Those Were the Days, Not Simple or All Sweet

Published Mon, Oct 6, 2014 · 07:45 AM
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For someone whose most enduring contribution to popular culture might be the image of a husband and wife sitting at a piano and singing about the good old days, Norman Lear is not particularly nostalgic.

He has spent the last 20 of his 92 years pondering a vow to tell his life story: not just the backstage tales from his popular sitcoms like "All in the Family," "Maude," "Good Times" and "The Jeffersons," but also his account of how a Depression-era kid with a challenging childhood came to produce the button-pushing, boundary-breaking comedies that defined the 1970s and influenced future generations.

It is a story that Lear shares, reluctantly but abundantly, in a memoir, "Even This I Get to Experience," which Penguin Press will release on Oct 14.

Now that he has reflected on the totality of his life - including incarnations as a member of a B-17 bomber crew in World War II, a novice press agent and a sketch writer for stars like Danny Thomas and Jerry Lewis - he says he better understands why he was in no hurry to complete the task.

It required him to reckon with an unsettled legacy and to draw some tough connections between his present and past, a time he says was far more enjoyable to live through than to write about.

Recounting the creation of his book over a recent breakfast in midtown Manhattan, Mr Lear said, "I began to realise how hard it had been to be a human being." With a wry, what-can-you-do chuckle, he added: "Eventually, I came to enjoy how hard it had been. I wish I had known it at the time." Behind his soft eyes, gentle manner and trademark boat hat, Mr Lear, who is also a founder of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, is deceptively tough and single-minded about his creative endeavours.

His memoir does not skimp on behind-the-scenes head butting at shows like "All in the Family," where, Mr Lear writes, his leading man, Carroll O'Connor, never trusted that audiences would embrace the lovable but bigoted Archie Bunker character, and where CBS executives second-guessed story lines on topics like menopause, breast cancer and integration.

Though Mr Lear did not specifically see it as his mission to educate viewers on these issues, he said: "We give ourselves far more credit than we've earned, and think we are far more advanced than we are. America has a hard time looking in the mirror and seeing itself truthfully." Roseanne Barr, who starred in the blue-collar family comedy "Roseanne" (on ABC from 1988 to 1997), said in an interview that Mr Lear's work taught her "to be socially relevant and to use the media in the right way that it should be used." "Wherever he saw a barrier, he ran over there and kicked it in," she said, adding that Mr Lear was "an amazingly focused anarchist."

Rob Reiner, who played the Bunkers' son-in-law, Michael Stivic (aka Meathead), described Mr Lear as a "kochleffel," a Yiddish term meaning "pot stirrer." "He likes pushing people to their furthest limits, to get the best out of them," said Reiner, now a director of films like "Stand By Me" and "The Bucket List."

When CBS did not want to show a 1971 "All in the Family" episode in which Michael contends with impotence, Mr Reiner said, Mr Lear's reaction was: "That's fine. I'm gone. If you want to do any more shows, you can call me in the Fiji Islands." The episode was broadcast, and "All in the Family" ran until 1979, ranking No 1 in the Nielsen ratings for five of its nine seasons.

Mr Lear said most of these disputes were "little arguments," but he could not bring himself to concede any of them. "I thought, 'If I lose this battle, I'm going to lose a thousand more,' " he said.

This characteristic obstinacy, he said, could well be the result of growing up in Connecticut and New York in the shadow of his father, Herman. The elder Mr Lear, known as HK, was a self-assured schemer who was jailed in 1931 for trying to sell fake bonds, and who, after his release, remained a domineering influence in young Norman's life.

As an adult, Mr Lear said, he did not feel a need to satisfy authority figures or worry, "What would he think?" "The only 'he' in my head, growing up, was someone who got it all wrong," he said. "So 'What would he think?' made me go the other way." Asked if it was too glib to say that the larger-than-life HK directly inspired self-assured characters like Archie Bunker or Maude Findlay, Mr Lear replied, "I don't think it's too glib at all."

Mr Lear said it took him a while to accept that there were any underlying messages to his shows - back in the day, he said he was scolded, "There is a Western Union for messages" - but he has realised that all sitcoms raise points about society.

The era that preceded the dominance of "All in the Family," when quainter comedies like "Green Acres" and "The Beverly Hillbillies" reigned, Mr Lear explained, "That was saying: 'America has no economic problems, no race problems. Parents and children get along. Father knows best.'" "Which generation was kinder to its audience?" Mr Lear asked rhetorically. Which one "flaunted a picture that was ultimately untrue," and which one "helped the audience understand its real problems?"

Today, Mr Lear said, he finds it difficult to see his influence in a contemporary prime-time network TV schedule, partly because he is not a big TV viewer. "Through all the early years of my television life, I was working at night," he said. "So I never got in the habit of appointment television." Other television stars said that Mr Lear's influence was sorely lacking today.

Ms Barr said network comedies have largely abandoned Mr Lear's spirit of social consciousness, leaving cable and streaming series to carry on this tradition.

"There are great writers and funny comics that are wanting do something different and new and edgier," she said. "The networks don't want that, or they'd have it." Trey Parker, who is the creator and producer of the Comedy Central animated series "South Park" with Matt Stone, said Mr Lear's work had an immeasurable impact on that show and its satirical, sacred-cow-slaughtering sensibility.

The problem today, Mr Parker said, is that "the idea of fearlessness is gone," and that "everyone wants to keep their job." Working in Hollywood, Mr Parker said, "you come across a lot of people in this town that are just, like, 'We don't want to do that because we don't want to rock the boat.'" While Mr Lear is still invested in the cultural conversation, he also seemed to find a certain comfort in not being at the white-hot center of it.

At his professional peak, he likes to say, he had five or six fictional families on television, and one flesh-and-blood one on Mooncrest Drive in the Encino section of Los Angeles.

The family members on Mooncrest Drive, he said with a laugh: "They got up in the morning. They went to school. They did their homework and told me how unhappy they were later." "The ones on the air needed me to breathe," he said. "They needed me for everything."

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