Norman Lear

Friday, March 1, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded March 1, 2002, in Aspen, Colo.

Ken Paulson: Our guest today is widely credited with transforming American television: producer and writer, Norman Lear. You know, in 1999, President Clinton gave you the prestigious National Medal of the Arts, and he said, “Norman Lear has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” Is that pretty much what you had in mind?

Norman Lear: Well, he had been drinking just before that statement.

Paulson: But with “All in the Family,” did you have any sense that it would be as transformative a show as it proved to be?

Lear: No. I knew this guy. He was, in part, my dad. My dad used to call me the laziest white kid he ever met. I’d tell him he was putting down a race of people to call me lazy. He’d scream at me, that’s not what he was doing, and I was also the stupidest white kid he ever met. So we were doing something we all felt comfortable with. Everybody lived through some of that. Everybody — that happened to be my dad, a couple of other writers, it was an uncle, a director, it was, you know, somebody else related to him. And we were doing what we thought, first of all, was funny. Our — we used to talk all the time about, “Let’s bring ‘em to their knees.” You know, we weren’t looking for the easy laughs or guffaws or ha-has or tee-hees. We were looking to bring ‘em to their knees.

Paulson: And yet, at the time it went on the air — 1971? —

Lear: Yeah.

Paulson: This was not too far removed from “The Smothers Brothers” fighting with their network about content. Did the network have any sense of the kind of show you were bringing, and do you remember the initial reaction to the pilot?

Lear: Oh, yeah. No, no, the network did, because it took three years to get it on the air. It was made with — with Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton in 1968. ABC made it, laughed at it — afraid to put it on the air.

Paulson: And what did CBS see that other networks didn’t see?

Lear: A fellow by the name of Bob Wood — he came in — a new president at CBS — and wanted something different. It — “The Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” and such were the reigning comedy stars on the network. He wanted to do something more real, and so he put it on. He had the — Bob Wood put it on.

Paulson: And, you know, some of the things that made “All in the Family” different — the use of racial epithets — and yet, a decade or more earlier, Lenny Bruce had, had used that kind of language in his shows, was highly controversial —

Lear: Uh-huh.

Paulson: — is a man who was led out of — led out of performances in handcuffs. Was it then safe to do it in 1971? The kind of material that — I mean, obviously, no one was going to come and arrest you, but did you have a sense that the climate had changed?

Lear: Well, safe in what context? Not safe in the context that every — three networks — that’s all there were at the time — were eager to put that on.

Paulson: Right.

Lear: Not safe that there wasn’t a department or censor that was looking at every single word, but safe in terms of the American people. I mean, the American people — if the American people were let alone by the establishment — they’re far more grown-up. They’ve always been taken by the establishment, you know, to be far less grown-up, far less wise-hearted, than they really are.

Paulson: And I have to believe that CBS, even though it signed off on the show, felt positively about the show, had to gird itself for the night that it went on the air.

Lear: They did. They put on a couple hundred extra telephone operators. Most of them wasted their time. They — it — there just wasn’t a big fallout. They thought some state would secede from the Union. It — you know, nothing like that happened. And they thought that, from time to time on different episodes, different subject matter — terribly concerned that the world would fall apart. And of course, you know, there were many ways — the establishment found many ways of putting the American audience down. “They have the intelligence of a 13-year-old” was one of them. “Nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people” was another one, and that was all nonsense.

Paulson: To what extent was Carroll O’Connor’s personality critical to making all that work — the characterization of Archie Bunker?

Lear: Carroll, Carroll was Archie Bunker. There is no Archie Bunker without — you know. There’s some paper, 40 pages, lying around that says “Archie Bunker” on it, but the manifestation of Archie Bunker is 100% Carroll O’Connor.

Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about — you mentioned some episodes that you — were tougher to get on the air or led to some discussions. What was sensitive in the early years of “All in the Family”?

Lear: I had — my mind goes over a number of shows. I’m sure it doesn’t have to be “All in the Family” we’re talking about.

Paulson: Sure.

Lear: I like telling good stories, where the other guy comes out smart also. There was a fellow at — “Maude.” We wrote a “Maude.” Walter was cheating on her for just a moment or, or emotionally cheating on her — came very close to making it physical, and she finds him in this penultimate moment where she says, “Walter, you son of a bitch.” And, and it went in, and Bill Tinkersley, a wonderful man — Tankersley — a wonderful man at CBS, head of program practices, the euphemism for censor, and — and he called me. He said, “Norman, you know, you know you’re not gonna do that.” I said, “No, no, of course we’re gonna do that.” “No,” he said, “you” — “I mean, what else do you want to do?” “Well, take that out.” “But, Bill, this is all she would say at that moment. Do you like the moment?” “Yes.” “That’s all she would say.” He said, “That isn’t all. There’s got to be something else.” Anyway, after a long conversation, I said — he was in New York, I in Los Angeles, and I said, “I’ll tell you what,” because I knew I was dealing with an honest man, you think of what she could say that would be as good as what she says, as right for the moment, as right for her character, as fulfilling with the audience, and we’ll do it.” “You mean, if I tell you that — you mean, just — what if you disagree?” I said, “If you look me in the eye and say you believe it, I’ll do it. You get your way.” So he said, “Deal.” In three days, called me back and said, “Damn it. I haven’t been able to think — I mean, it’s right, but it’s wrong for us, Norman.” “Bill, we have a deal.” And he let it go. I mean, he let it go, and again, no state seceded.

