The Meaning of Lear

Norman Lear Selected Press

The Meaning of Lear

By Jim McKairnes
American Way, 1991

After decades in TV, Norman Lear’s got the clout — and the karma — to go out on a limb with a spiritual sitcom.  Tanned and fit, and looking a good decade younger than his sixty-eight years, legendary TV producer Norman Lear is seated on this routinely bright California afternoon in his small corner office at Sunset-Gower Studios in Hollywood The room, surprisingly anonymous and unadorned, belies the status and achievements of the man it contains. There are no photos from productions like All in the Family, Maude, or Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; no Emmy statues that mark past entertainment-industry glory; nothing that underscores the title bestowed on Lear last year of the most significant producer in the first fifty years of television. Even the bulletin board, hanging on the barren wall behind his desk, is empty.

About the only things that distinguish the place or reveal anything about Lear are a piece of sculpture hanging on the wall — aping Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam in its depiction of an arm reaching out of an easy chair and receiving life from another arm outstretched from a television set — and what’s stored in the corner bookcase: copies of The Book of Job, Tao Te-Ching, Thomas Berry’s The Dream of the Earth, the spiritual anthology The Choice is Always Ours.  Which makes sense. These days Norman Lear isn’t looking back. He’s looking within.

“I find him more peaceful,” says Patricia Palmer, a longtime colleague and producer at Lear’s Act III Television company.”  He’s still the same energetic and vital person.  He’s as sharp as he ever was…[But] he’s found great inner peace.  I think that’s a function of his [changing] life.”

Thirteen years after leaving the grind of weekly television, following a career that saw him apprentice in live TV during the Fifties, write and produce films in the Sixties, and revolutionize television comedy in the Seventies, Lear has returned to series TV a reflective, contemplative man.  Palmer says the change represents more an evolution than a sudden awakening.”  [Being with him is] not like being with someone who made a major religious conversion….  My sense is there probably was a side to Norman  you can call it a spiritual side, call it whatever you want — that just was searching, searching, searching, and found some peace.”

Much of that search took place over the last decade, Lear was looking at life and questioning, particularly as a result of his 1980 founding of People For the American Way. His work with the freedom watchdog group touched off his “spiritual bent,” and his 1987 marriage to Lyn Davis has “nurtured” it.  Now he comes into the Nineties appreciative of the awe and wonder of what he sees around him. But he’s also asking a familiar question: What’s it all about?

That theme is mirrored in Sunday Dinner, his first TV effort in seven years (seen next month on Sunday nights).  Essentially a domestic sitcom spinning on the axis of an intergenerational marriage — which provokes the standard Lear-style family conflict —the new show is at its core much less routine, with a reach that far extends the usual sitcom grasp. It chronicles the relationship between a spiritual thirty year-old woman (who talks aloud to God) and a slightly disillusioned fifty six-year-old widower (who has three grown children and a quasi-fundamentalist sister).  Along the way, the show addresses God, debates religion, delves into spirituality, and … well … generally questions the meaning of life.  At the root of each situation-of-the-week is Lear’s intention to provoke the audience to think about the spiritual conflicts and issues explored on-screen in this newly blended family.

Serving as a kind of spiritual facilitator, Lear is hoping that Sunday Dinner will provide a springboard for discussion, a conduit for understanding, and a means of attaining “nourishment for the soul.”  And as he sits back in his chair at his office conference table to discuss this spiritual experiment, he’s quick to point out that such nourishment is sorely lacking these days.

American Way: What made you want to do Sunday Dinner at this time in your life and your career?

Norman Lear: I gave a talk to about 10,000 teachers at a National Education Association [meeting] last July, which kind of said everything.  [I told them that] if I were president, I would consider that the greatest need would be to meet the unmet spiritual needs of the American people.  I think that we’ve developed a culture that has totally ignored the inner man, the inner woman. And still does today.  There’s no nourishment for the soul.  We are the only animal that enjoys any understanding of [or] has any capacity for awe and wonder and mystery — any capacity to offer imagining even that there’s something grander than ourselves, higher than ourselves.  There’s nothing that happens in the culture to nourish that.  We’ve seen the influence of the church diminish.  We have seen the influence of the family diminish as the family has splintered in this culture.  There is no influence by way of civil authority.  There are no heroes in politics or much anywhere else outside of sports.

