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Norman Lear on the past and future of television

"There's some wonderful comedy out there"

Norman Lear is one of the four or five most important producers in the history of American television. That may sound like an overstatement, but it might actually be an understatement. He took a medium that seemed stuck on avoiding the perils of the present and dragged it, kicking and screaming, toward confrontation with the important political and social issues of the day. As Lear says, the families of America were talking about these things, around their dinner tables. It was the networks who wanted to avoid them.

Well, Lear's shows would force TV to grow up. With All in the Family's protagonist Archie Bunker — a bigoted working class man from Queens — Lear made TV safe for the antihero. With Maude Findlay (of the show of the same name), he forthrightly looked at the role of women in American life. In The Jeffersons, he examined the racial and class fissures running throughout the US. And those are just the shows that spun off from All in the Family.

Lear also had influence beyond the small screen. In the 1980s, he became more and more politically involved, advocating for socially progressive causes and backing organizations meant to advance those causes.

Recently, Lear, now 92, published his first memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. A rollicking, enjoyable read, the book takes readers through some 60 years of Hollywood history, starting out with Lear's work in the early days of television and continuing right through to the present. His series The Jeffersons has also seen a complete series DVD set come out from Shout! Factory, with Maude to follow in March.

Lear talked with me about the many battles on his groundbreaking shows, why he identifies as a liberal, and when you know it's time to compromise.

Emily VanDerWerff: There are many times you talk in the book about big arguments you had with your actors or network heads. As a creative person, when do you know to push for what you want, and when do you know you have to compromise?

Norman Lear: When I think the conversation has resulted in something better, and that happened often also. But when an idea was foolish, and then three days later you're still talking about it, and it's still foolish — it wasn't hard to reject it.

Emily VanDerWerff: One of those arguments was with Esther Rolle over an episode of Good Times about a teenage girl considering having sex with her boyfriend. Obviously, it was a controversial topic —

Norman Lear: Well, it wasn't a controversial topic in the households across America.

Emily VanDerWerff: How did you broach talking about these topics with networks and co-workers who were skittish about bringing them up?

Norman Lear: I said what I'm saying to you now. We're not talking about anything that isn't a topic in the average American household. There may be some people who are swallowing hard and not talking about it, but it's not information, or there's nothing that every member of every family knows about.

And most are talking about it, because whether it's cancer, or a child that's considering sex, if the family is lucky enough to have the child talking about it at home, there was nothing new about any of this. What was new was what that the media hadn't touched it. The roast is ruined, and the boss is coming to dinner was the kind of problem [TV sitcoms] concerned themselves with, as opposed to what was happening in their families every day of their lives.

(Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Emily VanDerWerff: Good Times was a spinoff of Maude, and you write in the book that you find that term unnecessarily dismissive. What don't you like about that word spinoff? And when did you know it was time to give characters their own shows?

Norman Lear: I'm not troubled by the word spinoff. It just doesn't translate what I think, and certainly in our group, what went on.

We knew we had a talent that earned her own show, and when we were on a few weeks with Maude, and Esther Rolle [as Florida] was a step-out character. Then we introduced on Maude [Florida's] husband [played by John Amos]. I always thought of it, as I said in the book, the shows were in the majors, and there were people on this show that were in the bush leagues. They earned a right at some point to go to the majors, see if they could score there. So that's kind of the way you felt better thinking about it. Not better, but more inclusive, more the way we were thinking about it.

Emily VanDerWerff: The Jeffersons just saw its complete series come out on DVD. Did you hope when you were making these shows that people would still be watching them 40 years later?

Norman Lear: I don't remember specifically hoping that, "God, I just saw my show, I hope it's here in 40 years." I don't really feel that.

Emily VanDerWerff: What's that feeling like?

Norman Lear: Oh, I love it. It's wonderful to hear people talk about it. I gather some of this runs someplace all the time. Or, I'm of another generation, "My folks grew up on your show." I hear that a lot. "My folks grew up. I grew up on your show, and I grew up on the re-runs." I hear that a lot, and it's lovely.

Emily VanDerWerff: You loved breaking format in all of your shows, with just two characters in a room, or Maude talking to her psychiatrist, or Archie trapped in an elevator with a woman giving birth. What was rewarding about playing around with the formula like that?

Norman Lear: I didn't think about breaking it. I just said, "Wouldn't it be amazing if a baby is born in an elevator, and we see the birth on Archie's face?" That had as much to do with loving Carroll O'Connor's face in that role as anything else. You look at the episode again, and there's a baby being born. You hear that cry, and you're looking at his face, and it's a golden moment.

So I guess you have to know enough to know that will be a golden moment. The actor may not necessarily understand it as well as you do, because he's the one playing it. I mean, it's that kind of moment.

Emily VanDerWerff: A lot of the book is also about your relationship with Carroll O'Connor [who played Archie Bunker in All in the Family], and how it was both rewarding and difficult. What memories do you have of Carroll that sort of set him apart for you, both as an actor and as a person?

Norman Lear: I wrote about what followed after his death. When I visited his wife and saw that he had held a letter — a love letter basically — that I had written him, that didn't avoid talking about our difficulties, but it was basically a love letter. And it was sitting on his desk as it had been for several years, since he received it. And it was there when he passed. That to me sums up the relationship in every way I care about it.

Emily VanDerWerff: When you think about your shows, or one of your movies, or even this book, how do you know when you've found the perfect ending?

Norman Lear: I think you arrive at the perfect ending as you do in life. You don't pick it out first, at all. You arrive. It doesn't mean you don't arrive at it in the middle of writing it.

I never changed the opening line [of the book] because I knew I was going to start where I was going to start. And it never changed. I did not know the ending until I was maybe three-quarters of the way through. I knew what I wanted to write towards.

Emily VanDerWerff: There's very little of the feel of stage plays in today's TV comedy. Do you mourn its passing?

Norman Lear: Well, I mourned the passing of it altogether. I certainly don't mourn it in terms of the wonderful things that are available, the wonderful comedy that's available when you're looking at a Modern Family, or you're looking at a South Park. There's some wonderful comedy out there, and there's some that I get to see now and then when somebody says, "What do you mean you didn't see ..." something on that channel I never heard of. And I'd find it, and it couldn't be more rewarding.

I mean, it's all over the place. If I kept up with everything that's recommended to me by people I respect, I wouldn't be doing anything else.

Emily VanDerWerff: I feel that way, and I get paid to watch this stuff.

Norman Lear: How about that lucky break?

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

Emily VanDerWerff: I'd like to talk about some Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman episodes where Mary has a nervous breakdown and ends up in the mental hospital. And once she's there, she discovers her fellow patients in the mental hospital have been made a Nielsen family and, thus, contribute to TV ratings. What did you hope to say about television or the country with those gags?

Norman Lear: Mary Hartman is the best example in my oeuvre of sticking with a central theme for the two years — and this is five times a week — for the several hundred episodes we made.

The show was about the media's effect on an average American housewife. If you're familiar with the show, you know that in that first episode, Mary Hartman was fighting disappointment about a floor wax she was using. She thought she saw some yellow build-up on the floor, and was holding onto a can that guaranteed there would be no waxy yellow build-up. In the midst of that, her neighbor runs in — Loretta — to tell her that all the police sirens she was hearing had to do with a family around the block, who had been shot dead, along with their, something like, eight goats and two chickens.

And Mary Hartman, in her inimitable fashion, her response is to ask Loretta, "Don't you see waxy, yellow build-up on the floor?"

[Loretta] says, "No. I'm telling you that this family was murdered around the corner, their goats and chicken."

Mary Hartman says she sees wax, and she's still committed to seeing the waxy, yellow build-up. And then she says, "Who would want to kill eight goats and two chickens. Oh, and the people — the people too." It's the line reading. You have to have the reading. Anyway, that was the first show. It was all about how much the media had overtaken that household.

(ABC)

Then when you refer to one of the shows near the very end, she's driven crazy. She's on the show, because some for-profit has nominated her as the mother of the year. And she's sitting there subject to the questions of three television type psychologists. They drive her out of her fucking mind, literally, and it may be — not may be, it is, for me — one of the best performances I've ever seen on television. Because it was in one piece — nobody knows that — where in one take she got it so right, there was just no point in doing it again.

And then they take her into an institution because her mind is blown, and it's in that institution where she sits with a number of others who are also institutionalized, because they're falling apart. And she can't get over the fact that with the installation of this item on her television set, "Finally, finally," she says, "I'm a member of a Nielsen family." So what I am trying to underline is the commitment was total for all the episodes. We were looking at a family dominated by the media.

Emily VanDerWerff: What made you want to push back against the medium you had worked in for so long?

Norman Lear: The reason why Mary Hartman is significant today, I think, is because of that. It's all these years later, and I don't think of it as, well, blame it on the American people. The American people are like people everywhere. This includes me, as I'm thinking about it. I need a leader. I need to be led just like everybody else needs to be led. You know? And we need leaders in business, and we need leaders in politics, and we need leaders in entertainment, and certainly in media, who are doing more — let's take media — than yelling at each other, and understand it's their responsibility to give us the news in context.

When I was a young man, when I came into television, the news was not a profit center. There were only three networks, and they did not have to make any money on the news. NBC had a symphony orchestra. CBS did Playhouse 90. They were not in the need for a bigger profit statement this quarter, larger than the last. A larger profit statement this quarter, larger than the last, is something that came over time. You've got me started. It's dear to my heart.

Maude

Emily VanDerWerff: You say in the book that the character of yours you are closest to is Maude. You bring up the episode where she realizes in therapy that she loved her father, and you used stories from your own past in that episode. Did writing the book help you pull those strands together?

Norman Lear: I'm not sure, Emily, I knew it at the start of writing the book. I learned so much about what I was all about and what I had been about in the course of writing it. I don't know that I was wise enough to know to put all of that together at the beginning. It was in the course of writing, I learned so damn much about the life I had led to that point.

I think this is true for most people. We don't spend enough time trying to determine who the hell we are. We're moving too fast, things are moving around. I'm thrilled that whatever need I felt to do a memoir got me to do it, and I can have this conversation that I would not otherwise have had.

Emily VanDerWerff: One of the things that is really great about that episode is that it's so much like a stage play, with just one woman talking. What do you like about the construction of doing television as a filmed stage show?

Norman Lear: That's the way we did all of our shows. Except for Mary Hartman. Mary Hartman, we used multiple cameras, but we shot it more as a single-camera show — went to different sets and so forth. But the rest of the shows we did in front of, on the average, an audience of 250.

When you look at those shows, you see those immense closeups of Maude, or of Archie, or Edith, and the camera's hovering there, while the actor is — the best way of being able to put it — riding the emotions of the audience. The audience is laughing longer than expected. The actor is holding onto that. He's got a nose twitch where there wasn't a nose twitch, because they weren't laughing that long. And they're laughing a little bit more to that nose twitch. It's something that can only happen between a live audience and the onstage performer. I think that's why the shows feel so different, because they were made where the audience and the actors were working together.

Emily VanDerWerff: What is it about Maude that makes her the character most like you?

Norman Lear: My quite liberal point of view, which was JFK's point of view.

In fact, I just had reason to print out his definition of a liberal, and here it is. "A liberal is someone who looks ahead and not behind. Someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions. Someone who cares about the welfare of the people, their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties. Someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad. If that is what they mean by a liberal, then I'm proud to say I'm a liberal." That was JFK.

Emily VanDerWerff: What in that speaks to you?

Norman Lear: Every word of it. Every bloody word of it.

Let me just say, it's common sense. What I love about it is there's nothing mysterious about that. There's nothing, "Oh, God, I have to look up something about that." That is a set of ideals. I think if you pass that by the average conservative, he or she would quickly say, "I believe that." But acting on it and churning out the policies that reflect that are quite another thing.

(Kris Connor/Getty Images)

All in the Family

Emily VanDerWerff: You based All in the Family on a British series called Till Death Us Do Part. What was it about that show that you wanted to adapt?

Norman Lear: They were writing about a father and a son-in-law — or father and a son, I don't remember — and that was my relationship with my father. I was the laziest white kid he ever met, [he would say], and I would scold him for putting down a race of people to call me lazy. And that's not what he was doing, he would shout at me, and I'm the dumbest white kid he ever met.

That's what I sparked to [in Till Death Us Do Part]. "Holy shit, how did I not ever think of that?"

Emily VanDerWerff: Archie Bunker was sort of the first character on TV who exposed the darker sides of humanity on a weekly basis. And he's proved hugely influential because of that. Did you as writers have lines he couldn't cross?

Norman Lear: Well, if you understood him. And he couldn't be hateful.

If we were delivering a character you understood, he wouldn't be hateful, and I don't think he was. Some of his ideas were hateful to people, and Richard Nixon thought they were hateful, because he understood that we were not applauding Archie's bigotry. We were putting it down. We were making fun of it. He didn't like that all.

Emily VanDerWerff: The characters' relationships changed so much over the course of the show, and I'm thinking specifically of another episode you talk about a lot in the book, where Archie and Mike get locked in the basement of the bar. What was the process of writing that episode like?

Norman Lear: I remember the episode so clearly. I've looked at it within the last months, just to cry again with it. I find it so touching.

I don't remember, it could have been any one of a half a dozen of us [writers]. It wasn't the kind of an idea that came in an instant. That was the kind of an idea that — what if they were drunk in the cellar? Or what if they were drunk? Well, how would they get drunk? What if they were locked in the cellar? This grew, and there were six or eight of us around the table as it grew. So it was very much, as I remember, a joint effort.

Emily VanDerWerff: You essentially ended All in the Family in the last episode of the eighth season, when Mike and Gloria moved away, but then came back for one last year. What was making that decision like?

Norman Lear: Well, that came out of a lot of storm. We — when I say we, I'm talking about Jean Stapleton, Rob, Sally, and I — wanted to wrap this show up. Carroll wanted to continue, and eventually did continue, at least his role in Archie Bunker's Place. The others didn't want that. I was ready to say, "Put a ribbon around it." That was enough.

The extra year came out of all of the discussion about not letting it go, and Carroll winning that round. Then came the next round, which was he wanted to do Archie Bunker's Place and the commitment was just to finish out that last year [the ninth and final season of All in the Family]. I didn't want that to happen and finally gave in when my attorney handed me a list of the people who might be out of work if the show didn't go on air. That was Carroll, he went all the way with it, and I had no part of it.

Emily VanDerWerff: There are many times you talk in the book about big arguments you had with your actors or network heads. As a creative person, when do you know to push for what you want, and when do you know you have to compromise?

Norman Lear: When I think the conversation has resulted in something better, and that happened often also. But when an idea was foolish, and then three days later you're still talking about it, and it's still foolish — it wasn't hard to reject it.

Emily VanDerWerff: One of those arguments was with Esther Rolle over an episode of Good Times about a teenage girl considering having sex with her boyfriend. Obviously, it was a controversial topic —

Norman Lear: Well, it wasn't a controversial topic in the households across America.

Emily VanDerWerff: How did you broach talking about these topics with networks and co-workers who were skittish about bringing them up?

Norman Lear: I said what I'm saying to you now. We're not talking about anything that isn't a topic in the average American household. There may be some people who are swallowing hard and not talking about it, but it's not information, or there's nothing that every member of every family knows about.

And most are talking about it, because whether it's cancer, or a child that's considering sex, if the family is lucky enough to have the child talking about it at home, there was nothing new about any of this. What was new was what that the media hadn't touched it. The roast is ruined, and the boss is coming to dinner was the kind of problem [TV sitcoms] concerned themselves with, as opposed to what was happening in their families every day of their lives.

(Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Emily VanDerWerff: Good Times was a spinoff of Maude, and you write in the book that you find that term unnecessarily dismissive. What don't you like about that word spinoff? And when did you know it was time to give characters their own shows?

Norman Lear: I'm not troubled by the word spinoff. It just doesn't translate what I think, and certainly in our group, what went on.

We knew we had a talent that earned her own show, and when we were on a few weeks with Maude, and Esther Rolle [as Florida] was a step-out character. Then we introduced on Maude [Florida's] husband [played by John Amos]. I always thought of it, as I said in the book, the shows were in the majors, and there were people on this show that were in the bush leagues. They earned a right at some point to go to the majors, see if they could score there. So that's kind of the way you felt better thinking about it. Not better, but more inclusive, more the way we were thinking about it.

Emily VanDerWerff: The Jeffersons just saw its complete series come out on DVD. Did you hope when you were making these shows that people would still be watching them 40 years later?

Norman Lear: I don't remember specifically hoping that, "God, I just saw my show, I hope it's here in 40 years." I don't really feel that.

Emily VanDerWerff: What's that feeling like?

Norman Lear: Oh, I love it. It's wonderful to hear people talk about it. I gather some of this runs someplace all the time. Or, I'm of another generation, "My folks grew up on your show." I hear that a lot. "My folks grew up. I grew up on your show, and I grew up on the re-runs." I hear that a lot, and it's lovely.

Emily VanDerWerff: You loved breaking format in all of your shows, with just two characters in a room, or Maude talking to her psychiatrist, or Archie trapped in an elevator with a woman giving birth. What was rewarding about playing around with the formula like that?

Norman Lear: I didn't think about breaking it. I just said, "Wouldn't it be amazing if a baby is born in an elevator, and we see the birth on Archie's face?" That had as much to do with loving Carroll O'Connor's face in that role as anything else. You look at the episode again, and there's a baby being born. You hear that cry, and you're looking at his face, and it's a golden moment.

So I guess you have to know enough to know that will be a golden moment. The actor may not necessarily understand it as well as you do, because he's the one playing it. I mean, it's that kind of moment.

Emily VanDerWerff: A lot of the book is also about your relationship with Carroll O'Connor [who played Archie Bunker in All in the Family], and how it was both rewarding and difficult. What memories do you have of Carroll that sort of set him apart for you, both as an actor and as a person?

Norman Lear: I wrote about what followed after his death. When I visited his wife and saw that he had held a letter — a love letter basically — that I had written him, that didn't avoid talking about our difficulties, but it was basically a love letter. And it was sitting on his desk as it had been for several years, since he received it. And it was there when he passed. That to me sums up the relationship in every way I care about it.

Emily VanDerWerff: When you think about your shows, or one of your movies, or even this book, how do you know when you've found the perfect ending?

Norman Lear: I think you arrive at the perfect ending as you do in life. You don't pick it out first, at all. You arrive. It doesn't mean you don't arrive at it in the middle of writing it.

I never changed the opening line [of the book] because I knew I was going to start where I was going to start. And it never changed. I did not know the ending until I was maybe three-quarters of the way through. I knew what I wanted to write towards.

Emily VanDerWerff: There's very little of the feel of stage plays in today's TV comedy. Do you mourn its passing?

Norman Lear: Well, I mourned the passing of it altogether. I certainly don't mourn it in terms of the wonderful things that are available, the wonderful comedy that's available when you're looking at a Modern Family, or you're looking at a South Park. There's some wonderful comedy out there, and there's some that I get to see now and then when somebody says, "What do you mean you didn't see ..." something on that channel I never heard of. And I'd find it, and it couldn't be more rewarding.

I mean, it's all over the place. If I kept up with everything that's recommended to me by people I respect, I wouldn't be doing anything else.

Emily VanDerWerff: I feel that way, and I get paid to watch this stuff.

Norman Lear: How about that lucky break?

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

Emily VanDerWerff: I'd like to talk about some Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman episodes where Mary has a nervous breakdown and ends up in the mental hospital. And once she's there, she discovers her fellow patients in the mental hospital have been made a Nielsen family and, thus, contribute to TV ratings. What did you hope to say about television or the country with those gags?

Norman Lear: Mary Hartman is the best example in my oeuvre of sticking with a central theme for the two years — and this is five times a week — for the several hundred episodes we made.

The show was about the media's effect on an average American housewife. If you're familiar with the show, you know that in that first episode, Mary Hartman was fighting disappointment about a floor wax she was using. She thought she saw some yellow build-up on the floor, and was holding onto a can that guaranteed there would be no waxy yellow build-up. In the midst of that, her neighbor runs in — Loretta — to tell her that all the police sirens she was hearing had to do with a family around the block, who had been shot dead, along with their, something like, eight goats and two chickens.

And Mary Hartman, in her inimitable fashion, her response is to ask Loretta, "Don't you see waxy, yellow build-up on the floor?"

[Loretta] says, "No. I'm telling you that this family was murdered around the corner, their goats and chicken."

Mary Hartman says she sees wax, and she's still committed to seeing the waxy, yellow build-up. And then she says, "Who would want to kill eight goats and two chickens. Oh, and the people — the people too." It's the line reading. You have to have the reading. Anyway, that was the first show. It was all about how much the media had overtaken that household.

(ABC)

Then when you refer to one of the shows near the very end, she's driven crazy. She's on the show, because some for-profit has nominated her as the mother of the year. And she's sitting there subject to the questions of three television type psychologists. They drive her out of her fucking mind, literally, and it may be — not may be, it is, for me — one of the best performances I've ever seen on television. Because it was in one piece — nobody knows that — where in one take she got it so right, there was just no point in doing it again.

And then they take her into an institution because her mind is blown, and it's in that institution where she sits with a number of others who are also institutionalized, because they're falling apart. And she can't get over the fact that with the installation of this item on her television set, "Finally, finally," she says, "I'm a member of a Nielsen family." So what I am trying to underline is the commitment was total for all the episodes. We were looking at a family dominated by the media.

Emily VanDerWerff: What made you want to push back against the medium you had worked in for so long?

Norman Lear: The reason why Mary Hartman is significant today, I think, is because of that. It's all these years later, and I don't think of it as, well, blame it on the American people. The American people are like people everywhere. This includes me, as I'm thinking about it. I need a leader. I need to be led just like everybody else needs to be led. You know? And we need leaders in business, and we need leaders in politics, and we need leaders in entertainment, and certainly in media, who are doing more — let's take media — than yelling at each other, and understand it's their responsibility to give us the news in context.

When I was a young man, when I came into television, the news was not a profit center. There were only three networks, and they did not have to make any money on the news. NBC had a symphony orchestra. CBS did Playhouse 90. They were not in the need for a bigger profit statement this quarter, larger than the last. A larger profit statement this quarter, larger than the last, is something that came over time. You've got me started. It's dear to my heart.

Maude

Emily VanDerWerff: You say in the book that the character of yours you are closest to is Maude. You bring up the episode where she realizes in therapy that she loved her father, and you used stories from your own past in that episode. Did writing the book help you pull those strands together?

Norman Lear: I'm not sure, Emily, I knew it at the start of writing the book. I learned so much about what I was all about and what I had been about in the course of writing it. I don't know that I was wise enough to know to put all of that together at the beginning. It was in the course of writing, I learned so damn much about the life I had led to that point.

I think this is true for most people. We don't spend enough time trying to determine who the hell we are. We're moving too fast, things are moving around. I'm thrilled that whatever need I felt to do a memoir got me to do it, and I can have this conversation that I would not otherwise have had.

Emily VanDerWerff: One of the things that is really great about that episode is that it's so much like a stage play, with just one woman talking. What do you like about the construction of doing television as a filmed stage show?

Norman Lear: That's the way we did all of our shows. Except for Mary Hartman. Mary Hartman, we used multiple cameras, but we shot it more as a single-camera show — went to different sets and so forth. But the rest of the shows we did in front of, on the average, an audience of 250.

When you look at those shows, you see those immense closeups of Maude, or of Archie, or Edith, and the camera's hovering there, while the actor is — the best way of being able to put it — riding the emotions of the audience. The audience is laughing longer than expected. The actor is holding onto that. He's got a nose twitch where there wasn't a nose twitch, because they weren't laughing that long. And they're laughing a little bit more to that nose twitch. It's something that can only happen between a live audience and the onstage performer. I think that's why the shows feel so different, because they were made where the audience and the actors were working together.

Emily VanDerWerff: What is it about Maude that makes her the character most like you?

Norman Lear: My quite liberal point of view, which was JFK's point of view.

In fact, I just had reason to print out his definition of a liberal, and here it is. "A liberal is someone who looks ahead and not behind. Someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions. Someone who cares about the welfare of the people, their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties. Someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad. If that is what they mean by a liberal, then I'm proud to say I'm a liberal." That was JFK.

Emily VanDerWerff: What in that speaks to you?

Norman Lear: Every word of it. Every bloody word of it.

Let me just say, it's common sense. What I love about it is there's nothing mysterious about that. There's nothing, "Oh, God, I have to look up something about that." That is a set of ideals. I think if you pass that by the average conservative, he or she would quickly say, "I believe that." But acting on it and churning out the policies that reflect that are quite another thing.

(Kris Connor/Getty Images)

All in the Family

Emily VanDerWerff: You based All in the Family on a British series called Till Death Us Do Part. What was it about that show that you wanted to adapt?

Norman Lear: They were writing about a father and a son-in-law — or father and a son, I don't remember — and that was my relationship with my father. I was the laziest white kid he ever met, [he would say], and I would scold him for putting down a race of people to call me lazy. And that's not what he was doing, he would shout at me, and I'm the dumbest white kid he ever met.

That's what I sparked to [in Till Death Us Do Part]. "Holy shit, how did I not ever think of that?"

Emily VanDerWerff: Archie Bunker was sort of the first character on TV who exposed the darker sides of humanity on a weekly basis. And he's proved hugely influential because of that. Did you as writers have lines he couldn't cross?

Norman Lear: Well, if you understood him. And he couldn't be hateful.

If we were delivering a character you understood, he wouldn't be hateful, and I don't think he was. Some of his ideas were hateful to people, and Richard Nixon thought they were hateful, because he understood that we were not applauding Archie's bigotry. We were putting it down. We were making fun of it. He didn't like that all.

Emily VanDerWerff: The characters' relationships changed so much over the course of the show, and I'm thinking specifically of another episode you talk about a lot in the book, where Archie and Mike get locked in the basement of the bar. What was the process of writing that episode like?

Norman Lear: I remember the episode so clearly. I've looked at it within the last months, just to cry again with it. I find it so touching.

I don't remember, it could have been any one of a half a dozen of us [writers]. It wasn't the kind of an idea that came in an instant. That was the kind of an idea that — what if they were drunk in the cellar? Or what if they were drunk? Well, how would they get drunk? What if they were locked in the cellar? This grew, and there were six or eight of us around the table as it grew. So it was very much, as I remember, a joint effort.

Emily VanDerWerff: You essentially ended All in the Family in the last episode of the eighth season, when Mike and Gloria moved away, but then came back for one last year. What was making that decision like?

Norman Lear: Well, that came out of a lot of storm. We — when I say we, I'm talking about Jean Stapleton, Rob, Sally, and I — wanted to wrap this show up. Carroll wanted to continue, and eventually did continue, at least his role in Archie Bunker's Place. The others didn't want that. I was ready to say, "Put a ribbon around it." That was enough.

The extra year came out of all of the discussion about not letting it go, and Carroll winning that round. Then came the next round, which was he wanted to do Archie Bunker's Place and the commitment was just to finish out that last year [the ninth and final season of All in the Family]. I didn't want that to happen and finally gave in when my attorney handed me a list of the people who might be out of work if the show didn't go on air. That was Carroll, he went all the way with it, and I had no part of it.

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