Norman Lear Essay - Critical Essays

Lear, Norman


Norman Lear 1922–

American writer of screenplays and television scripts, movie and television producer, and film director. Lear has been credited with expanding the boundaries of television with the situation comedies he created, which brought current social concerns and formerly taboo subjects to viewing audiences. Before All in the Family appeared in 1971, television comedy series were often considered mindless, unrealistic entertainments with no relevance to real life. This program was the first to present issues such as rape, breast cancer, homosexuality, and, especially, prejudice on the home screen. Revolving around Archie Bunker, a bigoted white working man in Queens, it was immediately controversial, although not immediately successful. It gradually became accepted and popular through its appealing combination of comedy and reality, a premise which Lear has used as the basis for all his other series. Lear took the ideas for several of his early shows from programs already established on British television. Till Death Do Us Part became All in the Family and Steptoe and Son was turned into Sanford and Son, a program which openly ventilated ethnic humor from the black viewpoint. Fred Sanford was the black equivalent of Archie Bunker, just as the character of Maude, an ultra-liberal feminist, was his antithesis. Maude, a spinoff series from All in the Family, continued its tradition by introducing controversial topics such as abortion, mental illness, and suicide. Along with his partner, Bud Yorkin, Lear created a group of successful spinoff series, and at one time had eight situation comedies running concurrently. One of Lear's biggest successes was Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, an offbeat, often outrageous parody of soap operas which dealt with the travails of a befuddled housewife. As well as spawning series like Fernwood 2-Night, a satire of talk and variety shows, Mary Hartman was the first program to be marketed independently to individual stations. Lear has won many Emmy awards for his programs, and has been recognized several times with awards from his professional colleagues. Not all of Lear's ideas have been successful. All That Glitters, which dealt with male/female role reversal, lasted for only a few episodes. His programs have been criticized for their increased trendiness and a tendency towards shock effect and excessive cuteness. However, many of them have been commended for their accurate portrayal of the family unit. Lear has based many of his ideas and dialogue on his own life; the character of Archie Bunker, for instance, was based on his father. Much of the success of his programs has been attributed to good timing, but Lear feels that the American people "have always been ready" for the depiction of adult themes on television. Whatever the reasons for Lear's success, most critics feel that he has had an undeniable influence on the forward movement of the television industry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Bosley Crowther

[The satire, "Divorce American Style," screenplay by Norman Lear] is not as funny or trenchant as it tries very hard to be. Indeed, it is rather depressing, saddening and annoying, largely because it does labor to turn a solemn subject into a great big American-boob joke.

[A key reason for its weakness] is that [director] Mr. Yorkin and Mr. Lear do not establish any viable reason for their quarreling couple to become divorced. They simply ask us to accept the premise that [two people] … could be conned into separating, after 17 years of marriage, by a caricature of a marriage counselor and a couple of catty friends.

Sure, they may be a little rattled by too suddenly achieving affluence and too desperately trying to keep up with the other Joneses in a split-level section of Los Angeles. But the feeling one gets is that the authors simply wanted to pull these people apart so they could show the comical convulsions of a fellow trying to make out on what he has left after paying alimony to his divorced wife….

But the main trouble with this picture … is that it makes glib fun of something that doesn't fit the frisky mood of farce. (p. 30)

Bosley Crowther, in The New York Times Film Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 20, 1967.

Fred Ferretti

Tonight the Columbia Broadcasting System Television Network will find out if Americans think bigotry and racism, as the prime elements of a situation comedy, are funny.

It is funny, for example, to have the pot-bellied, churchgoing, cigar-smoking son of Middle America, Archie Bunker, the hero of "All in the Family," fill the screen with such epithets as "spic" and "spade" and "hebe" and "yid" and "polack"? Is it funny for him to refer to his son-in-law as "the laziest white man I ever seen?" Or to look at a televised football game and yell, "Look at that spook run … It's in his blood"?

The answer, I say, is no. None of these is funny. They shock because one is not used to hearing them shouted from the television tube during prime-time family programs. They don't make one laugh so much as they force self-conscious, semi-amused gasps.

They are not funny because they are there for their shock value, despite C.B.S.'s protestations that what are being presented are "familiar stereotypes" with "a humorous spotlight on their prejudices … making them a source of laughter," so "we can show how absurd they are." What is lacking is taste.

