advertisement
advertisement

Norman Lear On The Nature Of Belly Laughs, The Stories All Around You, And Shaping TV As We Know It

The creative mastermind behind sitcoms like All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and Maude talks about everything from mining his own life for material to his desire to bring diversity to television to his refusal to bow down to the demands of network executives.

Norman Lear On The Nature Of Belly Laughs, The Stories All Around You, And Shaping TV As We Know It
All In The Family Cast with show creator Norman Lear, Center [Photo: CBS, Getty Images]

He’s telling his story, and, frankly, it’s about time.

advertisement

At the age of 92, Norman Lear has finally published a memoir titled Even This I Get to Experience, and for anyone interested in learning how an entertainment legend wrote and produced so much iconic television, it’s a must read.

Norman Lear

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Lear revolutionized television back in the 1970s when he introduced audiences to shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Sanford and Son, Good Times, and One Day at a Time. All of these sitcoms made people laugh while dealing head-on with controversial issues ranging from race relations to the Vietnam War to abortion.

Before Lear changed the game, television was generally much more polite, and touchy subjects were mostly avoided.

As you might imagine, Lear, who also produced the brilliant soap opera/social satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, faced a lot of obstacles on his path as a trailblazer. To wit: It took him three years to get All in the Family, which was inspired by a British series called Till Death Us Do Part, on the air because, well, it was hard to sell a show about a cranky bigot. Once All in the Family made it on to CBS’s lineup, Lear routinely battled with network executives, who chafed at some of the storylines and language, as well as series star Carroll O’Connor, who had opinions of his own and wasn’t above threatening to shut down production when he was given material he didn’t like.

Book cover

Lear looks back on his creative highs and lows in Even This I Get to Experience, also shedding light on his personal life, and that’s quite a story, too. It turns out his childhood was anything but carefree. In fact, when he was just nine years old, his father Herman K. Lear got sent to jail for selling fake bonds, and Lear’s rather distant mother Jeanette Lear sent her son off to live with relatives until his dad was released and the family reunited.

The influence of those formative childhood events and his relationships with both of his parents would later be seen in his work–Archie Bunker was famously modeled on Lear’s father, and the clashes that Archie had with his son-in-law Mike, or Meathead as Archie called him, were inspired by Lear’s conflicts with his father.

advertisement

Here, Lear, who founded People for the American Way–an advocacy group for liberal causes–after he left television, talks to Co.Create about why his own life made for such good material back in the day, why it was important to him to champion diversity on television and why sometimes even the most difficult creative partnerships are worth preserving.

The Jeffersons

Co.Create: You’ve been doing a lot of interviews in recent weeks to promote your memoir. Is it strange for you to do these interviews because . . . how do I put this? All these years you’ve talked to us through your characters–your television characters–and now you are actually talking, and you are talking about yourself and sharing your own story and thoughts.

Norman Lear: You know that you’re picking up, Christine, on something few people pick up on. It took me a long time when I was writing the book to pick up on it myself that I had these characters talking for me.

When I read your book, I didn’t expect it to be so personal. I thought it was going to be a bunch of show business stories, which, of course, I wanted to hear, but I was so glad that you also told us so much about your background. I was surprised how much I related to your personal story. I grew up in New England not far from where you did, and I went to Emerson College.

Oh, yeah? Did you graduate? [Lear attended Emerson College but didn’t graduate. He left school after two years to enlist in the Air Force during World War II.]

Yes, I graduated. I wish that you had written this book years ago when I was still at Emerson because I could have used the inspiration. It was great to see how you created this incredible career and life for yourself despite a rough start in life.

advertisement

I think it’s hard to be a human being, and we all have our struggles in one way or another. Obviously, some people in this world have it far worse than I had it. I don’t think it’s easy being a human being for anybody, and that’s the nature of the game.

