Throughout much of the 1970s, Norman Lear was the most powerful TV producer in Hollywood. He created a string of situation comedies so successful that five of them, All in the Family, Good Times, The Jeffersons, Maude, and Sanford and Son, were in the top 10 in the final week of the 1974–75 season. In 1983, he was one of the first seven people to be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, together with Lucille Ball, Paddy Chayefsky, Milton Berle, Edward R. Murrow, William S. Paley, and David Sarnoff—a sign of how seriously he had come to be taken.
By 1985, though, all of Lear’s series had been canceled, and none of them is shown widely in syndication today. Even Archie Bunker, the working-class anti-hero of All in the Family whose name was for years synonymous with the blue-collar prejudices that the show was created to satirize, has long since faded from the common stock of American cultural reference.
No species of fame is as fleeting as the sort bestowed by network TV. But Lear fell further, faster, and more fully than most, and it is noteworthy that he has nothing to say about this descent in his newly published autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience,1 in which he is fairly forthcoming about most other aspects of his long and eventful life (he is 92 years old). One might well come away with the impression that he simply lost interest in television and decided to pursue other interests were it not for the fact that between 1991 and 1994, he created and produced two more sitcoms, both of them flops that were canceled after a half-dozen episodes each.
Such, of course, is the final fate of all TV producers, no matter how successful their series may be. Sooner or later—usually sooner—they lose touch with popular taste. But Lear’s brief period of domination over the airwaves was so complete that it is worth considering why it ended when it did. Did he simply run out of creative steam? Or was American culture changing in ways that he no longer understood?
Born in 1922, Lear was the son of an unloving housewife in New Haven whom he bluntly describes as “a world-class narcissist” and a small-time businessman-crook who would spend three years in prison for selling fake bonds. Like other such emotionally deprived people, he looked elsewhere for the succor he had failed to receive from his parents, embracing Franklin Roosevelt as a father figure and becoming, in 1950, a TV comedy writer.
That Lear should have turned to comedy to fill the empty hole in his psyche is no surprise, there being few things more immediately reinforcing than an audience’s laughter. To read about his political development in Even This I Get to Experience, however, is to recognize that his New Deal liberalism was a parallel phenomenon. For Lear, President Roosevelt was everything that his own father, a bigoted blowhard incapable of providing for his own family, was not. FDR, he writes, was “irrefutably among the elite, socially, intellectually, and every other way…he was royalty, American style.” To worship at his feet thus seemed to Lear the proper attitude for a citizen to take toward his president:
He filled the singularly most important role I feel we need from our president. He was a father to us. His “fireside chats” on radio had us sitting at his knees feeling like we were part of the American portrait.
It was not until 1971, however, that Lear found a way to combine these two sides of his personality by creating a TV series in which he used humor to promote the political agenda in which he so devoutly believed. Prior to that time, he had mainly devoted himself to knocking out comedy sketches for the likes of George Gobel and Tennessee Ernie Ford, and though he longed to reinvent himself as a filmmaker, he only succeeded in bringing four mediocre movies to the screen. Then, in 1968, he read an article about a British sitcom called Till Death Us Do Part—the story of a family headed by a loud-mouthed reactionary at loggerheads with his socialist son-in-law. Lear was electrified by the premise of the show, which reminded him of his uneasy relationship with his own father, and secured the rights to create an American version.
At length CBS agreed to pick up the series, which Lear called All in the Family, and it went on the air in January of 1971. “Meet the Bunkers,” the first episode, was preceded by a cautious on-screen warning: “The program you are about to see…seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices, and concerns. By making them a source of laughter we hope to show—in a mature fashion—just how absurd they are.” It proved unnecessary. Despite sharply mixed reviews, All in the Family rose slowly but steadily in the ratings, and by season’s end it was a hit.
In Even This I Get to Experience, Lear obscures the extent to which All in the Family was derived from Till Death Us Do Part (the creation of a British TV writer named Johnny Speight). In fact, “Meet the Bunkers” was closely modeled on the first episode of Till Death Us Do Part, “A House with Love in It.” As well as borrowing the plot of “A House with Love in It,” Lear placed ethnic slurs in the mouth of Archie Bunker, the head of the family and the show’s central character: “If your spics and your spades want their rightful share of the American dream, let them get out there and hustle for it, just like I did.” The difference was that Lear sentimentalized Till Death Us Do Part, whose satire was unsparingly harsh. Carroll O’Connor, a character actor of great skill and sensitivity, played Archie realistically rather than as a caricature, thereby blunting the edges of Alf Garnett, his British counterpart, by making him both funnier and more sympathetic.
This was what Lear had in mind. As he explains in his book, his underlying purpose in making All in the Family was “to show that if bigotry and intolerance didn’t exist in the hearts and minds of the good people, the average people, it would not be the endemic problem it is in our society.” Hence it was essential to humanize Archie, both by casting an actor who would play him sympathetically and by placing Archie in situations that would educate him. Thus emerged one of the stock plot mechanisms of All in the Family, the “problem” show in which a character grapples with a situation that Archie initially finds incomprehensible or unsympathetic, coming in the end to realize that the liberal way is the right way—or at least a possible way—to deal with it.