Fred Ferretti, "TV: Are Racism and Bigotry Funny?" in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 12, 1971, p. 70.

Stephanie Harrington

"All in the Family," is kind of like wishing for a little more frankness in political dialogue and getting your wish in the form of Spiro Agnew. A working-class family situation series with a message, "All in the Family" is vulgar and silly. And after the disgust-at-first-shock wears off, the vaudeville clinkers passed off as humor are totally predictable, both in themselves and as means of conveying the show's moral: All prejudice—racial, class, sophisticated against unsophisticated and vice versa—is bad.

It cannot even claim the shock value of being courageously, uncompromisingly, true to life. In an attempt to discredit stereotyping, it resorts to stereotypes. In its sledgehammer determination to tell it like it is, it over-tells, and, instead of being the breakthrough in courage it was meant to be, it over-kills itself.

Stephanie Harrington, "The Message Sounds Like 'Hate Thy Neighbor'," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 24, 1971, p. 17.

Laura Z. Hobson

I have a most peculiar complaint about the bigotry in the hit TV comedy, "All in the Family." There's not enough of it.

Here, spade, spic, coon, Polack—these are the words that its central character, Archie Bunker is forever using, plus endless variations, like jungle bunnies, black beauties, the chosen people, yenta, gook, chink, spook and so on. Quite a splashing display of bigotry, but I repeat, nowhere near enough of it.

Let me back up a little. Years ago, after "Gentleman's Agreement," I decided I'd never again write about bigotry or prejudice, at least not about the racial or religious kinds. I've stuck to it. No lectures, no articles, no books about discrimination against Jews, against blacks, against whites, against Puerto Ricans. Perhaps I did not want to keep harping on one theme, perhaps I had nothing to say.

But after 24 years something happened. A television show that treated bigotry for laughs appeared on the screens of the nation…. (p. 1)

[I felt the show to be irresponsible] but beyond that I began to be haunted by the notion that there was something else I had to get hold of, for myself if for nothing else. Something the critics weren't saying, something nobody seemed to be saying, not even the people I sought out as experts in the field of race relations. As I kept on ploughing through all the reviews, the feeling intensified. I was pulled up often by the phrases "honest show" and "honest laughter" and "a lovable bigot."…

A lovable bigot. Your friendly neighborhood bigot. This is an honest show. This is the way it really is. (p. 12)

[The night I really tangled with "All in the Family" was during the Emmy Awards.]

Johnny Carson wisecracked, "Norman Lear—a nice guy for a Hebe." The audience roared with laughter.

I suppose Norman Lear laughed too. Would he have laughed, I suddenly wondered, if Johnny Carson had said, "Norman Lear, a nice guy for a kike"?

Unthinkable, Johnny Carson would never never—

I know he wouldn't. Besides, it was never never used in the show. Hebe, yes; chosen people, yes; yenta, yes, yid, yes. But kike? Never.

I began to listen for it as I began my little study of the reruns. Never. And sheeny? Never.

Had Norman Lear never realized that what bigots really...

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Norman Lear

I have a most peculiar complaint about Mrs. Hobson's complaint [see excerpt above]. Nigger, kike, and sheeny were the words she found missing from in "All in the Family," which, according to her, made the show dishonest. But there is another word some bigots use—some liberal bigots. You know the word they use. The one word, the hideous word. Don't even print it.

No, Mrs. Hobson, not nigger. Schwartze.

Mrs. Hobson didn't mind our not using that word. Not, I expect because she knows Archie Bunker isn't Jewish: she did acknowledge his use of the word "yenta." I'll offer another reason later….

What … is Mrs. Hobson's motive in taking out pad and pencil? Does she...

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Robert Lewis Shayon

Sanford and Son…. is the second BBC comedy series to be transplanted from British to American television…. All in the Family was the first…. Sanford and Son will succeed, I hope, although its virtues are not as spectacular as those of its predecessor…. I have seen only the first two programs of Sanford and Son, but already it is clear that there is a common pattern in the transplant experiences of both series.

The key to that pattern is in the program's lead characters. The prototype of Archie Bunker was a thoroughly unsympathetic bigot in the original British series, Till Death Do Us Part, which was designed for a short run. Presumably the allegedly...

