Norman Lear Seminars at the Museum of Broadcasting The Mark Goodson Seminar Series June 1986
Writing and Producing Adult Television Comedy
June 18, 1986
NORMAN LEAR: There are two people here from California I want to introduce right away who made a lot, if not all of this, possible for me. You’re going to see a tape in a little while that they put together, which meant they had to look at hundreds of hours of tape. In the first seminar, because we were talking about the early days of live television, we showed a lot of clips from The Colgate Comedy Hour starring Martin and Lewis, which was their very first time on television, and The Martha Raye Show. Those two people had to go through I don’t know how many hours of stuff, which you will see a little bit later, relating to situation comedies of the seventies. I want you to meet Mark Pollack and Betsy Kenny.
A discussion we had internally was, “Norman, you’re talking about the shows; everybody remembers the hat, the sweater. You should be wearing the hat and the sweater.” And I said, “But I’ve got such a pretty shirt and tie on. What do I want with a hat and a sweater?” Now, Betsy has the hat and the sweater here in a shopping bag. So, it’s going to be up to you. Would you like me to put on the hat and the sweater, all of you? Just that hat? Just the hat. No sweater.
The reason for the hat started years ago when I used to write and pick my head, and I needed something to keep myself from picking my head. But through the years it just made me feel good. And that reminds me of something else I said yesterday. It awes me that you’re interested to come here and hear me talk about the happiest years anybody could spend in a work life. Not without sweat and not without difficulty, and not without, as I discussed, some of the writer’s blocks I’ve gone through, throwing up at a typewriter. Not without starving and trying to support a family on nothing as I tried to find work. Not without any of that. But once connected, once working, laughing all the way. Laughing. Can you imagine doing well in this society, in the business of helping other people to laugh, and laughing yourself all along the way? So as I said yesterday, these are laugh lines, I’m really thirty-seven years old. Where do I start? Let me give you a summary of everything we talked about yesterday up to the point at which we were supposed to start today.
I never wanted to be anything but a press agent because I had an Uncle Jack who was a press agent, and he was the only one who did well in our family. He used to flip quarters to me and every other niece and nephew when he saw them—and I wanted to be a guy who could flip a quarter to a nephew. After the war, fifty-seven missions over Europe, I came back and was mustered out.
I went to California with my wife and two-year-old daughter to become a press agent, and met a fellow, Ed Simmons, who I became partners with ultimately. He was there to write comedy, and one day, when our wives were going to the movies, he said, “Why don’t you write something with me?” So we wrote a parody to The Sheik of Araby. It was kind of a dirty little parody. When the wives came home from the movies at 11:00 at night, we went out to a place called The Bar of Music and we sold it for thirty-five or forty dollars, which was as much money as I’d been making in a week. So we started to write together. We had an idea for Danny Thomas and sold him some material. He did it and it succeeded, and I got a call from David Susskind, who happened to be here last night when I told that story, who was a young agent and had a problem show called The Jack Haley Ford Star Revue. Would we come into New York and write for the show? Did we write television? I said, “Of course we write television.” I went to my landlady, who was an itinerant now-and-again screen extra, and found a script in her house. In those days it was audio/video in a television script. So, I saw how it went on paper and I wrote a couple of sketches.
We were in New York just four days later and I called my father from the airport. He knew that with a wife and daughter, in a good week I made thirty dollars and we were really struggling. “”What’re you doing in New York?” I said, “Eddie and I are doing a television show, The Ford Star Revue, and we’re getting four hundred dollars a week for the team. Dad, I’m making three hundred and fifty dollars!” Now this is a man who’d never cracked a hundred dollars himself. There was a two-second pause, then he said, “When you make a thousand dollars a week, that’s a lot of money.”
My mother is still alive, my father isn’t. He was Archie. And I still don’t get off the hook with her. I told her I was going to be at the Museum of Broadcasting, and there were going to be a lot of people coming to hear me talk about myself for three, four days. She says, “When?” I said, “Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday.” She said, “I suppose I won’t hear from you until Friday.”
So Eddie and I connected. We did The Ford Star Revue. For the second episode we did a scene called “Blind Date.” Jerry Lewis loved the sketch and thought it would have been right for Martin and Lewis. He called, and we wound up, within three weeks of being in New York and in television, as part of the Martin and Lewis phenomenon when they hit on The Colgate Comedy Hour. They did The Colgate Comedy Hour and we went back to California. There is a little song in there but I won’t sing it because I see one of you who was here last night when I sang it, and I wouldn’t want to do that to you again.
We went to California and we did the Martin and Lewis show. After three years we left them and we did The Martha Raye Show. I started to direct at that time, too. They were book-musicals, an hour a week. Live television was an exciting time, but mistakes occurred on television that never occur on tape. There were a couple of mistakes on The Martha Raye Show, which resulted in two years of its diminishing success, and I was back in California. We were out of work after The Martha Raye Show for about four or five months. Bud Yorkin, who was a former stage manager, called me and offered us a job, which Ed decided not to take. I took the job alone, and that was to be one of the writers on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. I spent one year there and then went off to write and direct The George Gobel Show when he came on television, in the hour version. Bud and I then formed Tandem Productions. Bud had a huge success with The Fred Astaire Show and we teamed up to take advantage of that. We made a few pilots that are not the least bit memorable. They never got on television, but one of them attracted the attention of Paramount Pictures, which thought it was a very good piece of film and asked if we wanted to make motion pictures.
There were two writers working for us on The Martha Raye Show, Danny Simon and his brother Doc, otherwise known as Neil Simon. It was Neil’s play, One Shoe Off, which later became Come Blow Your Horn. Paramount made an arrangement that got them to put the show on in Bucks County; we had the picture rights. I wrote the screenplay for Come Blow Your Horn, which is the only Neil Simon screenplay that he didn’t write himself.
