The pandemic which kept us at home for over a year has pushed us to watch more TV and especially the rerun of older shows and sitcoms. Norman Lear, who is celebrating his 99 birthday this month is unquestionably the sitcom king with the creation of some of the most popular shows in TV history.
Norman Lear reinvented American television in the 1970s with All in the Family and a string of other true-to-life sitcoms. As a publicist for Broadway stars, a writer for top comedians, a Hollywood Producer & Director, as well as an ardent political activist, he is relished a career spent behind the scenes.
Alison Beard, a Senior Editor at the Harvard Business Review, published an interesting interview about Norman Lear's work in 2014.
Alison Beard: Your shows were groundbreaking. Did you set out to disrupt TV’s status quo?
Norman Lear: I never thought of the shows as groundbreaking, because every American understood so easily what they were all about. The issues were around their dinner tables. The language was in their school yards. It was nothing new. Before All in the Family, there were a lot of families on television, but the biggest problem they faced was Mom dented the fender or the boss is coming to dinner and the roast is ruined. America had no racial problems, no economic problems. Women didn’t get breast cancer, men didn’t get hypertension.
AB: Why did no one else want to address those issues?
NL: Maybe they did and just couldn’t. It took me three years to get my first show on air.
AB: How did you make it happen?
NL: I spent my early years in live television—Jerry Lewis, Danny Thomas, Martha Raye—before I realized that the only way to have any keeping money was to own something. I was being divorced, and it was costing me dearly. A friend who had worked on the Joan Davis show and was also being divorced came through New York and told me that all his wife wanted was his Joan Davis residuals. That’s when I learned that when you do a taped show, a situation comedy, you own something. So I determined to do one. I sold All in the Family to ABC and made the pilot. The contract said they could ask me to make another one a year later. And I did—exactly the same script. I wouldn’t change it. This would be my first show whenever it aired, which was three years later, for a different network, CBS. What I said to them then was, “You can’t get wetter than wet. We have to jump into the pool together.” I had an offer in my back pocket from United Artists to write, produce, and direct three more comedies, so it was easy to stand firm.
AB: From there, how did you approach negotiations with network bosses?
NL: With common sense. The people I talked to couldn’t use their common sense because they had to report to somebody not on the set, who had five people above him in a monolith of a building back in New York; some of these things shot all the way to William Paley. There were times when they raised reasonable questions and the solution made the show better, but with the questions that were just silly, I stood my ground. It didn’t make sense to me that some faceless executive would be responsible for a decision that affected my show and its relationship with the audience. They used to tell me, “It won’t fly in Des Moines” or “There will be knee-jerk reaction in the middle of the country.” But one thing that played well for me is that I spent months in Iowa, making the film Cold Turkey. So I was able to say, “Don’t tell me about Des Moines. I know Des Moines. I know the middle of the country. Don’t give me this bullshit.”
AB: You’ve described yourself as hands-on and detail oriented, but at one point you were running eight shows at once. How did you maintain quality when spread so thin?
NL: My partner, Bud Yorkin, and another team did 95% of Sanford and Son. But taking that out of the equation, I had a lot. All the writers’ meetings—hunting for a story line and filling it in—took place in my office. We sat around a big table with a microphone in the center, and somebody down the hall typed out what we were talking about, learning to pay no attention to the chuffa, just the stuff that was important to the story. So by the time the writers left the room to write the initial script, they already had 10 pages of notes. I would always get drafts and often rewrite them, or sections of them, myself. Then we had rehearsals in which I had a lot of time and ability to suggest changes. That’s how it worked.
AB: Many of your writers and actors have said that you both challenged and brought out the best in them. How did you do it?
NL: We were all pointed in the same direction. Everybody read a couple of papers—the New York Times, the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal. We paid close attention to what was happening with our kids, in our marriages, and in the culture around us, and came to work to talk about things on our minds that could also be on the Bunkers’ or the Jeffersons’ minds. We wanted to deal honestly with story and character. And when that was working, everybody took a kind of succor from it. We knew we were doing good work and an audience was appreciating it on a different level from just laughing. Just laughing is fine—I mean, really fine—but the shows were also about something. The best thing any of us heard—when we were stopped on the street, or in letters we got in the mail—was that when the shows were over, families were talking.
AB: Why have you always worked offstage?
NL: I was, I’ve learned, both running from my father and wanting to make good in his name. He was an out-in-front guy but disappointed himself deeply and left the rest of us high and dry. Also, the only role model I had as a boy was this uncle who was a press agent. He flicked me a quarter every time he saw me, and I wanted to be an uncle who could flick a quarter, so I wanted to be a press agent. But I think I had characters that represented me. What I didn’t say in my life, I found my characters saying. Closest to me, though she was absurd a lot of the time, was Maude. She was the out-front liberal but didn’t really take responsibility for knowing what she was talking about all the time, which is what most of us do. We deal from our feelings more than from the information and the facts.
AB: After stepping back from TV, you became much more politically active.
NL: Yes, it was People For the American Way and concerns about the role of American business. After reading “Managing Our Way to Economic Decline” in Harvard Business Review, I just had to meet the authors, [William] Abernathy and [Robert] Hayes. That article was like a sledgehammer to the forehead. I might have tackled those issues with another television show, but I had the idea of doing it with awards—which became the Business Enterprise Trust. That was compelling because, obviously, I lived in a business with the Grammys and the Oscars and the Emmys, and I could see what it did for entertainment institutions. Wouldn’t it be great to put a spotlight on acts of leadership in business, acts that prove you can do well by doing good?
AB: Some of your later shows were short-lived. What did you learn from those experiences?
NL: There was a show called Apple Pie, which starred Rue McClanahan and Dabney Coleman, and I just adored it. Others—the first Latino family sitcom, the first acid-tongued Washington, D.C., comedy—were also great ideas and had great actors. But they needed time to catch on, and the networks didn’t give them the time because, at that point, I was the new kid in town. I was not the Norman Lear who had four shows on the air.
AB: TV shows inevitably go stale. How do you know when it’s time to put a successful product to bed and launch something else?
NL: There was a time when I suggested that no show should last more than five years. That is sufficient success, and then you make room for new ideas and new talents.
AB: You’ve operated with creative or business partners for most of your career. How do you manage those relationships?
NL: I’ve been smart enough to realize that in order to build a company, I need somebody who knows the business end of it a great deal better than I do. With the writing partnerships, if somebody gives 90% and somebody gives 10%, but the 90 can’t get along without the 10, then you might as well call it 50/50. You don’t think about the figures any other way.
AB: I know that many of today’s television producers—Seth MacFarlane and Matthew Weiner, for example—look up to you. Do you see yourself as a mentor?
NL: At my age, it’s easy. I’ve got so many years on these guys, I’ve finally succumbed and think that I, or my work, has helped mentor them. Since turning 90, I just get up and walk and get applause.
AB: What are the most important lessons you try to pass on to the next generation?
NL: “Every man is my superior in that I may learn from him” is a great one. “Happiness is the exercise of vital powers, along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope”—that’s Aristotle. Nobody can make you happy. You’re happy if you’re doing your thing, reaching toward excellence, whether you achieve it or not, in a life that allows you to do so. And there’s this one: “At the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assure your success.”