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Peggy Hudson

The situation itself has great potential for comedy—the generation gap, an offbeat way of life, a kind of "anti-establishment" way of thinking. Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that Sanford and Son is a network show that treats black people with respect and affection. It isn't "true to life." What situation comedy is? But it's a lot less phoney than Julia was.

That's why I hate to see it fail in what I consider some important areas. It is basically a two-character comedy. For this kind of comedy to work, on a weekly basis, it seems to me there should be some kind of balance. I don't want to laugh at Fred Sanford every week. If I'm to laugh at him because he's old and out of...

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Charles L. Sanders

Suddenly we have a new American hero. He's not an Audie Murphy or a Charles Lindbergh or an Ike or a Huck Finn or anybody like that. He's a wholly ignorant, lower middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, beer-bellied bigot. This hero, this St. Archie [of All in the Family], must be dealt with seriously for he has become much more than a mere television character; he has become a social force engaging the minds and hearts of vast millions of Americans—many of them the people who still significantly control black lives….

[There] is the probability that, week after week, Archie Bunker is saying things and projecting attitudes that stir up anti-black passions and trigger all kinds of racial...

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Frank Levy

To assert, as the program's apologists do, that "All in the Family" is satire like "Till Death Do Us Part" is plainly to misunderstand what satire is. The kind of laughter which Bergson once described as "froth with a saline base" can hardly rivet 60 million people to the television set Saturday nights.

This is not to criticize the escape that situation comedy provides. Laughter for its own sake is an important part of television. Great comedians like Abbot and Costello, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, all steadfastly avoided politics or social reality of any kind. Where "All in the Family" differs from the tradition of television comedy or situation comedy is that it purports to deal with...

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Richard A. Blake

How the tears flowed for CBS and its stellar producer Norman Lear when all the sponsors and 36 of 189 affiliates dropped the reruns of "Maude's Dilemma,"… as though they were tainted with plague bacilli….

What about "Maude's Dilemma"? The problem is not controversial content, but the mode of treatment; there are distinctions among the different genres. Maude is a comedy; it does not present a discussion of abortion by experts, offer the editorial position of a station, which by law must be identified as editorial and which may be answered by an opposing view under the equal time provision of the Fairness Doctrine, nor, finally, does it present a serious dramatic conflict in which a woman...

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John J. O'Connor

Despite some fascinating touches, the [situation of "The Jeffersons"] is somewhat shaky. The character of Mr. Jefferson, snobbish, and given to frequent temper tantrums, verges on the unattractive. Even Archie Bunker is an "appealing" bigot. And much of the humor is based on insult, what used to be called "playing the dozens," when content can become secondary to delivery. On "The Jeffersons," too much of the content is very secondary….

And then there is the Willis couple, new neighbors of the Jeffersons. Mr. Lear has carefully cultivated a reputation for dealing with the unusual and controversial: breast cancer, menopause, abortion, economic inflation. This time, however, in terms of network...

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Chilton Williamson, Jr.

I was … taken instantly with [the] clever show [All in the Family], and count myself today as one of its many yet unjaded enthusiasts. Part of my delight in Lear's scripts is traceable, I suspect, to my longstanding admiration of Sinclair Lewis' work: surely Archie Bunker is the McLuhanesque counterpart of the Gutenbergian George Babbitt of half a century ago. The American appetite for social satire is, it seems, nearly as voracious as the English: indeed, every American social class with the exception of course of the noble subproletariat has by now been depicted as a set of clowns. After watching Archie thrash about recently in the tatters of his precarious and blusterous self-complacency, I summarily...

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Roger Rosenblatt

Comedy and death are old companions …, not merely in graveyard and funeral jokes, but in substance…. Both are forms of criticism and reality, shattering pretense, showing people for what they are. To make a joke of something is to kill it. The terms of comedy are the terms of death: you're a riot, a scream: you break me up; you're killing me.

These terms have a special companionship in "All in the Family" because "All in the Family" was dead on arrival. We knew from the outset that the four main characters always would be impervious to change…. On the surface Archie's humor seems more variable. At times he appears as Hate, Stubbornness, Selfishness or Cowardice, but all of these group under the...

