Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer
Norman Lear’s career kick-started the moment he called Danny Thomas to pitch him an idea for a monologue.
He had called during lunchtime pretending to be a New York Times reporter who was in California for two days and who needed to ask Thomas some final questions for an article. The secretary who picked up gave Thomas’ home number to Lear.
Lear and his writing partner Ed Simmons were not actually in California, and the idea Lear pitched to Thomas was not yet written. But by 6 p.m. the next evening, Lear and Simmons had a finished piece — “Zemischt, Fardreit and Farblungit” — ready to be performed at Ciro’s in Beverly Hills.
The routine was a success, and David Susskind, an agent with Music Corporation of America, called Lear and asked if he and his partner had ever written for television.
“I said, ‘Yes, of course,’ feeling comfortable with the lie since we’d never written a nightclub comic before and our success there was why he called in the first place,” Lear read from an excerpt of his memoir during Monday’s morning lecture.
Roger Rosenblatt led a conversation with Lear that focused on the idea behind “All in the Family,” the show’s character Archie Bunker and Lear’s politics.
A film about Lear and his shows — including “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Good Times” — was featured before Rosenblatt began asking Lear about “All in the Family.”
Lear’s inspiration behind the show came from a British sitcom titled “Til Death Us Do Part.” He said he was so excited about the idea that he wrote 125 pages of notes in two days.
ABC bought the original show three years before it went on air in 1971, but the network had the right to either put it on the air or to have Lear remake it, he said.
The first version of the show was called “Justice for All,” which included Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton and another young couple. The second version followed the same script but had a different couple, Lear said.
“They were afraid of it,” he said of ABC. “Same script. Never changed a word of the script.”
When Lear made the film “Cold Turkey,” he was offered a three-picture deal by United Artists to write, produce and direct more comedies. He said he got a call from CBS about the same time to put “All in the Family” on the air.
Rosenblatt asked what the fate of Lear’s show would have been had it been presented to television networks today.
Lear said though he isn’t currently active in television, he knows people who are involved who say the show would not happen now.
The character Archie Bunker became a main point of discussion between Rosenblatt and Lear. Rosenblatt asked Lear about the type of character Archie was meant to be and the effect he had on the audience.
Rosenblatt asked how Archie could be a dangerous character and someone the audience could laugh with.
“ ‘Dangerous’ isn’t a word I’ve ever heard connected with Archie,” Lear said. “Archie was afraid of tomorrow. He was afraid of progress; things had been moving too fast for him.”
Archie was a character who grew up in communities in which he had never seen a black person or family. To him, the world was falling apart, Lear said. As a character, he was meant to be someone educable.
One of the greatest problems in American culture is that there are not enough politicians who care to help people understand context, he said.
“Context, there’s very little context in American media,” Lear said. “You get the headline, you get the bumper sticker, you don’t get the context.”
Lear said his interest in politics was always there, and he does not know why there isn’t more political thinking in comedy today.
People who worked around Lear on shows were serious and focused on their work. Lear insisted that everyone read The New York Times, not just the Los Angeles Times, and gave their families attention.
The material for shows came from paying attention to families and what was happening to them, which writers don’t always focus on.
“They’re working so hard at the characters they’re creating,” he said. “They’re not looking at the characters around them who have already been created.”
Editor’s note: This Q-and-A has been edited for clarity and length. All questions were for Norman Lear.
Q: What is your opinion of the proliferation of reality shows on television?
A: I don’t watch enough. I watch enough to know I don’t care. I don’t really watch them. I’ve got a reality show at home.
Q: What is the difference between wit and biting wit?
A: Biting wit has a sufficiently strong sense of humor, so a lot of people hate it. The kids who do “South Park” have a biting wit, and yet in The Book of Mormon, they have given us the gift of sanity that will last for years.
Q: Is it easier to write comedy with a liberal bent than conservative, and if so, why?
A: I think through the centuries most architects, most painters, most writers, most poets, most creatives, artists, could be described as liberals. I think most of them tended to be humanists. What do you all think? Do you think that might be true? [Applause.]
Q: Did “All in the Family” find its massive audience right away, or was it given time to build one by the network?
A: Well, the reality is it went on Jan. 16 and there were only three networks. It went on Jan. 16 because something else had failed. So people were watching ABC and NBC; they were not watching CBS. Two things happened. One, we started to go into reruns. There were two reruns of “All in the Family” when the other two shows weren’t on, so people started to gravitate to the show they’d heard about but hadn’t watched. So our 12th and 13th ratings went up. Then Johnny Carson, who had watched the show himself and liked it, was hosting the Emmys. He asked if we would do a scene of the Bunkers sitting down to watch the Emmys as a kind of a cold opening to the Emmys that year. We did it, and between the ratings picking up and what, you know, the opening of the Emmys meant to us, we then became a big hit.
