Norman Lear Seminars at the Museum of Broadcasting The Mark Goodson Seminar Series June 1986
Writing for Early Live Television
June 17, 1986
THIS seminar, which is the first in a new annual series that will focus on a writer/producer, has been underwritten by one of the Museum’s supporters and Trustees who gave a seminar series here last year. This man has been very generous and has had a very distinguished career of his own in broadcasting—Mark Goodson.
MARK GOODSON: Thank you. Before we talk about producing and about television, I have thoughts in my head about money. I am apparently the underwriter who is funding this series and it suddenly occurred to me that Norman Lear has just sold his company to Coca-Cola for $450 million, and that probably one of the upcoming producers in this series is going to be Merv Griffin, who sold his company to Coca-Cola for $250 million. I have only one comment: Pepsi-Cola, make my day.
But seriously, I am proud to sponsor this new series of seminars for the Museum of Broadcasting, in which eminent writers/producers who have made lasting contributions to television are given the opportunity to communicate their experiences, struggles, skills, concerns, and hopes for the medium. I am particularly pleased that the star of this first seminar series is my friend Norman Lear. Certainly if there is anyone who deserves the label “distinguished contributor to the television arts,” it is Norman, for he is one of the most preeminent, innovative, and influential producers in our history. I think Norman himself said it best when he commented, “I consider myself a writer who loves to show real people in real conflict, with all their fears, doubts, hopes, and ambitions, rubbing against their love for one another.” Michael Arlen, the dean of television critics, put it another way when he said, “Norman Lear has a feel for what people want to see before they know they want to see it.” Norman Lear has had a long career, but the Norman Lear that most of America knows came into prominence in 1971 when he obtained the rights to the BBC series Till Death Us Do Part and created All In the Family. The rest is history. The success of All in the Family led to Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Hot L Baltimore, The Baxters, and all the others.
But setting aside Norman Lear the creative genius, it’s important to say something about Norman Lear the man. He’s not only a very talented, and—since he has his company—a very rich entrepreneur, he is also a concerned American. Most recently he has directed his efforts and energies towards the formation of People for the American Way, an organization whose purpose is the maintenance and restoration of pluralism, individuality, freedom of thought, tolerance, and compassion for others. It seems to me that all of these attributes shine through in Norman’s television shows. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Norman Lear.
NORMAN LEAR: It is strange to sit here and be asked to talk about yourself when all you’ve done is to have such a wonderful time. Mark talked about the difficulty and Sturm und Drang of a career. And I’ve been through enough of that to know a bit about it, but you have to understand that we all work hard, and I won’t stand second in line to anybody in terms of how hard I’ve worked in my life, but what I’ve worked at is the business of laughter. So all along the way in the course of earning my living, supporting a family or whatnot, I’ve been laughing. These lines are all laugh lines; I’m only thirty-seven years old, you know. I started laughing in a household that used to live at the top of its lungs and the end of its nerves. My cousin, David Susskind, is here and he can attest to that. In our family we were at each other in this fashion. Whether it was a reflex with which one saves oneself, or whether it was really the way I saw it—and I tend to think it was really the way I saw it—I always saw all of it through the end of the telescope that saw the comedy. There was a lot of foolishness going on at the ends of nerves, at the tops of lungs, and I would score that foolishness.
A hundred years ago I wrote a picture called Divorce American Style and there was a scene in that picture in which the camera was on Dick Van Dyke and Debbie Reynolds arguing in the kitchen. The camera then panned up to a transom, dissolved through to the other side of it, and then came to an upstairs bedroom where a twelve-year-old boy was sitting on his bed scoring their argument: Mom losing points for this, Dad losing points for that, and so forth. That was me.
In real life we had no upstairs bedroom because we were living in a one-room apartment and it all took place in the kitchen—much like The Honeymooners many years later—but I scored those fights. All of it came out of that.
I never particularly thought I wanted to write, although I wrote the humor column for the Weaver High Lookout in Hartford. I wanted to be my Uncle Jack because he was the only uncle on both sides of our family who cracked one hundred dollars a week. And my Uncle Jack always had a fresh quarter. You have to understand, I was a kid of the Depression. (I lied about being thirty-seven years old.) All we ever talked about at the dinner table was who could afford this and who could afford that, because we had absolutely nothing. But when my Uncle Jack came, he could flip a quarter to me, and to any other niece or nephew who was standing by. I wanted to be nothing else but an uncle who could flip a quarter to a nephew.
So what I set out to do was be a press agent like Jack. After the war, in which I flew fifty-seven missions for the Fifteenth Air Force, I came back and got my first job in publicity in New York at forty dollars a week. Six weeks later I went in and asked for a five-dollar raise. They told me they were just about to ask me to take a five-dollar reduction in salary. So much for that job. I decided to pack up and take my wife and two-year-old daughter to California. My father’s advice was for me to buy the latest model convertible I could afford in Connecticut and sell it in California, which would pay my expenses. So I did what my father said. It took me nine weeks in California to sell the bloody car, and I got fifty dollars more for it than I paid. But I got to California, and started to sell baby pictures door-to-door. I didn’t know anybody out there.
