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Norman Lear: ‘Bring Them to Their Knees’

Posted on Mar 14, 2006
Norman Lear
Zuade Kaufman

Television legend Norman Lear, photographed at his studio in Beverly Hills, March 2006.

By Sheerly Avni

At a time when shows like “South Park,” “The Chappelle Show,” “The Daily Show” and even “The Simpsons” routinely push the limits of what is acceptable in television comedy, it’s easy to forget that in the 1970s, the entertainment landscape was a bit different. Back then, there was only one producer who was both willing to make controversial TV for prime time and canny enough to convince a network to air it: Norman Lear, the man behind some of our most beloved sitcoms, including “All in the Family,” “Maude,” the groundbreaking “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.”

Remember the day Archie Bunker faced the grieving father of a soldier who died in Vietnam? Or the funeral where Edith discovered her cousin was gay? Or the day Meathead had to admit he was a racist? Or how about Maude’s abortion, the first ever on prime time? And, finally, there was “One Day at a Time.” Although it may not be best remembered for scathing social commentary, this author still keeps it near to her heart—for serenading a single mother living in a small apartment with a laugh track instead of a pity bell.
Now 83, Lear recently met with Truthdig cultural correspondent Sheerly Avni in his studio in Beverly Hills.

Among other things, he talked about our threatened Constitution, the hypocrisy of the Christian right, the strange ethics of “The Sopranos,” and why he still sees himself as an “unaffiliated groper.”
Sheerly Avni: Comedy doesn’t always get the same respect as serious drama, even though a lot of the most trenchant observations come through satire. Why do you think comedy gets it better?

Norman Lear: Laughter is an intravenous. You slip it into the arm, and there can be important thinking into what makes you laugh. We didn’t do anything for that reason—to send messages. The old adage used to be: “That’s what Western Union is for.” We wanted to make them laugh, but we wanted to bring them to their knees.

There’s a big difference between wanting to get them laughing, and wanting to bring them to their knees.


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If you’re deeply involved emotionally in whatever the situation is and the situation calls for a laugh, that’s where the real belly laugh comes from. It either comes from outrageous slapstick or deep emotion—along with the trigger, the laughter.

You also noticed that the fundamentalist Christian right was a problem in 1980. It’s what led you to form People for the American Way, while a lot of us were asleep on our watch.

Well, [chuckles] a lot of you were very young.

I didn’t realize the power behind propaganda like “Left Behind.” I just thought it was all funny.

I thought so too—I started to see Falwell, Robertson, Swaggart, little pieces of them in 1980. I thought they were amusing, and I wanted to do a film called “Religion”—to savage what they were doing the way Paddy Chayefsky savaged television with “Network” and medicine with “The Hospital,” and I spoke with both Richard Pryor and Robin Williams.

I was going to do the story of two guys who became ministers of the Universal Life Church, mail-order ministers in order to save taxes—because they wanted to take advantage of the tax code the way wealthy people do, and this was the only way they could do it. And one became Pat Robertson—a charlatan looking for the network and the money—and the other guy found God.

And the one who finds God eventually saves the other guy. 

But I realized it would take me some years to get this picture done, and I woke up one morning with the idea for 60-second television spot…. And People for the American Way was born around this 60-second television spot as an act of spontaneous combustion.

Rather and Brokaw and Jennings all ran it and talked about it, and an organization was born, and I never started working on the film.

Until now. We’re working on it now.

Are there pressures on trying to get a movie like that made?

I’ll let you know; I haven’t got a script yet of this. When I get a script, I suspect we’ll get it made.

In the past, how did you know you could “get away” with the kind of controversy you courted with Archie and Edith and so much of the other television you made? How did you beat the executives?

One of the things they used to say when storylines were making them nervous was “This won’t fly in Des Moines and there will be a knee-jerk reaction in the Bible Belt.” I knew this wasn’t so, because I had made “Cold Turkey” in Iowa, and there was a gay hardware store owner on the square, friendly with everyone. None of that stuff mattered in the lives of those people.

And that would also be true for the person who needed the abortion and had to travel to another city, but everybody knew what was happening—so it was proven out in every single case.

