When Norman Lear appeared on The Daily Show at the end of last year, Jon Stewart spoke for just about all of the show’s more grizzled viewers when he greeted the famed TV producer with the words: “I want to thank you for raising me.”
It was only a slight exaggeration of the impact Lear and his work have had on the multiple generations of people whose brains, comic sensibilities, and cultural references were forever shaped by the characters and the sitcom form that Lear invented. After writing for some of the biggest TV names of the ’50s and ’60s, in 1971, Lear co-created All in the Family, a show that redefined prime-time comedy and upended the era’s conventions concerning the portrayal of American families and American issues on television. In the following years (and for years after that via syndication) he dominated North American TV with a string of hit shows including Sanford and Son, Maude, The Jeffersons, One Day At A Time, Good Times, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. And those who never directly experienced Lear’s creations in reruns are still feeling his comedic impact though through the work of the TV pioneers he influenced (like Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, Roseanne creator Roseanne Barr and South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker).
Lear finally captured the story of his TV life in his 2014 memoir, Even This I Get To Experience (read more about it in our interview with Lear here).
The book is a must-read for anyone interested in how those iconic characters came to be, and in the creative process generally. But beyond the riveting tales of how Lear got the bigoted Archie Bunker, and discussions of race, abortion and war on the air intact, the book simply offers an amazing story of an amazing life–from a difficult childhood in Connecticut, a stint as a B-17 bomber crew in World War II, and job as a press agent, to early work writing for stars like Danny Thomas and Dean Martin Jerry Lewis, social activism and the creation of advocacy group People for the American Way.
With Lear turning 93 years old this week, what better time to present some timeless advice from the prodigious writer and producer? We sat down with Lear in his Hollywood office where he shared the story of how he overcame his persistent writer’s block–what he calls “shit in the head”–while working the film Come Blow Your Horn.