It can probably be argued that Norman Lear was one of the handful of people who changed the face of television throughout the 1970’s. He didn’t start out that way though.

Sure, he was always a comedy writer/director but it was more in the mainstream style. He started off by lending his talents to the comedy team of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. They eventually fired him and he took his talents to the small screen. Throughout the 50’s and 60’ he spent much of the time writing for those “variety” type shows that seemed to be spawned on a weekly basis. The humor was bland, non-controversial and didn’t even attempt to tackle any issues of the day. I mean, how controversial can it be to write for shows that featured such wild and crazy folks such as Martha Raye, Andy Williams and Tennessee Ernie Ford?

As the 60’s faded away gave birth to the 70’s, it seemed television was still stuck somewhere in the 50’s. Sure, you had your Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In where they attempted to make light of the issues surrounding America and the world at the time but theirs was done in a slapstick, almost non-offensive kind of way. All of that was about to change.

Lear was traveling in merry ol’ England when he came across a show called Those Were The Days. Its basic premise was that of a conservative working class older gentleman being forced to put up with his live in son- in-law. Lear liked what he saw and along with his partner, Bud Yorkin purchased the rights to the show. After a little tinkering here and there, Lear decided to alter the format a wee bit.

Always a supporter of liberal causes, Lear decided to add some spice to the show by pitting the conservative father versus the liberal son-in-law. Throw in a “dingbat” wife and a pretty daughter and you would think you had all the making of a hit. Not so at ABC. Lear tried to pitch them the idea and it fell flat. Undaunted, he took it to CBS who was mired last in the ratings. Figuring they had nothing to lose, they gave it the go-ahead and “All in the Family made its debut in January of 1971.

At first, America wasn’t ready for the language that was coming out of their television sets. Heretofore words used to describe minorities such as nigger, kikes, spics, guineas, mics and a host of other euphemisms that were usually uttered in private now came across loud and clear in America’s living rooms. News of the day that focused on the Viet Nam War, civil rights, gays, protests and just about any other relevant issue were fair game. At first, viewer reception was chilly but soon, All in the Family would win over its critics and Lear received his first Emmy award later that year.

Given the times, “All in the Family” was definitely considered groundbreaking television. Its success spawned a couple of spin-offs that Lear also had a hand in and that also broke new ground.

Maude, starring the ever beautiful Bea Arthur, gave America its first prime time look at the whole abortion issue, birth control and menopause. The Jeffersons would constantly be “movin on up” as it depicted a black family living in a predominately white neighborhood. Eventually, that format would change but the writing and producing of Norma Lear stuck with the show. Good Times was actually a spin-off from Maude. It featured a black family that had to cope with every day banalities such as being evicted, neighborhood gang warfare, and muggings.

And who can forget Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman? Lear tried to pitch this one to the networks but they refused. It was a spoof on soap operas and the themes were just as ridiculous. (Read anyend's fine w/u if you don't believe me!).

Last but not least, Norman Lear brought us Sanford and Son. A great show that featured Redd Foxx as Fred Sanford, a junk dealer, in cahoots with his son Lamont (Desmond Wilson). While the themes tackled by Sanford and Son didn’t quite match up to his other efforts, the show was controversial for its language alone.

Norman Lear has pretty much faded from view these days though his shows haven’t. Many, if not all of them, to this day can be seen on a regular basis in either syndication or on Comedy Central. I guess that’s the true testament to his genius.

Did You Know?

Did you know that in 2000, Norman Lear, his wife and one of his friends, purchased one of the few original prints of the Declaration of Independence? Eventually he bought his friends share and it is one of the few, if not the only known copy that is in private hands.


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