Now we were making pictures: Divorce American Style and The Night They Raided Minsky’s. I was in New York making Minsky’s when Bert Lahr died two weeks into the film. I had the option of either ending the film there and trying to pick it up with the spring weather of the following year, or writing ahead of the camera and trying to make up for Bert’s death. I elected to do the latter. William Friedkin was directing. The picture was completed with a tremendous amount of editing to do, and he had a commitment in England to do Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party. He left for England and I was left with the film. It took me eleven months to edit.
As I was editing The Night They Raided Minsky’s I had time on my hands and I read in TV Guide two inches of an article about a show in England called Till Death Us Do Part, which was about a bigoted father who fought with his son-in-law on all things, political, social, etc. I grew up with that guy. My father used to call me the laziest white kid he ever met. And I used to say, “How can you put down a whole race of people to tell me I’m lazy?” And he’d say, “Get outta here, I didn’t do that!” I said, “Dad, you put down—” He said, “You’re the dumbest white kid I ever met!” I could never make him understand, but I knew I had something to write about those two characters, and I did.
We made the pilot and tried desperately to sell it. ABC funded it but refused to put it on the air, although I recall sitting with them while they laughed. They didn’t wish to air it because they were a little frightened of it. NBC and CBS turned it down.
I then wrote the screenplay for Cold Turkey. United Artists told me they’d love to have me direct it, and I went to Iowa to make the picture while a couple of agents were continuing to try to peddle this show called, at that time, Justice for All. The first pilot was made with Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, but with two other actors playing the young people. Here is an interesting anecdote. When I was sitting in New York editing The Night They Raided Minsky’s, and had written a script for All in the Family and was thinking about who should play Archie, one of my early thoughts was Mickey Rooney, which is an interesting idea if you didn’t have Carroll O’Connor so fixed in your head. So I called his agent, whom I knew very well, and Rooney happened to be in his office when I called. The agent said, “Wait a minute, don’t tell me. Mickey’s right here! I’ll put him on.” Now, I’d never met Mickey Rooney at that time, but he picked up the phone and said, “Yeah, Norm!” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “This is The Mick!” So I said, “Well, I’m coming to California to do some casting. I’d love to meet with you and tell you about the—” “No, no, no, you go ahead and tell me now,” he said. “But it’s difficult to talk about,” I said. “Let me meet you. I’ll be there in only three weeks.” He said, “No, no, no, I want to hear it now. If it can’t be told in a few sentences, it can’t be anything anyway.” So I said, “Well, it’s about this bigoted guy. He calls them ‘heebs,’ he calls them ‘kikes,’ he calls them this, he calls them ‘niggers.’” He stopped me in the middle and said, “They’re going to shoot you dead in the streets. You’re never going to get through with this. You want to do a show with The Mick? I’ll tell you what you do. Vietnam vet, short, blind, large dog. And, oh,” he also said, “Private detective. Private detective.” Never forget that. That was Mickey Rooney.
I completed Cold Turkey and United Artists was in California to look at my first cut. They loved it and offered me on the spot a deal to write and direct three more films. That same day I returned a call to a fellow who had just become president of CBS, Robert Wood, who said, “That show you did two, three years ago . . . I’m interested in putting it on television.” I had a three-picture offer, and I said, “I’ll come in to see you.” But before or after or during these talks, there wasn’t anybody, among friends or family, who didn’t say, “They’ll break your heart with this thing. Even if you make six of them, they’ll never air them. And you’ve got three pictures and you love films, you’ve just finished one.”
But I had to write about my dad. And I had a lot of things about my mother and other people in there, and I just had to do it. So I had a series of meetings with them. They wanted me, first of all, to make the pilot again. (I neglected to say I made the pilot with Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, and the second one with Mike and Gloria.) A year after, ABC had an option to either ask for another pilot or put it on the air. Well, they asked for another pilot, so I had to deliver one to them. I made the same script word for word, would not change a word, but it was with two other young people. And it still didn’t work, either for the network or for me. Wood and the others at CBS were saying, “We’ll do one more pilot and then go on the air.” And I said, “No. Not now. I know how I want to cast it.” I had Rob Reiner in mind, he was now old enough, but I had not yet met Sally Struthers. I had known Rob since he was eight years old. He wasn’t old enough three years before. And I knew I had my Mike. I love the way those things criss-cross. We’ve done three pictures together since All in the Family. When I saw Sally on The Smothers Brothers Show, I had a strong hunch about her. So they agreed finally. And we were in. We made about four shows before the first one was to air.
Then began the series of difficulties with Program Practices. There was a wonderful gentleman by the name of William Tankersly who ran Program Practices. We made the second, third, and fourth shows, and he wanted to put the second show on first. I could not be proud of the first story, which was simply that Archie and Edith had a wedding anniversary, which Archie did not remember at all. It was a Sunday morning, they had gone to church, and Mike and Gloria had prepared, as we faded up, an anniversary brunch for them. There were balloons and confetti and so forth. When they came back from church, they were to be surprised. At the end, Archie didn’t remember and Gloria had a card which they had bought for him to give to Edith. There was no story. If you have followed All in the Family throughout the years, you know that is the least important story we might ever have done. But, it gave me an opportunity, in writing that first script, to deliver 360 degrees of Archie Bunker: his attitude towards his anniversary, his attitude about blacks—Mike Evans, the black kid from the Jefferson family that lived next door, was in the show—Jews were there, parties, his wife, his marriage, his daughter, the son-in-law. I wanted that show to be first because, as I remember saying to Tankersly, “We’re going to have to jump in the water and get wet, and you can’t get wetter than wet. This is the show that will get us wet. I do the first show first and it works—er, I mean the second show first and it works, then you’re going to tell me to do the first show third. Then you’re never going to let me do it, then you’re going to have ground rules that are laid. First show first.”
