Norman Lear Selected Press
Shortcuts to the Heart
By Geoffrey Wolff
Esquire, August 1981
Norman Lear is a man of sudden tears and quick hugs. He has bled his personal life and passion into the creation of television characters such as Archie Bunker, Maude Findlay, and Mary Hartman. In doing so, he redefined our national sense of humor.
Thirty Years Ago Norman Lear, twenty-eight, was flying the red-eye from New York, descending into LAX. At the window beside him sat Ed Simmons, looking down at the lights. Two years earlier Lear and Simmons had been hustling furniture and baby pictures down there, door to door, but now they had written the first Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis show together, and it had aired the night before, and it had been big: “Everyone was talking,” Lear remembers with a showman’s reflexive hyperbole.
Simmons watched the lights of Los Angeles wink back at him, and he wondered out loud: “How many of those people did we make laugh last night?”
Thirty years later, jetting east to attend a testimonial dinner for Walter Cronkite at the Waldorf Astoria, the fifty-eight-year-old Lear looked down through the clear night at the heart of the country: “There were all those twinkling lights, all those houses, the people in them. And it came to me that it was almost possible—not really probable, I know—it was within the reach of my imagination that I had at least once made every person in America laugh.”
Well, that’s something. Taking account of Lear’s success—partnership in a company that did more than a quarter billion in sales last year, all those Emmys, the enshrinement of Archie Bunker’s chair in the Smithsonian Institution, street recognition—to make a whole country laugh is something to do,.
By the mid-Seventies more than half the population of this country, inclusive of newborn babes 120 million people—watched one or another of Norman Lear’s weekly comedies. He has been said to have earned “a power and influence perhaps never attained by anyone in the history of entertainment.” Well before Archie received a vote at the 1972 Democratic Convention, pundits were writing about a “Bunker vote” reflecting the lower-middle-class anger at a tight economy and loose permissiveness. Richard Nixon watched All in the Family and thought it was rotten that Lear let Archie Bunker’s football-playing school friend be revealed as homosexual: “That was awful,” said the President of the United States. “It made a fool out of a good man.”
Money poured in, an irresistible tide. By 1972 revenues from shows produced by Lear and his partner, Bud Yorkin, were reported at about $5 million. By 1979, the year after Lear quit his active participation in the shows he had spun off and conceived, the syndication library was said to be worth $100 million, maybe twice that. Sally Struthers had posed for Gloria Stivic paper dolls; an LP of Archie’s lucubrations had hit the top-100 chart in Cashbox magazine; there were T-shirts and beer mugs.
During the past ten years Lear has been courted by Presidents and would-be Presidents, for his good sense as well as for his influence and money. He has opinions, deplores many things, signs petitions. He keeps company with meritocrats, that loose association of people who have done something and who recognize one another. Sociologists fabricate theories based on his fabrications. He has put a recent President of the United States on hold. Not bad for a door-to-door salesman, son of a door-to-door salesman.
Lear is small for such a visible fellow, compact and fastidious. He has the drooping eyelids and lips, the knowing dolor common to first-rate comedians. Most of the time he wears a kind of costume; its signature is a canvas porkpie, his lucky hat, worn with its brim up in the style of the Dead End Kids. The rest is tailored slacks and a blue Breton sweater with white buttons at the shoulder. His second wife, Frances Loeb, gave him a fisherman’s hat like this twenty years ago (four years after they were married) to discourage him from nervously picking hairs from his head while he wrote and rewrote gags and skits, usually on or past deadline, a three-ulcer way to make a living. Despite his hat and the luck it may have brought him, he’s bald on top, with a close-cut white fringe at his temples.
In conversation his manner is serene and exact but not cool. Even by the casual standards of southern California, where a perfect stranger will call you “Baby” (or, more precisely, “Hey, Baby!”) over the telephone, Lear’s declarations of affection come quickly and forcefully. During the worst of his serial censorship battles with CBS he hugged one of his biggest opponents, the network’s president. “It’s easy for me,” he explained, “to throw my arms around [Robert Wood] and say ‘Hi’ at the beginning of any meeting.” Familiarity and quick kinship are his purpose and his temperamental mark; he’d hug a lamppost if he couldn’t find anything else to hug. At worst, this has nurtured a weakness: “I want people to like me. And I go too far to make them like me.” Still, network executives have had a difficult time liking Norman Lear. In 1971 he needed CBS more than it needed him, despite some success as a comedy writer for television. He had written and produced and directed movies too, most of them modestly ambitious and modestly received. He was not Big or Expensive.
During the late Sixties he had bought American rights to a BBC series, Till Death Us Do Part, about a hate-crippled cockney, Alf Garnett. ABC financed a couple of pilots of Lear’s version (Those Were the Days), starring Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton as Archie and Edith Bunker, and then dropped the project. It stayed dropped for two years, till 1970, when CBS poked at it with a long stick and, trembling a little, picked it up. The network might have hoped for Lear’s gratitude and pliability. The network was soon disappointed.