When “All in the Family” went on the air they hired a whole bunch of telephone operators to handle the calls, and no one called. No one called for Maude’s abortion. But when it came to reruns, they were prepared to lie under William Paley’s car in New York and my car in the West [link]. They geared up for that.

And so part of the legacy of all that work is a freer television landscape that can continue to push the envelope. Like the stuff Larry David can do in “Curb Your Enthusiasm”—for example, his Jesus episode. But you don’t see much of it on network TV.

I don’t know what to say about why there isn’t more political humor on network television, but I have to assume that the guys who did TV so brilliantly, like “Raymond,” for example, which is very well written, didn’t elect to go there. They were dealing with the minutia of daily life, the way Carl Reiner was doing with Dick Van Dyke, years ago.

But I love “The Daily Show” ... God bless Tivo. When we’re ready to go to bed, the last thing we do before we go to bed is laugh with Jon Stewart, and what’s the name of the guy following?

Steve Colbert.

Yeah, he gets better and better all the time.

Do you like Chappelle at all?

Oh my God, my son and I have been watching some of the first two years of his shows, over the last five nights. We try to watch a little every night, as a result of seeing his two-hour show with Lipton on Bravo. 

I actively thought: If I were a key member of this administration, I would have had him in within the next couple of days to talk to him about how to talk to America.

He’s one of those conduits. Just “tell me what you know about us, where you’re coming from, what you’ve learned in your young life.”  There is a deep wisdom in that man, and it wasn’t all in his words, some of it was just in his persona. But you could feel it. It was palpable.

Your organization has been trying to talk to America, and fighting to defend American freedoms from incursions of the Christian right, for more than 25 years. Yet when you crossed the country on tour with the Declaration of Independence, you spoke several times about how much you loved the word “sacred” in the text. What does “sacred” mean to you, in that context?

It’s more than sacred—it’s sacred honor. And I remember, not when I read it originally but when I bought it, in reading it from that context and realizing “sacred honor” is not a phrase one hears, except for maybe on the Sopranos. They’re dealing—the Mafiosi—with feelings of sacred honor. It’s misguided and used in such a way I wouldn’t want to see it used, but nonetheless….

Where in American public life do I see evidence of sacred honor, of one’s word? It doesn’t exist much in business or politics or public life, and no one talks about it.

Maybe that’s why “The Sopranos” is so popular, because it’s a guy trying to live by a code that we still have a hunger for?

Well, I think you said it well—somebody trying to live by a code. And it’s a code of honor in a certain context. Dishonor in 90% of his life, of course.

As far as the idea of trying goes, you have been quoted as describing religious seeking as “groping towards the truth.” People like Falwell and Robertson, you said, didn’t seem to be doing much “groping.” What did you mean by that?

Let me tell you where that comes from. I spoke once, many years ago [in 1993], to the National Press Club. They asked me to speak there, and it followed—by a week or so—then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s speech in Texas, in which she referred to God in some way ... she’d been hanging out with Michael Lerner, and she referred somehow to God and faith.

She was wildly and widely condemned by the press. One writer said she should have left that behind as a junior in college, at the latest. So I grabbed the opportunity to speak to the Press Club, and I chose to speak faith, and about not wishing to put myself behind anybody in terms of my own faith, which had far less to do with being Jewish and going to a synagogue or a church or any regulated way, and far more to do with ... groping. 

I know that I’m on a journey, that I know I’m never going to find the most profound answers, but I love the journey the most.

“So I call myself a groper,” I said, “and because I’m not affiliated with the church I call myself an unaffiliated groper.” So that was the expression: Unaffiliated Groper.

Three days later, Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post wrote a blistering article, complaining that I could talk about faith for 22 minutes—or whatever the hell time I covered—without mentioning God or the Bible, and so forth. 

As a matter of fact, I had dinner that night with Krauthammer, David Gergen and Andrew Sullivan and that kind of a group of right-wing people—all of whom were deeply Christian in a fundamentalist way—and I made the mistake of trying to get into a real discussion. They were true intellects, but mischievous intellects, so they would trap me in Bible talk.

