Decades after Norman Lear’s hit sitcoms took over American living rooms, the legendary writer still insists that he didn’t set out to crusade for social justice or to revolutionize television when he created shows like All in the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Maude: “The name of the game,” he says, “was to make an audience laugh.”
But according to Reggie Ossé, a former hip-hop music attorney and executive, and Dan Charnas, an associate arts professor at Tisch’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, there is no denying that the real-life scenarios and frank conversations about race and class that Lear wrote into his scripts ushered in an era of unprecedented honesty on TV. The three recently discussed Lear’s career and influence on American television and culture during a live taping of Ossé’s podcast, The Combat Jack Show, held at Tisch. Below are some highlights from that conversation.
Belly Laughs That Hurt
Lear’s first and most successful show, All in the Family, featured Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, a blue-collar conservative whose struggle to come to terms with a post–civil rights America resulted in painful but hilarious social gaffes. It performed very poorly during its initial run, and after sitting in on several focus groups, Lear identified the problem: It wasn’t that the show wasn’t funny, but rather that Americans who’d never seen such issues addressed on television didn’t feel comfortable talking—much less laughing—about race.
“I’m watching this clock-like apparatus on the wall that indicates whether they like or hate what they are seeing onscreen and I’m watching the audience as well,” Lear recalled. “When an audience laughs from the belly, I always think it’s the most spiritual sight outside of a church or synagogue. And I’m watching them do that but the dial hates it. So I realized the guy sitting here and the girl sitting there don’t want to be seen laughing at Archie Bunker and those racial epithets.”
A Dose of Reality
For Lear, addressing questions of race, class, gender and sexuality, and politics in sitcoms seemed much more natural than ignoring those issues.
“The biggest problems in the shows that preceded mine were that the roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner. Or mom scratched the car, so we need to keep dad from finding out before we can fix it,” he said. “And I thought: Are these really the toughest problems families face? According to American comedy shows, there were no race riots, no racial tension, no economic problems, and no issues abroad. I thought, well, that’s wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling messaging. I didn’t set out to make a statement, but if you ignore what’s going in America, isn’t that a statement?”
A White Man Writing for Black Families
Good Times, a show about a struggling family living in Chicago’s Cabrini Green projects that attracted 40 to 60 million viewers per week, set Lear apart as a pioneer for focusing on black protagonists when the overwhelming majority of characters on TV were white. But, as a white writer conveying black experiences, he also attracted criticism.
“The question did arise about whether I was qualified to write about black families,” Lear said. “But I told the actors, ‘I was not born to a black family, so the patina, the way you handle things, the way you speak and interact, I cede all of that to you. But even though I’m white, I’ve played the roles we all play. I’m a husband. I’m a father. I was a boy. I’m a son. I’m a nephew. I’m an uncle.’ ”
Sex on TV
Right before the All in the Family pilot was set to air, after weeks of edits (especially to Archie’s notoriously provocative language) CBS took issue with a single line and demanded Lear remove it from the script. The offending quip was “11:10 on a Sunday morning?” which Archie uttered after coming home from church in time to see his daughter Gloria and his son-in-law Mike running down the stairs, buttoning up their clothes. When Lear contested the network’s decision, CBS said that the question painted too clear a picture of what Archie was accusing the pair of doing. Lear argued that even without that line, it was clear why the married couple went upstairs in the first place.
“My thought was that this is silly,” he recalled. “And if I give in to silly, I’m going to be controlled by silly, and I’ll never get away from it.”
Eventually CBS conceded, and the show went on. “Archie said the line in all 50 states and not one seceded from the union,” Lear said.
The Black Panthers Helped The Jeffersons Move on Up
Before self-made man George Jefferson moved his family to a luxury apartment in the affluent east side of Manhattan, Lear was criticized for lavishing too much attention on the antics of the lazy and buffoonish character JJ on Good Times. Members of the Black Panthers, including the prominent Stokely Carmichael, took issue with what they viewed as the show’s negative stereotyping and paid Lear a visit at his office.
“My secretary came in and said, ‘There’s a couple of guys out here who want to see the garbage man, and that’s you,’ ” Lear said of the fateful encounter. “These guys didn’t like JJ and thought the show was garbage. They were pissed that the only black father on television was holding down three jobs—why couldn’t he be doing a little better? We sat down and talked and the result was a lesson and a giant help because that visit as much as anything figured into the Jeffersons’ moving on up. It absolutely played a part in the fact that George Jefferson would be somebody who would be really doing well.”
Who Is This Generation’s Norman Lear?
Though Ossé and Charnas said that Lear’s work has had a lasting impact on American popular culture—his anti-censorship sentiments and boldness in talking about race are echoed in hip-hop, for example—they also lamented the lack of heirs to Lear’s television legacy. “We aren’t seeing shows like The Jeffersons and All in the Family where you boil down the argument of race in all its raw elements,” Osse said. “Here we are in 2015, and it seems like there is an emergence of a whole new breed of Archie Bunkers.”
“Frank conversations about race, class, and ethnicity were not present in American culture in any other place except Norman Lear productions,” Charnas added. “He made the uncomfortable hilarious. If he was making shows today, issues like the Black Lives Matter movement are exactly what they would be talking about—but I see so little of that. It’s not Norman Lear’s world anymore, but [we should] at least draw inspiration from him.”