Lear has chosen, in the collaborative circumstances of the entertainment business, to give himself the power and responsibility of choice, to run his own store and his own risks. While he deserves credit for guts and has been given credit—awards and testimonials and great riches and the respect of his colleagues—he has also been a pain in the ass for CBS. In 1975 the FCC and the networks cooked up something soon called the Family Hour.
Responding to complaints about the sex and violence to which children were exposed on early-evening television, the networks elected to monitor themselves lest they be monitored by monitors with sharper teeth. From seven to nine P.M. in the East the big three agreed to air no show that was “inappropriate for general family viewing.” CBS hoped to persuade Norman Lear to censor All in the Family or to agree to move it from its eight o’clock slot. The show was ousted from that time slot. Lear sued the network – and won.
This could not have been such a surprise. During a meeting of top CBS executives, before Lear was faced with his options, a network executive reminded his colleagues that “Norman Lear kicks and takes to crisis and takes to the public and the press any suggested change of every comma in All the Family.”
The very first episode of All in the Family set the ground rules: CBS and Lear would argue; Lear would win. In this episode the Bunkers’ daughter, Gloria (played by Sally Struthers), was to have sex with her husband, Mike Stivic (played by Rob Reiner), in the late morning, on Sunday! While Archie and Edith were at church! Mike would reveal himself as an atheist. Archie would use the nouns hebe, spic, dago, greaser, and coon. Remember this was television. CBS wanted that first episode tamed. Lear resorted to a strategy he would use again and again; his friends and enemies called it “nuclear blackmail,” and it was simplicity itself grounded in the fact that the production of television entertainments has not been for Norman Lear the fundamental index of his happiness.
Nuclear blackmail, as reconstructed by Lear and his detractors, worked like this: at the first hint of censorship he said, “Call me if you change your mind, but don’t look for me in the morning.” Where upon the network waved contracts at him and Lear’s lawyers told him “Norman, if you go through with this, if you walk out, your finished in this business.” So Lear would smile and reply: “Let then back the damn truck up my drive way and take away my house. They can’t take my family and I can always sit down at another typewriter and write something else. The show’s going on the way it is.”
Like everything uttered in Hollywood, this was something of an exaggeration: on the eve of the January 12, 1271, broadcast of this first episode of All in the Family, Lear compromised; he agreed to delete the word goddammit. CBS braced itself for the outraged onslaught: extra switch boards were commissioned and staffed, the mail room was put on red alert. Worse than an angry hum, there was quiet, ho-hum. “In those days,” Lear says, “they carried you a full season. Today they would have canceled us.”
Measured by demographics, the Bunkers were ordinary and then some. At their house—704 Hauser Street, near Northern Boulevard in Queens—the wall paper, was brown and gloomy. Archie’s chair, inviolable commanded the center of a living room Edith couldn’t quite keep clean. Archie worked in the shipping department of a factory and moonlighted as a cabdriver. Edith was a housewife; Mike, their son-in-law, was a liberal but square student of sociology (to arm him with those statistics he and Lear’s researchers used like banderillas against Archie’s prejudices). Daughter Gloria was sweet but shrill, a feminine feminist, the apple of Archie’s eye and the thorn in his side… .
What was most interesting about some of the early episodes in 1971 was the remorseless aggression of Norman Lear’s language. (He wrote most of the first year’s scripts and thereafter supervised them from conception to final revision.) Remember, what Archie said had never before been uttered on television; he spoke of spades, Polacks, spooks, chinks, Yids, fairies, fruits, pansies, four-eyes, jungle bunnies, fags…. His daughter was a weepin Nellie, his son-in-law a meathead, his wife a dingbat. Just as Last Tango in Paris (1972) was revolutionary for its idiomatic rather than its erotic forthrightness, All in the Family seemed to promise by its bluff candor to drill straight to the heart of one exemplary American family’s matter, and hang the consequences.
Finally, however, back in 1971 Lear’s breakthrough in language was mostly that. Carroll O’Connor’s and Jean Stapleton’s acting was more complicated and richly human than the scripts they were given to interpret. Tuning into the series over the years, one would sometimes hit pay dirt, as when Mike invited Archie to come with him and Gloria to California: “Nah,” Archie said. “I don’t like an ocean where the sun goes down; I like an ocean where the sun comes up.”
But one could also weary of the slapstick and farce, the slamming-door jokes. It was possible to be as predictable and mindless about race and politics as about a hapless wife denting the fender of the family car or burning the roast when hubby brings the boss home to dinner, those situations against which Norman Lear’s comedies had avowedly rebelled. As much as Lear might have aspired to the reality of things, the noise of it all sometimes became unbearable.
When confronted about the shattering decibel level of his actors’ performances, Lear bristles. “I don’t experience it as yelling but as passion. A celebration of life. There’s more passion in that noise than in its absence,” he says. Noise and mess, then, an extravagant play to the primary emotions—these are Lear’s givens. Fight fans do not hold in high esteem those boxers known as “easy bleeders.” It is easy to scorn Lear’s sudden tears and quick hugs, his characters’ shouting matches, the deep wound healed by a timely cup of coffee, the intrusive laughter off camera that never lets anyone forget that these family traumas and reconciliations—these rituals of tearing and mending, all these quotidian theatricalities—were played before a live audience.