There’s a deep need to talk about this.  In the Seventies, there was — and there remains today — a need to talk about racism and sexism. The country was triggered into a lot of conversation by the fact of an Archie Bunker.  My hope here would be that [Sunday Dinner] will provoke a national dialogue about these things [today]

AW: How?

Lear: Just by prompting discussion about whatever issues come up on the shows.

AW: You addressed the NEA about this “need” because you would like this to be discussed not only on TV but also in schools?  Can this “national dialogue” be infused into school curricula?

Lear: Oh, I think so.  That was the thrust of my talk, and these teachers went crazy for the message. I had no guess that they might.  I thought it might be a little unpopular. It’s just so difficult to talk about these things. But they just went crazy.

I just think that this is the issue of our time.  And it isn’t that I think homelessness isn’t and war isn’t. But they are attached to this. … If we had a better understanding of what I’m talking about, we would understand the Arab mentality a good deal better [for instance] — rather, we would care to understand it. If we cared to understand, we would deal a lot better with it.  There might not [have been] a war.

[But] teachers are buffeted, because you’ve got the religious right and the irreligious left which do not want these things discussed in school. And that’s an impossible situation. …. If one were to look at a 1,000-mile stream, one would find flora and fauna growing along the banks of that stream over those thousand miles of varying stripes.  Things would be very different as they grew.  Look at it as religions growing along the sides of the stream.  What we can discuss and must discuss is the stream that nourishes all of it.  That’s awe.  That’s wonder.  That’s mystery.  Why can’t we discuss that?  Forget what people find for themselves along the stream.  Whatever they find is terrific.  We don’t have to deal with that. We can deal with what is it that nourishes us?  What is the stream about that gives us all reason to look in our own directions?

AW: But there has to be a concern that those who do question may come up with answers that threaten others.

Lear: Yes!  The first time I gave that speech was to the American Academy of Religion, and I had mainline religions answer me after the talk.  That’s what they were afraid of, that I was going to homogenize — not I, but the result of this kind of thinking, I have to believe, would homogenize their jobs, their lives, their careers.

AW: Sunday Dinner marks your fifth decade of working in television.  How has the process of selling, developing, and producing a television show changed over the years?

Lear: It has changed the way the whole culture has changed. As we have grown less aware of the inner life, as the culture has grown more numbers-oriented and more binary, we’ve lost some of the capacity for friendship within the business For collegiality within business. For considering what’s good for the other person.  It’s a less gentle time.  If I were negotiating with an agent twenty years ago, and I had only twelve cents to pay for an actor, and the actor’s price was fifteen cents, I could talk to the agent and say, “Do this — she’ll be up to fifteen cents in no time, and this is the right role, and she’s going to be happy about it.”  What you get today is, “I’m sorry — I can’t let the person meet to talk about it. I have to respect my client.”  It’s all very different.  Networks are not aware perhaps of how much they’re contributing to it by making available these incredible sums of money.

AW: Despite your success in the Seventies, do you find that you are meeting the same problems all over again now?

Lear: You know, the biggest problem still is writing — getting the good scripts. The other [problems] are frustrations that go with the territory.  Get past those and now you have nothing to do but make the shows. That’s where the real, the joyous struggle begins.

AW: What has changed that makes the producing process easier?

Lear [laughs] There’s nothing that makes it easier.

AW: Are you surprised at how relevant and popular All in the Family still is today?

Lear: No.  Most of the problems are still there. Racism hasn’t gone anyplace.  We certainly didn’t dispense with it with our little half-hour — the Judeo-Christian ethic hadn’t done it in a couple thousand years.

AW: Much has been written about the show, especially this year as it celebrates its twentieth anniversary.  What do you think about it all these years later?