So we argued about that for as long as it took to get within two days of the show airing. Two days before the show was to air, they agreed we would air the first show with changes. The big change I remember was when Archie and Edith were off at church, Mike and Gloria had finished their work and the party was all ready, and they realized they were alone in the house, which was rare. So looking at Gloria and talking about it, Mike had an idea. He wanted to hustle her upstairs. And she didn’t want to, she demurred, he insisted, and they started upstairs. Then Archie and Edith came in, and the kids are upstairs. The door opens, they come down the stairs, so you know that they’ve been wrestling a little. And Archie looks at them and says, “Eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning?”
Program Practices wanted that line out. So I said, “Why that line?” Because that line was explicit. What else could they be doing at eleven o’clock? I said, “We know what they’re doing. They went upstairs to make love. They’re married, they’re home, they’re alone. They went upstairs to make love.” “Yes, but he as much as says it when he says ‘eleven o’clock.’” “Well, yeah, but we know it anyway!” Anyway, that was the line we fought over. It was not proper to indicate that married people make love—let alone anybody else! And we went around that, and one other little thing which I can’t remember, for two days. It wasn’t until seven or eight o’clock the evening before, ten, eleven o’clock in the evening in New York, that I got the phone call that told me my first episode was going to be on. The show was going to air—and no states seceded from the Union.
But the fights with Program Practices, which we can talk about in a little while, never really ended. Maybe this is a good time to show the clips I mentioned earlier. And then we can talk a little more and go to questions.
[Videotape is shown to the seminar audience.]
LEAR: I’m proud to repeat something I said yesterday. I don’t know whether I’m touched by the scene or just the flood of memories, but a miracle takes place when that kind of casting happens. I’m proud of what I’ve managed to do through casting this way, but something occurs when you get four people, as in Maude and particularly in All in the Family. It’s more than somebody saying, “These are the right actors for the roles”; it’s more than somebody or groups of us writing it or whatever. It’s more than the director. It’s more than the combination of all the talent. There is an additional miracle that’s outside of everybody which explains for me why four people, and those of us who serve them creatively, could come together, from disparate places, at a moment in time, and do this week after week—in the case of All in the Family, for eight and a half years. I would never have any other way of explaining it. It’s something like birth. Go explain birth. There’s something mystical about how that can happen.
Anyway, the more controversial things from these shows are in the clips for tomorrow night’s seminar, because that’s part of what this is all about. Interestingly, however, the network found a lot of all of this controversial, or worried about how America would receive so many of the things we attempted to do. There was one show in which Mike was unable to make love to Gloria because he was studying very hard for exams, and whether he graduated depended on whether he passed his exams. So he wasn’t able to make love, and Gloria was concerned, and he became more concerned that he was impotent. This was whispered to Edith, who couldn’t possibly tell it to Archie, and that was what the story was all about. The network was so disturbed about even taping this—because they had the option to say “We’ll air it” or “We won’t air it”—that Bob Wood flew to California at eight o’clock on a Sunday morning because I was working seven days a week then. We spent two hours talking about whether we should even make this.
I’ve received a lot of credit for standing up, for wanting to do it a certain way and everything else, but there are lots of reasons that made that possible, not the least of which was the fact I had the opportunity to do three pictures for United Artists. If they didn’t want to go ahead the way we wanted to, it wasn’t as if the door was locked to my next job. I had a great job opportunity, and that gives you an awful lot of courage.
The other thing I should quickly say is that everything one heard from the network, in Program Practices, was not unhelpful. There were lots of arguments we had where either they were flat-out right, or it caused us to think about something. In helping them we helped ourselves, and it just got better, like any good collaboration. It caused you to think that maybe it could be done differently, if not exactly the way you wanted it, and lo and behold you came up with something that was okay with them and far better for you. So, there was a bit of a collaborative process in all of that, too.
It was a very funny moment with Program Practices. A lot of people think that years later we were successful enough to do what we wanted to do. Well, that was never true. Archie had a grandchild, and the networks suspected we might want to deal with the grandchild honestly, so the first fight was to have the grandchild a girl. But we wanted Archie to have a grandson. Why they wanted a girl—we understood two weeks after the baby was born—was because we had a scene in which Archie was diapering the baby, and they said, “Now the camera will be way out here. You’ll shoot him head to toe’?” I said, “Why should we shoot him head to toe?” “Well, all right, you go in closer, then you cut above the baby. He’s diapering below the frame?” “Well, what if he’s diapering on the frame?” “Well, we don’t want to show anything.” I said, “We’re talking about a three-week-old infant. Do you have the feeling we’re going to zoom in on a shot of his genitalia? We promise we won’t zoom in.” “Well, diaper him on his stomach.” I raised three daughters. I don’t remember diapering a son. I called somebody to ask how you diaper a son. I asked, “How do you do this?” You know, girl babies you diaper on their backs. Anyway, we went around and around with that. We made the show. The camera was at a reasonable distance, but we certainly saw the baby being diapered. And again, no state seceded. The network was surprised. Archie and Mike had an argument once in which they were arguing about God. And Archie said, “God will strike you down because you’re an atheist and you don’t believe in Him.” And Mike said, “But God’s a loving God. He loves all of us. Aren’t we all His children?” “Yes.” “Well, if He’s a loving God, why would He—“ “He’ll strike you down if you—” And Mike said, “No, He won’t. He loves me every bit as much as He loves you.” And when Archie had no answer for anything he just went ppphhh, you know, raspberries. So he did it, and Mike said, “He’d even forgive you that.” And Archie said, “What are you talking about?” “If you went—” Archie grabbed him and said, “Don’t you dare do that!” he said, “You’re going to go… .” And he checked himself. He said, “You can’t do that!” Well, this was taped and the network insisted that it come out. After we fought about it for three days, I offered to have five or six clergymen come in—and indeed, I did it on my own—to tell me if this was a reasonable argument, a good argument. I said, “I want you to read what they have to say or have fifty clergymen in, but there’s no reason why we can’t do it.” Anyway, at the last moment I found out what was bothering them. It was bothering them that America might think that Archie was giving the finger to God. There’s no way you can deal with that. The argument was over, we just had to do the show as we had planned, we couldn’t continue the conversation that had been going on. There were lots of incidents like that. I think we may be at a point where we can have some questions.