I realized afterwards I made the mistake of not saying, “Bubbie, I didn’t come 3,000 miles to upset you, let’s not argue about this.”

Instead, I tried to explain “groping.” And that’s the thing about groping. You know you’re on that journey, you know you’re seeking the answers, you know you’re not going to find it and you sound stupid! But you don’t mind being stupid ... except in the company of Krauthammer and Sullivan. 

So I’m still groping—through my own thinking. You can hear the process ... but I am hopeful, I am not apocalyptic, I’m just ... I won’t say pessimistic, I’ll say “not optimistic.”

And that’s because I don’t see a Democratic Party—let alone one with an eminent figure leading it.

Chappelle for President?

I’d do it!

Do you still have hope that we can get out of the mess we’re in?

God, to Bernard Shaw, was a giant will that was willing the Earth and the vegetation and eventually the humans and species and so forth, willing it to a kind of perfection. And the will decided at some point it needed hands and a brain, and that’s how the human was willed onto the planet and it was always moving towards perfection.

You have to be Bernard Shaw or stand a hundred years back and observe it all in that way, which I struggle to do. I believe he’s right. I believe the world is being willed to perfection—but short-term, it’s very hard to see. 

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By pamalonia, March 22, 2006 at 7:48 pm Link to this comment
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I like this piece.  Groping is good.  I call myself a Christian Atheist, which means I love my fellow man enough that I just cannot believe the Golden Rule—Do unto others as you would have them do unto you—means condemning people to hell.

For religious satire, go to my blog,

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By Cynthia, March 21, 2006 at 2:33 pm Link to this comment
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Excellent interview, brilliant ballsy man, he should receive one of those awards for lifetime achievement.

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By Blind, March 20, 2006 at 6:35 pm Link to this comment
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I chuckled when he was talking about Hillary & used the word “groping,” because it conjured up images of Bill, not God!

I totally like Lear, he’s one of the greats. Once upon a time certain tv shows actually taught morals! It’s mind boggling & hard to believe, but it’s true. All In the Family, M*A*S*H, the list goes on. There was an element of decency but all that’s changed now-a-days & people like Norman get demonized for telling the truth.

Someone brought up Katrina in the context of God, which I think is an excellent point if you are addressing the God of organized religion. The God who allegedly micro-manages. Well, I dont know if there’s a God or not, but if there is, maybe it’s plan, if it even has one, is not to micromanage, but has put forth an algorithm that, as the poet of Job says, kills both just and unjust. The planet is living and maybe it’s immune system is rejecting we who have burnt a hole in the ozone & continue to poison it’s waters & air…

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By Sylvia Barksdale Morovitz, March 19, 2006 at 2:08 pm Link to this comment
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Sheerly Avni’s conversation with Norman Lear is refreshing and pleasant.  True, he wrote many comedies that contained messages that were educational for us all but his humor was the thing that was most healthy.  Archie Bunker was worth his weight in gold but I knew peope who took his bigotry at face value, showing their own ignorance.  To me, he was a laugh each time he spoke.  Nowadays, comedy means one insult after the other and I find nothing funny about it.

I find Lear’s “groper” philosophy interesting as well as his views on televangalists.  He didn’t mention Jimmy Swaggart, who was my favorite comedy show of the week.  [“As he cries and prays for us—-The man is armed and dangerous”.]  A quote from one of my poems.  My older sister lived with me and when she’d come downstairs to find me watching Swaggart, she was appaled.  She’d ask, “why are you watching that thing?”  I’d tease her and say because he was so handsome.  But in truth, he was a belly laugh and a half.  Oh!  Those pitious expressions, those tears!

What I find appaling is that a president of our country would have Jerry Falwell and others of his ilk as religious advisors!  Pat Robertson is almost as bad as Swaggart but there’s nothing funny about this character.  He only adds to the danger of G.W., who certainly doesn’t need any coaxing.  He should be impeached for this alone.  [Ha.]

I still have Norman Lear’s story of Marilyn Monroe’s life, with all the fabulous photographs.  He is a great asset to America’s entertainment world.

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By racetoinfinity, March 19, 2006 at 5:08 am Link to this comment
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Groper is the open-minded agnostic and the perfection of existence on its journey back to the Godhead is the message of all mystics.  Right-on.