It is understandable that CBS should have initially been skittish about so unabashedly political a series. In 1971 its schedule was still dominated by such innocuous comedies as The Beverly Hillbillies and My Three Sons. But the successful debut of The Mary Tyler Moore Show had persuaded network executives that there was money to be made by appealing to a younger, more affluent audience, and they were right: CBS soon replaced its established sitcoms with new shows aimed at urban viewers, and Lear moved to develop other liberal-minded shows spun off from All in the Family. For the next few seasons, he could do no wrong.
Nevertheless, he was well aware that the success of All in the Family was not due solely to its appeal to liberals. From the outset, the show also appealed to more conservative viewers who shared Archie’s oft-expressed dislike of the fast-rising tide of cultural liberalism in America. No doubt some of them failed to grasp that All in the Family was meant as satire, but the show made its points so explicitly that it is hard to imagine many people mistaking its purpose. In any case, Lear, as he readily acknowledges, had always sought to have it both ways:
Yes, if [Archie] was watching a black athlete on television, he’d make an offhand bigoted remark, and [his son-in-law] Mike would call him out on it. But the episode in which that exchange occurred might have been about Archie losing his job and worrying about how he was going to support his family. While a line or two could reflect Archie’s bigotry, the story itself was likely to be a comment on the economics of that moment and the middle-class struggle to get by.
Therein lay the true source of the mass appeal of All in the Family. It offered something that was new to network TV, a broadly realistic portrayal of an old-fashioned, tightly knit, working-class nuclear family struggling to get by—and also struggling to come to terms with the breakdown of traditional American family culture. No one in the mass media, or in American politics, was speaking for such people in 1971. While Richard Nixon wanted to do so, he was too eccentric and divisive to fully engage the emotional sympathies of the cohort that he had labeled the “silent majority” in 1969. Instead it was Archie Bunker who became, faute de mieux, their spokesman.
Lear understood this well enough to play shrewdly on their fears. “He was afraid of tomorrow,” he says of Archie in Even This I Get to Experience. “He was afraid of anything new, and that came through in the theme song: ‘Gee, our old LaSalle ran great/Those were the days.’” But he neglects to cite a more telling line from the lyrics to the All in the Family theme song: “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again.” The truth was that Archie Bunker would never have spoken nostalgically of Hoover. Rather, he would have been an FDR voter who had come at length to the reluctant conclusion that something had gone wrong with America—in other words, a Reagan Democrat.
Lear had already gotten out of the sitcom business before Ronald Reagan entered the White House. He ceased to function as what is now called the “show runner” of his sitcoms in 1978, and three years later he founded People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy group, thereafter spending the bulk of his time promoting political causes. But his shows had already lost altitude in the ratings and were headed for the scrapyard: Sanford and Son went off the air in 1977, Maude in 1978, and All in the Family and Good Times in 1979.
It is no coincidence that their decline occurred simultaneously with the emergence of Ronald Reagan as a national political figure. However sympathetically he was portrayed on the air, Archie was still a comic figure whose views were treated by Lear and his writers as benighted at best, dangerous at worst. Not so Reagan: His conservatism was the real thing, not a satirical burlesque, and he made the case for it unapologetically, presenting himself not as a Hoover Republican with a pretty face but as a New Deal Democrat who had changed his mind. Small wonder that blue-collar Democrats lost interest in All in the Family when Reagan came along. Instead of making fun of their inchoate conservatism, he took them seriously—and they responded in kind.
Four decades after the fact, Norman Lear’s once revolutionary sitcoms look and sound like relics of a prehistoric age. Shot “live” on videotape in front of studio audiences, they are as far removed from the postmodern visual language of today’s single-camera sitcoms as I Love Lucy. But their datedness is more than a matter of appearances. A show like All in the Family also feels old-fashioned because it makes explicit a worldview taken for granted by its successors.
The rise of Reagan Republicanism was uniquely significant because it took place just prior to the final disintegration of America’s common culture, at a moment when it was still not only possible but necessary for politicians like Reagan and popular entertainers like Lear to appeal to the country as a whole. Today they speak to carefully targeted demographic slivers of the public at large. While the Archie Bunkers of our time watch NCIS and Duck Dynasty, their left-wing counterparts opt instead for “edgy” series aimed at viewers who already share the progressive opinions of their makers, and thus need not be converted to the true faith. Hence the total absence of explicit political advocacy in a show like Modern Family, a network sitcom about three variously nontraditional families that is in many ways the Obama-era counterpart to All in the Family.
As it happens, Norman Lear was reacting against a similar, if inverted, phenomenon when he created All in the Family:
For twenty years—until AITF came along—TV comedy was telling us there was no hunger in America, we had no racial discrimination, there was no unemployment or inflation, no war, no drugs, and the citizenry was happy with whomever happened to be in the White House. Tell me that expressed no point of view!
So, too, do postmodern sitcoms “express” by stealth a point of view, but one with which Lear is in wholehearted agreement. The difference is that today’s real-life Archie Bunkers also have TV shows of their own to watch—as well as politicians of their own to speak for them.
1 646 pages, Penguin Press