Q: What advice would you give to an actor or writer who’s just starting out in the business today?
A: Write. There are two pieces of advice for writers. One: Write, because writers have a way of talking about it for a long time before they write it. And the other I borrow from George S. Kaufman because he once taught a class in writing. And this is a good lesson for life, too, I’ve found again and again and again. He told the writer: If you have a hole in the plot that you must live with, don’t sweep it under a rug — hang a lantern on it. And I think that applies in life a lot. If you have to live with a problem, but you must live with it, then hang a lantern on it. [Applause.] That’s for you George.
Q: Having declared that you don’t watch that much television, I ask this with a certain amount of temerity, but to what degree do shows like “Mad Men” reform our moral or ethical recollection of the 1960s?
A: Wow. “Mad Men,” I seem to remember all of it. I don’t know — do we really treat women that much differently now? Sometimes I wonder, because I’m reading so much terrible stuff about what goes on. But “Mad Men” I think is wonderfully faithful to the Madison Avenue I knew at the time. I mean, when you see somebody pick up a drink a hundred times in the season, it may be real, but it gets to be “uh” because we insist upon doing 26 shows, you know, when it might be more civilized to do 12.
Q: Can you comment on the comedic talent and timing of Jean Stapleton, and how was she cast for the role?
A: When I was first asked what is Jean Stapleton like, I heard myself saying “She’s always where she is,” and over time, that grew on me so. She was always where she was, and I began to realize so long after because it never scruffed me: I wish my kids had had a father who was always where he was when he was with them. But, you know, sometimes I think I had six shows on the air and one on Mooncrest Drive. I was paying as much attention to my work — a lot of fathers here will relate to that — paid so much attention to the work and kids didn’t get enough of what they needed. And I have great kids, I’m not complaining about that … I don’t know if I’ve gone too far answering that question, but she was always where she is, and that’s a remarkable thing.
Q: Can you tell us a little but about what People for the American Way has accomplished? What’s your sense of from the point at which you founded that organization to where it is today, is that arch of change what you’d expected? Is it satisfying?
A: Well, it’s extremely sad. It’s not satisfying in the sense that the problems it sought to fight have gone away. How I wish I could say that, but I don’t wake up many mornings and read my newspapers and not thank God it’s there. It started with my concern about the Father Coughlin of our world, and in 1980, when I saw the proliferation of TV Evangelicals on television and then one morning heard Jimmy Swaggart ask his TV congregation to pray for the “removal” — in quotes — of the Supreme Court justice, I got scared. I did the one thing I knew I could do: I wrote a TV spot — a 60-minute spot — hired the actor, and I cast it. He was a working stiff. The camera was just pushing in on him sitting on a piece of factory equipment. And he was saying that his wife and his kids disagree about a lot of things politically and they sit around the dinner table and they don’t all agree about everything. Now come this bunch of ministers on radio and television telling they’re good Christians or bad ones depending on their political point of view. He said, “I know my wife is a better Christian than I am, and my kids are really great kids and they’re great Christians.” And he winds up saying, “There’s gotta be something wrong when anybody tells you you’re a good Christian or a bad one depending on your political point of view.” So I loved it; the guy did a great job with it, and I loved it and I thought, “I have three strikes against me: I’m Jewish coming after the Christian Right, and I’m from Hollywood, and I’ve done it with money.” So, I took it to Father Hesburgh at Notre Dame — I had to go out and rent a television set because he didn’t have one in the office — and he looked at it and he thought it was wonderful. Then he said something to me that I couldn’t forget if I lived to be 1,000 — which I’d like to do. He said, “You know Norman, in addition to the things you’re concerned about in the mainline, we’re also concerned with the way they torture Scripture.” I could never forget that. And he gave us the names of a half-dozen mainline church leaders to visit, and I traveled and I visited and I showed it all to them, and in one office some other person in the office said, “You know you’ve got to do more of these, and you’ve got to form an organization around it, because one is not going to do enough.” I love what the man said at the end. He said, “It’s not the American way. You ought to call it ‘People for the American Way,’” … and then it was like an act of spontaneous combustion — it just happened.
Q: The most frequently asked question that I’m just now getting to is — first of all, it starts with a lot of compliments about your hat — and then the question is: Is there a story behind your hat?
A: Well, the story is so very many years ago I didn’t have a hat, and I used to scratch my head writing and I would have a scab. One day my wife came home with a little white hat and threw it on my head and said, “I don’t ever want to see you scratching your head again.” So that’s how it started.
After the Q&A, Rosenblatt asked the audience to sing “Happy Birthday” to Lear because he turns 90 next month.
—Transcribed by Rabab Al-Sharif