Lear: I have read in recent years that All in the Family was the antecedent to Married…With Children, Roseanne, The Simpsons.  And I think that’s true only slightly.  I don’t think it’s the antecedent to anything, because I don’t see any show trying to do what we tried to do.  I think Married…With Children is terrific, it makes me laugh.  I think The Simpsons is terrific, it makes me laugh.  But their intention is not what our intention was.  Our intention was to serve up a tight, fast-paced one-act play on something urgent in the culture.  Then, in performing and writing that, we wished to bring an audience to its knees dramatically and emotionally.  We didn’t wish to make them laugh a little. We wished to convulse them. And we didn’t wish to make them feel something. We wished to make them cry… If there’s another show around that has the same intention, [then] I think it’s worth comparing. But I don’t fault the other shows.  Their intentions are every bit as noble: But they are different.

AW: Today TV producers are accused of “smashing taboos” on the small screen — addressing more frank and adult material — which All in the Family also did.  But don’t the intentions of the two generations seem different?

Lear: Well, I don’t want to comment on [other] specific shows But that mind-set is kind of a network thing — to think about “You can get away with this, but you can’t get away with that.” I don’t think we ever thought about “getting away” with anything.

When they told me, “You can’t do this because there’ll be a knee-jerk reaction in the middle of the country” or “This will not fly in the Bible Belt,” I was able to say, “Don’t tell me what will fly in the middle of the country or in the Bible Belt: I’ve been there; I know the middle of the country:” So I was able to say, “You’re wrong. I’m not going to go with your fears, I’m going to go with my convictions.” It was proven that we were correct for years…..  And I don’t mean to say there weren’t times when I agreed we [might be] going overboard. There were times when I certainly did.

AW: But people let you know when they thought that, as well.

Lear: Even the worst of the bad mail was so rarely [from] people who wanted the show off the air.  They were people who loved the give and take, who were provoked to write angry letters and wrote angry letters, and felt terrific.  I learned this in correspondence with hundreds of them over the years. They loved discharging their feeling They adored being answered, y’know? Talk about the American way, That’s the American way.

AW: Do you think you’ve done with your career what you set out to do?

Lear: I started in variety with Martin and Lewis [on the Colgate Comedy Hour], The George Gobel Show, The Martha Raye Show. I loved combining outrageous comedy and story and heart.  I don’t know that I had any long-range goals — other than to write and to grow.

AW: Are you happy with what you’ve achieved?  Do you feel the need to accomplish more?

Lear: I’m not sure I ever viewed myself that way.  I don’t think I “have much more work to do.”  I never assumed I had a lot on my mind that I needed to impart.  Not in those years.  It might have been in my belly, but not in my head.

AW: Why do you do what you do?

Lear: I used to answer questions from interviewers and realize in answering them that the reason I chose to do what I do is because I am a serious person. And I’m a responsible person. But that doesn’t make me any less eager to be funny if the genre is comedy. I began to realize that the more you had an audience caring, and then ask them to laugh, the harder they would laugh. Or cry. All of that is the stuff of drama…So it was very natural for somebody of my temperament to gravitate to things that are real.

Stormin’ Norman (Lear)
Output from the Norman Lear
television factory:

All in the Family, CBS, 19711979, which became
Archie Bunker’s Place, CBS, 1979-1983
Sanford and Son, NBC, 1972-1977
Maude, CBS, 1972-1978
Good Times, CBS, 1974-1979
The Jeffersons, CBS, 19751985
Hot’l Baltimore, ABC, 1975
One Day at a Time, CBS, 1975-1984
Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, syndicated, 1976-1977, which became
Forever Fernwood, syndicated, 1977-1978
The Dumplings, NBC, 1976
The Nancy Walker Show, ABC, 1976
All’s Fair, CBS, 1976-1977
Femwood 2-Night, syndicated, 1977, which became
America 2-Night, syndicated, 1978
All That Glitters, syndicated, 1977
A Year at the Top, CBS, 1977
Hanging In, CBS, 1978
Apple Pie, ABC, 1978
Diff’rent Strokes, NBC and ABC, 1978-1986
Palmerstown, U.S.A., CBS, 1980-1981 (co-produced by Alex Haley)
a.k.a. Pablo, ABC, 1984
Sunday Dinner, CBS, 1991