In the '70s, Norman Lear's name was practically synonomous with television: After his groundbreaking sitcom All In The Family became an Emmy-winner and a runaway hit in 1971, he followed it up with a string of social dramas that redefined TV comedy. After an early start in the '50s writing for variety shows, Lear co-launched a production company and produced and scripted a handful of '60s films, directing one—Cold Turkey, starring Dick Van Dyke—himself in 1971. After several false starts in the late '60s, Lear's loosely autobiographical TV series All In The Family also launched in 1971, briefly sputtering before rallying to become television's number-one ratings hit. Lear followed it with the spin-offs Maude and The Jeffersons, simultaneously producing shows like Sanford And Son, Good Times, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, among many others. In an era when black actors rarely appeared on TV, Lear produced and scripted sitcoms that not only centered on black families, but addressed racism, prejudice, bigotry, and other leading social issues once deemed too controversial for entertainment TV. He was known for his close involvement with his shows, even at the height of his popularity, when he was working on half a dozen or more programs at once.
In the '80s, Lear dropped out of television entirely, selling his production company, founding the liberal public-interest group People For The American Way, and becoming a full-time activist. He has since occasionally ventured back into entertainment, producing films and such shows as the failed 1994 All In The Family spin-off 704 Hauser, but his primary work has been in championing the same sorts of social issues that he once brought to America in comedy form. The Onion A.V. Club recently caught up with the 82-year-old Lear and spoke to him about his legacy, the link between television entertainment and social change, the recent box sets of his famous series, and his current pet causes.
The Onion: It's been said that you had more influence on the shape of American television than anyone else in history. Without arguing whether that's true, is there anything you wish you'd done differently?
Norman Lear: Well, first let me address the postulation. You know, you throw rocks in the lake and scientists will tell you you're raising the level of the lake, but all you get to see is the ripple. So the ripple I got to see was people telling me, "Oh, when that show is over, we talk. My dad looks like him. My uncle looks like him. Oh, how we talked." That's what I saw. I didn't see it changing television at all. We had a Judeo-Christian ethic hanging around a couple thousand years that didn't help erase racism at all. So the notion of the little half-hour comedy changing things is something I think is silly.
O: Well, even if you didn't change society, your style of television was pioneering. It had a different look, a different feel from the other shows of that era.
NL: We were doing a one-act play. When we went on the air, I didn't want to be interrupted for an act-one curtain. I wanted to just do a one-act play for 26 minutes, with commercials at the beginning and end. For years, I couldn't get my way. They wanted to interrupt three times.
O: You did eventually get the clout to demand the single commercial break. How were you able to make that happen?
NL: It's an ancient American adage, "Nobody fucks with success." We got ratings. It isn't that they won't quarrel with you, or say you're always right. But as long as you stay strong and the ratings are good and you're reasonable—I don't think we fought unreasonably. We basically won that right.
O: What else did you have to fight for, apart from fewer commercial breaks?
NL: What we were doing. "You can't do that subject. And you can't do that subject. And he can't say this. And she can't say that." "Program Practices" was the euphemism for "censor." There were constant battles about what you could and couldn't address.
O: Do you think that entertainment television is an effective tool of social change?
NL: Yes. I recall somebody coming out here from Harvard, not just to our shows, but all the shows, to talk about—his cause was seatbelts. And he got the police shows, and whatever shows were dealing with cars, to have the characters buckle up their seatbelts. And the car companies and whoever was involved in that cause gave it full credit for helping people understand the need for seatbelts, or to just automatically buckle up. So in a personal way… We did an episode on Good Times which came out of a newspaper article about the incidence of hypertension in black males being higher than whites, and increasing. So we did a show in which James, the father on Good Times, had hypertension. By the time we went into reruns, we knew that we had to have an advisory at the end of it, advising where people could turn for help. Because we had had so many calls on the first show that were unanticipated. There were lots of examples of that.
O: How do you feel about Samuel Goldwyn's adage, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union"?
NL: That was something that was said to me. Because I was accused of sending messages, that's what they said to me.
