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