Living legend Norman Lear is responsible for groundbreaking TV series including (clockwise from top left): Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Sanford and Son.
Writer/producer Norman Lear is a living link not only to television’s early years, starting in the 1950s when he scripted routines for the likes of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but to its significant maturation in the ’70s. This was due in large part to Lear himself, whose groundbreaking 1971 sitcom All in the Family was followed by a remarkable string of socially-conscious hit shows, including Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. In 1981 the always politically aware Lear founded the progressive advocacy group People For the American Way, and his autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, was published last year by The Penguin Press. Lear will be honored on October 30 with the Outstanding Television Writer Award at the Austin Film Festival, which will also hold a live script reading of an undeveloped show by Lear called Guess Who Died? Austin Way spoke with Lear not long before his 93rd birthday...
What do you think of the state of TV today, in the age of Netflix? What are you watching? I think it’s the Golden Age. I cannot keep up with the amount of shows people tell me [about]. I don’t know where everybody is finding the time to see it all. I watched all the episodes of Transparent. And Orange Is the New Black, I saw the first season. By the time the second season came around, friends had said, “What, you’re not watching Boardwalk [Empire]?” [There are so many] titles I can’t even think of, but I respect so much the people who said, ‘Are you kidding, you gotta be watching!’
If there’s a thread that runs through all your own shows, it’s they all tried to address various social issues while also being entertaining. I’m guessing you don’t subscribe to that old quote attributed to Frank Capra, “If you want to send a message, try Western Union.” I didn’t think we were sending messages. I realized some years in, when I heard for the umpteenth time, “There’s Western Union!” that, wait a minute, we are dealing with social problems; I am expressing a point of view about it. I’m trying to express all the points of view, because that’s where the comedy comes from, the conflict. But I’m favoring what I think is the way things want to be, so I finally accepted, “Well, wait a minute, isn’t that what they were doing before me, when the largest problem a family [on a sitcom] might have faced is the roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner.” Twenty-four [hours], wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling of that would suggest no problems in America: no Vietnam, no menopause, no abortion, no economic problems.
“I'm not the least bit apocalyptic. I don't want to wake up in the morning without hope.” —Norman Lear
A few right-wing blogs have accused characters like Archie Bunker and Conrad Bain’s character, Arthur, on Maude, of being straw men to be knocked down by the liberal arguments of Mike Stivic or Maude Findlay. They say in real life, those characters would have had more compelling arguments for their point of view. Well, I’d like to know what they are! I’m not hearing them now. I hear strong points of view against; I don’t hear strong points of view pro: “This is what I’m going to do; this is the map.” I just hear: “Everything is wrong on the other side.”
With all the change you’ve seen in your lifetime, what do you make of what’s going on now? Is it better or worse than it was in the ’70s? Because it’s now, and we’re living in the moment, it seems worse. We’re not reading about it historically; we’re living it…. I’m not the least [bit] apocalyptic, by the way. I don’t want to wake up in the morning without hope. We’re going to save our asses somehow, but it’s going to require [actually] saving our asses.… When we save the world, then we will. The door will have been kicked open by the arts, by all the things that bring us together: music, and theater, and laughter. And the politicians, and the politics, and so forth will follow.