Norman Lear tells the mother of all Jewish-mother anecdotes, and it bears repeating in print even though it’s certainly funnier in person. When the Television Hall of Fame was first established in 1980, the creator of “All in the Family” and “Maude” and “The Jeffersons” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” was inducted alongside an all-star cast of small-screen luminaries, including Lucille Ball, Milton Berle and Edward R. Murrow. Lear called his elderly mother to tell her of this honor, and there was a long silence at the other end of the line. “Well,” she finally said, “if they want to do that, who am I to say?”
Lear, who will turn 94 later this month — “If I make it that far,” he would surely add — tells great stories. But the remarkable thing about meeting the living legend who revolutionized television comedy is not that he talks but that he listens. During our hour-long conversation in a noisy restaurant in lower Manhattan, Lear arrived about an observation about the central role of Jewish humor in American comedy that he said he’d never had before. He asked questions about my family and my background and guessed my age precisely (which was a little terrifying). He walks slowly and is somewhat hard of hearing, and has none of the veneer of artificial youth you often find in Hollywood, but seems more engaged with other people and the world than many people three decades younger.
There’s a scene in Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s richly entertaining documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” where we see Lear, backstage at “Good Morning America,” shoveling crumbs of his snack under the green-room table with his foot. Watching the film a second time, I wondered what it was doing there. Then I read through the transcript of this interview and concluded that was the nine-year-old boy at work, the one Lear says is always present in him — a boy who is careful and who notices the details, who addresses serious issues with humor and sees the universality of human foibles.
Even if you’re too young to have grown up with Archie and Edith Bunker or George and Weezy Jefferson or the other flawed American families in Lear’s shows, you still live in the media universe he made possible. “All in the Family” was the first must-see sitcom, whose weekly ideological clashes between Archie the right-wing bigot (played with enormous sensitivity by Carroll O’Connor) and his son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner) distilled the cultural divide of the Nixon years. If “Sanford and Son” and “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” were not quite the first sitcoms to feature African-Americans, they sought to do so with far more specificity and complexity than ever before. Bea Arthur’s title character in “Maude,” most famously, chose to have an abortion in a 1972 episode, two months before the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision.
Lear’s shows, which galvanized public opinion and attracted huge audiences (mostly on CBS, then identified as a liberal-leaning network), would not quite be possible now, in an age of niche marketing and narrowcasting when everyone consumes media within his or her self-constructed sphere. An abortion storyline featuring the main character on a major broadcast network show is still infrequent enough to cause a stir, and perhaps no network, period, would be OK with a white showrunner at the helm of several different series about black families.
But as comes through clearly in Ewing and Grady’s subtle, rewarding and necessary film (they are the Oscar-nominated documentary duo behind “Jesus Camp” and “Detropia”), all the cultural divisions that Lear’s shows brought to the fore in the 1970s — on race and gender and sexuality and national identity — remain with us today, perhaps even more strongly. As the film’s title suggests, Lear has always been guided by his faith in communication and human commonality, qualities that seem in short supply at the moment.
Everyone asks Lear about Archie Bunker and Donald Trump, and I did too. He sees the relationship, of course, but insists that Archie, once alone with his own thoughts and his own conscience, wouldn’t have it in him to vote for Trump. We have to hope he’s right.
Norman, my mother is exactly your age, so I promise not to show you any respect! [Laughter.] Seriously, though — although she’s physically frail she has that thing you have, that George Clooney talks about in the movie: an ability not to be bored by life and not to be bored by other people. What is it about so many people your age, or even younger, that makes them shut down?
I see them shutting down at 60. I can’t believe how old some people are at 60. I don’t know what it is. I think a lot has to do with the nature of the culture. We don’t honor the end of life at all. I don’t mean the actual end, I mean everything that leads to the end. We deal with the jokes about the elderly, the clumsiness, the sickness, but we don’t deal with the fact that the growing doesn’t stop, and that is the absolute truth. I’ve had insights in the last few weeks that I could have had at 30 or 60 or 90, but I happened to have them late. Now I’m upset with myself for using the word “late,” because I don’t think late exists. I’ve never said that before. I’m thinking about it, but that’s a good attitude. Late doesn’t exist.