See for an understanding of levels of reglion/spirituality.  You’ll find that, contrary to conventional wisdom, atheism is more spiritual than mythic-membership Daddy-God comfortable (can’t think for myself) religion.  It’s at the “existential” fulcrum - true Spiritual understanding (mysticism) comes AFTER atheism and agnosticism.

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By KLW, March 18, 2006 at 11:40 pm Link to this comment
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I agree that rant by Chris Bieber is pretty disturbing, but don’t see how encyclopaedic bible referencing gets to the point. 

The problem with what he said is the gross mischaracterization of Lear, obviously fueled by a zealous ideology.  I don’t perceive any ‘seething, fervid hatred’ or the ‘hurling of hate-embossed invectives’ in anything he said, and neither would anyone else who can read.  If using inflammatory, vicious rhetoric like that to demonize a mild-mannered old man giving a friendly interview isn’t hateful in itself, it’s certainly something akin to it.  It’s also shows such inherent hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness that it makes me concerned about my head exploding.

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By Saul2006, March 18, 2006 at 2:07 pm Link to this comment
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Chris Bieber

You talk about the message of Christ- the only thing that was good about the message of Christ was to love your neighbor, the rest is a pack of lies and manure as shown by the following that Jesus was a stupid liar. Now if you can refute what is said at which has an offer to shut down, I will apologize for thinking you have been not only taken in but want to take in others

look at the following Hebrews 1 talking about
Jesus v5 For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son?
As for the question in 5 above about father and son relationship let us look into the
following which is what David was told when told that he could not build a Temple but it applies to Solomon and NOT Jesus as shown by:

2 Samuel 7:12 And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy
fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish
13 He shall build an house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom for
14 I will be his father, and he shall be my son.
If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men
:15 But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee.
Now some take this to be the Messiah; however, since it talks about if he commits inequity, I will chasten him, it clearly is not talking about Jesus but about Solomon
which also is borne out in 1 KI 5:5 5
And, behold, I purpose to build an house unto the name of the LORD my
God, as the LORD spake unto David my father, saying,
Thy son, whom I will set upon thy throne in thy room, he shall build an house unto my name.
Continuing in Hebrews 1:13 But to which of the angels said he at any
time, Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool? Jesus is also quoted saying this in Matthew22 41-45; Luke 21:41-44, Acts 2:30-36

The above 13 appears in Psalm 110: 1Psalm 110 Of David.
1 The LORD says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.
So, NO He may not have said it to any angel; but he sure as Hell said it to DAVID according to the believers own Bible .
As for {the Lord said to My Lord} Jesus also queried about that and Christians have interpreted that to be Jesus and that it was about Jesus. However, it is a Psalm of David about David. In that time Kings and even minor dignitaries were addressed MY Lord
In fact the Talmudists in one of their attempts to justify the killing of Uriah said he disrespected David by Not addressing him as My Lord. But don’t take my word for it let us see what it actually says in Psalm 110:1
The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
2 The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies.
3 Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy majesty, from thewomb of the dawn you will receive the dew of your
4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
5. The Lord is at your right hand; he will crush kings on the day of his wrath.
6 He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth.
You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.
not God or Son of God but a priest in the order of Melchizedek. Not Lord or Greatest should be proof for Christians that the psalm was not about Jesus regardless of the Claim of Jesus and those that lie in his name.

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By Lynn Ziegler, March 17, 2006 at 11:23 am Link to this comment
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Norman Lear never shoots the messenger.  He IS the messenger.
Norman, if you’re reading this, I had the honor of meeting you in 1977 at a Children’s Television Conference in WA, DC.  You were an inspiration then, and even more of one now.  I’m a happy believer in groping, whether it’s for insight or daylight.  Thanks for lighting the path.

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By JW Griffith, March 16, 2006 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment
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Willing to perfection the human race strikes a chord with me. One of the ways the infinite unknowable essence does that is to show us our fallacies by observing them in others. Much like our children swear not to do as we do when they grow up. Our groping is shortened when light shines on paths it is not necessary to take.

