One of my heroes has died at the grand old age of 101, I'm afraid. Though his heyday--I defining "heyday" here as when he achieved his greatest renown-- was in the 1970s, television writer/producer Norman Lear stayed in the public eye almost right up until the end. At 99 he was there as actress Marla Gibbs (who was in two of Lear's shows: The Jeffersons and 227) received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and at 100 was one of the recently deceased Bob Saget's pallbearers. Lear also was a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, guest-starred (his voice anyway) on South Park, and did more interviews, more symposiums, and more college lectures than almost anyone else, even I think outpacing a certain former and recently expired secretary of state in the same age range who was also much in demand. The years before the heyday could be pretty interesting, too. Lear and his brother-in-law Ed Simmons started out in the early 1950s writing for Martin and Lewis on the Colgate Comedy Hour, suffusing their vaudeville-like clowning with a bit of social satire. Lear and Simmons later moved on to shows hosted by Martha Raye, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and George Gobel, before a disagreement on how to proceed careerwise caused them to go their separate ways. Not too long after, Lear and a director of the Colgate show by the name of Bud Yorkin formed their owned company, the now-legendary (at least to me) Tandem Productions. One early, and given the rest of Lear's career, uncharacteristic success was Andy Williams' 1960s variety show. However, their most notable feats in that era, as either writers, directors, or simply as producers, were on the big screen: Come Blow Your Horn, Divorce American Style, The Night They Raided Minsky's, Start the Revolution Without Me, and Cold Turkey. Indeed, they could have and would have had a nice long career in motion pictures if a certain British sitcom about a working-class bigot in constant conflict with his lefty son-in-law titled Til Death Us Do Part had not come to their attention.
If the premise of Til Death Us Do Part sounds familiar to all you Americans watching the boob tube back in the '70s, that's because Lear, having obtained the U.S. rights to the series, turned it into the phenomenally popular All in the Family. Soon after came Sanford and Son (based on the Britcom Steptoe and Son), Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. Eschewing the then-prevailing notion that when American TV viewers turned on the set, they wanted nothing that resembled the world as it is when the set is turned off, Lear shows dealt with such topics as race relations, class conflict, divorce, abortion, sexual orientation, gender dysphoria, unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, drug abuse, anti-Semitism, the Ku Klux Klan, gun control and the lack thereof, religious hucksterism, domestic violence, campus unrest, elder abuse, child abandonment, teenage pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, the Vietnam War and its aftermath (which never rated a mention on Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C.), wife-swapping, rape, cancer, mental illness, suicide, and euthanasia. Pretty heavy stuff, huh? Yet these were COMEDIES. You were expected to LAUGH at all this superduper seriousness. And, thanks to a combination of great writing, and even more important, great comic acting (Carrol O'Connor, Jean Stapleton, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, Redd Foxx, LaWanda Page, Bea Arthur, Bill Macy, Rue McClanahan, Conrad Bain, Esther Rolle, John Amos, Jimmy Walker, Johnny Brown, Sherman Hemsley, Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Bonnie Franklin, Pat Harrington Jr, Louise Lasser, Mary Kay Place, Dody Goodman, Martin Mull, and Dabney Coleman, to name just a few) you did indeed laugh. In a fallen world, what better catharsis is there than laughter?
In 2014, the then-90-year-old Lear came out with his life story. While I do read them, I've always found autobiographies a bit problematical. Like the rest of us, the author is always going to try and place themself in the best possible life, which may end up not shedding much light at all. A celebrity also is not always a good judge of what us noncelebrities are going to find interesting. For instance, Lear totally ignores the fact that in 1974 Carroll O'Connor held out signing a new contract for so long that a script of All in the Family was prepared depicting Archie Bunker's funeral. Fortunately, such a script never went before the cameras (though some time later, the Grim Reaper took custody of Edith Bunker after Jean Stapleton decided she had tired of the role.) However, when it comes to the oft-leveled charge that his taboo-demolishing shows were less than wholesome, Lear defends himself nicely:
The controversy the shows set off--particularly some individual episodes--generated a good deal of criticism of me for what was viewed as editorializing. "If you want to send a message," I was told, "use Western Union." In the early years I would face that accusation by denying it. We weren't sending messages, I'd say, we were doing comedy. If we could not make the story funny we would not do the story. I've always believed the things that make me laugh will make you laugh, and what makes you cry will make me cry. I have to believe that or I don't have guidelines. But to me, laughter lacks depth if it isn't involved with other emotions. An audience is entertained when it's involved to the point of laughter or tears--ideally, both.
At some point my response to the accusation that I was sending a message changed. I came to realize that, as a longtime observer of the culture, now in my fifties, why wouldn't I have a point of view and express it in my work? I determined not to be apologetic and began saying openly, "Yes, as full-grown human beings who read and think and pay a lot of attention to what is happening in the world our children will inherit, we will write and produce those stories that interest and involve us--and those are usually about something. Our humor expresses our concerns."
There then came a moment when--after expressing this for the umpteenth time--I thought: Wait a second. Who said the comedies that preceded All in the Family had no point of view? The overwhelming majority of them were about families whose biggest problem was "The roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner!" Or "Mother dented the fender and how is she going to tell Father?" Talk about messaging! For twenty years--until AITF came along--TV comedy was telling us there was no hunger in America, we had no racial discrimination, there was no unemployment or inflation, no war, no drugs, and the citizenry was happy with whomever happened to be in the White House. Tell me that expressed no point of view!
Now let's end this with a bit of messaging: