The Independent Producer in Television

Norman Lear Seminars at the Museum of Broadcasting The Mark Goodson Seminar Series June 1986

Bill Moyers

The Independent Producer in Television

June 19, 1986

NORMAN LEAR: Do you like mother stories?  I called my mother in Bridgeport and said, “”Mother I just got this call.  The Television Academy is forming a Hall of Fame.  And the first inductees are going to be General Sarnoff and Edward R. Murrow and William Paley and Milton Berle and Paddy Chayefsky and Lucille Ball—and me.”  There was about a two-second beat and she said, “Listen, if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?”  As I was telling the audience here yesterday, I called her and said, “I’m in New York, doing this seminar.  It’s a retro­spective, I’m going to be talking about myself.  People are coming to hear me talk Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.”  And she said, “That means I won’t hear from you until Friday.”  That’s what it meant.  Anyway, it keeps you trying.

I’ll tell you how hard it can keep you trying.  Several months ago she was here and wanted to come to California.  I was in New York and said, “Well, come out and fly with me.  Stay for a few weeks.”  My mother was in Bridgeport so I sent a car for her.  I was at the American Airlines terminal.  She’s eighty-seven years old and in terrific health, but her legs are infirm so I wheeled her up to the plane.  On this particular day she was having trouble with her right eye, and she had some drops which she was instructed to take intermittently.  So, the plane takes off and we’re up in the air about ten minutes.  And a strange guy is walking down the aisle and my mother, who’s sitting in the aisle seat, pulls him by the sleeve.  She says, “Pardon me, I have this trouble with this eye. And I have these drops.”  And she takes them out.  And she says, “Could you just put one drop in this eye for me?”  The man, who is very nice, says, “Yes,” and puts a drop in her eye.  I said, “Mother, why did you ask a perfect stranger to do this?”  “Well, I didn’t want to bother you.”  I said, “Didn’t want to bother me?  I’m your son! I’m sitting right here.  Why would you not ask me to put a drop in your eye?”  And she said, “Well, you have to be very careful.”  I said, “Why couldn’t I be careful?”  She said, “Well, you need patience.”  I said, “Why wouldn’t I be patient!” And she looked at her agitated son and said, “Look, some patience!”

Anyway, I’ve got to be careful.  I’ve been talking here for three hours in the last two days and it’s all about the shows and my career and so forth.  I see some faces that were here before so I don’t want to repeat myself, and forgive me if I do.  Today we’re to talk about Tandem and companies.  I have some notes, which I never look at, that say, “The evolution of Tandem and the pioneering of syndicated series.  Dealing with social controversy and so forth.”

Let me start by saying that we never sat down to deal with social controversy in any of the shows.  People told us later that we did, and certainly we became aware that that was the way it was perceived.  For a long time I would say, “There is no point of view, there is no social content, we’re doing theater.  Our obligation is to entertain and that’s what we’re doing.  Watch 300 live people laugh at each of these shows.”  Remember that each of these shows was taped before a live audience.  We used a laugh track or a machine where we had to use it, where we were making splices or something, or if the audience had left and we had something we couldn’t get right and it took a couple of hours.  Of course we had to use a laugh track just to keep the sound track even.  But we never relied on it to tell us—or viewers—what was funny.  If it wasn’t funny we fixed it.  So we didn’t start to deal with social contro­versy, we tried to be funny.

I was writing out of my own experience.  I was forty-some years old when all of this started, raising three kids, paying a lot of attention to what was going on in this society.  The New York Times was there every day, and so were The Los Angeles Times, and Time and Newsweek, and my kids were coming home with stories.  We were all living through things.  And so was every other writer, producer, director, every man and woman associated with the show, including the cast, who after a while also began to come in every day with their stories about what was happening.  Our pumps, I often say, were so well primed, it’s like we all were coming to a group therapy session, or a sensitivity training session.  Everybody came in talking.  We wrote out of our experiences, what we remembered in the past, what was happening then.

Yesterday I illustrated what I was talking about by mentioning Di­vorce American Style, a film I made with Bud Yorkin.  I wrote that screenplay.  There was one scene where a mother and a father, played by Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds, were screaming at each other, having a real down and dirty fight after their company had left.  And in the middle of this the camera panned up to a transom and then dis­solved through to another transom and upstairs bedroom, panned down, and there was an eleven-or twelve-year-old boy in bed listening to his parents’ fight and scoring it.  That was me.  We didn’t live in a house with an upstairs and downstairs, but I sat at the kitchen table with that argument raging around me and I would score it.  And I would get a lot of fun out of it.  But what I was scoring was a very difficult, very dramatic scene.  Somehow I saw the comedy in it, or I made it that for myself.

I have a couple of relatives here who will remember—just plumbing the past one finds an awful lot to write about.  When I was a little boy, maybe as young as five years old, we all lived for a couple of weeks dur­ing the summer in a cottage in Woodmont, Massachusetts.  The walls were paper thin and there were a lot of us upstairs, you know, several couples in rooms, half a dozen kids in rooms.  We were all crowded to­gether.  This was during the Depression, and we were struggling to have a good time in the summer.  One day, at five o’clock in the morning, I was in the bathroom.  Evidently I was making a little noise, because the door burst open and my Uncle Eddie, at the top of his lungs, screamed at me, showing me that when you go into the bottom of the bowl, it makes a sound, but to the side, it falls silent.  The man woke up the whole house screaming at this five-year-old.

Many years later, in Maude, Walter takes his grandson and explains to him that this is no way to conduct yourself as a growing little boy.  It was the sweetest scene I can remember.  The first time I used it was in the first piece of material I ever sold, to a nightclub comic by the name of Joe E. Lewis, who was very, very well known.  This was a long story he told about the one thing that ties all male humanity together.  Wher­ever you were, any status, any country, anywhere in the world, men could rely on being connected by this one simple truth, which he said was, “Water sprayed on water makes a sound that all can hear, but wa­ter spritzed on porcelain falls silent to the ear.”  So Walter told that story.

This reminds me, we took a lot of flack in the early years of All in the Family for that toilet.  One was the sound of the toilet.  Two was in a very early show, in which Archie was so proud of the way his personal plumbing worked.  He talked about how, like my father, he enjoyed heartburns so that he could use bicarbonate of soda, because he loved the way it got rid of heartburn.  He could feel bad, have a little heart­burn, take a little bicarbonate of soda, and like clockwork, get over it like that, in precisely twenty minutes.  My father was proud as hell of that.  In one early show, Mike said to Archie, “We’ve got to take bicar­bonate of soda.”  They took it, and then conducted a conversation as Mike was counting it out, and just at the moment he finished counting, Archie burped, and exploded with joy.  The audience had been set up to wait for this.

We were criticized a lot for dealing with things like that, and with the toilet jokes.  I often said, isn’t it a shame that we have come to that?

This country grew up on humor by Chic Sayle, who, if you remember, was the man who drew the outhouse with the crescent in the door.  That’s early American humor.  And all great humor, all Restoration com­edy and the comedy that preceded it, was full of bawdy bathroom hu­mor.  When you stop to think about it, what is the first joke that passes between a parent and a child?  The first smile, the first little laugh that the parent and child can enjoy together has something to do with “doo­doo,” “wee-wee,” “poo-poo,” or whatever any individual family’s word is for that.  How did we ever get to make anything dirty of that?  How did that become obscene?  So we used to take a lot of flack, and that was often the answer.

Another thing that came up yesterday, and is worth talking about today, is the concern raised by somebody who asked, “Could you do All in the Family today?” or “Why is there nothing like it or Maude on the air now?”  I think it’s because—and maybe it’s coming back—you look all around our culture and there is a lot to be outraged about, but there is no outrage.

There was a lot of outrage in the seventies.  Archie was outraged, Mike was outraged, Maude was outraged.  And the genre itself was out­rage in Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.  The genre was a statement of outrage at the effect of the media on the culture.  Maybe outrage is com­ing back.  I look for it everywhere.

I wonder if this is a good time to show some film clips.  We had one set of clips for each of the previous two seminars.  There are two tonight—one is a short group of shots from Mary Hartman that moves at a pace quite different from the rest of the shows, so we’ve separated that.  Before we get to that, let me just cover a couple of other points.  When All in the Family was about to go on the air, there was a lot of argument with Program Practices at CBS.  They wanted the second show to go on first—we had made four or five—because they felt it was less controversial.  It had to do with Archie writing a letter to President Nixon.  From their standpoint, I understood why they would say that.  He didn’t use as many expletives, he wasn’t talking about Jews and blacks and a number of other things.  But the first show was de­signed for the show to get altogether wet.  We had to jump into the pool, with CBS, and get wet.  And know what the hell we had.  But if we did the second show first, we’d never get to do the first show.  So that be­came a fight that went right on up to the last moment, and finally they put it on.

They were afraid and there were two things they said to me at that time, and which they always said every time conflicts came up about whether this or that should be in a show.  One was that there’ll be a knee-jerk reaction in the middle of the country, or a knee-jerk reaction in the Bible-belt, or that it won’t fly in Des Moines.  Now, I had made Cold Turkey in Winterset and in Greenfield, and in Des Moines, Iowa.  It took me the better part of a year with the pre-production and produc­tion, and everything else.  And I adored Iowa and Iowans.  A company of one hundred-plus Californians had an absolute love affair with the state of Iowa and the people in it.  I really felt I understood them.  So when they said it will not fly in Des Moines or there will be a knee-jerk reaction, I was able to say—but more importantly, I was able to be­lieve—“Don’t tell me what will play in Des Moines, I come from Des Moines.”  I felt it, I meant it, and it saved my life.  I don’t think I could have withstood an awful lot of the contests that we had over content if I wasn’t able to say, “Don’t tell me about the middle of the country, I understand the middle of this country.”

The other thing I feel the need to say is that I wasn’t always right.  Program Practices often enough was right and often enough they were wrong, but they caused us to think about things that we ultimately changed and made better.  So there was a collaborative process that was going on that was very healthy, too.  One other point is that as you see these shows, you might think we were constantly asked, “What makes you think you have a right to express a point of view on these shows?”  At first I would deny that there was a point of view because we basically were trying to entertain and these subjects were attractive to those of us who were writing and acting them, and that’s what we wanted to do.  Then I began to realize, wait a second.  You know, you like to think you’re a whole person, and what you direct in this company comes out of that whole person.  You’ve got to be responsible for what they’re ask­ing about.  And I said, “Well, we’re people who think and feel, and this is what we think and feel and, yes, I guess there’s a point of view.”  But then it occurred to me, what about the point of view that had preceded these shows?  There we can look at a decade, the sixties.  Petticoat Junc­tion, Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, Green Acres.  You look at those shows, wall to wall, and floor to ceiling, throughout the sixties, and you would not think blacks lived in America, let alone that there was any racial tension.  You wouldn’t think anybody had a problem get­ting a job or making a living.  You wouldn’t think that there were any problems in families with homosexuality or rape or drugs or dope or al­cohol.  There was nothing but white bread and contentment in the 1960s American situation comedy.  What about that point of view?  By omission.  There was nothing I thought we could ever say or do that would be as total as the point of view, by omission, of all of those shows of the sixties.  And that’s probably as fit an introduction as any to get to the first set of clips.

[Videotape is shown to the seminar audience.]

LEAR: When you see a group of scenes that are designed to remind you of some of what’s been called controversial, then put it all together, it’s stacking it.  There were a lot of other things in between.  But that script, the attempted rape of Edith in All in the Family, was developed for Bon­nie Franklin on One Day at a Time, and that was in the works for a long, long time, for months, maybe two seasons.  Then some article ap­peared in the paper that dealt with rape and the truth about rape.  I don’t remember exactly how this thought came about—that it was far more an act of violence than an act of sex, involving women of all ages.  We felt, well, why the younger, more conventionally attractive Bonnie Franklin?  Wouldn’t it make a stronger show and a better point and pro­vide more information if the woman attacked was Edith Bunker.  And we did Edith Bunker.

On the Vietnam show, Archie at one point says, “Don’t tell me, I don’t want to hear any more about that rotten goddamn war!”  The net­work said, “Well, there was a thing about doing the whole show and we got past that, but he can’t say goddamn.”  But we had done the earlier show, a season or two before, where he’d made a whole thing of “god­damn.”  We changed it because we had gone through such a strong fight about the whole Vietnam show and they said, “Be reasonable.  You’re going to do the whole Vietnam thing, don’t compound it with god­damn.”  That was one change that we made.

Another was on the episode of Maude when she elected to have an abortion.  I wish we had the time and the clips to go through some of the other moments where she really agonizes about whether she should have the abortion—and once decided that she would not, that she was going to have the child.  That was such a cause celebre.  The Right to Life movement at that time really started to get more agitated, more vo­cal, more violent.  People were lying down in front of Mr. Paley’s car and Mr. Swafford’s car (who was the head of Program Practices at that time), and my car at CBS in California.  It was an enormous brouhaha.

Years later it was very difficult to sell Maude in syndication.  Maude had been in the top five for five or six years, but it was very hard to sell it because the station managers, who were white males, across this country, did not care for what they now were able to call “that ball-breaker.”  When she was in the top five nobody used words like that.  Because of episodes like the abortion show, they were afraid of controversy in their local communities, which they had not been afraid of when she was in the top five—because nobody fools with suc­cess, especially that kind of financial success, in our society.  Every­body was making money with it.  But when they had to decide whether they should buy the show, they didn’t.

One of the great fans of the show was Betty Ford, who was then in the White House.  She would write all the time when she missed the show and ask if she could get a copy of an episode.  She always signed the letters, “Maude’s number-one fan.”  Years later I called Mrs. Ford when she and President Ford were living in Palm Springs.  We were having difficulty selling Mary Hartman and I asked if she would help us.  I told her if she would come as the guest of Bea Arthur to a party at my home, I would invite as many of the group station managers that would come, with their wives, to have dinner and dance.  Then we would sell the show to them.  She did it.  She came, she danced until one o’clock in the morning with every station manager around the country, and whatever sales we made, we made off of that evening—but still far less than The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, All in the Family, etc.

The other story I alluded to yesterday related to one of the pieces of film here.  It makes a much better story now because you’ve seen the piece of film and because now I also remember it better.  It’s where Ar­chie and Mike are arguing about giving a raspberry to God.  We went crazy about that.

[Videotape is shown to the seminar audience.]

LEAR: Mary Hartman wound up in the sanitarium after having had a breakdown on The David Susskind Show.  David Susskind is sitting here today, and I’d like to acknowledge his presence.  Mr. Batscha was telling me earlier that the Museum of Broadcasting has just accepted the pro­grams that were produced by Mr. Susskind throughout the years, and was staggered with the amount and quality of those shows through the fifties and sixties.

We did 2,600 half-hour shows, I think, while I was working in the center of all of it.  We had done more, but it was 2,600 half-hours at the point when I left that format.  The clip I just showed you is certainly one of my favorite moments.

Before I start answering questions, I want to be sure I covered all of the seminar topic.  I’m a writer, basically.  But after All in the Family went on the air, Bud Yorkin and I formed Tandem in the hope that one and one would be three.  He did something, I would do something.  Bud is not a writer; we didn’t collaborate in that fashion.  But if he did some­thing and I did something, and one wasn’t successful and one was, it would add up.  If both of us were successful it would be three, not two.  And that’s why we didn’t intend to make a large company.  All in the Family got on the air, and then Sanford and Son did.

And then something occurred to me.  I had watched writers through the years who did multiple shows, and who had no control of the after­life of those shows.  Paul Henning had immediately preceded my suc­cess with The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.  Paul Henning did very well, but he wasn’t able to control the life of those shows.  I was too wedded to my shows and I cared too much about where they were going to go and how they were going to play and so forth.

As a matter of fact, I fought All in the Family going into syndication for over a year, because they take three minutes out from what was seen in prime time.  In those years, by FCC regulations, you could not take out as much time for commercials as was allowed in non-prime time and in daytime when shows were stripped.  So to go into syndica­tion meant you only had twenty-three minutes, roughly, of play in a half-hour drama.  And losing better than ten percent of it was more than I could bear.  I fought for a year, and finally had to give in when it was a question of preventing everybody else who would benefit from the residuals as a result of those sales.  I had to give up.  But before that, for the three minutes that would have to come out, we had offered whatever money that three minutes would provide by having that time to sell to more sponsors.  Pay us that much less for the shows and keep the shows intact.  I’m the only person who has every single episode un­abridged.  And I couldn’t bear the thought.  But we did it and we lived through it.

But I wanted to form the company and sought the help of an old friend, Jerry Perenchio, who was an agent at that time, to make this a company that could control its own destiny.  He joined us at the time Maude went on the air.  We had three shows, and it was Jerry Perenchio who really built a company that became Tandem and then T.A.T., and then ultimately Embassy.

[Videotape is shown to the seminar audience.]

QUESTION-AND-ANSWER

Q: You just showed us Mary Hartman and I’m glad we finally got to see some of that.  In keeping with the idea of tonight’s seminar, can you de­scribe the basic idea for Mary Hartman?  How did you pitch it?  When you sat down perhaps to write something to describe it to your partner, to the writers, what did you say—“I want to do a late-night soap?”  It had to be more than that.

LEAR: No.  The idea had come years before, in New York actually, and ABC—again ABC—funded a bible, which is to say it funded the writ­ing of a year’s story lines.  I’m remembering this for the first time in I can’t tell you how many years.  I don’t recall what happened to what I wrote, but we never went any place with it.  Years later I was in Los An­geles and I wanted to do Mary Hartman again, and I couldn’t find my notes that ABC had paid for in those years.  I don’t even remember that I had the title Mary Hartman at that time.  But I remembered what I had in mind, which was the impact of the media.  I don’t think we really pay any attention to the impact of the media on our society.  That’s what Mary Hartman grew out of, a desire to explore the question, “What has the media done to a housewife in Illinois, in Ohio?”  What is the impact on a person of the screaming need for attention from sponsors, from products, from advertising, from the news?  Her reaction to a family of five, eight goats and two chickens—was this a result of having seen so much TV news?  How much can you carry on?  You don’t hear that chickens and goats were killed on the TV news, so that would attract your at­tention.  That’s the way the news opens.  Tomorrow I want to talk about a piece of research that was done by the TV and Radio News Directors Association in which they asked people what they remembered from last year’s news.  Most people remembered murders and fires and so forth, and what the News Directors Association took from that was, “There are these major happenings in Iran and Iraq—and all the view­ers remember are the fires and the murders and the accidents.”  They put down the viewers without taking any responsibility at all for the fact that that’s the way the news opens every night, that’s what they concentrate on, especially the local news.

The night that Mr. Burger retired as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Mr. Rehnquist was named to succeed him and Scalia was named to take his place, Kate Smith happened to die.  I’m very sorry Kate Smith died, but she opened the CBS news for nine minutes, and then we learned about the Supreme Court.  So, where’s a little sense of responsibility for what we’re doing?  Mary Hartman was supposed to be addressing that.

Q: If you were to show, right after this, Dallas, Dynasty, and what we’ve got in a few years, how would you judge them?  You gave us issues, and we have big issues now with your People for the American Way, all things that we should be working into plots.  How do you account for the Dynastys and the Dallases and the artificiality of this world?

LEAR: Well, they’re very well done and are very good entertainment, and I don’t know how else to account for it.  I’ve got a tremendous num­ber of friends who are addicted to Dynasty.  I’m not that much of a tele­vision watcher, largely because for ten years I was making shows ev­ery one of those nights.  It was before a live audience so we didn’t get through till ten or eleven o’clock at night, and I mean five days a week.  And writing weekends.  So I didn’t get into that habit.  But they’re very good entertainment.

For television networks, the name of the game is winning Tuesday night at eight-thirty.  They must win, and they must win faster than they did five years ago or ten years before that.  So you might have had a Dallas that was just terrific, if everybody had had the freedom to in­novate.  But because Dallas was terrific and had big ratings, somebody had to do Dynasty.  And because that worked, too, somebody had to do Knot’s Landing, and because that worked, too… I don’t know the oth­er titles.  But that’s what happened.  If you must come up with hits, you must copy.  And you must come up with hits quickly, because doing oth­erwise would immediately suggest risk, and innovation suggests risk.  And if you have to win quickly in ratings competition, you don’t risk.

Q: With the advancement of the technology of satellite communica­tions, American television in first run and rerun is being seen all around the world.  Would you care to comment on the kind of impact that you’ve experienced?  What has that meant from your perspective?

LEAR: Our stuff has not played that successfully around the world.  In­digenous American comedy does not transport all that successfully.  We’ve had success in Australia, I guess, and Archie Bunker had a lot of success in Israel because they related to that, and maybe in West Ger­many.  I can’t remember the places, but we’ve not done that well with any of the shows abroad.  Now, Dynasty is a smash where it plays abroad.

Q: Thank you for twenty-three minutes of the original half-hours.  I see most of them in syndication.  Who determined the three minutes that were missing?  And are those three minutes that are missing change­able at the present time?

The answer to the first question is a wonderful man by the name of Hall Collins who has now passed on.  He was a film and tape editor.  I couldn’t go watch this be done so we just trusted him to do it because it had to be done.  He edited almost all of the shows until the last five years.  All in the Family, Maude, and all of those shows have gone off since then.

Q: Once he did that, did the local stations still have further choice about the missing three minutes?

LEAR: No, they just play them.  They sell the additional time.  Instead of twenty-six minutes out of a half hour, there are twenty-three minutes out of a half hour.  That’s why there are all of those commercials.  I must say I see the shows in hotels when I’m traveling, and every once in a while I ache with what I miss, but by and large they play.  But they’re better with the three minutes in.  We always thought of them as little Swiss watches.  There’s so much that goes into them and into every sec­ond.  When you’re making them and you have to cut what you dearly love, that’s hard enough, but to have it finished and finally working, and suddenly start to take some jewels out of the watch, is painful.

Q: Why do you think that shows like Dallas and Dynasty have become less popular in the past season, and why have shows like Family Ties and Cosby climbed to the top of the ratings?  Do you think it reflects a different fantasy in the American public?  Do you think that people now fantasize more about having a happy home life than they fantasize about going around in fancy cars and Lear jets?

LEAR: I don’t know.  It would be easier to answer that question if we hadn’t been surfeited with the kind of drama that Dynasty and Knot’s Landing and so forth represent.  At a time when they ought to be tired of that, and they are, it’s hard to measure one against the other.  But the shows you mentioned that are so popular are also very good shows.  Family Ties is a terrific show, and what Cosby does nobody else can touch.  What troubles me about some of it is where it’s suggested you ought to watch this show because it’s dealing with an issue.  And I don’t mean those two shows—Cosby doesn’t deal with issues, except for the issues of interpersonal family life.  I see issues kind of heavily done for the sake of doing the issue without entertainment, and that diminishes the whole idea of content in these comedies.

Q: Was Mary Hartman the first show you produced for syndication?

LEAR: Yes, expressly for syndication.

Q: And then after that, Fernwood 2-Night and The Baxters, about which we’ve heard nothing.  Tell us a little about The Baxters.

LEAR: Let me just say first that on Mary Hartman we made two epi­sodes ourselves that nobody funded.  I tried to sell them to the networks first, but they didn’t like them.  Then we tried to sell them to indepen­dent station groups and they just didn’t understand them.  After a year of trying to sell it, I began to think that it was too off the wall for them.  But they also didn’t know me.  This was the conceit that finally sold it.  They were looking at it in rooms, or wherever the hell they were seeing it, and they didn’t get it. Or they just thought it was off the wall.

Then it occurred to me that if they saw the guy who was making it had two feet on the ground—it wasn’t somebody who was climbing walls or something—they might understand that it was the work of reasonable people.  So we invited about thirty men from around the country to California and we had a dinner party in a normal home.  My wife and daughters were there, and none of this group had seen the show.  They had a terrific evening in the bosom of a reasonable family, and then the next morning at eight-thirty there was a breakfast and we showed them the two episodes.  Two guys got up when it was over and one of them grabbed it, the others following suit.  Then it was success­ful when it aired.  But it took a long time.  It was very hard to sell Mary Hartman.

The Baxters was another story.  There was an independent station in Boston that did a show—I can’t remember what it was called—and they did five or seven minutes of drama, then invited an audience to talk about what they had just seen.  I loved the notion, so in collabora­tion with the station in Boston we did The Baxters show in California.  In communities around the country they had their own local host and audiences discuss the problems that we dealt with in our piece of the drama.  In some cities like Washington it worked well because they had such a good host and they had selected their audiences so carefully.  Sometimes it went so well that they did an hour or even ninety minutes.  Here in New York it died, and elsewhere it died.  It succeeded but it didn’t work over all.

Q: It wasn’t comedy then, it was drama?

LEAR: No, it was comedy.  It was comedy/drama.  Some of it was funny, some of it was not, but the actors were skilled at comedy and drama and they were often very funny.

Q: How were scripts conceived and developed and written on a Nor­man Lear show?  What kind of system or procedures did you employ?

LEAR: As I said, our pumps were primed and we all walked in talking.  We had a lot of things to write about that were out of the air, you know, out of our lives and out of the daily newspapers.  We would sit in my of­fice, which had a large conference table and dictating equipment in the center of that.  The average show had five or six writers who would come in.  After we talked for a couple of minutes about a story idea, somebody in another office would start typing because they were con­nected to the dictating machine.  When that meeting concluded, there would be a half a dozen men and women in the outer office ready to come in for the next meeting on another show.  The current meeting had eight, ten pages waiting by that time, and they were ready to go right to work with the thoughts that came out of all of us as we worked on it.  Then, from those pages they might talk about it a little further, and two of them would be elected to, or would wish to take the script by them­selves and do a draft.  We would meet again to go over that draft, then somebody else would take the second draft.  And we would do that until we got it right.  Then we’d go to the table with the actors and find out time and again that we didn’t get it right, and we would rewrite until the minute the last shot was taped.

Q: Did I understand you last evening to say that All in the Family did not have a significant impact on changing attitudes in regards to these vital issues that you put into your program?

LEAR: I said that as often as I hear, “Why did you validate Archie?”  and, “Why did you make a bigot into a hero?”  I hear that All in the Fam­ily was a great boost to tolerance and it diminished bigotry.  It showed us that we could laugh at it, and I must say I don’t see in my life, as I look about, any evidence of that.  I would love to believe it, it’s terrific to think that you might have done something that would help that way.  But it’s as if a kid and a physicist were standing at a lake.  The physicist might give the kid some pebbles and say, “Throw the pebbles in the wa­ter.  Every time you throw a pebble in the water you’re lifting the level of the water.”  And the kid would say, “Well, what do you mean?  I throw a pebble and I don’t see anything.  I don’t see it, I can’t touch it, I can’t… .”  And the physicist ultimately has to say, “Trust me.  Every time you throw a pebble in the water, you can’t measure it, but the level of the water is raised.”  Well, that’s the way it is with this.  I don’t see the level of the water being raised at all.

Q: Sociologists have found otherwise, have they not?

LEAR: I think there’s some research that I quarrel with.  I would love to believe it, but I’d like to believe that two thousand years of the Judeo-Christian ethic helped to diminish bigotry and intolerance, but every war that’s being fought on the face of the globe now is a religious war.

Q: Is it possible that humor, especially if it’s well done, is too heavy a message?  Does humor tend to kill the message because you remember the scene instead of the point?

LEAR: No, I don’t think so.  I think it’s helpful to laugh at all of these things.  It had to be helpful in families because enough people have come to me through the years and said, “You had my father, you had my Uncle Jack, you had my so-and-so just right.  I got a neighbor that’s just like Archie.”  I always believe it’s good to laugh at it.  But your ques­tion is, “Do we see less bigotry as a result?”  Show me where it’s hap­pened that there is less bigotry.  I think what we did is terrific, I think it is helpful to laugh—but I wouldn’t know how to measure the result.

Q: Do you think television audiences are too preoccupied with seeing comedy with a laugh track, and do you think it’s possible for a comedy show to be successful without a laugh track?

LEAR: Wasn’t there a show on this year that didn’t have a laugh track?  Joe Bash, was that it?  I didn’t see it, so I don’t know how funny it was.  I don’t think a show needs a laugh track.  Mary Hartman didn’t have one, and obviously people laughed.  They laugh at another pace.  I don’t know if the audiences are pre-conditioned.  I think they’d have to be to a degree.  The networks are certainly pre-conditioned, and therein lies the problem.  They don’t think America will laugh without a laugh track, and if America might, it could take weeks to find out, and they won’t give it weeks to find out.  So, you know, you’re dead in the water.

Q: You’ve addressed prejudice and war and abortion.  Is there any­thing at all that you wouldn’t touch?

LEAR: Someone will have to give me some ideas because I can’t think of anything.

Q: Incest?  Sodomy?

LEAR: We dealt with incest.  We talked the thread of incest on One Day at a Time.  Let me put it this way, there’s certainly nothing I wouldn’t do that an American audience would resist or deny if well done.  They prove that again and again and again, but the establishment mentality needs to insist that we have a fifteen-year-old mentality, which is an old myth—or that we don’t want to be confronted in entertainment with our problems, which is nonsense.

Q: What about stuff like Molière did, corruption and the insincerity of the would-be clergy?  The corruption and greed of doctors?

LEAR: And the world has been laughing ever since.

Q: I meant that as in television sit-com.

LEAR: Oh, one of the things I want most dearly to see happen, and I have worked on but was not able to sell, is a modern-day restoration comedy.  The Life and Adventures of Harry Bellaire is the title of some­thing we’ve worked on for years, and no network would buy it.

Q: What was in it that was so unsellable?

LEAR: Well, costumes don’t work.  I don’t think there is a costume dra­ma on that is working.  Now if we did a Restoration comedy that worked, there would be a ton of comedies and dramas to follow, from all periods.  But nobody has tried one.  It isn’t as though they have tried one and it didn’t work.  You never saw a baseball story in pictures for fifteen or thirty years, because baseball doesn’t work on it.  The name of the game in Hollywood was “baseball doesn’t work.”  So you couldn’t sell a baseball picture.  Costume comedies don’t work in common televi­sion, so we have not yet sold it.

Q: Could you do something anti-clerical?  Could you have religious fraud, someone who bilked the congregation or something like that?

LEAR: In Mary Hartman the father was a religious fraud who was elec­trocuted in a bathtub because a radio fell in.  There was a radio preacher on.  Yes, I think you’d play hell doing it today because of what’s hap­pening with the ultra-fundamentalists all over television.

Q: Tell us about your new company and what you are going to do.  Don’t you feel a frustration and a desire to get back into television and ex­press some of those outrages or get involved in some of these subject’s?

LEAR: Yes, and it may happen.

Q: Are you working towards that?

LEAR: I’m trying to puzzle out in my own internal life if I can possibly do it without working as hard as I always work.  You know, we all have to grow and it doesn’t stop at any age, and I’m trying to grow up in that regard.  I’ve got to find out if I can do it without working seven days and nights a week.

Q: How important is choosing the correct title in selling your product?

LEAR: A title seems to be very important before you make the show and certainly before it’s successful; after that it doesn’t mean a thing.  The Big Chill was a terrible title until the picture worked.  I’ve got a brilliant film coming out in August [1986] that Rob Reiner made which was called The Body, because that was the title of a short story by Ste­ven King.  Nobody liked The Body, so the title is taken from the song at the end of the picture called Stand By Me.  And the new title is Stand By Me.  Nobody likes that either, but we will love it if the picture works.  You know, nobody wanted the title All in the Family until it worked.

Q: I’ve been watching television since 1950, and every year I watch the dreams and the millions spent and I ask this question every year.  “Who are the geniuses that buy the shows?”  When lecturing to a young televi­sion producer group, I asked, “Who watched so-and-so last week?”  Not one hand went up and somebody yelled out, “I don’t watch television!” And I said, “Well then, you’re the geniuses I need when I’m on the set.”  If they don’t like television and they’re learning how to be a producer, is that the reason why shows don’t make it past the first week?

LEAR: I think the answer is exactly the opposite of what you suggest.  Part of the reason is because the executives who buy television shows know only television.  They’re thirty-one and thirty-two years old, they grew up on television, all they know is television.  They have not read all that much.  They can be very well educated, but they’re students of the media.  And they went to communications schools and got degrees and so forth.  I’ve often thought that as the result of watching televi­sion all of their lives, they don’t know real behavior from television be­havior.  They really think that a sixteen-year-old girl might jump up and down when her father says, “We’ve got lamb for dinner.”  They don’t know the director needed that line so that her boobs would jump about. or that people bend in certain ways when they don’t really bend in those ways, but it’s better on camera if they bend in those ways.  I think there are a lot of young people at the networks who seriously don’t know what real human behavior is, because that’s all they’ve seen on the tube.

Q: When you were considering selling All in the Family and the other shows into syndication, one of the things you were concerned about was the cutting of these minutes.  Were you also concerned that the shows could then turn up at eight in the morning between Gilligan’s Is­land and Leave It to Beaver, thereby being entirely different viewing experiences by somebody having breakfast and in a different mind­set?

LEAR: I’ve always tried not to be concerned about the things over which I have absolutely no control.  I thought for a little while I might have control over how long the shows would be, but I never argued with the network about where they would put a show.  I just didn’t in­volve myself with the things I knew I couldn’t affect.

Q: With the environment today of the Moral Majority and the ultra-right-wing patriotic American, would you find it more difficult now to produce a show with an Archie Bunker?

LEAR: I suspect so.  There’s no way I would know.  I know it would be very hard to succeed today with All in the Family because when it be­gan it took sixteen weeks before it came up from the bottom of the rat­ings, and there was a commitment for thirteen shows and thirteen re­peats.  It wasn’t until the sixteenth show and the third repeat that people whose favorite shows on the other networks were finished for the season started tuning in to All in the Family.  Today, if they put it on the air and we got lousy reviews and there was no rating for two weeks, it’d be over and out.

Q: Is there any chance that Mary Hartman might be revived?  It was a joy just to see that lampshade.  And I wonder where Louise Lasser is?  Whatever happened to her?

LEAR: Somebody is throwing a party for me tonight and she’s going to be there.  I learned this just before we all sat down and I was thrilled.  Evidently she’s well and in New York.  That’s recent information.

Q: But there is no possibility of that show coming back to life?

LEAR: Embassy tried to sell it two or three years ago but it didn’t work and I suspect it was because they put it in exactly the way they sold it the first time, and they didn’t look for another audience with it.  I thought they should try four or five in the afternoon, or eleven in the morning or something.  But they put it on late night, and it was the same audience that had seen it.  You don’t get the same excitement the second time around, and it’s the kind of show that needed that excitement.  It needed that word of mouth.  Everybody talked about what they had seen on Mary Hartman the day before.