Q: Was there something that you just couldn’t do that you really wanted to, but you had to back down?
LEAR: Well, one of the most interesting moments was a script in which Maude found that Walter was cheating. I can’t remember how that story went, but at the end of the show she’d forgiven him. The tag line was—she’d just learned this thing—she was in his arms, and she says, “You son of a bitch!” We had written the script exactly that way. And we sat down around the table and read it and everybody roared, and then everybody waited for the line. They said, “Well, what do we change it to?” And I said, “We’re going to do this. This is absolutely what Maude would have said, ‘You son of a bitch.’” There wasn’t anything else any of us—writers or cast—could think of. I said, “We’re going to go for broke on this.” The head of Program Practices at that time was a lovely man by the name of Tom Swafford. We argued a lot but we had become pretty good friends, and we were on the phone several times about this. At first the network took it as a joke, because from time to time you did that. Some line that you knew was impossible was the right line for the moment, so you did it and you got a laugh. Tom called me saying, “That was funny but it’s got to go out.” I said it couldn’t go out, we couldn’t think of anything else. After a lot of conversations, I said to him, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. You give us a line to end the show that you think Maude would say and we’ll do it.” He said, “You’ve got a deal.” I said, “But you have to say to me, ‘Norman, I, Tom Swafford, believe this line is every bit as good and she might say it.’ “ He said, “Done.” He called me the next day and said, “Oh, come on, I can’t come up with anything. If you guys couldn’t, how do you expect me to?” I said, “But we made a deal. That’s our deal.” The man honored the deal and Maude said, at eight-thirty or whenever it was, on a Saturday night, “You son of a bitch!” I swear there wasn’t one piece of mail about it, because the moment was right and America had grown up. There’s an old establishment notion that the average TV viewer has the mentality of something like a thirteen-year-old. Another myth is that the average working person coming home after a hard day does not want to be faced with problems or anything to think about or any reality on television. All of that is bullshit. That’s simply not so.
Q: In the late fifties, Burns and Schreiber had a very successful act doing the cab driver and the bigot. Did this in any way get you to thinking that perhaps the time was right to do a show about a bigot? Did that have anything to do with your project?
LEAR: It not only didn’t, but this is the first time I’ve known about it. I remember them in a cab, but I don’t remember him being a bigot. Over all the years nobody has ever asked me the question, so I don’t know how to address it. I don’t know the bit.
Q: What did generate the most mail?
LEAR: I suppose it was Maude’s abortion and Archie’s taking the baby to be baptized. The interesting thing about mail is that it’s always taken only one way by a network or an advertising agency. If it’s controversial they won’t have anything to do with it. I find in answering hundreds, thousands of letters over the years, ninety-nine percent of all of them are written by people who simply want to tell you they think you’re wrong; they’re not threatening you with anything. And when you answer them and they can answer back, they’re engaged and active, and vocalizing what they feel. It has nothing to do with the need to continue this controversy and insist that you’re off the air or anything like that. It’s always been misinterpreted.
The piece of mail I enjoyed the most was a postcard. Postcards are fascinating because often they are the most angry cards you get. We had done a show in which there was a homosexual, and this postcard said, “How dare you have a homosexual on television! It is reprehensible, it is this, it is that, you are full of shit!” And that was the longest word on a postcard. And it was unsigned, because people who write this way never, ever sign it. But on the other side of the postcard, in a tiny scrawl where a return address would be if there was one, was this little note that said, “Mr. Lear, this person is entirely wrong. Right on. Signed, the postman.”
Q: My first question is if you think the laugh machine is a bit overdone. Question number two is why couldn’t you get in on The Golden Girls before anybody else did?
LEAR: I’ll answer the second question first. I couldn’t understand it myself once I’d seen it. How did it happen we didn’t get that idea? It’s such a glorious idea.
On the first question, I thought about that as I was watching this: The glory of a live audience and a cast! We used a laugh machine to get past edits and so forth, but never to tell you that something that wasn’t funny was funny. When I hear the orchestration of a live cast and the people in that audience, it just fills me up.
Q: Why aren’t there as many controversial comedies in the eighties as there were in the seventies?
LEAR: I’ve been thinking a little bit about this recently. There was a lot of outrage in the seventies. And there is no outrage today. I think this smiling, benign, everything-is-perfect-and-everything-is-lovely President has got us anesthetized. Dr. Feelgood is at work and we’re all feeling good. There is no outrage. All the time I wonder why there is no major outcry on a hundred different issues.
Q: This applies even to Bill Cosby—I mean their life is all very, very nice.
LEAR: Well, Bill Cosby is doing something else. He’s doing what Bill Cosby does and nobody else can do, and I don’t think he ought to be doing anything else. That’s who Bill Cosby is. He’s a genius at it. But why is there no outrage anywhere else in society, not just on television? There isn’t any.
Q: You said Archie is your father. Is Edith based on anyone special?
LEAR: Yes, on pieces of some aunts and a bit of my mother. Archie arguing and fighting, Archie telling her to stifle—these things are right out of my life.
Q: Does that make you Meathead?
LEAR: My father didn’t call me a meathead. What he called me was “dead from the neck up.” And the first time Archie used “meathead” he said, “You’re a meathead, you’re dead from the neck up.”