Live indeed! Until he quit the daily routine cold in 1978, Lear warmed up two sets of audiences each week they taped All in the Family and two sets each week they taped Maude. He’s a frustrated performer, like anyone who sells laughs for a living, and can hear good timing on the page. He wants to show off, will sing (if you ask, or don’t ask) “My Funny Valentine” as though he were an untuned cello with two broken strings. You should hear “My Yiddishe Momma”—oy vey!
Tuesdays at 5:30, seven weeks before broadcast time, the first audience would arrive for All in the Family, a hard ticket. Lear would appear on the set at CBS Television City in Hollywood and greet them, smiling. (They would smile too.) “It’s a real joy to see you, believe me, a joy! You are the ones who found us.” He’d applaud them, they’d applaud him. He’d crack some jokes, they’d laugh.
Later, during the performance, they’d laugh at anything, laugh just as Edith was about to be raped, for example. [t was weird to hear them off-screen, more alienating even than being in a movie theater with people who laugh at things that don’t seem funny. It was a kind of mass hysteria, and Lear provoked it with the relentless energy of his affection for people who liked him and his work. (“There is no bottom to my cup,” he says. “You would think I would get enough of praise, but I never can.”) When a new audience filed in for the second run-through, Lear would greet those people with a smile, get a smile back: “It’s a joy to see you, believe me, a real joy…”
Suppose for a moment Lear meant what he said: It’s a real joy to see you, believe me, a real joy. Sometimes, that is, appearances do not deceive. It is true, of course, that a public figure wishes to be taken at face value in his public relations. Norman Lear is a genius at press relations. (He has also been called one of the few geniuses of television, but when he hears this he demurs, objecting—rightly—to such a casual application of genius, repudiating the compliment with all the fervor of a man fending off a cloudburst of hundred-dollar bills.)
Beatrice Arthur, for whom Lear created Maude and who, not surprisingly, likes him, calls Lear “a quivering mass of jelly. He is dominated by his emotions. They’re right there on the surface. Say something funny and he laughs. Say something sad and his eyes mist.”
This evidence inclines toward a portrait of a man with a short attention span—the best kind of attention span for episodic television shown in half-hour bits. It was just this power to shift from tears to laughter and mean it that tapped into that huge, unprecedented audience.
A culture preoccupied with self-analysis and self-expression is a culture prepared to take on faith the jagged emotional peaks and valleys displayed in Maude’s and Archie’s households. Quick to anger, quick to forgive, too quick to forget: these characters put a new spin on the notion of ad hoc.
Michael J. Arlen, television critic of The New Yorker, has called Lear “an emotional dynamo.” Lear would agree: “I am shameless about my feelings. But how can you put too much heart into your work? I know I wear my emotions on my sleeve—sometimes I think I must sound like a walking soap opera—but frankly, I can’t find anything wrong with that, personally or professionally…. I like wet people. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always divided people into wets and drys. If you’re wet, you’re warm, tender, passionate, Mediterranean. You can cry. If you’re dry, you’re brittle, flaky, tight-assed—and who needs you?”
To be needed! It could be argued that Lear’s entire purpose has been to be needed, to be of use. But how? Here the issue of his work is clouded.
Was he, at least in the beginning, eager to make himself useful as a propagandist? It is by now impossible to reconstruct what exactly he originally meant to make of his Bunker family, so it would be best to try to take him at his word regarding his purposes.
We have here, after all, a man who began his professional life as a gag writer for Danny Thomas and ascended to skits for Andy Williams, George Gobel, and Jerry Lewis. Yet when he protests that entertainment has been his sole purpose, we cannot quite trust his surface. For he has evolved—some would prefer “declined” —into a crusader with the temperament of a zealot. His sometimes immodest zeal to do and be good was first institutionalized in reference to his television programs when he hired an issues consultant: Virginia Carter, a physicist who had grown restless in the Aerospace Corporation.
Less than two years after All in the Family had begun life, Maude and Sanford and Son were also tops of the pops and power had amplified Lear’s voice: “I was getting a reputation. A reputation is a commodity. It can be used or used badly or not used at all.” For Lear it was unthinkable that his reputation go unused, so he gave to Virginia Carter, now vice-president of creative affairs for Tandem Productions/T.A.T. Communications, a license to encourage the propagation of public issues on Lear’s various shows. She became, in plain words, a propagandist, a title that irritates her a good deal less than it irritates her employer. She is a fervent feminist and a passionate liberal.
“I consider it a duty to serve as an advocate,” she said. “To waste that valuable air space I’d have to be a crazy lady.” She served as a clearinghouse for people who wanted the performers on Lear’s shows to pipe up for the Hare Krishnas or show the colors of the animal-spaying platform. Zanies came off the street with bombs in their briefcases (they said), but what interested Virginia Carter got passed along to Lear and his writers, quite a few of whom found this institutionalized intrusion of causes into entertainment a great nuisance.
