'All in the Family' Creator on the Flaws of Archie Bunker
Chautauqua Institution - Amphitheater, Chautauqua Institution
Roger Rosenblatt discusses the career of Norman Lear. Norman Lear’s career kick-started the moment he called Danny Thomas to pitch him an idea for a monologue.He had called during lunchtime pretending to be a New York Times reporter who was in California for two days and who needed to ask Thomas some final questions for an article. The secretary who picked up gave Thomas’ home number to Lear. Lear and his writing partner Ed Simmons were not actually in California, and the idea Lear pitched to Thomas was not yet written. But by 6 p.m. the next evening, Lear and Simmons had a finished piece — “Zemischt, Fardreit and Farblungit” — ready to be performed at Ciro’s in Beverly Hills. The routine was a success, and David Susskind, an agent with Music Corporation of America, called Lear and asked if he and his partner had ever written for television. “I said, ‘Yes, of course,’ feeling comfortable with the lie since we’d never written a nightclub comic before and our success there was why he called in the first place,” Lear read from an excerpt of his memoir during Monday’s morning lecture. Roger Rosenblatt led a conversation with Lear that focused on the idea behind “All in the Family,” the show’s character Archie Bunker and Lear’s politics.A film about Lear and his shows — including “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” and “Good Times” — was featured before Rosenblatt began asking Lear about “All in the Family.” Lear’s inspiration behind the show came from a British sitcom titled “Til Death Us Do Part.” He said he was so excited about the idea that he wrote 125 pages of notes in two days. ABC bought the original show three years before it went on air in 1971, but the network had the right to either put it on the air or to have Lear remake it, he said. The first version of the show was called “Justice for All,” which included Carroll O’Connor, Jean Stapleton and another young couple. The second version followed the same script but had a different couple, Lear said. “They were afraid of it,” he said of ABC. “Same script. Never changed a word of the script.” When Lear made the film “Cold Turkey,” he was offered a three-picture deal by United Artists to write, produce and direct more comedies. He said he got a call from CBS about the same time to put “All in the Family” on the air. Rosenblatt asked what the fate of Lear’s show would have been had it been presented to television networks today. Lear said though he isn’t currently active in television, he knows people who are involved who say the show would not happen now. The character Archie Bunker became a main point of discussion between Rosenblatt and Lear. Rosenblatt asked Lear about the type of character Archie was meant to be and the effect he had on the audience. Rosenblatt asked how Archie could be a dangerous character and someone the audience could laugh with.“ ‘Dangerous’ isn’t a word I’ve ever heard connected with Archie,” Lear said. “Archie was afraid of tomorrow. He was afraid of progress; things had been moving too fast for him.” Archie was a character who grew up in communities in which he had never seen a black person or family. To him, the world was falling apart, Lear said. As a character, he was meant to be someone educable. One of the greatest problems in American culture is that there are not enough politicians who care to help people understand context, he said. “Context, there’s very little context in American media,” Lear said. “You get the headline, you get the bumper sticker, you don’t get the context.” Lear said his interest in politics was always there, and he does not know why there isn’t more political thinking in comedy today. People who worked around Lear on shows were serious and focused on their work. Lear insisted that everyone read The New York Times, not just the Los Angeles Times, and gave their families attention.The material for shows came from paying attention to families and what was happening to them, which writers don’t always focus on. “They’re working so hard at the characters they’re creating,” he said. “They’re not looking at the characters around them who have already been created.”"