It must be strange to look at the country’s culture right now. What strikes me most about what just happened in Dallas, for example, is how divided the response is, and how everyone in the country views it through their different individual prisms. That’s almost exactly what “All in the Family” was about, isn’t it?
Exactly. Nothing has changed in human nature. It isn’t so surprising that what you said may be true. Nothing seems to have changed. What’s surprising is that we’re surprised about who we are as human beings. And we don’t talk enough about our commonality.
Recently I went on a visit to Berlin with my wife. As we were circling to land, I remembered the last time I did that, when I was 20 or 21 years old and we were dropping bombs. I was in a B-17 and we were bombing Berlin. I was a radio operator and gunner, so I was closer to the bomb bay. I was the crew member who looked over to see the bomb bay doors open and the bombs drop, and I was the one to notify the pilot that the last bomb had left the bay and he could close the door.
So I sat there, on 36 missions or so, watching dozens or hundreds of bombs dropping from all the planes around us and thinking, if one of them misses the target, if one hits a farmhouse and kills a family, “Fuck ‘em.” I don’t know whether you can write that. My teeth grew clenched. I remember the feeling so clearly.
I also remember, on the way home, thinking that if anybody had asked me to sign a paper saying that I would mean forever that I didn’t give a damn if the bomb actually hit a family sitting around the dinner table, that I would never, ever sign such a paper. I had to pray, and I did, that I wasn’t that person. But thank god I was never tested. If I can have that feeling for even an instant, it makes me want to understand the mind and heart and soul of the person who would sign that paper, which is what we’re seeing the equivalent of with the murders we’re seeing around the country today. We’ve got to try to understand what is common in our human nature.
What also struck me is that “All in the Family” was about people being able to talk to each other, even when they were imperfect people and the conversation was angry and they didn’t agree. The relationship between Archie and his son-in-law Mike was so much the center of that show. They talked all the time, even if a lot of it was yelling and insults. My sense was that over the years the show was on the air they came to a kind of common understanding, and affection, without agreeing about anything.
They came there, for sure. Because in one episode, Mike and Gloria are moving to California and they’re saying goodbye. And I remember right now, I’m living it right now because I see it so clearly, the moment that Archie and Mike are saying goodbye to each other. And Mike, because he’s more open, was able, with great difficulty, to finally say, “I love you, Archie,” and throw himself into Archie’s arms. And Archie, over Michael’s back, you saw his hand having difficulty forming the clutch. [Laughter.] He was in his arms, but he couldn’t quite … [makes hugging gesture in the air]. I mean, it was just the most wonderful moment. Without saying the words, he emotionally said, “I love you.”
I remember that scene. It was amazing. But so much of that show was amazing. I really appreciate what you said in the movie about Carroll O’Connor. I met him twice, I think. My dad ran a program in Celtic studies at U.C. Berkeley and O’Connor was very interested and gave the program some money. He was such a gentle and sensitive guy, and I remember being amazed that he was nothing like Archie Bunker. But what he did with that character was so amazing, it was like every week he played out a miniature Eugene O’Neill play, in the context of a television sitcom.
Well, I talked in the film about how I wrote the pages for Archie and I had them for months before I met Carroll O’Connor. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I certainly wasn’t looking for him. It doesn’t mean I was seeking to avoid him, it means I had no fucking idea. I just knew I had a character on paper. It was a miracle, this performer coming in and inhabiting those words, putting them on like a well-fitting suit. It was a miracle. I feel that way about performers generally, when an actor slips in and picks up a role.
You’ve mentioned the fact that Archie Bunker was partly inspired by your own father, but obviously Carroll O’Connor came from a different background than you did. Is that why the character is so nonspecific, so non-ethnic. I mean, he lives in Queens but he’s not Catholic or Jewish or Irish or Italian or anything else you can identify. If he’s a working-class white Anglo, he’s like the only one in New York City!
