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Legendary television writer-producer Norman Lear — whose credits range from “All in the Family” to “Sunday Dinner” — has found a second calling. His nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign “Declare Yourself” seeks to get every eligible American between 18 and 29 years old registered to vote. The organization — which uses strategic media partnerships, celebrity spokespeople, retail outreach, sports, digital technology and social media — played a key role in getting 1 million new voters registered in 2004 and is aiming to have 2 million more registered by November’s presidential election. It boasts such advisory board members as NBC Universal’s Ben Silverman, Epic Records’ Charlie Walk, Tyra Banks, J.J. Abrams and Randy Jackson. Lear discussed his interest in the cause and how hard it is to reach that elusive youth audience.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did you get involved with “Declare Yourself”?
Norman Lear: This all started when we (Lear and his wife, Lyn) purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence in 2000. We had a huge traveling exhibition, touring state houses, museums, the Summer Olympics in Salt Lake City. As we toured, we saw more and more evidence that young people really were interested in such documents and the birth of their country and the birth of this democracy, so gradually we started to concentrate on the youth vote.
THR: Is your goal of getting 2 million voters registered by November realistic?
Lear: It doesn’t escape notice when the spotlight is bright enough. We’re talking about the youth vote, but we’re pulling in people of all ages and all descriptions because they see the light. Celebrities are talking about it; we have sports figures who are involved. There is an infinite amount of spots we have floating across the world and the Internet with the likes of Ben Stiller, the kids from “Entourage,” “Reno 911!,” “The Hills” and so on.
THR: With all the media vying for youth’s attention these days, how do you break through the clutter and reach them?
Lear: (We do it) with the amount of sports figures and celebrities involved and the amount of time we spend on the Internet and the amount of messages we send out, which are largely comedic attention-grabbers. Young people don’t want to be lectured; they want to be entertained and engaged, and comedy gets them. They are procrastinators, but do they want to vote? Are they engaged? Do they feel like they matter? That is a big yes.
THR: Why is this cause so important to you?
Lear: Because America is important to me. It’s very hard talking about this sometimes because it all sounds so sentimental or treacly. I have a very practical view of what people call patriotism. I call it the love of the First Amendment, the Bill of Rights, liberty and guarantees that are so precious in this culture. In every election, we’re fighting for them.
I have 13-year-old twin daughters and grandchildren who are young. It’s already very clear that they’re not growing up in this country with the degree of freedom, civil liberties, economic possibility and so forth that I did. I think they’re far more restricted in terms of living the American dream. (My family does) better than most, obviously, but they go to school with kids whose parents are not doing as well by way of the American dream. Both parties are talking about what middle-class families are going through right now.
THR: How has the TV landscape changed since you got your start?
Lear: There was a time when you knocked on three doors to get on the air, and how many are there now? There are 103. I think this is the golden age in every real sense because there is such great drama available, and there’s great comedy, but it’s spread so thin. It’s hard to find it, and everybody doesn’t do it anymore. But it’s there. It’s a great time for television.
THR: You voiced Benjamin Franklin in an episode of Comedy Central’s “South Park” a few years ago and served as a consultant on two episodes. Any plans to return to the show?
Lear: Those are my good friends, and they invited me to participate with them on the 100th episode, but it was just the one episode.
THR: Will you tell us who you’re planning to vote for in the presidential election?
Lear: What, and give away that secret?
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