Television’s boundary-smashing pioneer turns 100
Perhaps the most important liberal force of his time, Norman Lear changed America through his stories
Norman Lear reached his 100th birthday this week, happily surrounded by his large family. That’s a remarkable achievement, but the real story here is not that Lear turned 100 but that he changed the world. He ranks among the most significant forces of moral change in modern times. He might well have been the most influential liberal figure in American life at a time when this country was turning left, hard left, on many moral issues.
How did Lear drive American morality to the left? He did so by creating the stories that made America laugh … and sometimes cringe. In any event, Americans watched Lear’s television shows by the millions. They could hardly avoid them.
Lear was born in 1922 to a Jewish couple who traced their families to recent immigration from Ukraine and Russia. His worldview and humor had deep Jewish roots, and his storylines were often drawn from his own family experience. Evidently, humor ran deep in his family. When in 1983 he called his mother to tell her he was in the first class to be inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, she responded, “Listen, if that’s what they want, who am I to say?”
By his own design, Lear’s stories would transform American society, but this came only after he served his country during World War II as a decorated radio operator and tail gunner on a B-17 bomber over Europe. But his name would become synonymous with television, and his stories dominated TV in the 1970s and beyond like nothing else.
As Lear would observe, television did not yet exist when he was born, and he has lived long enough to see broadcast television lose its central place in the American imagination. But when television was dominant, Lear was dominant, and he had a big agenda. He wanted to change America, and he did.
Historian Kathryn Montgomery once observed, “In the war for the American mind, entertainment programs have become political territory.” But it was not always so. The most watched television program of the 1960s was The Beverly Hillbillies. In a study of American television, Dennis Tredy points to the fact that 1960s programming was dominated by two genres: rural comedies (The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction) and odd-ball comedies that strictly avoided politics and often avoided reality as well (Mister Ed, My Mother the Car, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, and The Addams Family).
Driven by his liberal passions and a determination to force political change through television, Lear built a progressivist empire, eventually championing causes that ranged from abortion to sexual liberation, feminism, and the welfare state. Lear was also insistent upon pushing boundaries in terms of what broadcast standards would allow and the public would accept. In one famous episode, he deliberately poked at both standards and conventions by using the noise of a loud flushing toilet on All in the Family before his character Archie Bunker entered the room. It was so shocking that critics named it “the flush heard round the world.” It would be heard again and again.
Though at one time Lear had several leading programs, All in the Family, which debuted in 1971, was the most important weapon of mass cultural influence that he wielded. Based on a winning British comedy, All in the Family became one of the most iconic cultural forces of its time. The comedy broke barrier after barrier, touching explosive issue after issue, with a comedic twist that was irresistible. Archie Bunker became Lear’s antihero, the white conservative male unwilling to go along with the cultural revolution. His wife Edith’s cousin Maude became a heroine. She would later become the title character in a spinoff series that would, predictably, feature Maude deciding to have an abortion.
Lear understood that television had the powerful capacity to change minds laugh line by laugh line. As Benjamin Rolsky rightly observed, “What distinguished Lear from other entertainers and writers, however, was that he wanted to make people laugh about something.” Lear stated himself that “Comedy with something serious on its mind works as a kind of intravenous to the mind and spirit.”
A powerful intravenous indeed, and Lear knew exactly what he was doing. He had many serious things on his mind, such as pushing abortion, feminism, homosexual rights, and much more. Rolsky makes that clear in his book, The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left: Politics, Television, and Popular Culture in the 1970s and Beyond. Rolsky’s most important insight is that Lear was not just a man of the left, he was a major figure on the religious left. While minimizing any personal religious beliefs, Lear staunchly opposed conservative Christian influence in the public square and saw evangelicals on the religious right as a threat to his liberal vision for America. He founded the activist group known as People for the American Way and forged an alliance with religious liberals.
Lear was a champion of the so-called “new morality” and he used the powerful medium of television to change American hearts and minds. What Rolsky calls Lear’s “liberal faith” was translated into stories that captured the American mind—and powerfully so. Lear is now 100 years old and, whether today’s Americans know it or not, he changed America and drove a liberal revolution in morality. We are all living in Norman Lear’s world now.
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