Norman Lear at 100: You couldn’t make ‘All in the Family’ now

Norman Lear turned 100 on July 27, and to belatedly celebrate the occasion, ABC is airing a star-studded tribute Thursday, “Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter.” On TV, the producer’s home for most of his television career.

The shows he was best known for – including All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons – weren’t necessarily my favorite comedies. There was a lot of screaming. (I preferred the quiet calm of his formally radical soap opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.) But strong memories suggest I’ve seen them all, along with Sanford and Son and One Day at a Time “. And there’s no question that these shows, born in a time of war protests, (sometimes militant) liberation movements, presidential malfeasance and a widening generation gap, brought something new to the medium and made room for passages of seriousness and emotional depth in between made the craft laughs. Good Times (created by Jefferson’s son Mike Evans and Eric Monte) was the first full-fledged black family sitcom; Nobody had seen anyone like Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson. Lear series have tackled racism, homophobia, misogyny, sexual identity, mental health, addiction, aging, rape, PTSD, immigration, gentrification — if there was something to say, it would be done.

Two men and two women are laughing in a living room.

“No one had seen anyone like Sherman Hemsley’s George Jefferson,” writes our left-most TV critic.

(CBS Photo Archives/Getty Images)

Many of his shows exist in the same fictional world. Before Marvel and DC expanded their universes, there was the spinoff. Maude, who first appeared in All in the Family, was Edith Bunker’s cousin; Florida from Good Times (an offshoot of an offshoot) had been Maude’s housekeeper. Before they moved into a luxury apartment on the East Side, the Jeffersons were the Bunkers’ neighbors. Far less successful was “Gloria” with Sally Struthers as a Bunker daughter on her own; “Checking In”, built around the Jeffersons’ former housekeeper, Florence; and “704 Hauser” from Lear’s brief return to television in the 1990s, in which a black family moves into the old bunker house. Archie Bunker’s Place was a sequel to All in the Family; The faux talk show Fernwood 2 Nights was a knockoff of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

Born in 1922, Lear was halfway to his centenary when All in the Family premiered in 1971; He was a seasoned television and film veteran by this point, but not one whose name was particularly well known. He began as a comedy writer in the early days of television, working for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Martha Raye Show (which he also produced and directed), and The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show “. .” In 1959, Lear co-created his first series, The Deputy, a western starring Henry Fonda.

Four people in a living room in black and white.

Bill Macy (left), Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Adrienne Barbeau laid the groundwork for the TV series Maude.

(TV country)

He then teamed up with Bud Yorkin, an Emmy-winning television director who hired him to write for Ford. In the 1960s they packed variety specials and made films together, including Come Blow Your Horn, which was directed by Yorkin and adapted by Lear from the Neil Simon play; Divorce American Style, written by Lear and directed by Yorkin; Never Too Late, which Lear produced and directed by Yorkin; and the satirical smoking comedy Cold Turkey, which Yorkin produced and which Lear wrote and directed. It was Yorkin who pulled out of the partnership in 1975, directing Lear to the British comedy Till Death Us Do Part. His bickering, politically and socially opposed father and son would provide the model for All in the Family, in which Lear incorporates elements of his own family. And so began what we consider to be his real career.

All in the Family wasn’t the first comedy to explore sensitive or political issues. Two years earlier were James L. Brooks’ Room 222, a high school show (actually a dramedy) with black leads, and the slightly more whimsical The Governor and JJ, a workplace comedy about a conservative governor and his liberal daughter, what before the letter sounds a lot like Lear. “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” was famously controversial. But Lear’s insight—perhaps borrowed from Till Death Us Do Part, but which he made the foundation of an empire—was to marry topicality with family comedy, traditionally the softest of sitcom forms.

Norman Lear in June.

Norman Lear in June.

(Unique Nicole/Getty Images)

And with few exceptions, Lear’s shows have been family comedies, albeit with a twist (often a knife). The work was mostly incidental; The main cast was largely related, by blood or marriage; most things happened in the living room or in the kitchen, the classic locations of multi-camera comedy. (The style feels dated today, but it was new then, as the 1960s were dominated by single-camera sitcoms.) The big sitcoms of the near future were variations on workplace ensemble shows—”M*A*S *H ‘, ‘Barney Miller’, ‘Taxi’ – which functioned as a metaphor for family. In the Lear series, the family provided a metaphor for society.

