Throughout modern history, there are people who really make a difference. Their very presence shapes the world in ways much larger than you would think. Some of these are politicians, some scientists. Some are humble comedy writers, such as Norman Lear.
Norman was born to humble beginnings, with a parent in prison. Like most men of his generation he fought in World War II. Lear was a gunner and radio operator and flew a reported 52 missions. After the war, he moved to Southern California and fell into a career in the entertainment industry.
You wouldn’t think he’d amount to much…
…but Norman Lear found his calling writing jokes for television. He parlayed that into a career as a producer, and changed the world of television forever.
Norman Lear, to look at his resume, was not a terribly original fellow. His big success came from watching British television shows and trying to figure out how to adapt their sitcoms to be our sitcoms. But to simply say that is to deprive Norman Lear of the acclaim he has justly gotten over the years.
Boy the way Glenn Miller played…
Mr. Lear’s biggest idea in the late 1960s was an American remake of the British sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. In that program, the character of Alf Gannett was a racist, conservative older man who doesn’t like where his country was going. His daughter and son-in-law live with him, and because they are much more progressive, there’s a lot of friction that leads to comedy.
Most of us know that framework as the basic one for All in the Family, created by Mr. Lear. However, to simply say that one was a “ripoff” of the other is not fair. Mr. Lear took the trappings of the American youth culture and combined them with a working-class older couple and created some of the most memorable television in history.
The term known to us all in the early 1970s was “generation gap.” The young folks (todays oldsters) were socially active, questioning of authority, and focused on the future. Their parents were blindly patriotic and stalwart.
It’s funny how not a lot have changed except some of today’s baby boomers have inexplicably become more like Archie Bunker than Mike Stivic.
The legacy of All in the Family
Before All in the Family, you barely talked about politics on television. Families were largely white, suburban, and happy. Problems were solved in 30 minutes. All in the Family was in the first vanguard of quality television, addressing issues in ways you couldn’t before. With no cable networks, broadcasters timidly waded into serious subjects and Norman Lear somehow took our national pain and made it funny. Archie Bunker was a sexist, a racist, and a classist and somehow he managed to receive the first kiss between a a black man and a white man on television:
All in the Family begat a whole spate of related sitcoms, perhaps the first tentative “cinematic universe” on television. There was Edith’s cousin Maude, who (on Maude) managed to be just as outspoken and obnoxious as a liberal as Archie was, Maude’s housekeeper Florida, who lived in the New York housing projects on Good Times, and the Bunkers’ neighbors The Jeffersons, who moved on up to the East Side when their business took off. Each show dealt with tough subjects by making people laugh. When Jean Stapleton left the show, it was reimagined as Archie Bunker’s Place.
Lear after the Family
Norman Lear continued to be prolific. He developed Sanford and Son by adapting another British sitcom, and produced a ton of content in the 1970s including One Day at a Time and Mary Hartman Mary Hartman. While his career after 1980 was not as chock full of hits as his 1970s career was, he still continued working and producing.
His 1970s programming changed history. At a time when the world seemed like it was collapsing around us, he created a way for us to find common ground and talk about our problems. He may not have singlehandledly solved our problems, but he changed the conversation enough that we could start to solve them ourselves.
I can’t help thinking that we need someone like Norman Lear today. We all find ourselves pointing fingers and retreating into our deeply held positions so often, and it would be nice if we could all agree on something. Who knows, maybe the next Norman Lear is already among us and will unveil their masterpiece just when we need it.