Norman Lear on How 'All in the Family' Gave Birth to Political Sitcoms

Norman Lear - 40th Kennedy Honors - Getty - H 2017
Getty Images

Early this month, the Kennedy Centers Honors welcomed legendary comedy writer-producer Norman Lear into its ranks (the celebration airs Dec. 26 on CBS). True to character, the feisty 95-year-old responded humbly to the honor, but defiantly toward the event, refusing to attend if the president made his customary appearance. President Trump ultimately blinked, as others have throughout Lear's career, backing away so that all of this year's recipients could enjoy their moment without any political distraction.

Modest but strong in the face of adversity, stubborn yet sweet with his artistic visions, Lear is one of the few people in the history of television who has provided such a level of creative comedic integrity that challenges the country's ideals and makes viewers consider the world in different ways. Nowhere is this more evident than with Lear's defining sitcom, All in the Family.

Nothing that came before the show's premiere Jan. 12, 1971, prepared America for the Bunker family. In place of the typical hijinks of sitcoms characterized by silly situations and punchlines, Lear skillfully navigated difficult subject terrain, popping up biting dialogue and situational humor without forcing it down. Dangerous, endearing, provocative and funny, Lear's masterpiece of one-act storylines, revolving around a bigoted patriarch, uniquely melded politics, frailties, prejudices and entanglements under a single roof in Queens, N.Y. In doing so, it bridged the gap between news and humor to forge a unique form of political comedic expression.

Archie's (Carroll O'Connor) bigotry, his dark side, never won. He always received his comeuppance in a blaze of glorious karma. Yet few remember those surface conclusions nearly as much as the issues raised by Lear, ones that encouraged honest conversations and real emotion among viewers.

Early episodes ran a disclaimer, an apology of sorts, at the front of every episode. CBS enlisted extra operators in anticipation of a wave of angry callers who never materialized. Vocal debates ensued about whether the show called out prejudice or glorified it. After all, a lovable bigot, could there even be such a thing? Anyone who has ever attended a family gathering with a potpourri of relatives would say so indeed.

People are complex. Life can be messy. In Archie's case, his actions came from a fear of progress to the point of striking out at anything modern. The theme song "Those Were the Days" could be his epitaph. Michael (Rob Reiner), a liberal hippie "meathead" with a strong sense of justice, nevertheless struggled with the women's movement and his wife initiating sex (in his mind, male territory). Gloria (Sally Struthers), the breadwinner in the marriage (so that Michael could attend graduate school), exuded a complicated riverbed of extreme emotions good and bad. And at the center of it all rested Edith (Jean Stapleton), the faithful "dingbat" housewife who represented the heart and soul of the Bunker residence and the optimism in the human spirit so many people wish they had.

Nobody's perfect, not even Lear, but with one show he achieved a level of perfection few reach with their art. In celebration of Lear, his work and his Kennedy Center Honors recognition (as well as the upcoming 47th anniversary since All in the Family originally premiered), The Hollywood Reporter sat down with the prolific producer to talk politics, comedy and more.

You made a bold statement regarding Trump attending the Kennedy Center Honors. Most people would assume you're a firebrand liberal. How would you describe your politics these days?

I think of myself as a bleeding-heart conservative. Conservative because you will not fuck with my Constitution, my Bill of Rights — those guarantees that the country has made to 100 percent of all U.S. citizens. My heart bleeds for people who are being overlooked or are not getting the benefit of those promises.

In the late 1960s, what made you think the time was right for a sitcom dealing with political and social satire?

My partner, Bud Yorkin, was making a film in London. He called and told me about this British show called Till Death Us Do Part. I said, "Holy shit, I've lived through that." My father used to call me the laziest white kid he ever met, and then dumb because I didn't understand. I'd scream at him that he didn't have to put down a race of people to call his son lazy. He'd shout, "That's not what I'm doing!" So, I heard the description of this series and thought, Why can't that be an American show? My partner then contacted the British agent who handled Johnny Speight, that show's creator. She called me up and asked if I'd like the rights and I grabbed them.

How did you get the network to bite on your idea?

I made a pilot for ABC early on in 1968 with Carroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton. I made pilots two more times before it finally went on the air on CBS in 1971. I never changed the script though. The first show had to show 360 degrees of Archie Bunker and the script did that. CBS had recently brought in a new network president, Robert Wood. He knew about the pilot, watched it and called me. I said I didn't want to meet about another pilot. I would only take the meeting if he wanted to talk about putting it on the air. And he did.

The actors portraying Archie and Edith stayed the same. But Mike and Gloria kept changing in each pilot.

It was a blessing that the first pilots didn't sell because Rob and Sally made their roles indelible.

You have a long history with the Reiners.

I've known Rob since he was six. I didn't know him as an actor though. The first time we worked together was when he auditioned for All in the Family. After that, I began to know him as a director. He couldn't get arrested with This Is Spinal Tap [the 1984 movie that he directed, co-wrote and starred in]. He had three or four pages but it wasn't a written piece. My company at the time, Embassy Pictures, was doing films and we made it. In fact, we made his first four films.

What about Sally?

I saw her a number of times at the opening of the Smothers Brothers Summer Show. I think she was doing a little dance or something. No lines. I just loved her look, something about the way she composed herself. So, I brought her in to read.

At what point did you know the show was a hit?

