Lear, Norman (1922—)

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Lear, Norman (1922—)

Perhaps the most significant of several producers who reshaped American television in the 1970s, Norman Lear brought his particular genius to the situation comedy genre. Infusing sitcom content with social commentary and earthy language while also updating its visual form with the immediacy of live videotaping, Lear created a string of shows—All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman —that captured national audiences as effortlessly as they did the zeitgeist.

Lear's career began almost by accident. A salesman by day and gagwriter by night, Lear sold a routine to Danny Thomas that resulted in an offer to write for The Ford Star Revue in 1951. He moved on to work as a writer for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour, followed by similar jobs with other variety shows. By the end of the 1950s, however, Lear was tired of the weekly grind of television and turned to film writing and producing. In 1959, he and director Bud Yorkin formed Tandem, a production company responsible for a series of light sex comedies—Come Blow Your Horn, Divorce American Style, The Night They Raided Minsky's —throughout the 1960s.

While moderately successful, the Tandem films never ended Lear's interest in television. In 1968, he obtained the rights to Till Death Us Do Part, a controversial British situation comedy about a Tory bigot and his argumentative family, that was a smash hit in Great Britain. The show, Lear said, was appropriate for an American public that was "in the mood to have its social problems and shortcomings analyzed." His first pilot episodes for the American adaptation were rejected by ABC, which found the protagonist too offensive. CBS, however, picked up the third pilot, and began broadcasting All in the Family in January 1971. By fall, conservative blowhard Archie Bunker and his family were the most popular characters on American television.

Lear created a comic formula in All in the Family that he rapidly replicated in other sitcoms: A loud, insensitive protagonist gets caught up in a social issue and/or family problem that finally reveals both his/her blindness to reality as well as the genuine good heart beating beneath all the bluster. Sanford and Son (NBC, 1972), adapted from the groundbreaking British sitcom Steptoe and Son, made the protagonist a crotchety black junkyard dealer in Watts. Maude (CBS, 1972), a spin-off of All in the Family, featured a liberal feminist as the central character. Another spin-off, The Jeffersons (CBS, 1975), employed Archie Bunker's entrepreneurial ex-neighbor George Jefferson, a bigoted black man, in the focal role. In Good Times (CBS, 1974), a spin-off of Maude set in the Chicago housing projects, Lear jumped the generation gap, making a callow black youth the source and butt of the series' jokes. One Day at a Time (CBS, 1975), which presented the comic travails of a working single mother, varied from the formula a bit, spreading the buffoonery between two teenage daughters and a randy building superintendent. The producer's unabashed liberalism worked its way through the weekly morality plays all of those series offered, but the lesson of each show was tempered by the revelation of humanity in the most reactionary of characters—or a foolishly closed mind in the most liberal.

Lear augmented the didactic directness of his plots and characters with live, three-camera videotaping that added speed (through quick cuts) and intensity (through extreme close-ups), as well as decibels from the studio audience, to performances and dialogue. The package proved remarkably successful: In every season from 1972-73 to 1982-83, at least two Lear shows finished the year in the Nielsen Top 20, while numerous other situation comedies adopted the topicality, verbal crudeness, and production style of the Lear series.

The further Lear attempted to move from the All in the Family formula, however, the less his efforts worked, at least on the network level. A 1975 adaptation of Lanford Wilson's play Hot l Baltimore for ABC lasted only half a season, while several other gimmicky sitcoms—The Dumplings, All's Fair, A Year at the Top, In the Beginning, Apple Pie —came and went with long notice but little remembrance. The social relevance that Lear rode through the Vietnam-Watergate era was becoming quickly dated, as America moved through the "malaise" of the Carter years and into the happy new morning of the Reagan era.

Lear, however, did have two major successes off of network television. The syndicated Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1976) savagely parodied soap operas and their commodified worlds, while using the genre's continuing storyline to present the gripping and tragicomic disintegration of the show's title character. A spin-off of that series, Fernwood 2-Nite/America 2-Nite (1978), performed a similar generic deconstruction of the late-night talk show.

As the popularity of his 1970s creations waned, Lear stepped away from television in the early 1980s to work on behalf of People for the American Way, a liberal political organization he helped found as a response to conservative groups including the Moral Majority. He has occasionally revisited the medium with series—Sunday Dinner (CBS, 1991), The Powers That Be (NBC, 1992)—that attempt to address contemporary social and political issues with the visual and verbal urgency of his earlier shows. One series even returned to Archie Bunker's old house—704 Hauser (CBS, 1994)—now occupied by a black couple trying to deal with their son's interracial relationship. None of those shows, however, lasted beyond 13 episodes.

Regardless of his early excesses and his later failures, however, Norman Lear occupies a well-earned place in the pantheon of American television. Emerging at the moment when new FCC rules concerning network financing and syndication gave producers unprecedented power in the American television industry, Lear brought an individual style and mission to the producer's role that few have been able to emulate, much less match. Time has not favored the blunt topicality of most of his work, but the best of that work stands equal to the best of any age. And Lear's influence on the medium as a whole and the sitcom in particular extends far beyond the specific historic moments he chose as the immediate targets of his wit.

—Jeffrey S. Miller

Further Reading:

Marc, David. Comic Visions: Television Comedy and American Culture. Boston, Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Marc, David, and Robert Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers. Syracuse, University of Syracuse Press, 1995.

McCrohan, Donna. Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria. New York, Workman, 1987.

Newcomb, Horace, and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV. New York, Oxford University Press, 1983.