EXCLUSIVE: Norman Lear never was one to be stifled with. When Fred Silverman turned to him for a show to upgrade the image of CBS — the Tiffany network that, through the enormous popularity of The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Hee Haw, had come to stand for Country Bumpkins Supreme — Lear knew exactly the path he wanted to take. He would turn the sitcom landscape into a minefield where the timid dare not tread, taking on the Big Issues of the time: The Vietnam War. Civil Rights. Women’s Liberation. Hippie culture. The growing chasm between America’s Haves and Have-Nots. Lear would introduce Archie Bunker into the American cultural pantheon, damn the consequences.
Not, however, with the wagging finger of the pedant. Lear, who had written comedy with Ed Simmons for Martha Raye, and Jerry Lewis & Dean Martin, produced variety shows and feature films with his Tandem Productions partner Bud Yorkin and hung out with Hollywood’s crack-a-minute cadre of gagmeisters that included Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar and Neil Simon among countless others, was one of the funniest men alive. Is one of the funniest men alive, I hasten to add, for at 92, he has lost none of the inciseveness that scores his wit with rivulates of sass, Yiddishisms and wisdom. His self-deprecating humor springs from every page of Even This I Get To Experience (coming out next week from Penguin), the memoir of a self-made man who, by the end of the 1970s had seven of the top 10 shows on TV, each of them getting laughs while causing recurrent apoplexy, agita and conniptions among the suits in Program Practices.
It never was easy, and in the exclusive excerpt below, Lear recounts the battle to get All In The Family out of his head and onto the air. From the outset he knew two things: that Archie Bunker would epater le bourgeoisie — and that if he yielded on even the smallest point, he stood to lose everything.
Stay tuned after the show for my exclusive interview with Norman, a personal inspiration for over 25 years.
THOSE WERE THE DAYS
Within days of my being asked to sign the three-picture deal with United Artists, Bob Wood, newly ensconced in the offices at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, phoned me to say he’d just seen the “Archie pilot” and would I be interested in talking about it going on CBS? Although it would mean I couldn’t take the picture deal, I couldn’t resist meeting with him after two pilots and more than two years of thinking about it. Wood, an able and agreeable executive, backed up by his talented and driven programming VP, Fred Silverman, had predetermined that the kind of rural comedies that had sustained CBS — The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction—had seen their day, and he hoped to serve up something to change the CBS brand and mark his regime.
“The rural comedies that had sustained CBS … had seen their day, and Fred Silverman hoped to serve up something to change the CBS brand and mark his regime.”
My show would do the trick, but he asked me to rewrite the pilot. I said I wouldn’t do that. “How about if the show goes on but you make a different first episode?” he suggested. I told him there was a reason I shot the same script for the two pilots I made for ABC. It was deliberately based on the slightest of stories, which gave me the opportunity to present 360 degrees of everyone, but especially Archie—his attitudes on race, religion, politics, sex, and family, holding nothing back. Metaphorically, you can’t get wetter than wet, I told Mr. Wood, so we all needed to jump in the pool together and get soaking wet the first time out. The meeting ended with his having to think about it. With United Artists’ offer in mind, I left CBS telling myself I was better off not having to choose between the two, yet delighting in the possibility that it could still come to that.
The which-way-to-go discussion started that very evening, just on the chance it could happen, and there wasn’t a friend or family member who didn’t advise me to take the three-picture deal. First of all, the medium known as broadcast television was the bush leagues compared to motion pictures and the big screen. On top of that, everyone was certain that if the network actually dared to air the show, they wouldn’t have the guts to stay with it and it would be off the air in a week or two.
“Carroll O’Connor bet me, and put it in writing, that CBS wouldn’t keep the show on the air.”
“They’ll break your heart with this thing” was the common refrain. Even Carroll O’Connor bet me, and put it in writing, that CBS wouldn’t keep the show on the air. He had an apartment in Rome that he would not vacate because he was so sure he’d be back there in six weeks. With all that ringing in my ears I picked up a call from Bob Wood one day.