We went on in midseason with an order from Wood for 13 episodes. I wouldn't say I knew it was a hit, but I knew it was working. By the time we were finishing our season, the other two networks had already finished theirs. The word of mouth on our show led people to tune in to us and our ratings went up. Also, Johnny Carson saw the show. He was hosting the Emmys that year [May 1971] and wanted us to open the show with the Bunkers turning on the television to watch the Emmys. So, we did a sketch. That was a big help, too, which led CBS to pick us up.

What did it feel like once you realized you were pioneering a new type of sitcom?

[Laughs.] It felt like I was working my ass off to make a living for my burgeoning family.

Your initial audience, what age demographic did it cater toward?

I always think if something's funny, it will draw everybody. I saw one focus group that CBS invited me to watch. I'm sitting with a group of CBS guys on one side of a one-way mirror watching about 30 people. Each one has a dial on the arm of their chair and there's this big clock-like instrument on the wall. As a group, if they're disliking something, the needle on the instrument goes off to the right and if they're liking it, it goes off to the left. I'm looking at people who are indicating they don't like something but whose bodies are showing me belly laughs. I realized these people didn't want to say they're laughing at a bigot and what he's saying, but they're laughing. That taught me everything I needed to know about focus groups.

Although politically fragmented and deeply disagreeing opponents, Archie and Michael listened to one another. I'm not sure if they would or even could in today's world. What do you think has polarized the country to the point that we don't listen that way anymore?

America is all about excess. Whatever the hell the product, or subject or situation is. If America is reflecting it, you're going to get it in excess. In a way, look at four people having dinner and two of them are on cell phones, if not all four. I wonder if all that excess isn't separating us.

What do you think Archie and Michael learned from one another?

When life tested them about how much they cared about each other, they each learned the other guy cared a great deal. Life or a situation brought them to that point.

What's a subject that you're particularly proud of having taken on during the show's run?

We did a two-parter about Edith losing and regaining her faith. We figured out the first part quickly. We'd done an episode in season six where Archie gives CPR to a woman, Beverly LaSalle, in his cab. She comes to Archie's house to thank him for saving her life and he finds out she's a transvestite. In real life, she was a female impersonator and actor that I'd seen in a San Francisco club. A few seasons later, we did an episode where Beverly gets murdered by a gang for being who she was. So, Edith loses her faith. Our problem was getting her to regain it. We must have gone weeks talking about it until a writer innocently asked what would happen to Archie if Edith lost her faith. Suddenly we had it. Archie fell to pieces because so much of who he was depended on Edith's strength. For all her qualities, running around the room, getting him anything he wanted and everything else, she was a strong woman whose strength came from her faith.

Outside of Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie, which by the way, Rob Reiner considers the loudest prolonged laugh he ever heard on TV, was there a moment or episode dealing with particular subject matter that got a big reaction?

I never heard a bigger sound on television than when Edith got away from the guy who was attempting to rape her. That was an explosion.

If I recall correctly, didn't she throw her burned birthday cake from the oven into his face?

She did that and then kicked him in the balls and pushed him out the door.

Did you use outside consultants to help ensure you understood the issues and were right on the facts?

Wherever and whenever we needed help, we found it. When Edith lost her faith, a UCLA professor of philosophy came over and sat with us for a couple of hours to talk about how she might regain it. For the episode that dealt with Edith's attempted rape, we consulted a woman who specialized in that area. As a result of all the press that episode got, she started the Rape Treatment Center in Santa Monica, which has had a huge influence on the issue across the country.

Where would Archie fit into today's world? Would he still be a blue-collar conservative?

We faced that question in an episode. On a Sunday morning, Archie opens his front door and there's a swastika painted on his door. The point the episode was addressing was that Archie wouldn't sign anything that made him a hater nor would he join a group of people who were spouting hate.

You said if you had an episode about the 2016 election, Archie wouldn't have voted for Trump.

What I said was the audience would never know. They would wish to think whatever it was they wished to think. We would write it in such a way that Archie went to the polls and do what he was going to do. Mike would be sure he was going to vote for him, but the audience wouldn't know. We knew what Archie's disposition was, but he'd have also heard the rest about Trump.

What do you see as comedy's role in politics?

Comedy reflects the feelings, opinions, whatever issues from the person writing the joke or creating the situation. In our work, we're dealing with feelings. The writing reflects those feelings. I guess those feelings reflect politically, too.

Looking at All in the Family and all your other shows, what do you see as laughter's power?

My favorite part of laughter is how it brings people together. I've stood behind an audience thousands of times and watched them when they're really laughing, the way they come out of their seats and go forward and then fall back. There isn't a more spiritual wave of humanity based on what they're feeling at the moment. It has everything in the world to do with gratitude and affection and so forth. They're loving the moment that they're experiencing as one. The way I'm describing it to you, I've done it reflexively, I just haven't expressed it. I can't think of anything that makes me feel better than watching an audience in the middle of a belly laugh.

What would you say is your show's lasting legacy?

I've heard thousands of times, "My dad and I…" or "My family and I…" — people talking about laughing together watching Archie and Edith. I get that virtually every day of my life, people, strangers stopping to tell me what it meant to the family to laugh together.

That must be a great feeling.

I love it.

Looking back, did you ever expect such a career?

Everything I've ever lived through, every moment, got me to this moment I'm enjoying with you now.