O: Did you consciously sit down at times and say, "Here's a message we want to get across, so we need to write it into a show"?
NL: No. What we wanted to say came after, "How do we make them laugh?" We talked about wanting to cream an audience. We wanted to bring them to their knees. Originally, with all the shows, we went looking for belly laughs. It crossed our minds early on that the more an audience cared—we were working before, on average, 240, live people. If you could get them caring—the more they cared, the harder they laughed. Unless it was just knock-down, drag-out comedy, physical comedy. So we gravitated to shows and issues and causes that made people care. Then, of course, we had a point of view on them. So that's where a "message" might have come from. But making them laugh was the charge.
O: Which do you think is more important? Leading people to an enlightened response on a difficult issue, or just getting them talking and discussing opinions on their own?
NL: I think getting them talking. I don't know that you change minds, but you get them talking, and in the course of a longer conversation, longer than a 26-minute television show, somebody may change somebody else's mind. But the talking, the airing of it, is all to the good.
O: Do you think that TV's effectiveness as a medium for social change has changed since the '70s, for better or worse?
NL: I don't have much of an answer for that. I don't know. You'd have to ask current practitioners. I think for television generally, the question that often arises is, "Does television lead, or does it follow?" You know, does it lead the conversation, or culture, or does it follow what's going on? And I think it does both. Sometimes it will take an issue that is very small, or not well known, and it will lead in presenting it, and often it will take something that's going on and follow along. But what you can count on it to do most of the time, especially in news, is exacerbate anything that's going on. Let's say it leads, it starts something. If it's successful, everybody will follow it, and it will exacerbate the situation. So there must be a lot of kids who follow the name and don't really follow the issue much, who think Scott Peterson is a hero.
O: The leading-vs.-following question often surfaces in discussions of TV violence. Is it true you've always been uncomfortable with the level of violence on TV?
NL: Well, it's the exacerbation. We are a country of excess. So it's not the violence, per se, but the exacerbation and constant repetition.
O: The common response from TV creators is "We're just showing what's really happening in society. We have to be realistic about what's going on in the world."
NL: Well, I think they're saying it wrong. I don't think that's where it's at. What's the saying, "We just give them what they want"? Here's how it works. TV that people will never see, that giant international corporations will never touch, will never pay your salary. You're in the business—when you're a writer, producer, director—to get ratings. Ratings translate into corporations, corporations that need a profit statement this quarter that's larger than the last. At great, great remove sit the head of General Electric, the head of News Corp, the head of Viacom, or the head of this giant international corporation that wants these ratings. So it's basically supply and demand. Granted, the writers, directors, producers, and that community make a great deal of money. But they might be choosing to do a whole lot of other things for the living they make. The trafficking of sex and violence is comes after the demand for ratings.
O: Do you have any theory about what could be done to improve the situation? Does the TV industry need to find a way to make ethics or morality profitable, or is that impossible?
NL: I think the greater responsibility, in terms of morality, is where leadership begins. In the area we're discussing, leadership begins on Madison Avenue, on the desks and in the offices of people who spend hundreds of millions of dollars buying what will get them ratings. I think the moral responsibility begins there. In this nation, leadership is dollars. The people responsible for the dollars that will buy the sex and violence so many deplore, don't even know what's going—well, of course they know. But they're comfortably ensconced in their country clubs and churches, and very far removed from the decisions that are made on their behalf.
O: You've referred to your best-known characters—Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, Fred Sanford, Maude Finley, and Mary Hartman—as "the five least wise characters I've ever met." What was the philosophy behind centering so many shows around essentially ignorant people?
NL: That line is often a laugh line in talks I give when I'm talking to educators. I have said, "Thank you for your honor. It comes as a surprise—after all, I'm the fellow who brought you arguably some of the least educated characters out there." So it's been a laugh line. Not that that's not true, but I didn't sit down to write about uneducated people. [Laughs.] It wasn't a goal.
O: But it is a pattern for you. Why does that setup work?