His method was to bring characters with opposing worldviews together in a small space. What distinguishes their arguments from our current polarization, where debate is impossible because everyone knows everything, is that they lead to (at least temporary) understanding. (And hopefully you’ll have a laugh at home.) “All in the Family” began with a printed disclaimer noting that it “attempts to humorously highlight our weaknesses, prejudices and concerns. By making them laugh, we hope to maturely show how absurd they are.” Philosophically optimistic, and not coincidentally driven by an overriding need, these series are at a divisive time when television is about the eyes of a whole Nation courted to be funny.

Redd Foxx, left, and Deonda Wilson inside "Sanford and son."

Redd Foxx, left, and Demod Wilson in Sanford and Son.

(NBC/NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Timeliness wasn’t the point—laughs were paid for by Lear and his staff, and not every episode of every series had something to say—but when problems arose, they were addressed without euphemism or thinly veiled analogies. The language in Lear’s 1970s shows is not what might be used in these more sensitive times; Maude had an abortion early in the first season of this series before the Supreme Court ruled in Roe vs. Wade. (Ironically, stars John Amos and Esther Rolle both felt “Good Times” wasn’t serious enough, prone to stereotypes, and lazily reliant on Jimmie Walker’s “Dyn-o-mite!” catchphrase).

Because their first duty was comedy, while these shows don’t exactly steer a middle ground — Lear supports progressive causes — the satire is more or less evenly spread. Maude and Mike the Meathead can be doctrinaire and pompous in their generosity; Everyone is an idiot sometimes. But most characters can be as admirable as they are annoying; they have a heart even when buried or deformed by circumstances. Well-known Republican John Wayne had no problem being a guest on “Maude”. Sammy Davis Jr. kissed Archie Bunker the same year he hugged Richard Nixon (who wasn’t a fan). Not every viewer agreed on the importance of Archie being hugged by some of those he was originally meant to mock, but every viewer agreed on what Carroll O’Connor brought him, and the show spent five seasons as America’s most-watched. (It’s fitting that Archie’s chair is in the Smithsonian.)

Actress Louise Lasser leans back on the set of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman."

Actress Louise Lasser reclines on the set of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.

(Lynn Goldsmith/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Loud as they may be, the sound and fury that has been a feature of most Lear series signified health rather than dysfunction. Disagreement, the mere possibility of unbridled argument, is a form of patriotism in his world. (He named his advocacy group, which started in 1981, People for the American Way.) “This country has lived in turmoil, and our strength comes from that turmoil,” Lear said of “I Love Liberty,” an all-star -Album 1982 ABC special, timed to coincide with George Washington’s 250th birthday, but more specifically as a response to the religious right and the notion that love of one’s country was each group’s exclusive domain. As if to provide a visual indication of people wrapping themselves in the flag, Robin Williams appeared as the flag itself. Barbra Streisand sang “America the Beautiful,” and the Muppets attempted to reenact the Second Continental Congress. Lady Bird Johnson and Gerald Ford were co-chairs; Barry Goldwater and Jane Fonda both performed.

All of the television work for which Lear is best known aired between 1971 and 1985, when The Jeffersons, his longest-running series, went off the air after a decade; He retired from television by the early 1990s, retiring after a number of unsuccessful returns to the medium. He turned his attention to the world, with People for the American Way and the Norman Lear Center for the Study of Entertainment, Media & Society, “a nonpartisan research and public policy center studying the social, political, economic, and cultural impacts of the Entertainment Studies on the World” at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He wrote memoirs, gave interviews. With his little white hat, he is a highly recognizable character.

But television is eternal, and Lear, carrying his legacy, is back to do more. “One Day at a Time” was reborn great with a Latinx cast. “Live Before Studio Audiences” re-enacted old scripts with new actors as if they were stage plays, although they also reminded us that the success of these shows owed much to their original stars. Good Times is getting an animated revival starring Steph Curry, Seth MacFarlane and Lear, and a Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman reboot starring Schitt’s Creek’s Emily Hampshire is also in the works. Not a remake, but very much in the house tradition, is the upcoming Clean Slate, starring George Wallace as the owner of a car wash and Laverne Cox as his estranged child, a trans woman who returns to Alabama after a 17-year absence.

And the best of Lear’s old shows have lived on, not just in memory but in reruns, home video and on-demand streaming. They may be of their time, but the times are not so different now. And with remarkable frequency, the jokes still land. Norman Lear at 100: You couldn’t make ‘All in the Family’ now

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