One day I ran into the husband of another cousin who had also gone to California. His name was Ed Simmons and he had moved to California to be a comedy writer. Our wives became fast friends, and one evening when they were at the movies, he asked me if I would spend the evening working on something with him. We wrote a parody of The Sheik of Araby and when our wives came back from the movies, we went out. In those days there were a lot of night clubs in California. There was the Bar of Music and Ben Blue’s Supper Club, among many others. We went to Larry Potter’s Supper Club and a woman whose name I can’t remember was playing the piano and singing dirty ditties. We got thirty-five dollars or so for our parody. My half of that was as much as I had made the previous two days by selling baby pictures with Ed Simmons, so that looked pretty good. We started to write together every night, and we would go out and sell it for twenty or fifty dollars.
One day I had an idea for something that Danny Thomas might be able to use. And I had Danny Thomas’s number—how did I get Danny Thomas’s number? Oh, I had a friend when I was a little boy by the name of Merle Robinson. I would use his name anytime I was in trouble. If I was in trouble in the army, if an MP stopped me or I didn’t want to be talked to, I was Merle Robinson. So I called the William Morris office, who was Danny Thomas’s agent, and said, “My name is Merle Robinson, I’m with The New York Times. I’ve been doing a story on Danny Thomas. I’m at the airport now, I’m on my way back to New York. I want to write the story and file it when I get there, I only have two minutes left. I have a question for Mr. Thomas. I have to talk to him!” And I scared somebody to death so they gave me his number. I called Thomas and he said, “How the hell’d you get this number?” Miraculously, on that day he happened to be working with his pianist, Wally Pop. He was trying to find something he could do just two nights later at a place called Ciro’s. He said he was fascinated to know how I got his phone number so I told him, which made him laugh, and he asked, “Whaddya got? I can’t do anything that lasts more than six minutes!” I said, “Well, I’ve got something that’s five and a half minutes.” And he said, “Get over here right away.” I said, “I’ll be over there in about three and a half hours.” He said, “You’re in Hollywood, I’m in Beverly Hills, get over here now!” I said…uh, I don’t know what I said—you see, I hadn’t written it yet! It took that long to write it, and Thomas had to wait. I got there, he gave me five hundred dollars for it, and promised me that if it worked, I would get another thousand. I kid him every time I see him because I never collected the other thousand. He did the routine for about five years.
Do you remember the long, wonderful stories, the anecdotes Danny Thomas used to tell? He’d go on for twelve minutes to get to one punch line, but he mesmerized you in those twelve minutes and made you laugh along the way. This one was a routine about some Yiddish words that have no counterpart in any other language. And he talked about three Yiddish words, “Tsimisht,” “Tumult,” and “Farblungit.” These were gradations of the same condition—and they had no counterparts in the English language. Thomas told this to his audience, and illustrated each word with a story, which became a very well-known routine for Danny Thomas. The night for which he wanted this routine he was at Ciro’s, and the reason he wanted something new was because it was a showbiz crowd, a Friar’s Dinner, and everybody had heard his routines so he needed something fresh and new. So when I raced it over to him he agreed to do it, and he did it.
In the audience that evening was a young agent with MCA whose name was David Susskind. He was knocked out with this material, and he wanted writers for a show he was putting together called The Jack Haley Ford Star Revue. So he went up to Thomas afterwards and said, “Who wrote that piece of material?” Thomas said, “Two guys, I don’t know, uh…” He took out a piece of paper and said, “Ed Simmons and Norman Lear.” He said, “My God, Norman Lear!” David did not know his cousin was in California, let alone writing, let alone in the business, let alone everything else.
I was on a plane with Simmons two days later, or the next morning or whenever, but two days later we were holed up in the Wellington Hotel writing a one-hour comedy, The Jack Haley Ford Star Revue, per week. When asked if I had ever written a sketch, I said, “Sure we’ve written a sketch.” I lived in a little bungalow behind a bigger house, both of which were owned by a pair of screen extras who happened to have some scripts around. So we borrowed some scripts to see how they looked on paper—a television script. Audio, in those days, was on one side, video on the other side. We then wrote a couple of sketches so we’d have something with us when we got off the plane.
The funny thing was that this was the entrance into television itself, and live television at that, which was a miracle we don’t see at all anymore. Simmons and I did two weeks of The Jack Haley Ford Star Revue and then Jerry Lewis saw a sketch that we did on that show and asked who the hell those writers were, and we were hired to do the first Colgate Comedy Hour and we were off and running. Ed and I became, along with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, enormous successes. The four of us, Simmons and Lear as writers and Martin and Lewis, of course, could do no wrong for three years. And I wrote the Martin and Lewis show with Eddie for three years.
