival, Lear talked with Pacific Standard about creating shows that will appeal to audiences on both ends of polarized debates, diversity in TV writers’ rooms, and why he calls himself a “bleeding-heart conservative.”
With All in the Family, you introduced politics and social change into prime time at a time when most TV shows were fairly escapist.
But you know, I didn’t introduce it into the American family. They were talking about all the things that we were talking about — that’s the big surprise. That’s where we got our meat and potatoes.
At this time, though, it was fairly rare for these issues to appear on TV. How did you pitch this idea to networks?
I made three pilots. I made it the first time for ABC in 1968, and Caroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton were both in it, but with different actors playing the young roles. ABC passed. I heard them laughing in the room, uproariously, but they passed — they were a little bit afraid of it. However, ABC had a right to hold it for a year, and they did, and at the end of that year they asked me to make it again. I made it again with Caroll and Jean and a different set of young people, and they passed. Then I had the right to take that to the other networks. I took it, and it took another couple of years before CBS said, “We’ll do it, but let’s make a different episode.” I wouldn’t make a different episode — the way I wrote the first episode was to show us 360 degrees of Archie Bunker, and I wouldn’t make a different script, it had to be that script. It went to CBS, after two pilots and three years.
As you said, the American families were talking about these topics. But you also addressed issues that were in the news — racism, homophobia, the Vietnam War. Where did you and your writers get ideas for the topics you wanted to address? Did it come from personal experiences you’d had, from the headlines?
I told the writers, as I told myself, “Pay attention to what’s happening in your own home, with your mate, with your kids” — total attention to all that. I told them to read a couple of newspapers. In fact, we had the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times in the office, available for everybody. And we came in and talked about those things that were interesting in our homes and in the culture generally.
Somebody once came in having read an article about how hypertension in black males was a good deal higher than in white males. And Good Times had been on the air for a little while, [so we thought], “That’s a great idea for John Amos in Good Times,” suffering from hypertension. You’d be interested to know that when the show aired in [May], there were hundreds of calls to the network from African-American males and other families wanting to know about hypertension. CBS wasn’t prepared for it [then], but when the show went into re-runs [months later], the network had taken some commercial time out, and had a 30-second or 60-second advisory for black families if they sought more information. That’s when I realized that we really needed to know what the hell we were talking about when we dealt with these problems because it really mattered to audiences.
Early on in Maude, you wanted to create an episode on abortion and the network famously battled you on it. You won that battle, but were there any that you didn’t win that you still wish you had today?
You know, I don’t think of it as winning and losing. By the time I did that episode, we had a good relationship with the guy who ran program practices at CBS — William Tankersley — and we would talk about these things. On the abortion episode, he said: “God, no. No way we’re going to do that.” And we talked and talked. As a result of the conversation, we made it a two-parter and in one, we introduced a friend of Maude’s who was pregnant. She had four children that she could ill-afford and was pregnant with the fifth and she in no way would think of an abortion. That was a result of the conversation, to give people who agreed with that point of view an opportunity to be represented also, so it was much more even-handed in terms of the debate.
Right. Your shows always had a crossover appeal to both liberals and conservatives, even though the Hollywood elite is often framed as being super liberal. Were you consciously seeking to entertain both sides, like with this moment in Maude?
First of all, I think of myself as a bleeding-heart conservative.
How is that?
Well, you will not mess with my First Amendment, my Bill of Rights, my Declaration of Independence, my Constitution. I underline the “my” in terms of the way I feel about it. That’s the way this country was born, that’s what it’s dedicated to. It has not served up equal justices yet, it has not served up “equal under the law” — we’re not as fast as the next guy, and not as attractive, and we’re overweight, and we don’t all look the same, but under the law, we are promised equal justice under the law, equal opportunity. So I think that’s as conservative as you can get.
Now, do I care about people who don’t have that? Do I acknowledge that there are people who are born into circumstances where they do not have that at all and should? Yes. And my heart bleeds. So I consider myself a bleeding-heart conservative.
