Norman Lear Selected Press
April 5, 1976
“I’m damned glad to be Norman Lear,” says Norman Lear. “I’m having a helluva good time being me.” But which Norman Lear? The creator of Archie Bunker, superbigot? The real-life Udall liberal? Lear the TV assembly-line vulgarian? Or Lear the audacious idea man who zaps taboos all the way to the top of the ratings?
With eight shows on the air, watched by an estimated 120 million Americans weekly, Lear is the most successful entrepreneur in the history of the medium. However, he considers himself “a writer, first and foremost,” and is the most trenchant, uninhibited and influential of the TV breed. Not since Disney has a single showman invaded the screen and the national imagination with such a collection of memorable characters. Indeed, perhaps no American entertainer has created so raucous or raunchy a crew as Archie and Edith, Maude and Walter, J.J., the Jeffersons, Sanford and son—and this season’s most improbable heroine, Mary Hartman. Next season the monarch of sitcom will have two new shows on the air, and these too seem likely to slice through prime-time jabberwocky to hit Americans in nerve end and funny bone.
Stratified Sitcoms. One reason for his long reign has been Lear’s almost teleological ability to have at least one new talk-provoking show on the air before his last hit has settled into acceptance. In January 1972, just a year after All in the Family made its debut, Lear produced Sanford and Son, his first black sitcom, and watched it soar into the top ten rated shows. It was followed that September by Maude, a spin-off from Family, whose mercurial, politically liberal protagonist taught a nation’s housewives the imprecation: “God’ll getcha for this.” Then came two more socially stratified black sitcoms: Good Times, wherein J.J. and his ghetto clan give a new meaning—and pronunciation—to dynamite, and the middle-class Jeffersons, which demonstrates weekly that blacks also can be bigoted. This year there were signs of Lear jet lag. One Day at a Time, a story of a divorced woman’s travails with her two unlovable teen-age daughters, has fairly healthy ratings, but The Dumplings, a somewhat unbelievable celebration of love and cholesterol, seems unlikely to survive.
Last January came Lear’s most tantalizing show, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman—MHII, as it is known in the trade—the parody soap opera. Because the networks, according to Lear, were afraid of the freaky show, MHII is syndicated to almost 100 stations. It often runs late in the evening and is thereby changing the viewing habits of millions of Americans. (In Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, where it appears at 11 p.m., it regularly beats out one or two news shows.) Its success, confounding the early critics (including TIME), fills Lear with unholy joy.
“I love Mary Hartman,” he told TIME’S Leo Janos last week. “It’s outrageous . . . outrageous! And the freedom! It’s a story that goes on forever. No first-act curtain to worry about; no second-act resolution scene. Soap opera is a hell of an exciting form. Especially the way we are doing it, on two levels. Funny on one level and an intense human interest story on the other.”
MHII is pop tragicomedy, Lear’s real forte, in which one man’s yuk can be another’s yecch. In one recent episode, he decided to hold a funeral service in Mary’s kitchen for a sports coach who had drowned in a bowl of chicken soup. “I just thought it was off-the-wall funny,” says Lear. “When I told my wife Frances about the idea, she said, ‘Norman, this time you’ve gone too far—even for you.’ But it worked. It was funny.” So funny that the New York Times’s critic called it “ten minutes of the most hilarious TV that is likely to be seen this year.” The scripts may be uneven, but the show boasts an infectiously loopy cast headed by the irresistibly dolorous Louise Lasser, whose Mary is a birdbrain worthy of Audubon, and Greg Mullavey as her flaccid husband Tom.
Stifled Wife. Lear’s casting is always impeccable, but what makes the shows run—and run and run—is close-to-the-bone conflict that is stolen shamelessly from his own life. “I’ve always used material right out of my own life,” he boasts. “Nowadays, if we’re stuck in a scene, I just reach into my gut and extract something.” Archie is based on Lear’s Russian-Jewish father Herman, who really did tell his wife to “stifle.” When Mary Hartman went to a psychiatrist, says the writer, “she told the same story I told my shrink.” His daughter Maggie, 16, had problems with her boy friend; so they became an episode of One Day at a Time. Even Walter’s 50th birthday on Maude was all in Lear’s family. “My father had a thing,” he recalls. “He’d pinch the skin on top of his hand, and when he’d let go and you could still see the impression, he’d say it was a sign of growing old. I did that on my 50th birthday, and so did Walter.”
At 53, Lear is not about to quit, but he may ease his frenetic pace a bit. He certainly does not need his income from residuals. At the end of its 26-week run, MHII will go on vacation for 13 weeks before returning for a full 39-week season in the fall. Though the break goes against soap opera’s nonstop tradition, Lear says simply that “we need rest time.”
Besides, he has those two new shows to develop. One will star the redoubtable Nancy Walker as a Hollywood agent who suddenly has to face living full time with her husband of 29 years, a sailor who until now has been away from home for all but two months a year. The other, All’s Fair, is about the May-December marriage of a 50-year-old newsman whose views are to the right of William Buckley and a 23-year-old professional sport photographer on the fringes of Jane Fonda; their spats will raise decibel levels on CBS in September.
Gut Guffaw. Both shows will probably roil anew the ulcers of network censors who still fight a Learguard action against TV fare that throws even a risible semblance of reality back at the viewer. That is what Lear’s art is about, the guts of the guffaw. Nor will it change. As he puts it: “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. I want my shows to be funny, outrageous and alive. So far, so good.” And farther, and better.