Now, if a conversation lingers awhile on his causes, on Virginia Carter’s avowed wish to be “purposeful” with his airtime so that she “can feel good about having done a day’s work,” if a questioner refers to Lear’s position on rape or on public facilities for the handicapped, finally he’ll raise his hand to fend off the talk.
“Look,” he says, referring to an episode of Maude, “when Walter’s friend died I wasn’t making a statement about death. I wanted to cream the audience.”
A postulate of the New Criticism called “the intentional fallacy” absolves writers from any understanding of (or responsibility for) what it is they have made. It should extend the generous umbrella of its coverage to television producers; Lear’s left hand did not always know what his right hand was about. (Or he used, with sinister dexterity, his left to hide the doings of his right.)
It was never Lear’s intention to penetrate our darkest reserves, to find an American idiom equivalent to Alf Garnett’s furious hurt. Lear could never have faked such an idiom in any case, for he is the proprietor and prisoner, for better or worse, of a vision. Lear believes in what the Jews call menshlachkayt: the quality of being embraceable and human even at our worst.
Maude, the flip side of Archie, left wing to his right, irreverently brash to his reverently harsh, was often a spokesperson for the kinds of issues that interested Virginia Carter. During the summer of 1973 a rerun (the reruns seem always to cause the fuss in Lear’s history) of a two-part abortion episode, wherein the middle-aged Maude elects not to bring to term the fruit of an accidental conception, caused people to boycott Maude’s sponsors and to throw themselves beneath the (motionless) wheels of William Paley’s limousine. But Maude’s riskiest tour de force was a half hour of Norman Lear’s autobiography, a monologue delivered to Maude’s analyst about her loved and hated father, a recollection of debts long since settled in the grave and worn smooth by time. And Lear went to the central paradox of his particular vision when he sent Archie and Mike to the storage room of Archie’s new bar, and caused Archie inadvertently to lock them in, and sent Archie into a drunken and moistly reminiscent reverie about his loved and hated father, and posed a complicated recollection in the form of a question: “How can any man who loves you tell you anything that’s wrong?”
Nineteen years after his own father had died, Lear was still asking the same question.
Lear knew that my father, Duke Wolff, had spent time in prison for his mistakes, and so had Herman K: (“King”) Lear. It had been my experience of him that Lear would rather listen than talk, but on the subject of his father, one evening, he held the floor all night, spinning narratives brought to a lapidary sheen by their compulsive recollection, telling about his father’s follies and meanness and generosity. And shot through these recollections were the best characteristics of Lear’s television productions: temperance as a conclusion to anger; energy; jump-cut shifts from tears to laughter; forgiveness.
As in any family, there was much to forgive. King Lear treated his wife, Jeannette, as Archie treated Edith. Moving from New Haven, Connecticut (where Lear was born), to Hartford to Bridgeport to Boston—always on the hunt for a quick and easy buck—King Lear harangued blacks and blustered at his family, telling Mrs. Lear to “stifle” herself: “I grew up in a family that lived at the top of its lungs and the ends of its nerves.” (In the movie Divorce American Style, which Lear wrote and produced in 1967, a boy listens through a transom while his mother and father argue, and he keeps a scorecard on their dispute, giving her points for a telling detail, him points for managing not to shout. Lear used to do that at the kitchen table, till his second-generation Russian-Jewish father would notice him and chew him out as “the laziest white kid I ever saw.”)
Lear’s mother, who still lives in Bridgeport, is gentle and sweet. Her temperament must have provoked one of the smartest and most humane exchanges between the Bunkers. Archie asked Edith, “You think its fun living with a saint? You ain’t human.” Edith told her husband this was an awful thing to say; of course she was human. “Prove it,” Archie said. “Do something rotten.”
When Lear was nine, living in Chelsea, near Boston, his father flew to Oklahoma on a get-rich-quick scheme. He promised to bring home a ten-gallon hat for his boy, but he didn’t. He was arrested at the airport, indicted, and convicted because of irregularities in the sale of bonds. “Other guys were the devils,” Lear said: “No one is more easily conned than a great salesman, and he took the fall for those others.”
Till then King Lear had commanded a household throne, a red leather chair as sacred as Archie Bunker’s chair displayed now at the Smithsonian. Lear’s father would sit in that chair and manipulate the dials of the living room console Zenith to tune in the Friday-night fights; he would sit in that chair and declaim on the world’s ways, uttering edicts and prophecies and promises and bullshit and love.
So one night in Chelsea Lear stood to one side waiting to be sent away to his grandparents in New Haven while his sister went elsewhere to live with his mother. Because his mother needed money, the family sold off his parents’ furniture.
“My uncle and aunts were telling me I was the man of the family now. And there was my father on the front page of the paper, walking up the courthouse steps with his hat over his face. And they sold his red leather chair. And the first thing I bought when I had an apartment of my own was a red leather chair. I didn’t plan this; I just did it. It made me feel like a touch of my father was in that room in my New York apartment, and the touch was me.”
