Barnhart: Norman Lear Brought America’s Culture War To Prime Time

Norman Lear (left) on the All of in the Family set in 1971. (Photo: Gene Trindl / CBS / Courtesy Everett Collection)

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There was a remarkable stretch of time in the 1970s when Norman Lear was America’s cultural talisman. He just knew how to gather a crowd around their TV sets.

In the early years – his first television credit was in 1951, writing jokes for Jack Haley (aka the Tin Man) on Ford Star Revue – Lear was content merely to be funny. But as the 1960s unfolded, he became one of those people in Hollywood trying to figure out how to turn American unrest into entertainment; that is, to be both funny and relevant.

He might not have gotten very far, except that one of the big three TV networks was also looking to be more relevant. Strangely enough, it was the same network that had just run Tommy and Dick Smothers off the air for being too relevant and too political. CBS in 1969 seemed to be doing everything to avoid engaging the culture wars that were bubbling up in America. By 1970, though, there were different people running the No. 1-rated network. Change was in the air – and CBS was about to put All in the Family on the air. In so doing, it gave voice to Norman Lear’s distinct brand of social-issues comedy, and in the process put the cultural wars on in prime time.

Growing Up Absurd

Norman Lear was nine years old when his dad was convicted of securities fraud. Herman “HK” Lear was a scoundrel and a confidence man, but he clearly fascinated his son, who eventually turned him into a muse for his iconic TV characters. “If HK was a marvel, so were Archie Bunker, George Jefferson, and Maude Findlay,” Lear wrote in his memoir, Even This I Get To Experience.

The day his father went to prison, a relative told Norman that he was “now the man of the family,” which Norman thought ridiculous; he was nine, for God’s sake. Experiences like this gave him “a deep appreciation for the absurdities amid the gravity of our existence,” he recalled. And he wasn’t alone. Paul Goodman’s seminal book Growing Up Absurd was a bestseller in 1960, signaling a desire by a new generation of creatives to break with the conformity of the Fifties and project a more liberal vision.

Lear was determined to do it with comedy. He found a new producing partner in Bud Yorkin, and the two started to develop movies and TV pilots with socially relevant themes. Reaching into the memory bank of his own parents’ troubled marriage, Lear wrote the script for Divorce, American Stylea 1967 movie that earned him an Academy Award nomination and moved a young Roger Ebert to call Divorce, American Style “That rare species, the Hollywood comedy with teeth in it.”

If only Lear could convince a TV network to pick up one of his ideas, he’d have it made, like his friend Neil Simon. Another writer who had toiled in the trenches of early TV comedy, Simon hilariously captured the anxieties of the Sixties in a string of Broadway plays including Come Blow Your Horn, Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple.

At that time TV comedies were filmed before studio audiences, though the atmosphere was often so low-octane that the episode had to be sweetened afterward with canned laughter. Lear, who was involved behind the scenes in Simon’s plays, was convinced he could do better, and with the right combination of characters, punchlines, and first-rate stage actors – people who knew how to play for the crowd – he could light a fire under this timid, tepid medium.

Selling Archie Bunker

So Lear wrote a stage play sitcom about a blue-collar family where the old man fought with his kids over politics. He cast Carroll O’Connor, a prolific character actor of stage and screen, as Archie Bunker, and he shopped the pilot to ABC. In the late 1960s ABC was considered the hip, happening network, with shows like The Mod Squad and That Girl. Lear and Yorkin pitched the show to ABC executives, who ordered a pilot. Then they sent the duo a pile of notes and had them do it over – and do it over again.

It was a maddening cycle of notes and rewrites. But really, what did you expect from a big network? ABC may have been in third place, but it managed the same amount of risk as NBC and CBS. It was dependent on local affiliates. And because half the country had voted for Richard Nixon in 1968, and station managers in the South had a habit of pre-empting programs that offended their viewers (or thought they might), the gatekeepers of the three broadcast networks typically avoided anything with a whiff of controversy.

ABC executives had just learned this lesson the hard way. In 1968, they called in the producers of the year’s most popular show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In on NBC, to make an even faster-paced and racier version of Laugh-In. The resulting sketch show, Turn-Onwas so over the top with its racy, button-pushing jokes and sight gags that affiliates in the South and North began pre-empting it within minutes. ABC pulled the plug on Turn-On by the first commercial break.

This unmitigated disaster was no doubt in the minds of ABC executives as they kept rejecting the pilots of Norman Lear. What happened next was salvation, and from a most unlikely source.

In 1969 executives at the top-rated network, CBS, decided to cancel a popular variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Internal research showed the Smothers were reaching a younger demographic than almost any other show on TV. But the CBS censor was constantly battling the writers (Steve Martin among them) over sketches that satirized US policies, social evils, and the Klan.