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Louie Robinson

Bombastic, frenetic, boastful, ill-mannered, prejudiced and scheming, George Jefferson, his wife Louise, and a cast of other interesting characters have become a success in The Jeffersons…. (p. 112)

Spun off from the front-running All In The Family, The Jeffersons appear to some as the flip side of the Archie Bunkers. Unlike Archie, however, who has never risen above his blue-collar status, George has, in the words of the show's theme music, moved on up to that big East Side apartment in the sky…. (pp. 112, 114)

For those who may still be looking for a deep and satisfying social significance in black shows on television, the wait goes on. Although The...

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John J. O'Connor

[With "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," Lear and his company] are taking the venerable broadcasting form of soap opera and are attempting to work simultaneously on two levels: one straight, to be taken seriously; the other slightly bent, to be sampled with a sense of humor that is "satirical, humanistic, and realistic."…

A press kit explains that "far from being a broad parody of soaps, the series would subtly satirize people as they behave in day-to-day situations—never straying from reality." The problem is that the soap-opera form itself tends to resist satire, except perhaps in brief spurts of broad parody. In its pure form, soap opera already can work on straight or slightly bent levels,...

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James Wolcott

Confession: "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" caught me almost completely by surprise. It doesn't broadly parody soap operas, and it isn't the sort of flamboyantly "controversial" sit-com that one has come to expect from Norman Lear; which is to say that "Mary Hartman" doesn't signal its comedy in any of the usual ways…. "Mary Hartman" has its awful jokey spasms, as when a character is called a "prevert" … but when the residents of Fernwood are so involved in themselves that the laughter comes leaking out of their self-absorption, it's the most subtly, disconcertingly funny show ever to appear on television….

The loopiness of the characters is treated with genial matter-of-factness … and...

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John J. O'Connor

The time may have arrived for the Norman Lear factory to close down and take serious stock of its product. The machine may be overworked. No matter how well "One Day at a Time" may be doing … in the ratings, the character of the older daughter is an abrasive drag. No matter how many sophisticated excuses are proferred for deadpan monotony of "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," the syndicated series is tedious in extended doses. And now … the hastily concocted product is "The Dumplings."

Joe and Angela Dumpling operate a lunch counter in a New York office building. [They] are a fat couple very much in love with each other. At work or at home, they are surrounded by oddball characters, from hostile...

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John J. O'Connor

Although perhaps only temporarily, the Lear product has become noticeably strained. A good deal of the humor has settled into a monotonous groove of hostility. The situations, particularly those dealing with sex, are getting predictable enough to trigger charges of easy exploitation….

Despite a good cast and a promising premise—a divorced woman attempting to raise two teenage daughters—["One Day at a Time"] has been generally mediocre. The character of the older daughter, something of a hysterical brat, is positively repulsive. Mr. Lear counters that my strong reaction to a TV character may be worthwhile. Probably, but not when the reaction is strong enough to get the TV set turned off.


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Stephanie Harrington

[On] "Mary Hartman"—the material is there, just as life is there; the writers respond to the absurdities they perceive around them; the actors either identify with the writers' impulses or substitute their own….

And this is appropriate since, if "Mary Hartman" is about anything, it is about reactions. Specifically, it is about the way working-class people in a factory town of tract homes, who are intellectually, morally, and emotionally outfitted by soap operas, television commercials, and the Reader's Digest, respond to insecurity, disappointment, rejection, frustration, infirmity, and death…. But the success of "Mary Hartman"—it has achieved the status of a media...

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Love it or loathe it, "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" is the nation's latest pop-culture craze—a sort of video Rorschach test for the mass audience. Norman Lear's comedy soap opera is the most talked-about new TV series since America was assaulted by his Archie Bunker. (p. 54)

Thematically, the serial is something of a mishmash, and even the show's creators seem at a loss to define exactly what they are trying to do…. Lear originally envisioned "MH2" as a kind of split-level soap. On one level, it would be a reductio ad absurdum of every soap-opera convention, including the inane commercials. But the show would also be human enough to make viewers care for its characters—just as they feel...

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Peter Sourian

I accuse Lear of being a closet scholar. Like most creators with the broad touch necessary for quality-cum-success, he seems sure enough of his own originality not to hesitate to steal from past masters. His earlier shows, still running, reflect this. The Jeffersons's black bourgeois dry cleaner … is "movin' on up" so nearly in the footsteps of Molière's Monsieur Jourdain, that it is hard to believe that Lear has not been rereading the Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Further-more, both Jefferson and his white counterpart, Archie Bunker, of Lear's All in the Family, are typically Molièresque central figures: authoritarian male family heads, narrow-minded and covertly decentish in their willful...

