2017 Honoree Spotlight: Norman Lear
Norman Lear is hailed as the “Comedy Godfather of Television” who forever changed the TV sitcom and American culture at large with his innovative programming that challenged audiences while leaving them entertained.
As Norman Lear was building a career as a comedy writer in the 1950s and 1960s, authoring sketches and monologues for the likes of Jerry Lewis, Tennessee Ernie Ford and The Colgate Comedy Hour, the television comedy landscape was a very different place than the one Lear would leave it only a few decades later.
America was in a period of post-war prosperity and incredible social upheaval. In the news there were civil rights demonstrations, assassinations, generational divides, a growing war in Vietnam, second-wave feminism, rock-and-roll, and protests. But as Lear explained in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2016, the biggest issues in the evening sitcom was that the roast might be ruined when the boss was coming over for dinner. Comedy was an escape from the evening news that preceded it in the broadcast, perhaps in part to avoid touching the many third rails that were being exposed in America.
“That was fine, but it made a giant statement, too: There were no women or their problems in American life on television. There were no health issues. There were no abortions. There were no economic problems,” Lear told Rolling Stone. “The worst thing that could happen was the roast would be ruined. I realized that was a giant statement — that we weren’t making any statements.”
Lear displayed an unparalleled ability to both make statements and entertain. In the 1970s, Lear was the mind behind sitcom hit after hit like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, or Sanford and Son.
As The New York Times’ Allesandra Stanley put it, “Lear was a one-man Golden Age of Television, a sitcom savant who at one point had seven series on the air and more than 120 million viewers each week. There was comedy on television before Lear, and certainly plenty of shows with a social conscience, but the creator of All in the Family was the first to blend the two so daringly and successfully.”
Lear’s work touched a broad range of issues from race relations and economic issues to sexuality and abortion. Every week, he battled with network censors, political and TV critics, and sometimes his own cast who asked if this was the episode that would push the envelope too far. But his work never sacrificed its comedy and heart for the bully pulpit, and American viewers watched by the millions.
Lear has said that he sees the comedy and foolishness in the human condition. He’s said that he wasn’t trying to break barriers as much as writing about what he knew and saw happening in the culture around him, and the American public responded.
Lear has often been motivated by a deep sense of patriotism and belief in American ideals. During World War II, Lear passed up a college exemption from being drafted and chose to enlist, flying 52 missions in the Air Force as a radio operator, bombardier and gunner on B-17s. In 2000, he purchased an original copy of the Declaration of Independence for $8 million, which he toured to all 50 states to “remind the nation of what it stood for.”
Growing up as a Jewish kid in Connecticut in the ’20s and ’30s, Lear has written about listening to the anti-Semitic preacher Father John Coughlin on his homemade radio at age 9 and fearing what was happening in Europe. In his memoir, he writes that experience made him feel like an outsider, but he was comforted that he was protected by the American Constitution and given an opportunity, and that stirred in him at a young age an empathy for and recognition of how minorities and certain groups are treated, along with the conviction to push his nation to live up to its own promises.
Continuing to work at age 95, Lear has seen the birth of television and profoundly shaped what appears on it. He’s been recognized for his contribution with four Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award, is a member of the first class to be inducted to the Television Hall of Fame, a National Medal of Arts, and now a Kennedy Center Honor.