Let me get you to California. All of the foregoing happened in New York. And in New York we were all hungry to get to California because there was all this talk about their laying a cable across the country so we could do shows in California that could be broadcast at the same time to the East, and then repeated in the West. After the first year of the Martin and Lewis show there was talk that this was about to happen. Then it happened—they laid a transcontinental cable and we were able to go to California. And there was a party, at Bud Yorkin’s. There were four stage managers on the Colgate Comedy Hour at that time: Bud Yorkin, Jack Smythe, John Rich, and Arthur Penn. All of them became very famous directors. Pat Weaver, who was running NBC at that time, was there, and Sam Fuller and Pete Barnum, NBC executives, who are now gone. The four of us and some others stood around the piano and wrote a song which, God help you, you’re gonna hear now, because I don’t have the opportunity to sing it very often. We wrote this parody to “When the Red, Red Robin …” about getting to California:
“When the transcontinental coaxial cable is laid, is laid; When the transcontinental coaxial cable is laid, we’re made! There’ll be no more great kinescopes, we’ll be there with our kin ‘o’ folks; You’ll fear those Cucomango jokes coming to you from Hollywood or Vine Street; We’ll be on the run to the land of sun and swimming pools. The dramatic shows will be static shows—if they stay, those fools! Horchichornia! It’s California! We’ll ride the Super Chief! When the transcontinental coaxial cable is laid!”
Now let’s do it together, shall we? Don’t you wish you had the words in front of you? You must want to sing! Anyway, before we take questions and everything else, we’re going to show you a little tape and I’d like to introduce two people who came with me from California and put it together. They have made this seminar series possible for me because they pulled all the notes and memories together and all of the tape that we’ll be showing for the next four days. But Betsy Kenny and Mark Pollack, who are both sitting here, had to dig out a lot of material and the terrible truth of life in our busy existence is that some of the most treasured things, or things that would be most treasured were they available, are lost. You’d be amazed at how much material the Museum of Broadcasting looks for to put in their archives that they can no longer find because ABC, CBS, or NBC destroyed those kinescopes, got rid of that warehouse, took that stuff and burned it. A lot of that material includes a number of episodes of some of the stuff I did, all of the “Golden Age” of television drama, and so forth. Much of it is gone. So instead, Betsy and Mark had to find pieces of Martin and Lewis shows, Martha Raye shows, etc. And that’s what we’ve put together. I’ll now show a few minutes of some of those old shows for you, and I’ll mention a couple of things as we go along.
[Videotape is shown to the seminar audience.]
When Mark and Betsy brought that last piece back, I thought I’d die. I had barely remembered it, and then I saw it after all these years. Before we go to questions, there are a few things I want to tell you about why we selected some of those clips. They are the kinds of things you just don’t see on television any more. When television was live, you opened a suitcase that was supposed to spring shut and if the spring that was supposed to be there wasn’t there, you couldn’t stop the tape and do it again and go on. So the audience would laugh at the goof—and the performers would break up. Today, if one performer breaks up another, once in a while, with Bob Hope, maybe they’d let it ride, but most of the time it’s done for the purpose of breaking up and taping it that way. The reality is never what it was when things were live. You saw Martha dancing a little bit, which gives you some sense of the size of the shows. We were dealing with twelve and sixteen dancers.
With The Martha Raye Show we were doing book musicals, which means that we were not writing original songs each week, but using songs out of the public domain. But there were sketches and story and music and dance, all intertwined, all live, fading up at eight o’clock, fading out at nine o’clock, and everything had to be in. And when Martin and Lewis were ad-libbing over something, if too much time went by, there were a couple of nervous people someplace else in that theater, cutting something that was yet to come—to be able to make room for the fact that they were blowing time over such moments.
I remember sitting with David Susskind one night after what I think was the second Martin and Lewis show. I don’t remember what the scene was, but I know the audience imbued them and they went crazy and left the sketch. We had to cut the whole ending. But I thought Jerry was Everyman, and we were writing scenes that had some importance, something to say, despite all the craziness. And they blew it.
The show was a big success, a sensation, but I remember sitting in a Chinese restaurant weeping because they had blown the meaning of the sketch, whatever the hell that was. Nobody that ever saw a Martin and Lewis sketch would say that meant something, but to me it did.
We wanted you to see a little Gloria Lochman because there was a major story that took place after that show. Gloria Lochman, as I said, won The $64,000 Question some weeks before. What was her subject, spelling? That’s why she spelled in the scene you just saw. So we wrote this show that had Talullah Bankhead as her good fairy and somebody else as her bad fairy and whatnot, and the show went famously. At the bows, when they were saying goodnight, Talullah Bankhead picked Gloria Lochman up and hugged her and Martha joined them, and the three of them were hugging, and they both kissed her. This was 1954. There were so many letters about hugging that little black child that the show never recovered from it, with the ad agency carrying on the way it did. I’m sorry we didn’t have a piece of another show for you to see, just to give you an idea of the kinds of things that did happen on live television because this incident had nothing to do with live television. They would have hugged that child at any time. But that’s the mark of what was happening in those years.
A few weeks later we did another show, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., that I had directed. Martha Raye did a sketch on an old comedic conceit called Guzzler’s Gin in which she was drinking something that she didn’t know the alcoholic content of and she was getting progressively drunk without realizing it. As I directed Martha to play this, I remember saying, “You’re not going to be drunk, you’re going to be tipsy, just like Irene Dunne. So you’re going to be on your little tippy-toes, the bubbles are bothering your nose, and you’re going to be that kind of drunk.” She was hilarious playing that kind of a tipsy lady. But just before she went on the air, some old crony of hers says, “Martha, the hell with that tipsy stuff. You’re funny, let it go.” So, Martha is funny. She took the bottle of booze, when she finally realized that she was drunk, God, what didn’t she do! She let it come out of her mouth, she poured it down her dress, under her arms—and she filled up her mouth and gave it once to Fairbanks right in the face. His makeup ran, her makeup ran, and the audience howled, because a live audience will always howl over things like that. At home, when you’re not part of the fun, you’re not part of the “in” group, it looks like something else. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Fairbanks—Lady somebody—and Douglas Fairbanks came to me afterwards, just throwing their arms around me, thinking they had been part of the funniest show that ever happened. But between the Gloria Lochman show and the Douglas Fairbanks show, The Martha Raye Show never recovered. And that was part of live television in those years. I guess we can now go to questions.