NL: Well, they're all family shows—they're all about families, and they're all about America. That's how I grew up. Those are my people, all of them. My family argued at the top of their lungs and on the edge of their nerves, forever. That's what they did, so that was my experience. But it also became the experience, or was the experience, of the writers who were attracted to this kind of humor. They're all men or women who come from the same kind of experience in their own lives. So we were reading the newspapers and scraping the barrels of our own experiences.
O: It's hard not to look back on the shows and see the intent of exposing a wider audience to bigotry, racism, and ignorance. Was that ever an intention?
NL: I don't know if it began as one, but I couldn't, as the press and others commented on it, be unaware of it. But you know, my dad called me the laziest white kid he ever met. When I screamed back at him that he was putting down a race of people to call me lazy, his answer was that's not what he was doing, and that I was also the dumbest white kid he ever met. So I grew up with that. And as far as the epithets, and language, and everything else, you could hear that in any schoolyard. So, to me, it was nothing all that different—and, by the way, to the American people, because the letters basically came to me, and it wasn't what any network expected.
O: If you were just reflecting back what people saw in their daily lives, why were these shows so controversial?
NL: They weren't that controversial. That's the heart of it: My shows were not that controversial with the American people. They were controversial with the people who think for the American people. That's a very hard thing to help the establishment know. We're still an establishment that thinks the average mentality is something like 13 years of age, that never forgot H.L. Mencken's notion that nobody lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people. That's the horseshit the establishment has always lived with.
The American people may not be the best-educated, but they're very wise at heart. I remember making a picture called Cold Turkey, before All In The Family, in Winterset, Iowa. There were a couple of shop owners on the town square that everybody knew, and I knew very well, who were gay and had been living together for a great many years. And it was no big deal in the town. From that moment, I thought of Iowa as my second home. And when they used to say, "This will never fly in Des Moines," or "There'll be a knee-jerk reaction in the Bible Belt if you do this," I would say, "Don't tell me that. I come from the Bible Belt, and I'm a son of Des Moines." There was no real controversy with All In The Family. That came from the people on the business end.
O: Speaking from a profit perspective, though, hasn't the television industry proved that appealing to the lowest common denominator—with reality TV, say, or Jerry Springer—is hugely profitable? There's certainly an audience for shows that follow the Mencken philosophy.
NL: Well, you can get me that way, too. I stop and look at traffic accidents. I won't hang around, but when I hear something is terrible, as bad as it is, I've gotta look at it. I looked at enough of American Idol in the first weeks, and they're all about humiliation. I listen to Rush Limbaugh because I find it so repulsive. There are people with a little less sophistication who watch a lot of it, because we allow things to appeal to our baser instincts. But at the same moment, give me a little choice, and I'll make a better decision, because I have that ability too. And so does everybody else.
O: It's said that shows like All In The Family and The Jeffersons appealed equally to people who enjoyed laughing at the bigotry and people who shared it. Was the latter group ever a problem for you?
NL: No, that group was not a problem. I never got a piece of mail, ever, that was all about, "Right on, Archie!" that didn't somewhere call me a horse's ass, or tell me to go back where I came from, or call me a Jew bastard. They always got the message. Maybe they continued to agree with Archie Bunker—as I said earlier, you can't change people's minds, but you can get them to think. So these people thought I should go back where I came from. [Laughs.] They knew what we were really all about.
O: You mentioned Cold Turkey, which was the only film you ever directed. How did that come about?
NL: Well that's interesting. I wrote, produced, and directed that. I had made All In The Family for ABC in 1968. They wouldn't put it on. They laughed like hell, but they were afraid of it. They forced me to make it again in 1969, under a contractual obligation. So I made the same script, exactly, with the same two people. Then they still wouldn't put it on. I had to wait a year to do something else with the script if they didn't want it, according to the contract. So I made Cold Turkey in that period. When Cold Turkey was 90 percent edited and completed, the heads of United Artists saw it and loved it and offered me a three-picture deal to write, produce, and direct three films. In the same week, a new president of CBS called me and offered to put that pilot on the air. Although the waiting was worthwhile, because I had to get two different young people, and that's when Rob [Reiner] and Sally [Struthers] got involved with the show. That's also why I was able to say some "no's" to the network and seem kind of brave. It wasn't all that brave, I had a three-picture deal at United Artists. I elected to do All In The Family instead, because of my feelings for the characters, as a result of growing up with my own dad. So that's what happened.