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By wkmaier, March 16, 2006 at 2:42 pm Link to this comment
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My dad always said, “The journey is the goal.”

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By Barrie Johnson, March 16, 2006 at 8:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I doubt that Lear has any dislike of the message of Christ. what he hates and fears is the right wingers like Robertson who have totally subverted that message. starting in the late 1960s when organised religion announced THE GOOD NEWS which stated that one no longer has to do good deeds, or be helpful to your fellow man,to go to heaven. all you need now is to believe, and you will be assured a place in heaven. at that point religion became big business and joined the republican party. Reagan was the first politician to benefit from that. Religion no longer concerns itself with man, only with money. this attitude is reflected throughout our society, as we struggle to make more and more money so we can buy more and more things. this attitude alienates us from relationships, friends and family, and makes us fear each other. the drive for money and political power of organised religion today is responsible for the destruction of our society. the democrats are impotent against them because how can you vote against God?

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By tomack, March 16, 2006 at 8:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think Chris Bieber should grope more, and I think AA Murphy should read deeper: to search, or grope, doesn’t necessarily mean for “God”, it may just mean “to search”. Like Mr. Lear said, the fun is in the journey. I think it’s definitely more fulfilling than the destination—wherever that may be. Of course, I could be wrong. 

I hope Mr. Lear makes his movie.

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By Lucy Carle, March 16, 2006 at 12:45 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I’ve always been a huge fan of yours, Mr. Lear.
Mary Hartman was my favorite show when I was in college—-I wish it was in reruns somewhere, but since it’s not, how about a sequel or something?
Keep up you wonderfully funny and inspiring work.
We need you!

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By SteveVancouver, March 15, 2006 at 8:05 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What a breath of fresh air! I hope you don’t mind if I borrow the term “unaffiliated groper”. I love it. I also enjoyed the phrase by TomChicago, “Those who grope and question are a great threat to the vested interests of the dogmatists.’ Why isn’t it a red flag to them when they feel threatened by sincere questioning?
Keep the satire coming. Sombody needs to see the genius in the Pat Robertson film.

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By dearke, March 15, 2006 at 10:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I certainly can relate to this piece.  After 70 years, grappling with religion’s answers to the raison d’etre of life, I find myself liberated from dogmas and fears of afterlife scenarios. Tho’ I find myself unable to go along with the idea of a good god, I am always open and seeking - more or less.

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By A.A. Murphy, March 15, 2006 at 9:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

God is willing the Earth to perfection? Now that’s funny.

It’s especially amusing when the Creator wills a tsunami to come along and drown 250,000 people like rats in a sewer. Or causes a wall of an unfinished church to collapse inward, smashing to death dozens of worshippers.

It’s depressing when someone as intelligent as Norman Lear is unable to let go of the God fantasy. In all likelihood, the human race will disappear in a few millennia and be replaced by some other creature—perhaps the cockroach—better suited for life on this pretty rock.

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By Chris Bieber, March 15, 2006 at 8:36 am Link to this comment
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use of the phrase “to savage” Robertson et al is unfortunately an understatement to what Lear et al want to do to the MESSAGE(not necessarily to Robertson et al)...a fervid hatred of the Message of Christ seeps over into seething hatred of the other people and WHATEVER ELSE they say or advocate. Sure most of the POLITICAL solutions the RRight advocate are not correct and/or dangerous to whatever freedom is left in America.  Lear and his ilk unfortunately(unwittingly???) are using the time-worn tactic of shooting(hurling hate-embossed invectives and ad hominums) the messenger…and IGNORING the truth of love and forgiveness of others and understanding we are ALL in need of that…

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By TomChicago, March 15, 2006 at 5:56 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Groping is a noble way to live.  It is humble and without the pretensions of dogma.  Stubborn dogma has resulted in an enormous amount of bloodshed on this planet.  Those who “grope” and question are a great threat to the vested interests of dogmatists. We should all grope.

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By Dr. Susan Block, March 15, 2006 at 3:13 am Link to this comment
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Network TV sit-coms were never so politically vibrant as when Norman Lear was king.  Somebody should greenlight his Pat Robertson film ASAP!

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