Q: You’re a New York boy, you’ve heeded Horace Greeley’s advice and gone West. Is there any hope for the struggling New York writer other than moving to California?
LEAR: It depends on what you want to do. If you want to see somebody in California, you’re going to have to go there. If you want to write somebody in California, you can stay here.
Q: Is it true you were one of the writers in that long line of television people who wrote for The Jackie Gleason Show for a week or two and then it didn’t work? Harry Crane seems to remember that he knew you there. Is he mistaken?
LEAR: Harry Crane knows me because he was on the very first Martin and Lewis show. But I held very few jobs. I regret I couldn’t get through all of it. I worked The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Ford Star Revue, The Martha Raye Show, after Nat Hiken, who was the dean of all comedy writers, did the first two years. Eddie and I did the second two years, then the show was cancelled and I was out of work for a while. My friend Bud Yorkin, who was doing The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show, asked me if I would join the staff of writers, which was the only time I ever wrote with anybody. Although Eddie and I collaborated, we wrote separately, and then took each other’s stuff and went over it, but I could never write in a room with anybody, not even on the Ernie Ford shows. I was one of four or five writers. I also wrote for the hour show that George Gobel did; then Bud and I formed our company, Tandem Productions, and we went on to do other things.
Q: Could you expand on what you said about the difference between what a live audience would laugh at and what people watching the screen would laugh at?
LEAR: When you sit with an audience in a theater, like this one, you’re part of an experience. We’re together, you and I, and we’re all talking together here. You may or may not be interested, or you may or may not be having a good time, but you’re a part of it. Your question would be a very interesting one to ask the people who are watching this seminar in the other rooms here at the Museum. I hope this is a good experience for them, but I would suspect that it is—at the very least—different from what you are experiencing simply because people respond to body warmth, and even at this distance there is some connection taking place. I’m much more on trial with the people who are not in this room than I am with those in this audience, although I recognize that it’s a strain here, too, and I want to do well. But I stand a better chance with you. I am much more on trial with those people who are removed. This is part of the reason why I wanted so much to make the situation comedies with a live audience, and not with canned laughter. I wanted at least to transmit to people at home that shared experience of a live cast and an audience, which is altogether different from what happens without a live audience.
Q: When you were writing for a live television comedy show, would you write only for the current week’s show or would you try to write and plan ahead? I heard something about people scrambling on Monday to write Friday’s show.
LEAR: I’m glad you asked that question. This is the way The Martha Raye Show went into production. Eddie and I would scratch our heads, argue, fight, carry on, have some idea of where we were going—these hour book-musicals were every other week. Let’s say we were going into rehearsal Monday morning. On Saturday afternoon we would not have had a word on paper. And, under pressure at five o’clock in the afternoon, we’d have the costume designer, the set designer, the conductor, the lighting person, and whoever else was involved, and by then we would be able to say, “We’re going to be in the kitchen, then we’re going to do something at a street corner, then we’re going to go to the living room, then we’re going to have a piece of the courtroom, and so on and so on..” We would give them just the bare bones, and they would go away so they could get carpenters and seamstresses and music and whatever was needed to get ready—and then we would start to write around the clock. And because things were mimeographed back then—there was no photocopy machine—I would go on Monday morning to the mimeographers to make certain they weren’t crazed as a result of the script having gone in the way it went in. Then I’d be on my feet at ten o’clock with Margaret Truman, Paulette Goddard, Martha Raye, and a cast of whomever, directing the show. This is the way my friends doing Your Show of Shows were working—perhaps not as insanely as that, but almost. We were all in live television going through the same thing. These were also the days when nobody told you that Dexedrine was bad. You could get it in some drug stores simply by asking for it, many times without a prescription. It was the same with Secanol. You’d go to sleep for two hours with Secanol, then you’d wake up with Dexedrine and go to work. If there’s anybody here who is young enough to be impressionable, don’t try it—these were sick times.
Q: Did you have a dress rehearsal?
LEAR: Yes. I can’t remember when we needed to add time, but in a panic, we would cut twelve and fifteen and twenty-two minutes.
Q: You didn’t pay any attention to the advertisers or the networks. Didn’t you run your show?
LEAR: We ran our shows. I don’t remember their having that much to say, except when the Gloria Lochman incident happened. And then I remember a lot of what they said.
Q: Thank God times have changed.
LEAR: Thank God, indeed. It was still bad, years later, around 1962, when Petula Clark put her hand on Harry Belafonte and created a major incident. So times have changed very slowly, and thank God they have.
Q: Your shows obviously moved to a kind of seriousness. People think of Norman Lear as comedy that’s serious, that has a political edge to it. Can you explain how you went from what we saw then to that? Would you comment on the process?