Maude

In your book, you write about how your relationship with your father inspired characters like Archie on All in the Family as well as storylines on different shows like Maude, including one where she tells her therapist the story about what her father went through to get her a nice coat to wear to her prom, though in your real life, your father didn’t get you a coat–he chased you down on the highway to make sure you could drive your date to New York City in his car. I was surprised at how much you pulled from your own life. What made you decide as a writer to mine your past, and were other television writers really doing that at the time, or was it unique for you to be doing that?

Yes, there were a lot of stories like that. Well, I think I say in the book that what when I used to talk to the various teams we pulled together on the various shows, I enjoyed the using the expression “scraping the barrel of our own experience.”

I said, “Let’s all pay attention to our kids and what they’re going through, to our wives or husbands and what they’re going through, and the country and the culture and the cities we live in, what impacts our daily lives.” That’s where we drew our material.

There’s no need to reach for stories. They’re pressing on you in every direction.

Going back to the days before you were writing and producing sitcoms, you wrote for some of the big variety shows that were so popular on television in what were the early days of the medium, and you collaborated a writing partner named Ed Simmons when you were both starting out in Hollywood. Do you think it was helpful for you as a young writer to have a creative partner to work with, and how did you work together writing all of these comedy bits for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and all the other talents you wrote for?

advertisement

Well, I think somewhere in the book I say–if I didn’t, I should have–that I was, to the extent that our partnership had a thrust, I provided the thrust. A lot of what we did was my expression, but I needed the other guy, and I wouldn’t have done it without the other guy, and I can see that looking back.

If you were giving advice to someone starting out writing for television today, would you recommend buddying up with someone and being part of a team?

It depends on what your needs are. I mean, there are writers who obviously couldn’t get along that way.

I never wrote in a room with anybody. When Simmons and I were writing together, he would write an act, I would write an act. I had much more of a tendency to rewrite his to match mine than he had, but we never sat in the same room.

The same thing was true for me when there were bunches of writers on all the shows. When I actually wrote, I wrote alone.

Did you thrive on deadline pressure? You describe yourself as a “last-clutch” writer in the book and write about sitting at the typewriter churning out scripts just before they were due.

advertisement

I was for a great many years, yeah, until somebody suggested I dictate. It was a therapist I saw who said after some months of me talking to him, “You’ve got 50 people in a room, and somebody yells fire, and everybody runs to one small door. Everybody doesn’t get out of that room if that fire is very active.”

He said, “If everybody had not crammed the door, they could have gone out two, three, four at a time, and you can arrange them any way you want, blondes, brunettes, by height, by weight, but you can arrange them later. Think of your ideas that way, Norman. Let them out of the door, and then worry about arranging them.”

The Jeffersons

So did you suffer from writer’s block? I assumed ideas were always flowing given your creative output over the years.

Well, I called it “shit in the head,” but it was writer’s block, yeah. That’s when I was given that advice about using a tape recorder.

Okay, so speaking your ideas out loud, dictating them, freed you from writer’s block, or “shit in the head” as you would say.

Yes, because I wasn’t trapped into looking at something that should have been written before the other thing, you know. I wasn’t looking at three paragraphs in the wrong order.

advertisement

You tackled a lot of controversial topics from race relations to war to sex on your sitcoms. Can you talk about why it was important to you to do that? I thought it was interesting in your book how you wrote that would defend yourself, at first, by saying it was really all about humor, but then you later came to realize and accept the fact that there was nothing wrong with you actually wanting to make points about various topics and issues that mattered to you through your comedy.

Yeah. It always was from the first day about writing funny. But I’m a serious guy, so I write from a serious point of view and look for the laughs where we could be the most serious.

I learned early on that when people care, and you move them to laugh, when they’re caring and they laugh, that’s where the belly laughs come from unless it’s sheer tomfoolery, which I like also.

But as a serious person I look for serious subjects and wanted an audience involved and then laughing. So that’s where that came from.

All in the Family

Talk about creative integrity: I think that you might have had more showdowns with network executives than anyone else in TV history in terms of defending your work, especially with All in the Family. Why was it so important for you to stand up for yourself even over the smallest things as opposed to just giving in? That would have been easier. You still could have done well for yourself.