Q: When All in the Family first went on the air, its ratings were mediocre. Were you surprised at this and did the change to the Saturday night time slot make it go to number one?
LEAR: It started on a Tuesday night and nobody was watching it despite the fact that there was enough talk. The press was pretty bad, but it was interesting bad press. In those years—and it’s a phenomena we’ll be talking about in the third or last seminar—as the network competition increased among the three networks, the time allotted for a show to make it grew shorter. The name of the game became more and more, “Give me a hit Tuesday night at eight-thirty and all else be damned.” All in the Family would never have made it today under the same circumstances because when it went on the air, we were guaranteed thirteen first-run shows and thirteen repeats. That doesn’t happen anymore. If you’re not successful in the ratings in a few shows, with rare exceptions, it’s over and out. So we were on for thirteen weeks, no ratings, bottom of the barrel; we were being cancelled. In the fifteenth and sixteenth weeks the other networks were also in re-runs, and now people were tuning in to see this show they had heard about. The ratings started to go up. That’s what saved us, what made the decision to keep it on.
Q: You just said that nobody brought you The Golden Girls, which is very interesting to me.
LEAR: I didn’t say nobody brought it to us. I said we didn’t get the idea, because I might have had that idea.
Q: Would your people ever buy an outright idea? In other words, I sent a script four and a half years ago—it was Little Women in Miami—that I was doing as an off-Broadway show, and I knew Mickey Ross, and I said, “The time is right. It’s not a great show, but the audience is eating it up!” I sent him all the things and he said he’d get back to me, but nobody ever did. My question is, if you have a great idea and you’re not in your organization, will you ever buy an idea from an outsider?
LEAR: Well, that organization doesn’t exist anymore. You know, Embassy is sold and I’m starting another little company. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to do with it. But the answer to the question generally is, yes, ideas do come in under the door or over the transom. It happens. You would understand easily that it isn’t as likely when a great group of people are working together with lots of creative energy. Ideas are popping all the time. It isn’t as likely in those circumstances that an idea would come from left field. But it happens. New authors are discovered that way, new plays are discovered that way, and it happens. If I had something I cared that much about I wouldn’t trust it to the mails, I’d park on his doorstep.
Q: The casting of All in the Family and Maude was brilliant and it was magical, and we all felt that. My question is not meant to sound accusatory because I’m kind of going through the same thing myself, but I want to ask you how fair is it to portray your sense of what’s right or wrong?
LEAR: That’s a question that’s been asked in different ways. At first I would insist that I wasn’t trying to say anything. And indeed, I would still say, our charter was to entertain. We had to be funny. And I submit, if you look at that, we were funny. We were always funny. That cast was funny. And that was our charter. So our first obligation we fulfilled.
Then, I don’t know what line I crossed, and I certainly realized, “Well, of course. There are things that are being said in the course of these shows.” I attribute that to being a serious person who pays a lot of attention to life. You wake up one morning and read in the newspaper that hypertension in black men is at an all-time high; you’ve got a black family on television and you know there’s a story in it. So James Evans has hypertension and we are saying something about it. We’re saying something about a number of different things. And whose point of view? It would be my point of view because the buck stops with me.
And I began to say that, and felt perfectly terrific about it. How could I be fifty years old, or whatever I was at the time—a sensible human being, raising a family, talking, reading, ingesting what’s going on in the world—and not react to it in the course of doing the shows? Never putting that before being funny, never. And then it occurred to me, my God, look at the programs we followed. The sixties were full of Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, the Beaver and Father Knows Best and all of those that preceded that. And I thought, “Nineteen sixties. Wall to wall, floor to ceiling, all of those shows: no race problems in America, no Vietnam in America, no economic problems in America, no tension of any kind. How’s that for a point of view?” Wall-to-wall point of view! No problems in America. And I thought, “There’s nothing I will ever do that will provide a stronger point of view than that, in all of those shows throughout the sixties.” So that’s the longwinded answer to that question. Compared to that, I don’t think we said much at all.
Q: In trying to get a character to be portrayed as you envisioned that character, who was the easiest actor or actress to work with?
LEAR: It’s hard to answer that one. Jean Stapleton, for her personality, was the easiest, I suppose, but not easier than Beatrice Arthur. It’s not possible to answer because they were all easy except for a couple of difficult ones.
Q: Who did you cast in the second pilot of All in the Family?
LEAR: I really don’t remember their names. It was just two young people who didn’t do that much more afterwards. But Jean Stapleton and Carroll O’Connor were there from the beginning.
Q: How was the voice characterization of Edith decided on?
LEAR: Edith? By Jean Stapleton—it just happened.
Q: She just did it spontaneously?
LEAR: That’s the way she played the character from the first minute she read it. It just happened and it was perfect. The same thing with Carroll. He just started to read, sitting at a little table in an office in California.
Q: Jean Stapleton’s natural voice is nothing like that.
LEAR: No, it’s just the style she developed on the spot.
Q: In continuing the question that you had before about the programs in the eighties, they don’t really raise anybody’s political awareness and your programs did break ground. But you said that your programs were America because American audiences grew up. Do you think that today’s programs, aside from politically, are growing up? Do you think that the shows follow that now? Are we catering to them or still trying to bring them down more?
LEAR: I don’t know because I’m not watching. I’m not an inveterate television watcher.
Q: Oh, you don’t like the shows?
LEAR: No, it isn’t that at all. It’s because for all the years I was making them I was working every night of my life. I never sat down to watch television because I was making television. And I’ve never been in that kind of a habit.
Obviously if I hear Cosby is wonderful, I’ll watch some of it. Cheers and whatnot I’ve seen episodes of, but I don’t sit down on a Tuesday evening and watch television. I just never got into the habit.