It was my decision. The network, other writers, everybody said, “The guy’s Irish.” I mean, you look at O’Connor, and his face. I said, “I don’t want to nail the Irish or the Catholics or any other particular faith with his bigotry.” I preferred just to leave it alone and let the audience do it. My father used to use the expression “pig Irish.” Nobody ever said to me he’s pig Irish. He was Archie Bunker. That’s amazing, even now, as I hear myself say this. The truth is that if the character is well played, the audience believes what the audience is led to, and he was so brilliant.
If your shows were about people talking to each other, what comes through in the film is that you were always open to it yourself. There’s that amazing story about the way you started doing “The Jeffersons,” after a couple of African-American radicals people kind of burst into your office to tell you that “Good Times” was racist or whatever. That’s a true story?
Black Panthers, yep. Their big complaint about “Good Times" was, “Why did the only black head of a family have to take three jobs to earn a living? There are black families that are doing a lot better.” Well, we were gonna do “The Jeffersons” anyway. I don’t think we had the notion of “They’re movin’ on up,” but the Panthers helped us think that.
The thing is, you didn’t just slam the door and call security and forget about it. You actually listened to what they had to say. Even at that point, as established as you were in the industry, you were open to the idea that somebody from the outside world, from a very different perspective, had feedback that could be useful to you.
There’s an episode of “All In The Family” that answers that. Archie feels threatened because Gloria has been followed home from a supermarket by a package carrier, a kid who may be mentally disabled or something. When the kid is found he has his fist clenched, which assures Archie that he’s right, the kid is threatening. But the fist is clenched over a piece of paper the kid’s mother had given him and told him never to lose. Gloria causes him to open his hand and Archie reads the piece of paper and he says, “Each man is my superior, in that I may learn from him.” I don’t remember who said that, but I heard it as a young man. I never doubted it for a second.
I feel that we are in danger of losing that perspective. When you look at what the culture is like now, with everybody locked into their own TV channels and their portable devices. It’s like the technology that was supposed to connect us to other people also renders us more alone.
What I hear all the time, all the time, is, “I saw this with my father, I saw this with my family, we all watched it together,” some version of that. Now everybody’s got their own intimate place somewhere in the house. I don’t know. I sometimes think it’s gonna change the physical nature of humanity, what the human being is like on Planet Earth 200 years from now. What are we gonna be like?
You get a lot of credit for the way that you changed TV in terms of the issues that were addressed, the commitment to social realism and to addressing serious topics through comedy. But I don’t know if people notice the way you changed television formally. To me, that’s just as important. “All In The Family” and “Maude” and “The Jeffersons” were one side of the equation, but I think the absurdism and the media satire at work in shows like “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” or “Fernwood 2 Night” had a huge influence on comedy. And, yes — I watched those with my dad! I can remember sitting in his apartment in suburban California watching “Fernwood 2 Night” and thinking: This isn’t really on television, is it?
Well, I love the fact that “Mary Hartman,” what it was about, you could see from the first show to the last. What it was about was the effect of the 24/7 media on the average American household. During the opening show, she’s standing with that can [of floor polish]: She does see waxy yellow buildup, but the can says it can’t be. Who are you gonna believe? These people who have been in business for 50 years, or your own eyes? Near the end, close to the last show, she loses her mind over the David Susskind. These media talking heads drive her out of her fucking mind, and it’s one of the greatest performances I can remember. In the last episode, she’s sitting there with a bunch of other people who have something wrong with them, basically they’re all loony. Somebody brings in a television set and Mary looks up at the nurse and says, “Is that what I think it is?” The nurse says, “Yes, Mary.” She says, “Really? That’s …” “Yes, Mary.” “I can’t believe…” Now others are crowding around and looking. “I can’t believe that I, Mary Hartman, am now part of the Nielsen family.” That was the end. So it was on target from the beginning to the end. I love that.
When you look at what television comedy turned into in the following decades, from “Seinfeld” to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to “Modern Family” to “Girls,” it feels like the Norman Lear influence is everywhere.
What I relate to most closely, believe it or not, is “South Park.” I think those guys are brilliant. “The Book of Mormon” is the greatest gift to sanity I know in our culture. But I love what “The Carmichael Show” is doing, and “Black-ish.” They’re terrific shows.