Paulson: Now, here you are, with one of the most popular shows ever in “All in the Family,” and — and you’re looking at other shows to do, and it had to be — had to be an unusual feeling, in that, although you make the point that you wanted to make people laugh and bring them to their knees, you also recognized you were having an impact on people in the way they looked at the world and the way they looked at society, and then I would think that would create a tremendous burden on the next show. The next show would have to say something and be a statement that it would be very hard simply to go to entertainment. And, of course, you launched “Maude,” and what was the thinking behind that show?

Lear: “Maude” was to have been the — the other side of Archie, a “B.S. Liberal” who really didn’t have it all together. She just had the feelings, the — Archie had the fear of tomorrow, of progress, you know, which made him react the way he did. She had the — you know, those progressive leanings but never took the responsibility to know what she was talking about, so she was the other side, we thought, of Archie.

Paulson: And, of course, the most controversial show, and that series had to do with Maude and a legal abortion.

Lear: The first — yeah, but then again, with Tankersley’s help, we did two episodes that resulted in her abortion, but as a result of those talks, we provided, in the two episodes, a friend of hers, who was pregnant with her sixth child, was virtually the same age and couldn’t conceive of not having that sixth child and was in financial circumstances that would make that very difficult, and she had her child. So, we did everything we could to make it evenhanded, and America, again, when it went on the first time, accepted it. There was just no problem. But by the time the rerun came along four months later, the religious right had gotten its act together, and they were lying down in front of cars — Bill Paley’s car in New York and my car in Los Angeles — and all the carrying on started then. But people did not, you know, un — you know, un-pushed or tunneled, just didn’t react badly.

Paulson: And yet, when you planned that show, what were you trying to do? I mean, you were trying to entertain, but this was tough subject matter. Were you trying to give people —

Lear: You sit down, you know. We were a number of senior people — senior, that is, you know, over 30, 40, some in our 50s, and — and we scraped the barrels of our own experience, and abortion, you know, is something we live with, in our families and among our friends, every day of our lives. And we took — we graduated — or, graduated — we tended to look at those subjects that touched us the most. It never escaped our knowledge that people laugh the hardest when they care the most, too, so those subjects were the ones we knew we could wrench the kind of laughter that brings you to your knees. And so we took the tough subjects, but the ones we all experienced, and we dealt with ‘em out of our own experience, so it, it was — I don’t know, just normal theater.

Paulson: You describe a process, though, where you’re gonna take on a tough subject, and somebody who is the censor comes in and says, “You can’t do that,” and then, through rational discussion, you come to a position where you get to do what you want to do. Did you lose some of those?

Lear: Can’t think of one.

Paulson: Really?

Lear: Can’t think of one. Was turned away from a subject or two, because we agreed that we didn’t have it beat. Mm-hmm. But can’t think of a one we didn’t do.

Paulson: What’s a subject you can’t really do?

Lear: I don’t remember if we ever tried incest. I think you could.

Paulson: Hmm.

Lear: I think you could. We just didn’t get it. We didn’t get it right. There were a few subjects like that, that took much too much time … . It took — there was one subject we did accomplish: We wanted Edith on “All in the Family” to lose her faith and regain it. Well, we found the way for her to lose her faith in a month, and it took several months before we could find — and we sought all kinds of outside help — before we could find the simple trick that would make it sensible for her to regain her faith.

Paulson: Let’s talk about a number of the shows you’ve done.

Lear: Sure.

Paulson: It seems like almost every show you did was groundbreaking in one way or another. “Good Times” was the first series produced by black writers.

Lear: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about what led to the launch of that show?

Lear: Esther Rolle, the maid on “Maude,” was just dynamite, and the network saw clearly, “This is a woman who should have a family, have her own show,” and there was no African-American — then “black” — show on the tube. And so we gave her a family, brought in a husband and saw if he could hit straight, and and then we knew we had the start of a family. We did “Good Times.” But he held — he was at Cabrini compound in Chicago, holding two and three jobs. The black press largely said — after raving about it for two years — said, “Does he have to be — why can’t we have a black father who was not holding down two jobs, who was upwardly mobile?” And that gave us the idea for the song as well as the series, and then we did the “Jeffersons.”

