Written by Denis Faye
Industry insiders often describe a hit sitcom as lightning in a bottle. The right talent comes together under just the right circumstances at the right time and BAM! You get M*A*S*H, Cheers or Everybody Loves Raymond. If a talented showrunner is lucky, he or she might create one such show in a career. The truly blessed land two or three.
And then there’s Norman Lear.
In 1971, after Lear filmed his All in the Family pilot three separate times, CBS picked up the controversial look at an American working class home. The show took off, leading to a string of topical, controversial hits for the veteran writer, including The Jeffersons; Sanford and Son; Maude; Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and One Day at a Time.
The imprint these shows made on American culture is undeniable. According to Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal, “I was learning about the world through All in the Family. I guess The Daily Show and Colbert, they’ve taken that place today, but as a kid I learned through him.”
As impressive as his accomplishments are, Lear boils his success down to one, simple rule. “Everything starts with great characters,” he explains. “It’s telling the story through the characters. Great characters in situations that draw from those characters.”
This week, Sony rolls out The Norman Lear Collection, an elaborate DVD box set featuring the entire first season of the six aforementioned shows, as well as hours of supplemental features, including all three All in the Family pilots.
Lear talked with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his legacy, the state of the modern sitcom, and what might be coming from him next. Here’s a hint: He was very “animated” when he discussed it.
How has the writers’ room changed over the years?
Photo: CBS Photo Archive
Lear filmed the All in the Family pilot three times before CBS picked up the controversial look at an American working class home.
Well, the question assumes I’ve been in a writers’ room recently and I’ve not. I understand that it was true then too, a lot of writers’ room, six to eight, sit together and write. We never did that. We could have been four, five, six writers in a room, and we talked with a tape recorder going and long before we were concluded, someone down the hall was already typing. So before the writers were finished, a dozen pages were already typed. And then one or two writers would go off and do a draft. We didn’t sit around the room going from page one to page 40.
Writers would do a draft, then someone else would re-write it or they’d rewrite it themselves after talking about the draft.
So it was less of a collaborative process?
It was a collaborative process as we discussed the thrust of an episode. It was an individual process as the actual drafts were written.
Why do you think you were allowed to be so controversial?
I don’t really know how to explain it. It took me three years to get All in the Family on the air. Let me put it that way.
I always had one of the two pilots we made before the show went on the air and, for the new collection, they found the other one, so you see three years of stabs at it. The leads were the same, Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton, but the young people were different. In the third year, happily, the fates were aligned and you can see that the young people are much better. But the scripts were absolutely the same. I wouldn’t change the script.
Bob Wood was running CBS and when he said, “Yes, I want to do this show,” he wanted to do another pilot, and I said no, I wouldn’t do another pilot.
So why is there less social commentary in sitcoms today?
It’s still happening. I think it’s simply where writers elect to take on these subjects. The South Park guys elect to do it. Seth MacFarlane on Family Guy elects to touch difficult issues. Either they don’t elect to do it now because the networks are against it – it is a supply and demand business – or enough time has gone by where writers did not elect to do it, so it’s out of fashion.
The moment a good sitcom happens, everybody will lean to it and the situation comedy as we knew it will be back again.
You know what I want to do? I want to do the other side of South Park. I want to do old people, in the right location, with their families.
I want to do animation because I haven’t done animation. One’s imagination can be let loose.
So, is this a formal hint?
I wouldn’t be surprised if something developed.
For you, it’s a new toy, but still, why are all the current controversial shows animated?
Well, when asked of Seth MacFarlane, he said, “It’s one step removed from reality.” And I thought that his answer was a good one.
It’s one thing to write a sitcom and just focus on the laughs. I’d think it would be more complicated to weave in social commentary, especially as a team.
More often than not, we’d start with “Wouldn’t it be funny?” You know, what if Archie was giving blood and he learned that it doesn’t matter if it’s a white guy or a black guy giving blood?
If it’s something more sensitive for, let’s say, Good Times, and we’d read that hypertension is excessively high in African American males, we’d think that was a great subject for James. What if he was suffering from hypertension? Well, it occurs immediately that someone suffering from hypertension doesn’t know what it is and if they’re behaving erratically, what does that mean to the family? Well, that’s a funny situation. So we’d find the humor in whatever the situation is and, believe me, it exists in any situation.
Did you ever reach a point with your shows that the networks said, “He’s Norman Lear, just let him do whatever he wants?”
It was much more “Nobody fucks with success.” That’s an old American adage. That’s the way that worked.