There are two other aspects I should address inherent in that question. A lot of people say, “What you did was validate Archie Bunker. You made a hero out of a bigot and you validated Archie Bunker.” And to that I would say we never received a piece of mail from anybody whose attitude was “right on, Archie!” who didn’t say at the end of it, “But why do you make him such a horse’s ass at the end of the show?” The producer’s point of view was never lost on anybody who thought Archie was right. Then there are some people who say, “The show had a great deal to do with opening our eyes, diminishing prejudice.” And I’d never seen any smidgen of truth in that. It would be wonderful to believe, and I’d love to believe it. If two thousand years of the Judeo-Christian ethic has not changed bigotry and prejudice in the hearts of people, then certainly nobody’s half-hour situation comedy is going to do it. Some of that was inherent in that question.
Q: One of the things that always frightened me about All in the Family was that it was very brilliant, I mean the writing was wonderful, Carroll O’Connor just blew me away, and with Maude it was the same thing. I was thinking, okay now, what would happen if somebody like yourself whose philosophies were Nietzsche-like or right-wing-like, had a hit TV show.
LEAR: Watch The 700 Club. Watch Jerry Falwell. Watch what’s happening all over your television dial, on cable and independent television with all of the fundamentalist churches. That’s exactly what you’re talking about. One of them is running for President. And there is no outrage.
Q: I’d just like to say that one of my favorite episodes of Archie Bunker was when he lost his job and he tells the story about his father and the Depression. I thought that was brilliant. That hit home.
LEAR: That’s the episode where he’s in the cellar with Mike. I was a kid in the Depression, so that one hit home with me, too.
Q: You were making movies at the same time that you were starting to do television, and it was a time when they were also breaking taboos. Were you frustrated at some of the taboos that were being broken in movies that you couldn’t do in television? And conversely, if All in the Family had never gotten on television, do you think you could have made the same kind of impact on American society by taking that same approach into movies where you would have been freer to do the kind of things that television would have restricted you from doing?
LEAR: Is it true that movies are freer? It seems to me television does things that movies don’t go near, because they may not be as commercial. But I tell you, I can’t ever remember sitting down to wonder “What taboo can we break?” or trying to be sensational. If you look at the subjects, you see that they are all the grit of life, everything that was going on was what we chose to write about. Listening to and watching your children carefully, listening to other people’s families. We were a group of people who came to work and in the first minute we were together, every day of our lives, we talked about what was happening, what our kids said last night, what we read. The New York Times, you would be interested to know, was a bible. In our company, every desk had a copy of The New York Times every morning. And this is what we drank in. We often talked of ourselves as if we were people whose pumps had been so primed that we walked in to work already spilling—it was like group therapy. Everybody was talking about everything. And that’s what we would write about.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the collaborative effort and what a week was like in putting together one of these shows?
LEAR: I had an office with a big oval desk, which I still have, and we had a tape recorder in the center of the table. This way of working was developed within the first couple of months of the shows. In the case of situation comedy, the writers are also the producers, the executive producers, the associate producers, all kinds of producers. We would talk about a story line. The tape recorder would be on from the top, and down the hall somebody would be typing. By the time the story conference was over, there were eight or ten pages ready, and the guys would take those pages and start to work on whatever we were talking about. That was true of every script on every show. Then we’d do two or three drafts of those scripts until we got the script the way we wanted it.
And some scripts took as long as two and three years. I wondered what would happen if Edith lost her faith, and then regained it. That script took us the better part of three years, I think. It took one year to find out what on earth could happen in Edith’s life for this woman to lose her faith? And how does she regain it? So scripts took all kinds of time. When they were ready to go into rehearsal depended upon the show. If it was a show that taped on a Friday night, they went into the rehearsal on a Monday. They rehearsed Monday and Tuesday and on Wednesday evening there was a run-through. What we call the dry run-through is in a rehearsal hall with no sets or props, just minimal chairs and lines on the floor and so forth. That would take place around five or six, or seven or eight o’clock if we were late. We might sit there after that dry run-through until eight o’clock; if it was a five run-through, we might sit there till nine or ten o’clock. We sat there until two in the morning working on a script.
The next morning we were on camera and they would come in early to rehearse the changes. Sometimes they were wholesale changes. The director would start to put it on camera. That was Thursday. On Thursday night we would have a wet run-through on camera, which was real rough, but we would sit around for a couple of hours, or as long as it took to deliver notes on that. Sometimes there’d be rewriting—guys would go home and rewrite a scene or two—I say “guys” all the time because there were only a handful of women in those years. Among them was Susan Harris, who created Golden Girls, and Susan Silver, that’s the one I had her mixed up with.
We were then on camera Thursday, we had a run-through Thursday night, and then we were on camera again on Friday night. Friday at five-thirty we made an episode in front of a live audience, and at eight o’clock we made the same episode again, so we’d have the benefit of what instruction we got from the first audience. The actors would go before the camera for an eight o’clock show with as many as thirty changes, and deliver. After the show we would do pick-ups for any important goofs. And that was the week.
Q: When you talk about your round table story meetings, how many writers were involved in a typical week?
LEAR: An average of six.
Q: For each show?
LEAR: Yes, I’d say an average of six for each show.
Q: Because usually there are two writers on the credits per episode, how was it decided who would get the major credits?
LEAR: That was always the Writer’s Guild. Usually the credit was obtained by the writer who wrote the first draft. Often that writer could have been rewritten a hundred percent. There used to be arbitration in the early years and we used to care about that, but then we finally packed all that in. Whoever wrote the first draft got the credit, there was enough credit to go around.
Q: How did you decide originally on the social life of Archie? How did you decide on the way he was? Because he could have been wearing a tie and jacket all the time.