LEAR: We were writing for clowns, but there was something serious about what we were writing. And I always thought of it that way. It mattered to me, but it didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things—I thought there was something each time that was just a little germ. I don’t want to overstate it. There was a germ of something serious in everything. And then, as I think through the rest of my life in television and films, if you look at The Night They Raided Minsky’s and Cold Turkey and Divorce American Style, those films that I had a great deal to do with creatively as a writer or producer, were about something. They all had layers of social meaning and, at least as much as I could affect them, were funny. That was their intention. That’s the way it felt on the inside.
Q: When you were in California, did you ever receive offers to write for I Love Lucy?
LEAR: No, I was always engaged.
Q: Why did they ever get away from live television? Was it because the seasons became longer?
LEAR: It was because tape was viewed as progress. It helped actors and others to manage their lives and their schedules and their careers and their leisure time and so forth. Tape was progress, first in radio and then in television.
Q: I have two questions. All of your material is funny, that which we grew up with as well as the more recent material. When you are writing, how do you know if it’s funny? How do you know if it will work? That’s the first question. The second is, considering the frenetic pace at which you created or at least put the shows together, was there ever a time when Saturday afternoon came and you didn’t have any ideas? Did that ever take place, and if so, what did you do to try to get the juices flowing to be able to get the skits for the show?
LEAR: To answer the second question, I never sat down to a blank page where I wasn’t absolutely positive there was not another idea. And what I did about it was throw up. Cry, stall, wait, sharpen pencils. The throwing up part is not such a joke; I spent a lot of years blocked that way. I started to say it before I realized it might be funny. But that’s how it happened. I would pull my hair out, that’s what I would do, I’d just pull my hair out! Otherwise I’d be sitting here looking like Mr. Batscha. I don’t know many writers who don’t feel that kind of panic and think, “Where will the next idea come from? It’s just impossible. It won’t happen.” And then when you prime the pump to a point, it just spews.
Q: How do you know if the material is funny? How do you know if it will work?
LEAR: I don’t know. I go with my gut. This applies to each of us in whatever we do. I figure if I laugh, you’ll laugh. I don’t know another way to judge it.
Q: You didn’t try it out on people?
LEAR: No. We played it for a live audience and if it didn’t make them laugh, we changed it.
Q: How was Martha Raye on television and why did she drop out of the scene for a while?
LEAR: She was enormously successful on television, but I can’t tell you how she did in ratings. People then didn’t pay attention to ratings the way they do now. This business of rating everything is a phenomenon that’s occurred in our culture. I don’t remember that we paid any attention then to anything like that. Martha Raye was just very successful. And we were on. And the kinds of things that would affect you would be a disenchanted sponsor, for whatever reason. That would affect you seriously. Or bad mail, which always has been a given. A handful of letters that might come from a handful of Americans who simply wish to express themselves are always viewed by the agency or the network as “Get that show out of my house!” Networks and agencies have always misinterpreted much of the mail they receive, which is often written by people who simply wish to get something off their minds and is not intended to be threatening.
Q: Do you ever get the urge to go back to sketch writing? Do you miss it?
LEAR: I miss seeing it. I’m a great sketcher of a person, an audience person. I love Saturday Night Live when it’s working this much. I will watch it religiously. If it only makes me laugh twice I will watch it, I miss it so. I can’t say that I’ve had an idea for a sketch. I hope Nancy Walker does a Broadway show sometime soon, because she’s the only person I know who could do it. That’s the only thing I can think of that I’ve often wished I could write.
Q: Did you ever try to develop a show with all these sketches and things?
Q: Did you and your partner Ed Simmons ever have any problems getting in sync, with the two of you going on the same wave length? Was that ever a problem in developing a show or a skit?
LEAR: Not a lot because you grow to know the other person, and we grew in time to feel pretty much the same way about the same things, although of course it didn’t always happen. If it did, I’d take something I couldn’t otherwise sell him and just simply write some of it. He would do the same. And then we would convince the other person on paper. You can only talk about something to a point. That’s a big problem, for whoever was asking me about writing. Don’t send anybody treatments, write it.
Q: To what extent do you marry material to a performer?
LEAR: To every extent. You start off with a character, but if you understand something about direction, you’re not so word-proud that you won’t bend what you’ve written to meld with the glorious talents of the actor. Archie Bunker could have been six Archie Bunkers, or twelve if there were, at that given time, twelve great actors who could do it. But to not have understood that Mr. O’Connor was bringing something to it of his own personality, out of his own talents, and then made the character work with that in harmony, would have been to miss a great deal. So you do tailor your material.
Q: In all of the shows you had a lot of guest stars and one-shot appearances. Were there any surprises, positive or negative, as to some who were straight actors, like Errol Flynn, who were really very funny, or some you thought would be funny who just kind of died?
LEAR: Well, you saw a little piece of Cesar Romero. We were in rehearsal with Milton Berle to do a show that was a take-off on Liberace, who was the biggest thing in show business, and we did a show that was called National Smile Week. It was National Smile Week and Liberace was the star of the show. And Milton Berle got sick three days before. It took a day to decide how we could replace him. Cesar Romero flew in from California and learned the show in a day and a half cold and knocked us out! I mean, he was glorious! That was a huge surprise. It was a big surprise to see the little girl who won The $64,000 Question. She had never acted a minute of her life but she got up, knowing how many millions of people were going to see her, and did an entire show without missing a cue. So, yes, there were surprises. A lot more surprises in live television than tape.