I imagine pretty much everybody asks you about the analogy between Archie Bunker and —
Donald Trump. [Laughter.]
Yeah, you knew where I was going with that. It’s an inevitable comparison. I also kind of feel like it’s too simple.
I think you’re right.
Would Archie vote for Donald Trump?
I don’t think so at all. I think it could be a really good episode. Oh my God, it would make a really great episode. Him arguing with Mike and defending Donald Trump — I would love to do that. Because there isn’t much by way of leadership across the nation that Trump doesn’t represent as the asshole he is. They’re not all a bunch of assholes. But everything he reflects is what corporate America reflects.
And then, you’d actually see Archie go to vote. And in the end, he wouldn’t be able to do it. I really don’t think he would.
I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand, and they are saying, “This is the kind of leadership you give us everywhere? Corporate America, political America, fuck you.” And he represents that middle finger.
I think that’s right. Another way that it’s too simple is that Archie obviously held bigoted views, but you never tried to reduce him as a person to the bigoted views that he held. His prejudices ultimately didn’t define him. He was more, as a person, than just somebody who hated blacks or hated gay people or whatever he hated.
I wanted it to be as clear as we could make it without spelling it out. He was just afraid. From the song on, he was just afraid of progress. “Gee, our old LaSalle ran great! Those were the days.”
I sometimes worry that people who live in L.A. or New York in nice neighborhoods look at the Donald Trump voters and think that they’re just being motivated by racism or hatred of Muslims or whatever. That is part of it, but as with Archie, it’s not really fair to boil it down to just that.
If you don’t like Hillary — and there’s lots of reasons not to like Hillary — you’ve got to be saying, “What are they giving us?” Which I feel 90 percent of the time anyway, because for a populace or a form of government that depends on an informed citizenry, all we’ve got is people screaming and yelling at each other in bumper sticker-style on the tube, with no real context. It’s not helping us understand the context in which these things are happening, whatever things we’re talking about. I don’t think the American people get a great deal from their leaders, that’s for sure.
Where do you think this election is heading? I mean, all the numbers would suggest that Hillary has an advantage. But it’s kind of hard not to fear the worst, when you consider everything that has already happened.
I don’t want to wake up the morning I’m without hope. I don’t want to know that morning, so I think it’s all gonna turn out OK. But that mustn't make us complacent. But I don’t think there are enough Democratic leaders who are telling it like it is, like they think it is. They’re not calling Trump the absolute fucking fool that we know him to be.
In your shows you really tried to present people who were very different from you, whether that meant Archie or George Jefferson or the “Good Times” family, without making them simplistic, one-note characters the way most TV writers did.
I’m sure I did. We always asked for help. For the abortion episode on “Maude,” we had all the help we could get from the philosophy departments at USC and UCLA. When Edith was nearly raped on “All in the Family,” we actually formed a relationship with the Santa Monica Rape Treatment Center. They were helping us, but we put them on the map. We didn’t think we were doing it, but it happened that way and they became the leading rape treatment center around the country. Others wanted to do what they were doing. I’ve always used outside consultants to help assure that we understood the issues and that we were right on the facts.
In the film you talk about telling the cast of “Good Times” that you felt you could identify with the core issues on that show because you were a father, a son, a brother, a nephew and all of that, and that there was a common thread to that. We live in an era of much greater sensitivity today, but you might have someone come back at you and say, “Well, no — you’re a white, heterosexual Jewish male and you can’t possibly understand the experience of this XYZ other person.” Which might be a useful perspective, but you can’t make art that way, right? Whatever you make of Shakespeare’s portrayals of Othello or Shylock, they’re not one-dimensional. They’re pretty complicated.