So how was it that the “Tiffany network” wound up with All in the Family? Credit goes to a new vice president at CBS named Fred Silverman, whose star was rapidly rising in the industry. Silverman, who would turn around ABC a few years later, had convinced his higher-ups that CBS needed to cut loose the rural-themed shows that had maintained its success for most of the 1960s. Only two of them were still in the Nielsen Top 30, but still, the swiftness with which they were dispatched in the spring of 1971 was stunning: Mayberry RFD, Green Acres, Hee Haw, The Jim Nabors Hourand The Beverly Hillbilliesall canceled.

In their place, Silverman imagined, would come more urban-themed comedies. They could take on social issues, so long as they didn’t swing a Smothers Brothers sledgehammer. The first entry in this new wave was Mary Tyler Moore Showwhich replaced Petticoat Junction in 1970. It got excellent reviews and four Emmys.

Then one day, Lear’s partner Bud Yorkin was visiting a top executive at CBS and he happened to have on him the tape for the third go-round of Those Were the Daysas the All in the Family pilot was called. The executive asked to look at it. Another suit joined them. And then Fred Silverman. Soon the control room was convulsed in laughter. Yorkin was told, “Don’t let that tape leave the building.”

The deal was signed and All in the Family was put on the schedule for the fall of 1971. And then Lear started hearing from the network’s nervous Nellies. They asked Lear to rewrite the pilot, which featured the full Archie Bunker sounding off with “his attitudes on race, religion, politics, sex and family, holding nothing back,” Lear recalled in his memoir. “Even Carroll O’Connor bet me, and put it in writing, that CBS wouldn’t keep the show on the air. He had an apartment in Rome that he would not vacate because he was so sure he’d be back there in six weeks. “

But Lear pushed back, stood firm and won the battles. All in the Family was not an immediate hit with audiences or critics (notably, the great John Leonard called it “wretched”). Nixon hated it. And yet by season’s end, everyone in Hollywood was watching. The show won three Emmys in 1972, including outstanding comedy series and the actress award for Jean Stapleton, who played Archie’s beloved “dingbat” Edith. By the end of its second season, All in the Family was TV’s top-rated show.

Lear’s Legacy

As the 1970s unfolded, Lear and Yorkin seemed to have just the right characters and ideas for the changing times: a scrappy old scrap dealer living in Watts with his insolent adult child (Sanford and Son), a liberated woman – loosely based on Norman’s then-wife Frances Lear – in an unhappy marriage (Maude), her housekeeper who relocates to the projects of Chicago (Good Times), Archie’s Black neighbor whose fortunes are movin ‘on up (The Jeffersons), a single mom who packs up her daughters and moves from middle America to sunny LA (One Day at a Time). All featured top-notch writing, seasoned performers in the leading roles, lively studio audiences – often warmed up by Lear himself – and a measured boldness in taking on the issues that were roiling America.

At one point there were nine Norman Lear-produced series airing in prime time, and about half the country was watching them. And though there were plenty of great roles on those shows, none would approach that of Archie Bunker. He was the first, and everything seemed to be riding on this one man’s performance. O’Connor knew the gravity of what he was doing. He would show up to table reads filled with dread, complaining about every little thing he didn’t like. Yet every week without fail, Lear recalled, his star would “shed the gentle Irish intellectual Carroll O’Connor to become the poorly educated, full-of-himself Archie Bunker, spewing a kind of rancid, lights-out conservatism for a television audience that grew quickly to more than 50 million people. “

By the end of the decade, Lear’s zenith had crested. He eventually did make a sitcom for ABC, based on the racy play Hot L Baltimore – but it tanked. Lear moved more overtly into politics, founding People for the American Way in 1980. His shows went into reruns, where the new cable networks introduced his characters to future generations, though the shows were now largely detached from the politically-charged times in which they had been created. Those later admirers include Jimmy Kimmel, who’s at the heart of the current Lear revival – hosting Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter on ABC and notably injecting political humor into his work in recent years.

Lear’s vast library of intellectual properties and endless enthusiasm for political entertainment means that whenever he does pass from this earthly realm, it will be with a full plate. Currently he’s signed on to executive-produce Brianna Wu’s upcoming Gamergate series, a queer-themed film from Fuller House star Juan Pablo Di Pace, TV remakes of at least three vintage Lear productions – Good Times, Fried Green Tomatoesand Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman – and a documentary about the police scandal that inspired the HBO series We Own This City.

Among critics and scholars, there’s been debate about whether All in the Family challenged America’s bigotry or if it gave bigots a hero in Archie Bunker. And yet, the vast reach of Norman Lear’s comedy (120 million weekly viewers at one point, an unfathomable number today) means that his work still resonates like almost nothing else from that era. In light of the recent Dobbs decision, a lot of viewers are hoping that Kimmel’s next round of Lear re-enactments will include the abortion episode of Maude.

Norman Lear saw an opportunity in a moment of cultural upheaval to advance the causes he believed in. But to do that, he had to make entertaining TV. And the reality is that, as far as TV is concerned, what entertains is what endures.

Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter airs Thursday, Sept 22, 2022 at 9:00 PM ET on ABC.

Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

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