Norman Lear on the power of laughter to unite Americans

Norman Lear on laughing at what’s happening in America


Norman Lear on laughing at what’s happening in America

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The television special “I Love Liberty,” a celebration of America’s flag-waving flag, was produced in 1982, less than ten years after the end of the Vietnam War—a war that nearly tore this country apart.

“‘I Love Liberty,’ that’s as happy a memory as I have,” said its producer Norman Lear, arguably the most successful producer of sitcoms on television. Lear has always been committed to promoting freedom of expression. In fact, his political action group, People for the American Way, produced the thesis. Somehow Lear even found a way to get the late John Wayne (who supported the war) and Jane Fonda (who very publicly opposed it) to do a little good on national television.

Wayne: “I think she’s a little mixed up in her thinking, and I think she feels the same way about me. That’s our right as Americans.”
Fonda: “I’m happy to live in a country where people are free to disagree, even if it’s me that some of them disagree with.”

A bit lukewarm, but as symbols of national reconciliation go, not bad!

“Sunday Morning” senior contributor Ted Koppel asked Lear, “Could you run the same special today?”

“Oh, I’m determined to find out!” he grinned.

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TV producer Norman Lear with “Sunday Morning” senior contributor Ted Koppel.

CBS News


Lear, you’ve probably heard, turned 100 a few months ago. And when he talks about producing TV specials now, at his age, he’s not kidding. He has half a dozen projects underway. “We will do 10 episodes of one of the shows,” he said.

“It’s great. I love it, I love it,” Koppel said.

“I love it more!”

In his heyday, say 40 or 50 years ago, sitcoms, the big ones, drew tens of thousands of viewers. Lear produced a lot of them.

One he is considering remaking is “Maude”. Lear is considering recasting and reproducing one of the most controversial sitcom episodes of all time that aired 50 years ago, in which a 47-year-old woman discovers she is pregnant and fears she and her husband may be too old to have another child – and considering an abortion.

Koppel said, “You’re going to piss off a lot of people, Norman. You know it.”

“Oh, wouldn’t that be interesting? I wouldn’t change a word. The last moment of that show is something I remember as vividly as anything I ever had anything to do with.”

Maude: “Just tell me, Walter, that I’m doing the right thing, not having the baby.”
Walter: “In the privacy of our own lives, you do the right thing.”

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In the two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma”, which aired in November 1972, Maude (Bea Arthur) discovers she is pregnant at 47. She and her husband, Walter (Bill Macy), decide to have an abortion.

CBS


When it aired, Koppel said, “CBS got thousands of letters. What do you think will happen this time?”

“They would get ten by thousands!” he laughed.

And then of course there was “All in the family”. What made Archie Bunker so relatable was the likelihood that every family somewhere—at work, at the hairdressers, around the Thanksgiving table—had or knew someone like an Archie who made us cringe even as we choked a laugh.

Koppel said: “You always managed to make us laugh, Norman, at the most dangerous things – racism, hatred, bigotry. Can you make us laugh today?”

Lear said, “If I did it today, I’d have a 13-year-old daughter who represents everything I care about and is a pain in the ass to talk about in her brilliance and sentiments about America. She would just being 13 knows a lot about the folly of the human condition and recognizes issues her parents live with that even they don’t face.”

“I have all the faith in the world in your creativity, but you put a lot on those slender shoulders. The 13-year-old has a lot to carry.”

“She won’t get us out of this mess, but she will help.”

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Produced by Norman Lear.

CBS News


“We are more sensitive today about not doing things that would offend gay people; we are more sensitive today about not doing things that would offend women or others from minority groups. That has to be a good thing.”

Lear said, “You say we must be more sensitive today?”

“You think we’re not?”

“And I’m not sure I agree with that.”

“Every office now has a department of someone who is there to make sure that others in the department don’t go around bumping into each other. We didn’t have that 50 years ago. Is that a good thing?”

“Oh my God, my feeling is that there is something wrong, that we live in a culture where it have to exist,” Lear said, “that there is a role for a person to ensure that other people exist decent people. It says something about the culture we live in.’

“I get the impression that what you’re saying is that we shouldn’t need a ward to make us be nice to each other?”

“Yes. Yes, yes, yes,” Lear replied.

“But your way of getting us there has always been the ability to make us laugh at ourselves.”

“The Folly of the Human Condition.”

“Do you still do it?”

“I pray so,” said Lear.


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Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Steven Tyler.

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