Paulson: “Sanford and Son.”

Lear: Yeah, that preceded both of those.

Paulson: And, and — and what inspired you to cast Redd Foxx?

Lear: Well, Bud Yorkin and I are partners, and we fell in love with Redd Foxx, and he was, we knew, as blue — his material was as blue as blue could be, but we also knew that Redd Foxx is a clown, which is to say, his earlobes were funny; his kneecaps were funny. He could walk into a room, tell you your mother died, and, and be funny. And so he didn’t need the blue humor, and we took that, that chance with him.

Paulson: You made a conscious decision to employ black writers, as I said, on “Good Times.” Were there barriers that existed for African-American writers at the time?

Lear: I don’t know if there were barriers — I think one of the biggest barriers was that they hadn’t had the opportunity which translates to experience.

Paulson: Right.

Lear: So, they came in, for the large part, you know, green. They hadn’t done this kind of work before, but you found fellas with great senses of humor, and it was a pleasure to bring them along.

Paulson: You — after doing all these shows that kind of pushed the envelope, then you just totally jumped off the cliff with “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” — um, any subject in the world done with great fun, done as a soap opera. Uh, what was the reaction to “Mary Hartman”?

Lear: I loved “Mary Hartman.” I loved Louise Lasser. I loved “Mary Hartman.” I loved the young woman who came up from Arizona, Joan Darling, and directed that first season. I mean, between Joan and Louise Lasser, they, they set the tone for that show.

Paulson: It was not —

Lear: And I tried to get that written, you know — we tried to get that written for weeks — months, months — and brought writers in, and we had an outline of the first episode. So, writers would sit in here. They’re — you know, they’re gonna make funny the fact that this woman had no sex life with her husband, and that was going to be seen. Her father was a — was a — exposed himself, and the opening episode opened with five — a family of five, and six goats and two chickens were slaughtered around the corner. It was very hard to get people to understand we weren’t, we weren’t making fun of the deaths, but of the way people have become inured to bad news that way.

Paulson: But it didn’t run as long as I think you might have hoped.

Lear: No. I wanted to tighten the bolt and put it away at the end of the first year. Begged to be allowed to do that, because Louise was tired, all of us — we were tired. This was five nights a week. People may not remember now — five nights a week.

Paulson: Sure, that’s right.

Lear: And soap opera’s one thing, but soap opera that wants to be funny and contemporary is quite another thing. But they, you know, business — for business reasons wouldn’t let it happen.

Paulson: I’m sure you’ve heard it said that today, in an era of political correctness, you couldn’t get “All in the Family” made. Do you buy that?

Lear: It’s quite possible. I tried a show called “704 Hauser,” which took place in the same house. All the white people have left. It’s now a black neighborhood, and — and a family where they’re raising a son who — who the father thought he was raising to be one of the great liberal justices, and he’s turning out to be much more in the image of Judge Thomas. And he’s married — or not — intending to marry a Jewish girl. So we had all of that going, and I think they — I know they bought six. I think they only aired four, and it was good. It was good, but I think there was that case. They were afraid of it.

Paulson: You care a great deal about civil liberties. In 1982, you started the “People for the American Way.” What prompted that organization? What led you to put that together?

Lear: It was the — it was the influx of — religious fundamentalists: Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart — a whole array of them, far more than exist today. And one day, I heard Jimmy Swaggart pretty much asking people to pray for the death of the Supreme Court. Something as wild and insane as that, but I saw enough of it to scare me. It was not my America, you know, and so I did it. I didn’t sit down to start an organization. I sat down to do what I do, so I did a 60-second television spot that had a hard hat, not unlike Archie, sitting on a piece of factory equipment, and he simply said, “Look. You know, my kids and I — we don’t agree politically. My wife and I find different ways to think about things, and here come these ministers on television and radio and in the mail trying to tell us, on a whole bunch of issues, we are either good Christians or bad Christians, depending on their political point of view. That ain’t the American way.” And that’s the way it ended: “That ain’t the American way.” I finished, and I had three of them, and I liked them. And then I realized, my God, I’m going after the religious right. I got all these strikes against me: I’m Jewish. I’m wealthy. I’m a product of the Hollywood community — all those terrible buzzwords — you can’t go after them that way. So, I had a nice relationship with Father Hesburgh at Notre Dame, and I went to Notre Dame, and I showed him this spot, and he sent me to a dozen others, gave me a list of a dozen others. I traveled around the country, and in some religious leader’s office, somebody said, “You know, these — you know, we’ll all endorse these. They, they’re right. We’re concerned about the torture of Scripture in addition to all of your policy and political concerns, but you ought to, you ought to set something around it. It’s gonna take more than this, because this is something that’s gonna be here for a while.” And then somebody said, “You ought to call it ‘People for the American Way.’ Take his last line, and call it ‘People for the American Way.’” And that’s how the organization came about.