Q: Is there one thing you’ve done that you’re the most proud of?
LEAR: My mind ran to something so I’ll mention it, but it might be because I was talking about it just a little while ago before the seminar began. It was a special I did about four years ago called I Love Liberty. It had, haltingly, falteringly, mistakes. But it had so much to say about our country that I feel and care about, and I loved it, I loved it! But also, Beatrice Arthur made me laugh harder than any human being. I often feel, and I have told her this, that if sorrow and grief takes time away, laughter has to add time. Bea Arthur as Maude added time to my life. She made me laugh in places nobody will ever touch again, places that I don’t know how to find. God, how I laughed at her! I think about episodes of Maude and also of All in the Family. In tomorrow’s seminar we’ll show some pieces of all of those shows, every one of which are, for me, the best things I’ve ever seen.
I also want to say that when I’m proud for me, I’m proud of a lot of people. I’ve mentioned the actors. When I was answering somebody’s question about All in the Family, I was thinking that there is a miracle that takes place with a cast like Maude—those four people—and a cast like All in the Family, and those four people. I get a lot of credit for the casting I’ve done, and I accept the credit because I think I’ve done a terrific job, but it’s more than that. There is some kind of miracle that takes place that’s bigger than the four people or the person who has cast them, or the script or anything else, which makes it possible for all of that to come together in a moment of time and go for eleven years—in the case of The Jeffersons–or, especially in the case of Maude and All in the Family. If you look at the way those people worked together, and what they all brought to it—not just one person, or any group of those people alone—there is something bigger than all of us that makes it work in a moment of time, that makes all of it come together.
Q: In the early days of television, did you ever long to interject some social commentary into your comedy writing? Did you ever experience any frustration between what you wanted to say and what the networks would allow you to say?
LEAR: That’s the subject for the next two seminars. The answer is yes to everything.
Q: You were talking about what you are most proud of. What was your biggest disappointment professionally?
LEAR: The biggest disappointment was something else we were talking about just a little while ago. One of the shows I loved the most was called Hot L Baltimore. I easily think the biggest disappointment was that the basic network, although not all of the people in it, hated the show. And it was on the air at a time when if you bought thirteen they were on for thirteen. Before that, the show had been on for twenty-six weeks, and before that thirty-nine, but that year you were on for thirteen. Today, the way this craziness with the competition in the ratings has escalated, if you don’t succeed in two shows, or three shows, it’s over and out. But that show had everything for me, and for all the rest of us who worked on it, although we knew two weeks into it that they would never let it go to the fourteenth week. That was a disappointment.
Q: Do you have a dream project now that you know is never going to get off the ground?
LEAR: No, I don’t have a project that I think will never get off the ground. I don’t want to wake up in the morning if I feel that.
Q: I’m not trying to wheedle your age out of you, but I wanted some idea of how old you were in those days when you sold something for fifty dollars or one hundred dollars. I’m a twenty-two-year-old frustrated writer. It makes me shake to see you sitting up there and to look at your history. You’re wonderful. And I want to know or just have an idea of what it was that you did that made things start to click for you.
LEAR: I’m sixty-three. And I lied. It occurred in exactly the way I said. I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight when I went out to California. I was very lucky. I mean, I pulled off this thing with Danny Thomas, I wrote a good piece of material, David Susskind heard it, and then I delivered when I got here. I want to say something that will help you. You’re twenty-three or four?
Q: I’m twenty-two.
LEAR: Would you trust me if I said you’ve got lots of time?
Q: I know.
LEAR: But, don’t stop being impatient, too.
Q: I’ve heard horror stories all the way down the line. I wanted to be an actress when I was six years old and got the wind knocked out of my sails for that one, and then I felt I really had a desire to write. I wanted to know what kind of preconceived notions, if any, you had? I’m hearing all of these horror stories, and some terrific stories like yours, but going in did you have any idea of what you were getting into?
LEAR: Well, I didn’t go to California or any place to become a writer. It happened just as I said. Somebody else wanted to be a writer, I helped him, and, you know, fell into it. But I realized as it happened that I’d been writing ever since I was a kid. I wrote in grade school, I was the comedy writer. I wrote the class night play. But I never thought of it in terms of being a writer because I only wanted to be my Uncle Jack. But if you want to write for television, my suggestion is that you find the show you think is most terrific, that you think you could write, and write a few episodes for it. Do it just for yourself. And then show them to some people. If you’ve got a half dozen people who are looking at a script for Family Ties and they say to you, “This is terrific. I could have seen this one last week,” or something like that, then you will begin to get a sense that maybe you’ve written something for a market that you know exists, and then you will find a way to get it to somebody. The best advice anybody ever gave a writer was to write.
Q: Did you have any role models in those days? People who worked in television who you particularly admired?