In an ongoing relationship, if one gives in to something silly, which the script could easily get along without but your conviction tells you it’s good, you know you’re going to lose every other moment that follows.

advertisement

I never looked at those as big Titanic arguments. They were, for the most part, silly. Archie leaves the church early on a Sunday morning because he couldn’t stand the preacher, and he walks in his house, and the kids [Gloria and Mike] are ready to make love, or look like they’re ready to make love, and he says, “11:10 on a Sunday morning!” And the network wants that out even though they’re married–I mean, it was plain silly.

My script could have lived without the line, but somehow I understood that if I give on that moment, I’m going to give on silly things forever. So I had to have that showdown.

Was All in the Family the show that you had the most conflicts with the network over, or did you have just as many regarding series like Maude and Sanford and Son?

There were issues on most of my shows. There were issues on One Day at a Time, Sanford and Son. By the way, I had very little to do with that show other than casting Fred Sanford. My partner Bud Yorkin–he had much more to do with the show than I did.

Casting Redd Foxx was an amazing move. It was common to cast comedians on television at the time, but Redd Foxx had a pretty raunchy live act. Were you one of the first people to take a comedian like him and give him a starring role on a television series?

I don’t know, but it’s likely.

advertisement

Was Redd excited about doing television even though he couldn’t be quite as outrageous as he was on stage?

Yeah, he was. It was very difficult to keep him from being raunchy. So much of the rehearsal was raunchy because that was his nature, but he couldn’t be like that on the air, and he knew that.

Aside from comedians, you also discovered and brought talent to television from the theater. You have a knack for casting and made so many people stars over the years.

Yeah, I love the theater, and I saw a lot of theater, and a lot of off-off-off-Broadway theater. My friend, Jack Rollins, who was an agent and a manager–he managed Woody Allen, and Nichols and May [the comedy duo of Mike Nichols and Elaine May] and so forth–he led me. He used to take me to these off-off-Broadway shows. So Rue McClanahan or Conrad Bain–I’d seen all of them in New York off-Broadway shows. Bill Macy and Adrienne Barbeau, etc.

John Amos and Esther Rolle as the parents on Good Times

I think one of the best, and most underrated, duos you ever cast for television was Esther Rolle and John Amos as the parents on Good Times. Good Times is one of my favorite shows of all time. One of the highlights of my career thus far was meeting John Amos at The Television Critics Association Press Tour. His character was the ultimate father figure for me, and it was such a thrill to meet him. You really changed the landscape of television in the 1970s in terms of diversity. Why were you so interested in making sure black people were represented on television?

We have to deal with the things that are happening in our culture, in our society. If you’re thinking that way, you can’t miss wanting to understand why there were so few black people on television. Adjacent to that would be, well, let’s do something. I felt that way.

advertisement

The one place that, as hard as I tried, I didn’t get it going right, or the network got wrong, I don’t know who was wrong, but when I did a.k.a. Pablo. It was out of the same desire to have a Mexican or a Latino family on the air, and that still hasn’t been done as it should be given the size of the Latino audience now.

I thought I knew all of your shows, but you write about a television series called Hot l Baltimore [think Hotel Baltimore but with the “e” missing] in the book. It didn’t last, but it ran on ABC in 1975, and there was a gay couple in it. The guys were actually one of the first gay couples to be portrayed on television. Was having a gay couple on the show a hard sell to the network at the time?

The whole show was a hard sell. Putting that on the air, or getting a network to back it up, was hard because there were two hookers in the show, and a woman who had a crazy son off camera and the two gay guys, but there wasn’t anything that I can remember specific to the gay situation. They were great, those two guys [Lee Bergere and Henry Calvert played the gay couple]. I think I tell the story that Michael Eisner, who was then running the network, never missed a taping.

I was quite impressed with Eisner when I read that in the book. He gave you a lot of encouragement. You must have appreciated a network executive like that.

I did. It made him very special to me, always.