Paulson: I know the People for the American Way believes in respect for all people, respect for all faiths, believes strongly in the First Amendment. And yet, as we mentioned, in terms of, could you get “All in the Family” on the air today, there is this kind of collision between people who say, “I believe in free speech,” and others who say, “You can’t say something that might offend someone of a race or religion.” How do you reconcile that, that freedom of speech may be limited by some who would seek to do it to help ensure quality?

Lear: I don’t reconcile it. It just has to be — you know, it has to be fought at every step. In no way do I think everybody should be allowed to say everything, you know.

Paulson: You put some limits?

Lear: But, but — well, it’s the fire — you know, screaming-”fire”-in-a-crowded-theater thing. You’d have to press hard to think of — I remember when the Nazis wished to march in Skokie, Illinois. I supported — I am a supporter of the ACLU, and I did something extra at that time to allow the — help them allow the Nazis’ march. Some friends walking past my gate on an early morning walk at 6:30 one morning called me and said, “There’s a dead pig, you know, and spikes.” A dead pig had been spiked to my gate, and this was done by a Jewish organization, so — I don’t know how that relates to your question, but it came quickly to mind.

Paulson: Were they — we do an annual survey asking Americans how they feel about freedom of speech, and most recently, a majority said, “You should not be allowed to say anything in public if it might offend someone of another race or another faith.” That would have limited your television options in the ’70s. What’s going on out there?

Lear: Well, I think it’s the result of 9/11. It’s being used. People’s feelings are being used and manipulated to protect the right to invade privacy, to restrict speech, to, you know — and we don’t have anybody, that I can think of in American life, at a, at a sufficient bully pulpit that’s helping — we’re not a nation that gets context with its news and information. There is no context. You get the buzz. You get the 30-second — you get the bumper-sticker news, and the context, you don’t get. So, I think if things were explained, you know, if people had a way to, you know — to understand that what decision they’re making this moment — the freedom of speech that’s being, you know, avoided now or crimped now, will have some effect later, and that incrementally, these things grow and what that has meant historically and how this has happened before. Nothing is new. We — it — that just doesn’t seem to exist.

Paulson: It seems like anytime in our history there’s some form of popular culture or entertainment that faces a backlash, and you — some of your shows did that. I think currently a show that has prompted a lot of negative feedback is “South Park.”

Lear: Mm-hmm.

Paulson: What’s your opinion of that program?

Lear: I have a 13-year-old son, who’s here at the festival today. “South Park” is one of our greatest bonding experiences. We watch “South Park,” and we roar. And, you know, this — there’s nothing in “South Park” that isn’t evocative. The worst thing about it, which is the best, is that it’s evocative. You talk about it afterwards. That, by the way, is the best thing I can say about anything I think I accomplished. I am convinced people talked about the shows afterwards. I would be an absolute fool if I thought that after several thousand years of the Judeo-Christian ethic, which hasn’t moved aside or diminished people’s anti-people feelings for others, that a little situation comedy was going to have that kind of major effect, and “South Park,” the same way, but at least it gets people to talk about it, more able to make fresher decisions.

Paulson: Before we close today, I have to ask you about your purchase of one of the few existing copies of the Declaration of Independence. What led to that?

Lear: I saw it. It was going to be offered on the Internet. I cried when I looked at it. These are the values that — on which the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, everything American rests on, and I thought, people will never know where to find this if it’s — if I bought it and gave it to a museum or a college or something, so this is the people’s document. Let it travel. And the response to it made it possible, you know, the instantaneous response from all over the country, and so 60 major country-western people did a rendition of “America the Beautiful” for us. Thirteen great stars from Mel Gibson to Whoopi Goldberg did a reading of the Declaration in Independence Hall that Tom Ridge, then Governor of Pennsylvania, had arranged, and these elements are collecting, and all of it will travel with the Declaration. It’s been — was on the Super Bowl, to great huzzah, and at the Olympics. It’s still in Salt Lake City. Hundreds of thousands of people have come to see it. People react in exactly the same way. They understand, “This is the birth certificate of my country” and something wonderful, deeply spiritual, deeply connecting, comes out of it. And I have the photographs of these hundreds of faces reacting to it, teachers, you know, talking about how much they’ve ached over the years to bring busloads of kids to Washington, knowing they never could, to see such documents. And here it is.

Paulson: Has to be tremendously satisfying. Thank you for joining us today.

Lear: You’re welcome. You’re welcome; I loved it.

Paulson: Join us next time as we continue our discussion on free expression and the arts.

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