LEAR: A lot of it was my father. I have a sister my father adored, the way Archie used to call Gloria “my little girl,” the way Archie adored his daughter. He was afraid of change. He wasn’t somebody who would light a cross on a lawn. He was somebody who sounded like that when he was angry, but he wouldn’t do that; he just resisted change. Blacks moving into the neighborhood was something he could never envision, he could not imagine. He had never seen that before; he couldn’t handle it. He’d only even heard about Jews but he didn’t know any. So a Jewish lawyer coming to the house frightened him until he needed to win something, and then the Jews were smart and he needed a Jew in court.
Q: How involved did the actors and actresses get in character development?
LEAR: Very, very much. We were a wonderfully collaborative group. We’d sit around a table and talk about the scripts after we’d read them, and the actors would have enormous input into them. Carroll O’Connor was the best dialogue writer for Archie Bunker that we ever had. I shouldn’t say Carroll O’Connor was—Archie Bunker was. Carroll O’Connor, in rehearsal, walked in and hated every script he ever read. And Carroll O’Connor said, “You cannot do this. There’s no way I can be in an elevator with a Mexican lady who’s going to deliver a baby.” That was an episode that we all loved. “Impossible!” But he would say that every time—he couldn’t do this, he couldn’t do that. Then we’d go through the Sturm und Drang of fighting about it, he would get through that membrane, break through, and he was Archie Bunker. It was no longer Carroll O’Connor standing there, it was this incredible mystical thing, and as Archie Bunker he’d just throw out lines. Not plot, not this, not that, but lines. He was easily the best writer on the show for Archie Bunker.
Q: One point about Archie’s prejudices: He wasn’t malicious as much as he was ignorant. In the movie Joe, with Peter Boyle, which was out just before that, Joe was absolutely malicious, but Archie was only ignorant.
LEAR: I agree. And afraid—his basic problem was he was afraid of what he didn’t know.
Q: Was there ever a black family in Till Death Us Do Part, and how much did you pay for the British rights?
LEAR: That’s the way I think about it, too! There was no black family in that. They didn’t do stories in Till Death Us Do Part; they took Indonesia and argued about Indonesia for an episode. There wasn’t the story line. And there were no neighbors that I can remember at all. There certainly wasn’t a black family.
Q: In the end, did you have to buy the rights?
LEAR: Yes, and I don’t know the answer to the question. It was years ago. They did twenty-one episodes, I think, in six years. That was the entire life of Till Death Us Do Part, which really was the first time I learned how civilized British television is. They didn’t have to deliver twenty-two, twenty-six, episodes every season.
Q:Bill Cosby has said over and over again that the show he’s doing now is a reaction to the stereotyping of blacks in prime time television, and that the reason blacks were funny in—I’m assuming—your shows, was because they were black, not because they were funny. Do you feel attacked?
LEAR: Somebody sent me a tape of him saying that on a Donahue show, and I thought he was way off base. And gratuitous. And as a matter of fact, I didn’t like him for the eight minutes that preceded the remark. I didn’t know why I was watching it, I wasn’t tuned in. I just thought he was very full of himself and I wondered “What on earth is going on with Bill Cosby?” But I love his show, and I love the genius of it, and I love what he does exploring the little nooks and crannies of family life. I just think he’s terrific.
About the whole question of stereotypes, Sanford and Son was its own cup of tea. That was the first of the black shows that I was involved with. And it was special because of Redd Foxx—there’s another clown. We were talking about clowns last night. Redd Foxx, all by himself, is a clown. Anything would have served Redd Foxx at that time.
But Good Times was the first full black family show—I think it was the first one of its kind, anyway—but it was the first one we did for sure. It was magnificently received by the black press, the black media generally, and it was an enormous hit for several years. And then the media changed. James Evans was a hero for a while in the black press. Then we started to read and hear, “Why do we have to see a black man every week who has to have two jobs to support his family?” This was a show that took place in Cabrini Green, a ghetto area of Chicago. And that’s the way life was lived there; that’s what we researched. We had a black writer on the show who was raised in Cabrini Green.
But then they were not satisfied with showing one kind of black family life—the struggles, the grit, the difficulties. So our answer was not to change Good Times, it was to come along with The Jeffersons and deal with an upwardly mobile family. I’ll never forget: I had an uncle who was a bantam cock of a guy. When he made whatever amount that he felt was terrific, he strutted like Sherman. I had by then seen Sherman in the show. You see, we could never do The Jeffersons because George Jefferson was an off-stage character for several years, only because we didn’t have him cast. We tried it once, and in rehearsal changed it to an uncle. I always knew I wanted to do something with the Jeffersons but didn’t have the actor until Sherman. And then we decided to make him upwardly mobile. The Jeffersons had a cleaning store, and then a few stores, so that we could deal with moving on up.
Now, about stereotypical black acting. Sherman has a touch of absolute brilliance—and so do all of the others. So does Carroll O’Connor in All in the Family. But the black shows had a special meaning. There are so many tricks in an actor’s grab-bag. There are so many ways he can do a take, there are so many ways he can react to any given stimulus. And when you see them week after week after week, they’re giving you the same reaction to the same stimulus, but their bag of tricks is all played out, and all they can do is repeat. You either invent better, newer ways, or better situations. But Archie, for a lot of people, became stereotypical. Sherman became far more stereotypical because he was black and because there were no other black shows on the air. As writers and everything else, we were very careful to deal with all of that the way you might wish we did. There was a lot of black input on the shows, obviously from the cast, because they were there all the time, and from writers, because over the years we developed more black writers and more black input. That’s my answer to all that. You can’t be on week after week in comedy without being clichéd, stereotypical, repetitious. And a black actor gets to be something else.
Q: I keep hearing Cosby is trying to get black writers. There aren’t enough black writers in television. I’m not sure I’ve heard of any serious attempt to develop black writers. Am I mistaken, and could you address the issue?