LEAR: When I worked on The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show there was a writer by the name of Roland Kibbie; he died not too long ago, bless his soul. Kip taught me more about writing, which I will never forget, and I hope I have passed it on to lots of younger writers who I’ve worked with through the years. Roland Kibbie taught me so much more by word and deed than anybody I can remember. Had I prepared or sought to be the other role models, in literature, you know I’d have cut my throat a long time ago. I fell in love very early on with George Bernard Shaw. And to compare one’s work with something like that is futile—thank God I learned that somewhere along the way.
Q: I’d like to ask a general question about what you see in the relationship between anger and comedy?
LEAR: That’s a terrific question. Wherever there is anger there is comedy. Now, you can’t say wherever there is comedy there is anger. There are all kinds of gentle comedy, but there is comedy close to anger in any situation, and that’s why there is so much humor and drama in confrontation. And we looked quickest for what Archie is coming into that will get him angry. or what’s wrong. You look for what’s wrong and you’ll find sticks to rub together to light the comedic fire. Does that answer your question? It’s a good question.
Q: It’s the kind of question I can’t expect you to answer in two minutes off the cuff.
LEAR: Well, what are you doing for dinner?
Q: From the sublime to the pedestrian, were films the next step from sketch writing before you went into a different comedy world?
LEAR: Yes, it was situation comedy. After the Martha Raye shows, Bud Yorkin and I formed Tandem Productions and we made a deal at Paramount Pictures to do a number of television pilots, on film. I hated it. But we made one television pilot called Band of Gold that caught Paramount’s attention and they said, “That’s a good piece of film. You guys ought to think about pictures.” Well, this is an interesting story that I almost never get to tell. I don’t know if I ever got to tell it. “Pictures, huh?” Jack Karp was the fellow who was running Paramount Pictures. I said, “I have a script I love, a play, that I think would make a picture.” Years before, on the few Jack Haley shows, there were two writers who came in to work under Simmons and Lear, and they were Danny and Doc Simon—Neil Simon and his brother Danny. Neil had just written his first play and had sent it to me because I was at Paramount Pictures. I was doing television, but he didn’t know anyone else in pictures so he sent me the play, which was called One Shoe Off. It was hilarious, so I brought it in to Karp, who arranged a deal where they put up $75,000—that’s what it took in those years—to put on this show at Buck’s County. They changed the title to Come Blow Your Horn. The $75,000 was the pre-production money they needed to put it on, and the deal called for me to write the screenplay and for Bud Yorkin to direct it. That’s the only Neil Simon play that he didn’t write the screenplay for. It was his first. And I wrote that screenplay and we made the picture.
Q: Where did you go from sketch writing? Did you go through movies before you got to sketch writing?
LEAR: No, we then started to make pictures. I was in New York and Bud Yorkin and I formed Tandem Productions. Bud was not a writer and although I was not, at that time, a director, I had directed some of the Martha Raye shows. But I didn’t think I wanted to be a director. So, we were going to do different things in the same company and hope one and one made three. Bud was in Europe doing an Inspector Clouseau picture with Alan Arkin. I was in New York editing The Night They Raided Minsky’s, which William Friedkin directed for us, and Friedkin left four or five days after the picture ended because Bert Lahr died while it was being made—these are such stories! I was writing ahead of the camera to make up for Lahr’s death. Editing the picture was very difficult, of course, and he had gone to England to satisfy another commitment so I was left with eleven months of editing. In the course of editing Minsky’s I read this little paragraph in TV Guide about a British television show called Till Death Us Do Part, written by a fellow by the name of Johnny Speight, about a bigoted father and his son-in-law who fought about everything. And that was my father and me. I went crazy for it. And that’s how All in the Family started, without any notion of getting into situation comedy or anything. I just wanted to write about my father and me.
Q: Your company was involved in bringing British television series over here and Americanizing them. All in the Family is the first American series I can think of that was based on a British series. Were there any others before that or were you a pioneer in this?
LEAR: No, I don’t know how much it was pioneered. I did All in the Family based on that little thing. Then I saw episodes of Till Death Us Do Part. It’s an entirely different kind of show. And he did twenty-one or twenty-two episodes in six years. They’re far more civilized over there. They don’t have the kind of schedules to deliver that we have here. Then we did Sanford and Son. And that was Steptoe and Son. John Ritter’s show, Three’s Company was also a derivative.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about working with Martha Raye and Martin and Lewis?
LEAR: Well, Jerry Lewis and Martha Raye were clowns, and I use the word “clown” very seldom and with great reverence because I think comedians are born often enough, but clowns you get only very rarely. With clowns, their earlobes are funny. Their toes are funny. And they can make you cry like that. Jerry Lewis could do that, and Martha Raye could do that, and Bert Lahr for the little bit I knew him, could do that. Carroll O’Connor also is an enormously inventive, gifted comedic actor in that role of Archie Bunker. I don’t know how much comedy he can do in another role, but in that one he was a genius. I don’t think I ever regarded anyone else I worked with as a clown. It’s incredible to be able to sit here and talk with people who are interested in a love story. And my story with comedy is a love story. I wish for each of you the kind of a work life I’ve had. It has been glorious. And working with Martha and Martin and Lewis—God, there are endless stories there! And Dean, I should add, and I should say it and underline it nineteen times because Dean Martin was magnificent and there would not have been a Jerry Lewis the way there was a Jerry Lewis without him.