When King Lear was released from Deer Island federal prison in Massachusetts, Lear and his mother rode the train with him to New Haven. Lear’s father, wearing a new suit too big for him, sat beside Lear’s mother in the seat ahead. The boy strained to hear their conversation, to make out at twelve what his future might hold. He’d hear a word now and then but couldn’t catch the drift. Then his father sat beside him, put an arm around him:
“Norman, I’m going to take you to Times Square, in New York City, where the lights are so bright you can read a paper at midnight. And when you’re thirteen I’m going to take you and your mother and your sister around the world. Pack your things, because we may be gone for six months.”
Well, Lear didn’t go around the world when he was thirteen, or to Times Square either. His father’s ship, always due in port within ten days to two weeks (and if you doubted this, King Lear would scold away your doubt, wagging a finger while he muttered, “Ah, tut-tut-tut”), never arrived. He made some money after World War II, manufacturing two-burner hot plates and whistling teakettles, and then he lost it all on a “revolutionary new method of refrigeration,” a one-cubic-foot ice chest that never made anything cold.
Lear worked for his father, manufacturing hot plates and teakettles, letting himself be sold on the ice chest, the bonanza coming “any second,” as his father would assure him. Lear has said that his father used to boast that “he could put shit on a stick and sell it for lollipops. And sometimes he was almost as good as his word. That’s what convinced me to spend my life giving people real lollipops.”
But of course that’s what King Lear told people, too—that these lollipops were real. And Lear’s early business life represented no radical departure from the arts of persuasion and illusion practiced by his father. After a year at Emerson College in Boston (1940-41), Lear served in the U. S. Army Air Corps, flew fifty-seven missions as a radioman and gunner, was decorated (Air Medal with Four Oak Leaf Clusters), found himself in Foggia, Italy, when the war ended, and decided to become a press agent, like his father’s brother, Uncle Jack.
In 1945 Lear was married, a circumstance he doesn’t discuss except to say it was so and he wishes it were not. In Foggia, Lear had hundreds of cards printed and mailed to press agents at home: ANNOUNCEMENT! NORMAN M. LEAR, ABOUT TO BE MUSTERED OUT OF THE ARMED FORCES, WANTS A JOB! He wanted to be a breadwinner like Jack Lear, who always flipped Norman a quarter when they met: “My goal in life was to be an uncle who could flip a quarter to a nephew.”
He got two offers, took a position in New York at forty dollars a week. “When I flew home and the plane was circling to land in Florida, I said to myself: ‘Norman, you will never be afraid again if this plane lands safely.’ I kissed the ground, like everyone did coming home, and when I went to New York to meet my employer I was scared to death.”
He quit over a salary dispute, worked for his father till King Lear went bankrupt, tried to manufacture and sell a novelty ashtray, a coffee saucer with a cigarette holder attached to it: this did well one season, and then not so well, and then very not-so-well. On his father’s advice he bought a convertible to drive to California, where he would sell it at a huge profit.
He sold that car at a loss and then hustled baby pictures and furniture door to door with Ed Simmons. Simmons, Lear’s cousin by marriage, was trying to write comedy back then in 1949, and he and Lear sold a parody to a comedienne for twenty-five dollars, and then gags and one-liners to entertainers playing the Los Angeles clubs. Lear found this an easier buck than selling lamps and ship’s clocks to people who wanted neither lamps nor ship’s clocks.
But pretty soon Lear, like his father, went for the big score. Using the name of a boyhood friend he telephoned Danny Thomas’s agent, sounding as though out of breath and running for a plane. He identified himself as a New York Times reporter, writing a profile of Thomas on deadline. He needed a couple of facts checked; would the agent call Thomas and check them, then call him back at the airport, pronto! The agent said, “You call him,” and gave Lear the unlisted number. Lear called, tried to sell Thomas a bit of business for his act at Ciro’s.
“How did you get my phone number?” Lear told him. Thomas liked the kid’s brass and enterprise. The old story: I like the cut of your jib, boy….
“How long will the piece run?” Thomas asked.
“How long do you need?”
“Seven minutes,” Thomas said.
“It will run seven minutes,” Lear said.” Bring it to my house,” Thomas said. Two hours later it was written and sold.
A New York agent named David Susskind liked the routine and signed Lear and Simmons for The Ford Star Revue. Two years later, Lear met Bud Yorkin, a would-be director with a degree in electrical engineering from Carnegie Tech who had supported his night classes in English literature at Columbia by working as a television repairman. As Lear’s star rose, so did Yorkin’s: he directed the Martin and Lewis shows Lear wrote, and in 1959 the two became partners in Tandem Productions, inspired by the image of two guys pedaling a single bike uphill.