Can I ask how you came to be such an open-minded person? I ask just because when you grew up, gay people weren’t necessarily out let alone accepted. Why you are so accepting?

advertisement

I think probably from finding out at nine years old that I wasn’t acceptable to an awful lot of people because my parents were Jewish, and I was born into a Jewish family, and my father was away [in jail].

Those were years when civics was being taught, and I fell absolutely in love with the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, the First Amendment, all of that stuff, and it really took hold. Coming out of my generation I didn’t understand as much about gays and lesbians, but I was open, and even while I was accepting back then, I didn’t understand it as deeply as I do now.

While you had some failures, you were overwhelmingly successful in creating hit television shows. At one point, during the ’74-’75 season, you had All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Good Times, and Maude all on the air in top 10.

And One Day at a Time was on the air.

How did you not get an ulcer all these years? Or did you get an ulcer? You had a lot of creative product to juggle, and there must have been so much pressure to make sure every show was the best it could be.

No, no, I never got an ulcer. [He laughs.] I write [in the book] of joyful stress, and my stress has all been joyful.

advertisement
Sanford and Son

While I was reading the book, I got the feeling that you never felt like being creative and writing and producing for television as well as film was a job in the conventional sense. It was simply something that you loved to do.

Well, you know, there’s a definition of happiness that I subscribe to–happiness is the exercise of your vital abilities along lines of excellence in a life that affords them scope.

You’re happy if you’re doing your thing, reaching toward excellence, not necessarily achieving it, but reaching in a life that allows that, and I never believed anything more. You can’t make the next guy happy, and he or she can’t make you happy. That comes out of exercising your vital abilities.

I was recently reading a story somewhere about how striving for happiness isn’t necessarily the best idea, it’s more about striving for a purpose in life, and you have clearly had a purpose in life. It’s kind of wonderful how you have made a life for yourself making people laugh and enlightening them, too.

I have to remember what you said because that couldn’t be more important. It pays off because it makes you feel good. It isn’t a selfless gesture. You can say there’s selfishness as well as selflessness in it.

I think a little selfishness is okay. Don’t you?

advertisement

A little selfishness… A lot of selfishness is okay!

This is unrelated, but I wanted to ask you about this: In the book, you write about how a couple of days after Carroll O’Connor auditioned for the role of Archie Bunker, he came back to you and told you he had done some work on the script. He had rewritten the first act entirely and said he was working on the second act. I was pretty shocked when I read that. Now, some producers might have been like, “Oh, this guy’s going to be too difficult to work with, so I am going to dump him,” but you didn’t do that. You must believe that some creative partnerships are worth fighting for even if they might be difficult, right?

Oh, yeah. Of course.

Can you tell me more about why you valued your relationship with O’Connor and wanted to keep it going even though it was clear from the start it wasn’t always going to be smooth sailing? O’Connor could be so outrageously difficult. There was that one time when he initially refused to shoot an episode that pretty much took place inside of an elevator because he was convinced it just wouldn’t work. That was pretty nervy.

Sitting there writing that character I could never have imagined Carroll O’Connor’s Archie Bunker. I don’t remember what I had in mind, and maybe I had 13 different ways or ideas that I would recognize when I saw it, but to be specific with a Carroll O’Connor kind of performance as Archie Bunker, never.

I wrote a character, and he inhabited it. He was half of that effort. I heard him read a page, and I was totally committed. I would not have worked with him had he insisted that he had to do his script, but so long as I could find a way to work with him, I had to, and, by the way, I don’t mean for a second to say he was always wrong.

The way he engaged caused some conversations that helped the scripts, but when we disagreed about something as important as the elevator story, which I use as an illustration [in the book], it was not unlike fighting the network about something, you know?

Good Times

If you had a magic wand and could do a creative re-do, is there one thing that you would do over? I don’t think you would do anything differently, but I am asking anyway.

I wouldn’t only because it’s quite obvious that it took everything I’ve been through to get here, and I like here.

About the author

Christine Champagne is a New York City-based journalist best known for covering creativity in television and film, interviewing the talent in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes. She has written for outlets including Emmy, Variety, VanityFair.com, Redbook, Time Out New York and TVSquad.com.

More