O: You talk about entertainment like you've gotten out of it entirely, but you did a bunch of TV work in the '90s. What was it like coming back to television for those series after primarily working as an activist?
NL: It was great. Life is about having a good time, and it was a good time. We did some things well and some things poorly, but that was always the case.
O: You recently worked as a consultant on a couple of episodes of South Park. What was your role?
NL: Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] are good friends. They were coming up on their 100th episode. They simply asked if I'd be willing to spend a day or two with them on their 100th episode. So that's what I did, but in the course of a couple of days, we tossed around so many ideas—and the way they work, I don't think anybody remembers later whose idea was what. It seemed to them I might have contributed to, I don't know what their season is, six or eight shows. So they gave me credit for the season, but I spent two days with them. That's all.
O: What do you think of their work?
NL: I love what they do. I think it's sensational.
O: Is there other television on these days that you think is particularly outstanding, or that you're particularly drawn to?
NL: I have a 16-year-old son, so we're joined at the hip where comedy is concerned. So we watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and South Park. Family Guy. Ali G. These are shows that, with TiVo, we can be faithful to.
O: Just in the past couple of years, a lot of your old work has resurfaced, thanks to the proliferation of DVD box sets. How do you think it plays 30 years later for a new generation?
NL: I'm hearing all the time from young people who are watching The Jeffersons or Good Times or All In The Family. So those shows are working for them. And they'll always work, because they're brilliantly played. These actors are funny. Funny is funny is funny. Even when they don't know who Nixon was, these shows will continue to play.
O: What prompted the move from full-time TV work to full-time activism?
NL: I don't think of that so much as a change. All the full-time activism has been nothing but a production. We've been traveling with a copy of the Declaration of Independence. We married to it the performance of two, then four, then six spoken-word poets. We went to Philadelphia with a group of stars and Conrad Hall, one of America's great cinematographers, and photographed them doing a reading of the Declaration in Independence Hall, which has now been seen by millions. It's all a production. So it doesn't feel all that different.
O: So the career transition has been smooth for you?
NL: Oh, well, yes. Yeah. I started to say, "I don't even think of it as a transition." Life goes on pretty much the same way. I've been working on a couple of films on the side. You may see some more. You may even see another television show.
O: Working in what sense? Are you producing or writing?
NL: A little of both. A lot of producing. A little of writing.
O: As an activist and foundation head, do you ever get any blowback from your TV career? Do those two things ever get in each other's way?
NL: No, they don't. They inform each other and seem to aid each other. That's the truth, in my life anyway. I don't know how it works for anybody else. I guess because the shows were activist in their own way—the marriage of my public activism and my career activism, you know—people understand me very well. They also understand there's a very strong bipartisan part in all of this. I've tried to present both sides. That's what we did when we were touring the Declaration also. It was altogether nonpartisan. Nobody doubts my partisanship, but a lot of the activity is nonpartisan.
O: What would you say is the most important single cause you're working on today?
NL: Immediately, it's saving the filibuster. I say "immediately" as a result of reading a couple of things over the weekend and realizing how dangerous the issue is. The complete control of one party over everything—I would, I think, feel the same way if it were [the Democrats in charge]. It's not the American way. So the filibuster is the major issue for me today.
O: Getting back to that very first question, in light of your career and how it's gone, is there anything that you'd do different if you had to do it all over again?
NL: You know, I don't think about… Of course, if had to sit down, there'd be… No! The basic answer to it is "no," because I think if you're feeling great about where you are, everything that led up to it had to be terrific. When I got married for the third time, and I had children from my other marriage there, that's what I said when it came time in the ceremony for me to say something. I said, "I'm grateful to everybody that participated, everybody that participated in my life that got me to this moment. And everything was dead-right because everything is right now." I don't know how you can look back with regret if you're at a moment when everything seems fine.