And they are as he saw them. That’s where the buck stops. That’s what I said to Esther [Rolle] and John [Amos] about the nature of stories: “As far as the blackness, the gestalt, you take care of 100 percent of that. But where we’re making decisions about fathers, sons, mothers and daughters, I’m a family member in all the ways that you, John, are a family member. And the buck has to stop with me, whether you’re black or not.” So we made a show about guys hitting on Thelma, who was 16 at the time and beautiful. Which they didn’t want to do, they didn’t want to get into that sex area with a young girl. I understood the way they were caring, but I insisted that they understand the way I was caring as a producer who wanted to do some good work.
The story about World War II that you told me a few minutes ago is a striking one. In the movie you say that you volunteered for the Air Force because you wanted to be known as a “Jew who served.” Why was that important and what did that mean to you?
Because I felt that despite … If I didn’t have civics class in school, I don’t know what would have happened. You saw the film, so you know what Father Coughlin was saying. [The Rev. Charles Coughlin was a prominent Catholic priest and radio host with rabid anti-Semitic views.] The more I think about the war, the more I believe I was sustained by knowing that my country said I mattered as much as any Christian, and I had rights and opportunities under the law. My government had assured me I was equal.
I think in subsequent years, when I thought more about what I meant [in the film] about slipping across 125th Street and looking at black families, I related to them in that way and understood that they, too, were ostensibly intended to be sustained by the government and the rule of law. I think that was an enormous subtext. That nine-year-old lived in me who was always aware that he was Jewish and that a lot of people thought about that and noticed it. My friend Andrew Heiskell, who was the long-time chairman of Time Inc. and one of the tallest guys I knew, one of the biggest guys I knew, and one of the loves of my life in business and politics — and a Republican early on — I always talked about him as the biggest, tallest goy I knew. Goy is Yiddish for non-Jew.
I know the word!
That nine-year-old boy, who will always be there, is sustained more by the goy who appreciates me, respects me, loves me, than by another Jew. I can’t get rid of that, I just can’t get rid of that. I thought about that in the very first debate between Obama and Mitt Romney [in 2012], when there was this long moment where Obama was looking down and Romney was in his ear, was kind of letting him have it. I thought: The man is giving it to the boy. And then I wondered from that moment on if there wasn’t a nine-year-old kid in Barack Obama, too, that might have given more credit to the white guy who respected him enormously than another black guy.
That’s so interesting. Especially when you think about the fact that Jewish humor — I guess I’ll just come out and say this — Jewish humor is so central to the American comedy tradition. Which is striking, because we’re talking about two-and-a-half percent of the population. Is that about a group of people who were persecuted for generations, to some extent seeking approbation and approval from the larger society?
This conversation brought us to that. And me, for the first time, to that question. And I think that’s absolutely right. I’m so pleased to have been brought there. It's commonsensical, isn’t it?
I guess so. Did we just solve a cultural riddle here? A minority group using the tools it has available …
To say what needs to be said. Which we are not strong enough or brave enough or maybe even smart enough to say straightforwardly. So we put a curb on it.
My stepdad, who was a Jewish World War II veteran, like yourself — he was a Jew and a Communist and a decorated Marine Corps combat veteran, which could really blow people’s minds. He was definitely driven by his sense that this country didn’t want him and didn’t trust him on many levels, so he was going to prove that he was a true American.
There you have it.
You have spent so much time trying to raise people’s consciousness and get them to talk to each other, when you were making TV shows and when you were working on political causes. Looking around now, at the world we have, I have to ask: Was it worth it? Did it work?
It worked for me.
I guess that’s all you can ask.
It worked for me. When I hear people tell me how much they laughed with their dad, how much they laughed with their parents, and they don’t have that experience now. This is a memory that has kind of landed in my life in recent years and I love it. “We laughed as a family.” Comedy has a way of being a — when you’re getting a transfusion? It’s like an IV. You’re laughing and learning, laughing and hearing, laughing and listening to something you may or may not agree with. But you take it in laughter.
Is it harder to get people to listen without the laughter? Is that what you’ve concluded?
Well, they wouldn’t be laughing if they didn’t hear it. It’s just another way of assuring us that they’re listening.
”Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens July 22 in Washington, July 29 in Boston, Aug. 5 in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and San Francisco, and Aug. 12 in Minneapolis and Columbus, Ohio, with more cities and home video to follow.