Q: Although I know better, those performances seem to be spontaneous and built on the barest kind of writing.
LEAR: Yes, Jerry was fighting the establishment. The establishment was not interested in his free soul, his free spirit, they only wanted it one way! Jerry was Everyman, Jerry was the lost soul, Jerry was trying to make good in a culture that wouldn’t appreciate him. All of these things were inherent in what we thought we were writing, in what appeared to be, and probably were, skeletons, that just gave them some platform to be as hilarious as they were. But we young writers were investing something else in that. For us it wasn’t enough to be that hilarious. We had something else in mind to do.
Q: Do you know if there were differences between writing or producing live comedy variety in New York versus your work in Los Angeles?
LEAR: No, because I did live shows in L.A., too, with Dean and Jerry, and George Gobel, and some of those were live. Audiences were different. We always used to talk about how audiences were different. And the better audiences were here [in New York]. I’m trying to remember why that is. Mark, you have some experience with shows on both coasts. Wasn’t that true? And has it always been true? Is it still true? GOODSON: Yes, it always has been true.
Q: What’s the difference?
GOODSON: Audiences are faster, more sensitive, better read. They see the same play open in Los Angeles. I saw Biloxi Blues open in L.A. at this enormous theater and I said, “This is really good. It’s a shame I haven’t seen a Neil Simon show previously.” Then I saw it in New York and I said, “My God, it’s a different show!” A lot of it, of course, was the containment.
LEAR: I think I can explain that. We’d tape two shows for all these episodes. We’d tape one at five-thirty and we’d tape one at eight o’clock. The reason for it was to learn from the five-thirty show audience what we could do to improve it for the eight o’clock audience. Then we took the best of both when we edited it. We always saw a difference between a five-thirty audience and an eight o’clock audience. With the five-thirty audience, we often wondered whether it had something to do with their stomachs, were they hungry? Was the eight o’clock audience fed and more comfortable? Was the eight o’clock audience out for a good time because it was eight o’clock in the evening, and was the five-thirty audience kind of pulling toward the end of the day, before dinner where they were less likely to be out for a good time? We would speculate endlessly, but there was a difference. So, I have no difficulty believing there is really a difference between a New York and a Los Angeles audience. Los Angeles audiences are more laid back, generally.
Q: How about writers? Is there a qualitative difference? I always think that when you go to comedy clubs, the material that’s being done in New York is tougher, maybe more angry, than what is being done in California.
LEAR: Well, there are so few writers in Los Angeles who are from Los Angeles. Everybody’s an import out there. In that respect, I don’t see any difference. They’re all transplanted New Yorkers. And anybody who wants to write comes from someplace else to L.A. or to New York. And the New York writers eventually wind up in California.
Q: What is your advice to the young writer who’s trying to get the big break like you did when you got Danny Thomas’s phone number? Somebody who says to himself, “Gee, if I could just get to somebody like Norman Lear . . . . If he could just give me twenty minutes he’d like my stuff because he really understands the material.”
LEAR: Well, if you gave everybody twenty minutes of your time, you wouldn’t have a life. But I don’t know why you would want twenty minutes if you’ve written something because that might take even more than twenty minutes. But it isn’t twenty minutes you need, it’s the twenty minutes he needs to read what you gave him. Let me tell you how I think about it. I only go from what happens in my own company and in my own circle, what I learned specifically myself. I can’t tell you how many people have come to my door and wound up at my desk who have, through a kind of courteous persistence and humanity, succeeded in attracting the attention of my secretary or my sister or somebody, to the point where that person either has taken it and read it and then said, “Norman, read this,” or that person has said, “I can’t get rid of this guy, but he’s so charming,” or “I’ve read three pages, it’s so interesting.” And I have met, I have read, I have found, people, things, ideas, and so forth, in that fashion. So, it’s too easy to say, “I can’t get read.”
I’ve said this to actor friends all my life: “Don’t wait for the agent. Don’t wait for the agent.” This is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Working after you are successful is much easier than chancing that you’re going to be a pain in the ass. But, if you want to be read, if you want to be seen, you must chance being a pain in the ass. And you must develop, somewhere along the line, enough of your own feelings of self that you know you’re a decent person and there’ll be another decent person someplace that will respond to that. And you can’t stop, you can’t take the “no’s.”
Q: You were speaking very recently about the old days. And I was wondering if, when all that frenzy was going on, you felt as fondly about it, or did you really literally not have time to enjoy it?
LEAR: I did both. I remember weeping and agonizing over “When will I get another idea?” I remember loathing the time I was spending. Then, and I guess it’s like somebody climbing a mountain, you’re suddenly getting to the top and breathing free, and just on the greatest high in the world. I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic. It’s all, of course, looking backward that makes you feel that way. But there was never any pain that wasn’t followed by the greatest high in the world. And I’m the kind of person who remembers the highs better than the pain—but I can tell you there was a lot of the pain.
Q: When you were taken away from your family, especially in the early days—I assume you were recently married—did you miss a lot of them? Did your wife get very upset about the hours you were putting into this new job in this new state?
LEAR: That’s a question for the fifth seminar! And I know you want me to sing the song again! Thank you very much. Thank you!