Their first venture was Come Blow Your Horn, with a screenplay adapted by Lear from a play by Neil Simon, a junior writer on a previous Lear project. Lear and Yorkin thought it was perfectly suited to Frank Sinatra, and they tried to get him to read it. He wasn’t in the reading vein, despite serial telegrams and phone calls from Lear. Lear hired a plane to skywrite Tandem’s telephone number over Sinatra’s house, and still Tandem’s telephone didn’t ring. So Lear had what he called a “reading kit” set up on Sinatra’s front lawn: rug, club chair, ottoman, lamp, pipe, slippers, robe, an album called Music to Read By, and a copy of the script: After eight months Sinatra, “just to get you guys off my back,” agreed to do the movie, and the movie did good business.
When Lear had begun writing regularly for television he was making about $350 a week, and when he told King Lear this good news his father said, “Ah, tut-tut-tut, tell me when you make a grand a week, that’s real money “ By the time he married Frances Loeb, in 1956, he was making twice that.
Frances Lear is the daughter of a businessman who went bankrupt during the Depression. When she was ten he killed himself, and her mother married a man Frances Lear despised because he was, she says, cruel and demeaning to her mother. She became, in the crucible of her mother’s suffering, a feminist.
She is smart and impatient; her friends call her “difficult,” and she would not deny this. Recently she put together material for a book about her manic-depressive psychosis, an illness she now controls with lithium. She is forthright about her affliction, says with her chin thrust forward: “It’s no secret, I made a suicide attempt in my twenties that sent me to Bellevue. Anyone who has been there doesn’t want to talk about it. I watch people look at me, saying in the backs of their heads, ‘Ah, there’s a crazy.’ Now I’m not psychotic, I’m medicated, but the stigma of mental illness is terrible.”
So she writes about it, and Lear produced an episode that put Maude on lithium and another that put her on the couch (although the latter was inspired by his experience rather than his wife’s). The principle here is hope, faith in healing, faith in progress. “I believe in progress, of course,” Frances Lear told me. “I caught that from Norman.”
While the Lears live as quietly and privately as their public circumstances will permit, while reticence has as much power over their manner as candor, while they listen as well as they speak, it is true that their style and preoccupations have dictated (for better or worse) much of what Americans have seen on television. So it is fortunate that while the Lears are serious, they are not always solemn. On the day of Norman Lear’s divorce from his first wife, he and Frances Loeb were married in Las Vegas by what they call a “resort rabbi,” in a ceremony that made them laugh
The weekend of their twenty-fourth anniversary, they went to Palm Springs with old friends, an association of comic performers and writers who call themselves Yenem Veldt (Yiddish for “the other world”): the Mel Brookses, Dom DeLuises, Carl Reiners, and Larry Gelbarts (Gelbart used to write M*A*S*H). Lear was at Fire Island in 1957, a witness to the beginning of history’s funniest interview, Carl Reiner’s interrogation of Mel Brooks, the Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man, and the gang of them continue to cut up and crack wise.
Lear is particularly in awe of the risks Reiner and Brooks run, their nerve. For Brooks especially—standing on his feet and improvising, sending himself by twist and turn down a road he has never before traveled, trusting himself to get where he wants, to that huge last laugh—the trip is fueled by aggressive self-certitude, a bedrock solipsism so stunning he can put it to use as a joke, defining the distinction between tragedy and comedy: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Lear’s comedy has been more temperate, more communal, more responsive to the other point of view; more interested in healing than in cutting; more interested in the generalizing power of communitas (he has proudly confessed that he tried to stow that tired fellow Everyman aboard even the Martin and Lewis show!) than in the divisive energy of the unique tyrannical personality shouting “Look at me! Look at me!”
That is, Mel Brooks has probably written funnier stuff than Norman Lear, except for two series, one a cultural phenomenon and the other off the air before most people noticed: Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Fernwood 2 Night.
Television productions are nothing if they are not self-consuming artifacts, and the two series set in Fernwood, Ohio (selected by the autobiographical Lear because Tandem’s Hollywood studios are at Sunset Boulevard and Fernwood Avenue), were in those least immortal of television’s genres, the soap opera and the talk show.
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, or MH2, as it became known to devotees soon after it began a two-year run in January 1976, broke the rules of television syndication. No network wanted Louise Lasser’s spacy bizarrerie, her serial epic of hard times ranging from mass murder to ring around the collar. So Lear ran around the networks’ end, did a selling job on local television station owners after a dinner at his Brentwood, California, house and a screening the next day, and before it was all over had 105 outlets for his revenge on soap operas and his revenge on himself.
If soap operas are cobbled together shabbily—held together by the glue of improbability, soaked in a warm, bathetic wash, propelled by fits and starts, written in haste, and performed in exhaustion – MH2 was brilliantly ramshackle and unfinished. Five half-hour episodes were taped each week, without an audience. (The series, like its successor Fernwood 2 Night, was conceived as a “filmic” rather than theatrical experience,” says Lear a bit grandly.) Chaos was its governing principle, together with a relentlessly perverse inversion of Lear’s beloved topicality. Here, again, were the issues No One Had Dared Discuss: mortal disease, impotence, sweetheart deals between labor and management, masturbation, adultery, waxy yellow buildup.