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James Wolcott

Blazing with large intentions, Norman Lear's new series All That Glitters … is a firebird that never takes flight: It flutters, sputters, then falls. Like Eve Merriam's entertainment The Club and Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away, All That Glitters is a dramatic exercise in role-and-gender reversal. The women here are queen bees in a corporation known as Globatron and have no need of subscriptions to Savvy—they've already mastered the martial arts of careermanship. The men are little more than stingerless drones, but unlike drones they are forced into labor as secretaries, toga-clad waiters, househusbands….

Fifteen years ago, it might have been subversive to mock sexual...

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"What would life be like in a world where women have always held the key positions in business, in politics, in the home and in society?" asks the publicity for this syndicated Norman Lear serial [All That Glitters].

Apparently it would be like this: the women would be unscrupulous maneuverers, frauds, lechers and jerks of all description. The men would be dreary, simple-headed drudges or simpering sexpots. Nothing-much would happen, conversation would reach unprecedented abysses of dullness, and relations between men and women would be conducted at a level of callousness that would stun Germaine Greer.

Does Lear really think this cumbersome collection of reversed stereotypes...

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John J. O'Connor

There is hardly anything new about satirizing talk shows. In some cases, the form almost satirizes itself, and it has long been the butt of comedy routines, from "Laugh In" to "Monty Python's Flying Circus." But "Fernwood 2-Night" goes beyond the talk-show form to ridicule contemporary convictions and foibles in a wide range of aspects. Anti-Semitism and religious deprogramming have little or nothing to do with talk shows, but they have been put to extremely clever use on "Fernwood 2-Night."

The concept of a fictional talk show may contain its own self-destruct mechanism. The form itself is limited, and the pressures to be outrageous can only escalate. Where do you go after you've given them a...

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James Wolcott

After the first season, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman deteriorated into an off-off-Broadway nightmare—a druggy No Exit, where hell was other suburbanites—but 2-Night's new characters, plus MH regulars who will pop in from time to time, should lift the Fernwood saga out of its surreal doldrums…. Unless my instincts have gone glitchy, Fernwood 2-Night, with its Gong Show gooniness, can't fail to be a hit. Which will fill Norman Lear's bulletin board with happy returns….

I laughed at much of Fernwood 2-Night, but I didn't really like it, and I don't think it should bring silver to Lear's reputation. 2-Night is shrewdly, confidently...

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Harry F. Waters

Alas, "Forever Fernwood" reads funnier than it plays. Norman Lear's syndicated sequel to "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" arrived on TV last week, not only without Louise Lasser's Mary but largely devoid of its predecessor's angst-ridden subtlety. The charm of the original flowed from its skill at meshing soap-opera satire with poignantly vulnerable characters. The second time around, the denizens of Fernwood have sold out their humanity for all-out parody. Lear's split-level soap now reflects not recognizable neuroses but lunatic posturings.

Harry F. Waters. "Forever-or a Day?" in Newsweek (copyright 1977 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission),...

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M. J. Sobran, Jr.

All in the Family we have always with us. It is now reduced to buttocks humor—at the expense, of course, of Archie's arse. The latest episode showed him sitting on a knitting needle and later getting pinched on the backside. The poor guy can never do anything right, at least not until his immaculately liberal Gloria and her husband the Meathead have conspired with humiliating Experience to show him the light. It's an old TV joke—sit-comdaddies are always feckless …—but it's a durable one….

Consider: every time Archie defames some minority, he is instantly confuted by the materialization of an urbane Representative thereof, who invariably speaks in epigrams so polished as to make one...

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Michael Novak

[The] fact that Norman Lear's "All That Glitters" didn't strike gold doesn't mean that it didn't have importance for our culture. It did….

The first hour shown to the press had all the marks of high ideology. "All That Glitters" coruscated like a tract. Women in power, men subservient—the script seemed catechetical. Lines and scenes reached out to nudge the audience: "Get it? Get it?" In real life, any man who dared to behave like the women-imitating-men in this show would be treated with scorn…. American society today is far more complex than the reverse-sterotypical images of males and females in "Glitters." The show seemed for a moment to be carrying the nation backward. It seemed to be a...

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