LEAR: Well, there’s a little group, a black caucus in the Writer’s Guild in California, and there have been moves. Some years ago after meetings with the black caucus of the Writer’s Guild—I may have some of the facts wrong on this but the thrust is correct—most of the shows on the air hired black writers and interned black writers. We at Tandem had a program that was run by a black writer who developed a number of black writers. And 227 was a show that was written by one of the black writers on our show years before—I can’t remember which show. Christine Huston wrote a play which we bought and put on in California, and then developed it and it became 227. So there are constant efforts—and not enough black writers. No one would doubt that.
Q: If you were asked to list the major aspects of All in the Family that made it such a popular success, except for the great acting, what would be up at the top of your list? What elements made it such a success?
LEAR: God bless you. The writing. I mean, you’ve got to start with the acting. And the writing.
Q: I meant the public. Why did the public respond as it did?
LEAR: Oh, first and foremost, it was funny. The actors were undeniably funny. The combination of the writing and the acting and the directing, but the actors were undeniably funny. And then, they were real to people. Those situations, that last scene, lots of what they went through, we all lived.
Q: Did you have any problem airing the scene with Edith and Archie Bunker in bed that we saw in the clip? Was there any reaction to that one?
LEAR: I don’t remember. But there were no problems. The problems developed when you least expected them, like a man diapering his grandson.
Q: Apropos that same scene, and in general, after a few years of watching All in the Family, I think viewers were kind of surprised and delighted to see that Archie and Edith really did have a very loving, affectionate relationship. Yes, they may have argued and they may have put each other down, but they really had a working relationship that I don’t think was apparent to a lot of viewers early on. Is that something you had always envisioned or did that develop?
LEAR: I think it was always there. I’m trying to think of the episodes we did early on that showed it. I remember one in which Gloria was pregnant and the baby was lost, and Edith and Archie had a very tender scene, and he had a very tender scene with Gloria. It was intended for you to always understand that underneath all of this was a great deal of love inexpertly and with great difficulty expressed.
Q: At yesterday’s seminar you gave some advice to people who want to break into comedy writing. Can you give some advice to people who want to break into sit-com directing?
LEAR: Sit-com directing. Find actors and work in storefronts. Work in living rooms. Direct actors. Get people to see it. I don’t know, I’ve never been asked about breaking into directing. A lot of directors have done that by writing themselves, writing something that they would not let anybody else direct. That’s a way. But just work with actors.
Q: I think it’s pretty interesting to find that you’re not an avid television viewer. And I’m sure everybody in this room would agree to some point or other that, when you watch television these days, everything feels like a spin-off, whether it’s something that you might have pioneered, or a cop show, or now it’s the soaps. Is there a new form, a new idea, something that is not The Golden Girls or Cosby? What do you think of the mini-series in terms of developing characters, that you have a series of nights to really get in depth for a few hours at a time, to get into characters and into a really intense sort of a situation?
LEAR: Well, the form I loved, which I was not able to do as much of as I wanted to, was that strip five times a week, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. I think about doing it again because it lends itself to anything and everything. It was a canvas on which you could paint in the broadest strokes. We’d be in the middle of nine situations in that show and Gore Vidal would call and say, “I’ve just come back to America and I love the show. Make me a part of it.” And you could say, “Done!” Because with five times a week you’re going to find a way to get him in some place. I’d love to see more of that, and when I think about doing television, I think of doing something like that again. We did another one, which I loved, but we goofed, which was All that Glitters. It also was on five times a week. That’s a terrific form.
The mini-series must be wonderful. In fact, I’d love to do a comedy mini-series. We’ve not seen that yet. As far as everything looking like spin-offs and clones, this will be a lot of the subject of our final seminar here because we’re talking about the future.
I would ask you to consider what we’ve become as a culture as a result of American business’ growing obsession with short-term, bottom-line concerns. As I said earlier, it’s true the name of the game for a network is, “How do I win eight-thirty Tuesday night?” That’s it. The networks are not to be taken out of context of the rest of American business. In my view, the American motorcar, which was the standard of the world, is no longer the standard of the world because we refused all those years ago to diminish a current profit statement to invest in the tools and dies to meet the competition from the Volkswagen and the Toyota and everything else. We’ve lost our consumer electronic industry the same way, and we’ve lost most of the steel industry the same way. As I look around the culture, it’s all mergers and acquisitions. So many American businesses aren’t improving or growing or meeting the Japanese competition, they’re gobbling up each other. That’s the new name of the game. We’re on some kind of “treadmill to oblivion,” as Fred Allen called it, in this utter compulsion with short-term thinking.
That affects television. If you have to succeed quickly you can’t innovate. Innovation suggests that you’re going to take some risks. You’re going to do something different; you’re going to try something odd; you’re going to give it a little room to become an acquired taste. All of that is out of the question when the name of the game is how do you get on and win instantly. What you do is that, if you see a show working with two guys on motorcycles chasing criminals, you take two guys and a girl on a motorcycle chasing criminals. And if that is what’s working on another network, you try the girl without a bra on your network. And that’s what they do. Just moving it, pushing the chessmen around, trying to get an instant hit.
There are no villains here. I’m not saying this because I want to turn sixty people out of here saying, “The networks are terrible!” Take a hard look at the culture in which the networks live, too, and how all of these people earn their livings. The culture pays off if you succeed this fast—but not if you look to the future. Not if you worry about toxic waste today. Not if you worry about the air, and not if you worry a lot of other things, because that all goes by the wayside. This is too sad a note to end on. Let’s get on a lighter note.
Q: Did your parents enjoy All in the Family?
LEAR: That’s the right question to end on. When All in the Family was number one, I’ll give you my mother’s attitude in a sentence—my father wasn’t here. Come May, the last show was on, and it was by far and away number one—and it had only been on the air for two years. My mother’s question to me would be, “Do you think they’ll pick it up next year?” I’m sure she loved it and watches the re-runs religiously now. But that was her attitude.