Those were grand, wacky half hours. Alan Horn, who runs the day-to-day business of Tandem, remembers that time: “We caught lightning in a bottle.” He speaks of the revolutionary distribution of the scenes (that finally failed to pay its way). But he is right; it was a wonder of a show, so transcendingly tasteless, irreverent, sappy, stupid, improbable, and funny that it actually felt—of all things—alive.
Mary learned over the telephone that her neighbors the Lombardis had been killed by a mass murderer, who had also caused eternal night to descend upon their three children, two goats, and eight chickens. Tugging at her braids, she wondered aloud, “What kind of madman would kill two goats and eight chickens?”
Tom hadn’t made love to Mary for five weeks, so Mary wondered aloud about masturbation. Tom got it (and V. D.) on the side, at the office. Mary took up with a policeman who had arrested her grandfather for exposing himself. The policeman had a heart attack, and Mary crawled into his hospital bed because she had read that exercise was good for sick people.
Mary’s sister, Cathy, worked in a massage parlor. Mary’s daughter, Heather, a poisonous squirt of thirteen, noisily suffered menstrual cramps and brought home joints from school. Mary’s friend Loretta, a would-be country music star (“Country-western is about real things, like murder, amputation, faucets dripping in the night”), was paralyzed when she was hit by a car filled with nuns. Loretta’s libidinous husband, Charlie, had a testicle transplant.
Other people died. Mary’s neighbor’s husband, Leroy, was a basketball coach. Miserable with the flu, he force-fed himself Jack Daniel’s and sedatives. Mary brought him a bowl of chicken soup, and his face fell in it and he drowned. At the memorial service in her kitchen, Mary said she certainly hadn’t meant to kill Leroy. Then she said, “I don’t want any of my friends or relatives or acquaintances ever again to eat anything I offer them.” Then Mary said, “Shall we go out or eat in?” She survived by her short memory the serial ministrokes dealt her by a culture gone haywire with affection for the random. Everything was always going to turn out okay, Mary believed: “Everything’s going to be all right, and afterward we’re all going to go to the House of Pancakes.”
But everything didn’t turn out okay, for Mary or for the show. Just about the time MH2 became the event around which many Americans scheduled their evenings, just about the time newspapers felt obliged to print synopses of the previous week’s episodes for those who had missed them, everything turned sour and tired. Maybe the grinding pace wore down those loopy routines. (Scripts were sometimes finished only days before they were taped.) More likely Norman Lear took too much to heart Mary Hartman’s observation, delivered for laughs, that “death and misery can really be uplifting.”
People should have left MH2 and Lear in peace, should not have plumbed their depths for a message. Because uplift killed that show. Pretty soon Lear was claiming that Mary Hartman’s ridiculous traumas “show humanity and comedy true to life in society—but perceived through a bent glass.”
Pretty soon Lear was claiming with reference to MH2 that “my bent as a mature human is to entertain with the material that life affords.” Pretty soon Lear had noticed—”My God, we’ve become profound!”—what Louise Lasser had noticed: “We left the land of emotions and went into idealand. The show’s bent [that’s three straight bents, each set at an angle to the other two], warped, fingerprinted quality vanished. It got sanded down.”
Louise Lasser was a knockout in MH2. It is probable that Lear’s most inspired gift is for casting rather than for writing, because his choices of Redd Foxx as Sanford, Carroll O’Connor as Archie, Beatrice Arthur as Maude, and Louise Lasser as Mary were none of them dead cinches. O’Connor had an ego at least as hungry as Lear’s, and Lasser was notoriously skittish, what the Victorians called “nervous.” Her jitters provided an occasion for the most naked episode I have seen on television, a few moments as disquieting and compelling as the aftermath of a train wreck: Mary Hartman’s breakdown. She had heard paint peeling, felt her grip slip. She ended the 1976 season staring straight into the camera, her voice as flat as an EKG readout bringing bad news—no more blips in that girl: “I did bad. I did bad. I did real bad. Could we go off the air now?”
And off the air they went, to be followed by even funnier weirdness, Fernwood 2 Night. As the talk show host Barth Gimble, twin brother of the late Garth Gimble of Fernwood (killed on MH2 by a Christmas tree), Lear chose Martin Mull. Produced to fill in during the summer of 1977 for MH2, the series immediately won passionate partisans, and then the numbers, those inexorable ratings, chewed it up.
The format was a talk show; Gimble was both smug and fretful (he begged Fernwooders for fan mail because his contract had to be renewed every night). His clothes seemed to have been selected by a fashion consultant to a small-town pimp. He had a dumb sidekick, Jerry Hubbard, and the goddamnedest guests ever seen on television. These included:
Baby Irene, a five-year-old singing tap dancer whose best number was a honky-tonk thing, “I Didn’t Know the Gun Was Woaded,” sung with a lisp and a nauseating display of dimples.” Well, Irene, how long have you been in show business?” your genial host asked the creature: “It seems like all my life.”
Howard Palmer, the iron-lung pianist. (Who could describe Howard, who could do him justice?)
