Author: Norman Lear
Title: Even This I Get to Experience by Norman Lear
Publication Info: New York : The Penguin Press, 2014
I was born in the 1970s and became aware of television at a time I consider the golden age of sit-coms. TV comedies were uproariously funny, but also addressed social issues in a way that ordinary people encounter them and grapple with them. The best of these shows included All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son, Maude, and One Day at a Time. And all these shows had one thing in common: they were created by Norman Lear.
With this in mind, I figured Norman Lear would have a good story to tell, and I was right. I was pleased to learn that, like me, Lear spent much of his childhood in Connecticut. The formative figure in that childhood was Lear’s father, a man he revered as a hero as many children look up to their fathers, but someone who was in many ways a scoundrel and even a criminal. Lear’s father would become the model for larger-than-life characters like Archie Bunker, Maude, and George Jefferson.
Lear traces the course of his career in this memoir. After attending Emerson College and then serving in a bomber crew during World War II, Lear enters into the nascent television industry writing for some of the top variety shows of the 40s and 50s. In the 60s, Lear worked on writing and occasionally directing comedy films. The 1970s saw his return to television, eventually having as many as seven comedy series in production at the same time (with all of them among the top-rated shows). In the 1980s and beyond, Lear became more politically active founding People for the American Way and professionally producing movies, including many of the great comic films of Rob Reiner.
Apart from the story of his career with glimpse into his creative process, Lear also discusses his personal life which includes troubled marriages and his children, for whom he wasn’t always present for. For a show business biography, this is a good book giving some insights into the mind of an influential figure of American popular culture.
“I’ve always divided people between wets and drys. Dry people are cold, brittle, and very certain; they don’t hug well, and if you should hug one you could cut yourself on his body. Wet people are warm and tender, and when they hug they melt in your arms.”
“It was very important to me that Archie have a likable face, because the point of the character was to show that if bigotry and intolerance didn’t exist in the hearts and minds of the good people, the average people, it would not be the endemic problem it is in our society. As the ‘laziest, dumbest white kid’ my father ever met, I rarely saw a bigot I didn’t have some reason to like. They were all relatives and friends.’
“I’ve never heard that anybody conducted his or her life differently after seeing an episode of All in the Family. If two thousand years of the Judeo-Christian ethic hadn’t eradicated bigotry and intolerance, I didn’t think a half-hour sitcom was going to do it. Still, as my grandfather was fond of saying—and as physicists confirm—when you throw a pebble in a lake the water rises. It’s far too infinitesimal a rise for our eyes to register, so all we can see is the ripple. People still say to me, ‘We watched Archie as a family and I’ll never forget the discussions we had after the show.’ And so that was the ripple of All in the Family. Families talked.”
“He was afraid of tomorrow. He was afraid of anything new, and that came through in the theme song: ‘Gee, our old LaSalle ran great / Those were the days.’ He was lamenting the passing of time, because it’s always easier to stay with what is familiar and not move forward. This wasn’t a terrible human being. This was a fearful human being. He wasn’t evil, he wasn’t a hater—he was just afraid of change.”
“The story line for every episode of every show originated at the conference table in my office. I had instructed our writers to come to work prepared to talk about their marriages, kids, family problems, health problems—their lives in the context of what was going on in their communities and the world. The topicality of our work, the personal nature of so much of it, and the serious subjects we chose to deal with grew out of that. The audiences themselves taught me that you can get some wonderful laughs on the surface of anything with funny performers and good jokes, but if you want them laughing from the belly, you stand a better chance of achieving it if you can get them caring first. The humor in life doesn’t stop when we are in tears, any more than it stops being serious when we are laughing. So we writers were in the game to elicit both. My favorite charge to them was ‘Let’s bring the audience to their knees.'”
“When people get upset with the amount of sex and violence on television, they tend to look west to blame Hollywood. Wrong. The content creators—the writers, producers, and directors—are not, and never have been, in control. Television is a business and, as with all businesses, it’s governed by supply and demand. If the demand didn’t exist at the networks, writers would not be supplying it. The blame lies to the east, on Wall Street and on the giant, often international media entities that answer to its short-term interests.”
Recommended books: Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” by David Bianculli and My Song: A Memoir by Harry Belafonte