Shifting topics a bit, Good Times stars Esther Rolle and John Amosfamouslydisputed the example that the J.J. character set for black people on TV. What went wrong in your opinion, and if you could do the show again, would you do it in the same way?
Well, 95 percent of the time they were thrilled and we agreed. Five percent of the time, they didn’t like it.
It was a heavy burden for Esther Rolle and John Amos. In addition to being the stars they were, they were the first African Americans representing their race as parents on a TV show. I thought they were right a lot of the time, and wrong some of the time, because they were too sensitive to that, and to the quality of the script and the show. And maybe it was a little against the grain, but that’s the way theater works, and, in my vision, that’s the way it’s meant to be.
Esther and John had real reasons to wish to see changes, and we worked together to make them. And then in the respect that I was just talking about, they had a lot of weight that they needed help with carrying. And so we sat down at one time and I said: “Look. I wasn’t born black,I’ll leave all of those things, the patina of this family, to you guys. But I too am a father and a husband and a brother and a son, I’m all the things that males are, white or black, and I’m going to have to make some of those decisions where we disagree, the buck will stop with me.” So we went over lots of things in that direction, and when it came to the place where the buck had to stop, it stopped with me.
The creators on Good Times were two African Americans. We’re in a time when severalmajorseries creators are talking about making their writing rooms more diverse. Were you concerned about diversity in your writers’ rooms when you were a TV executive?
There weren’t as many African Americans, for one, or Asians seeking to be writers at that time. I’m doing a show right now, a Latino version of One Day at a Time, and there are 15 writers, including the showrunners, sitting around a table at Sony right now. We were on Netflix last year for 13 episodes, the show is, in my opinion, terrific, I love it, and we’re working on the second. We have Latino and black writers — it’s a very mixed group of writers.
Another new project you’re working on is the comedy Guess Who Died? In a New York TimesOp-Doc last year, you said that you wanted to do it because senior citizens are underrepresented on TV. When did that start to strike you?
Maybe 25 years ago, I had the same idea, and the same thinking behind it, and I thought I would do an animated show that is basically the same show I’m doing now, but animated. And I did a five- or six-minute animated piece and I had Anne Bancroft and Kirk Douglas — some wonderful actors — doing voiceovers. And I called it ’Til the Fat Lady Sings. I’ve wanted to do it for all these years.
Why is it only starting to happen now?
I think it’s that Op-Doc, basically. I wrote this script — the same script that we’re doing now — seven years ago. This is another draft — I’ve hired a wonderful writer to work with me — but it’s basically the same. It went to everybody, they all thought it was funny as hell, but what I kept hearing from all the people I know at the networks and the cable stations and so forth was, “Oh, it’s funny, it’s just not our demographic.” “Not our demographic” — that was the ruling phrase.
How did you respond to them saying “Not our demographic”?
I think it’s funny, I’ve said [this] to everybody, I don’t think about demographics that way. A children’s show can have a children’s audience, that’s one thing, if it’s intended, anyway. But I’ve never done anything that I didn’t intend to be funny for everybody.
You’ve often said in interviews that you see comedy everywhere. Is there anything in our current political and social climate that makes you feel very serious?
Most of the subjects we dealt with [on my shows] were very serious. Wherever you see a human being, you see the foolishness of the human condition. I remember, when I was really young, being at a very sad funeral, and the casket was being lowered into the grave; only maybe 30 of us were standing around. But the person closest to the deceased, standing in front of me, evidently had to scratch her ass. So when you’re standing there in front of that circumstance as a kid, somebody in that situation is hilarious to the individual observing it in that moment.
What are the political or social issues that you think TV shows should address today and turn into comedy now?
Comics on late-night TV, they’re all dealing with the foolishness of the human condition as we’re watching it in the White House now. But certainly, we need to be talking about the president a lot more than we are, and Congress needs to fess up about their concerns about where we’re heading. We need leadership, a dad in office. At my age, and my experience, and my level of sophistication, and so on and so forth, I still need a father in the White House, and it doesn’t matter his age.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.