Dr. Robert Osgood, who, having finished research at a local community college, told Gimble and his audience that his worst suspicions had been confirmed, that “in laymen’s terms, leisure suits cause cancer.” The study had been conducted with two groups of laboratory mice, the hard-luck team dressed for a year in polyester leisure suits, the control group (with better success getting dates) in “sport jackets, for the same period of time.” If the news was bad, there was always hope: Osgood was testing leisure suits soaked in Laetrile.
A woman who complained to Gimble that a blue man from outer space had “had his way with me” after stepping from a flying saucer and assaulting her with a biblical beam of light. (“The course he took with you, ma’am, would have to be called outercourse.”)
Susan Cloud, proprietor of Fernwood’s Butterfly Deli, a convert to vegetarianism: “I don’t like to eat anything that under different circumstances might eat me.” Except hamburgers, because “the human body requires burgers.”
By the autumn of 1977 Fernwood 2 Night was off the air. That summer an interviewer for a television trade journal had suggested that Lear’s star was waning; this provoked Lear’s temper: “It’s a lot of bull. I don’t have to listen to that, predictions of gloom.”
Back in 1972 his shows had won so many Emmys that the master of ceremonies, Johnny Carson, called the awards ceremony “an evening with Norman Lear” and remarked that he understood “Norman has just sold his acceptance speech as a new series.”
In 1975 five of his six series were among Nielsen’s top-rated shows: All in the Family (1), Good Times (2), The Jeffersons (3), Sanford and Son (7), and Maude (17). The sixth, Hot L Baltimore, was canceled by ABC at the season’s end, and others later failed: All That Glitters (a mechanistic inversion of sexual stereotypes in a culture run by women) and The Dumplings (a moronic mishmash about happy people).
For the 1977-78 season All in the Family won Emmys for best comedy series and for outstanding writing in a comedy scenes; Carroll O’Connor won an Emmy as best actor in a comedy scenes; and Jean Stapleton won an Emmy as best actress. That year, 1978, Lear quit. He wanted to watch the grass grow, spend time with his family, play tennis, make movies, collect modern paintings and sculpture.
I asked Lear the inevitable dumb interviewer’s question: What was his greatest ambition, what had he wanted when he grew up? He stared at me: “I just wanted it to be Friday. Now Friday comes around twice a week, and soon three times.”
To fend off a week of Fridays, the longest of all weekends, Lear works, plans, talks, gives, argues, does. Lear has lately been unusually visible in Washington, where liberal politicians court him for his power and media wisdom and probably share his convictions.
He has opinions, God knows, and friends as well as enemies who call him Pope Norman for his eagerness to pipe up on the issues and a “cheese-and-crackers liberal” for the particular issues that draw his interest—the Moral Majority, textbook censorship, the Equal Rights Amendment—as well as for the cheese-and-wine fund-raising parties. (“They say cheese-and-crackers liberal, but they mean Jew,” he says.)
In a recent interview on a Canadian talk show, Lear was asked what the principal contribution of television to society was. He thought hard about this: “It gives the aged and infirm something to look at.”
Lear has this nice safety valve, bleeding off the pressure of solemnity into a joke. But it is a curiosity of his career and temperament that he really does feel contempt for television. His daughters, while they were growing up, were discouraged from watching it and got out of the habit of seeing the things their father made for money and love, unless he asked them to watch this episode of All in the Family, that episode of Maude. It doesn’t in the least bother Lear that his daughters dislike the medium in which he works. He agrees with them, thinks as they think that television is “dangerous” because of the passivity it encourages.
So it is not surprising that he looked again to the movies when he quit producing television shows. He is in the early stages of production of two movie projects—Heartsounds, from the book of that name by Martha Lear, widow of Lear’s cousin, a doctor who fought to make a life for himself after a brutal heart attack, and A Wrinkle in Time, a risky and potentially grand project, a film version of Madeleine L’Engle’s space fantasy for children. He had planned to make a satirical movie about evangelism that would do for that movement what Network did for television. This could have been a devilish picture show, but the more Lear learned about the Moral Majority the less funny it seemed to him.
Lear abandoned the movie in lieu of the production of a few artful one-minute television spots combating the preachments of the Moral Majority; these were seen by a huge audience, returned that “instant feedback” he had come to enjoy from television, and perhaps changed people’s minds.
He hasn’t asked me, but I think the best use of Norman Lear at fifty-eight is to go again for laughs. To do this he would have to tap again into the mischief he released from the bottle for MH2 and Fernwood 2 Night; he’d have to let himself be silly and subversive. He’d have to content himself with smaller audiences than Tandem collects for The Jeffersons. He wouldn’t know how to be vengeful or merely nasty, but he’d have to court darkness, as Louise Lasser let herself go dark when there was no protective curtain about to fall: “I did bad. I did bad. I did real bad. Could we go off the air now?”
No one should say Norman Lear did bad. Working in an industry and living at a time that make the logistics of decency difficult, Lear has done good. And because that’s as much as anyone can do with a life, he doesn’t owe me or anyone anything, not even a single laugh more.
GEOFFREY WOLFF is a contributing editor of Esquire. His most recent book, The Duke of Deception, was excerpted here in July 1979.