“Okay,” he said, “thirteen weeks, you’re on the air.”
I think I knew at the time that the film deal presented a far surer career path and income, no small consideration since we were pretty much broke, as op- posed to the big question mark All in the Family represented in a TV era defined by hillbillies and petticoats. Taking the TV deal was all risk. A show could be absolutely terrific and fail for other reasons, like the night it was on, its time slot, and how well the network was doing overall. [Lear’s wife] Frances and the others were right to be advising against it.
But if anything could keep me from accepting Bob Wood’s “thirteen on the air,” it wasn’t going to be the amount of risk we would be taking, the warnings about the mercurial nature of the ratings-driven TV business, the argument that TV was the bush leagues compared to making movies, or being told “Bury your ego, Norman, the world doesn’t need your father on TV.” No, there was only one thing that could make me change my mind—and that was CBS itself.
“There was only one thing that could make me change my mind—and that was CBS itself.”
I phoned Carroll in Rome and he couldn’t believe we had been picked up. He was still sure he’d be on his way back to Italy in a few weeks, and I agreed to pay for round-trip tickets if he was right. I don’t recall whose idea it was, but we changed the title to All in the Family, and CBS agreed to auditions to recast the roles of Gloria and Mike. Two years earlier, the first time we’d shot the pilot, Rob Reiner had wanted to play the part but I had thought him too young, emotionally if not chronologically. This time he walked into the audition and out with the role within minutes. Now all we needed was a Gloria to go with Rob’s Michael.
John Rich suggested I look at the top of the Smothers Brothers show and check out a young actress for the role of Gloria. There was Sally Struthers, tap-dancing in a pool of light under the opening credits, and oozing comic chops. She auditioned with Rob and it was another bolt of lightning.
While I hired writers Mickey Ross, Bernie West, and Don Nicholl to start on the remaining dozen scripts CBS had ordered, the network decided to do some research and show the earlier pilots to some focus groups. Soon, word f loated back to us that the screenings were not going well, and I had to wonder if this was the beginning of the end. Notes from Program Practices followed with suggestions such as these:
“We ask that homosexual terminology be kept to an absolute minimum, and in particular the word ‘fag’ not be used at all. ‘Queer’ should be used most sparingly, and less offensive terms like ‘pansy,’ ‘sissy,’ or even ‘fairy’ should be used instead. And again, a term like ‘regular fella’ would be preferred to ‘straight.’”
“Archie’s comment on the shortness of Gloria’s skirt should not be as ana- tomically personal as, ‘Every time you sit down the mystery’s over.’ ”
Note From Program Practices: Archie’s comment on the shortness of Gloria’s skirt should not be as anatomically personal as, ‘Every time you sit down the mystery’s over.’
There were pages of such requests that turned to warnings and occasionally to threats. Over the years and shows they amounted to volumes. Early on I wrote long letters of clarification and reasoning, but rarely was I able to avoid the ultimate confrontation: “Remove that and I go, too.”
In this instance, the first of that long line, I called my attorney and asked exactly what I had been contractually guaranteed by CBS. What could they do to me?
The host explained that they were going to be shown a thirty-minute situation comedy and the network was interested in their reaction to it. At each chair there was a large dial at the end of a cable. They were to hold that dial while watching the show and twist it to the right when they thought something funny or were otherwise enjoying a moment. If they didn’t think something was funny, if it offended them or simply bored them, they were to twist their dial to the left. Two big clocklike instruments hung high on the wall over the TV set to register the degree of the likes and dislikes of the group as they twisted their dials.
Those of us monitoring the focus group sat behind them, looking into a one-way glass wall. We saw and heard everything, and it revealed a good deal of what I knew instinctively about human nature. The group howled with laughter, rising up in their chairs and falling forward with each belly laugh. But wait! Despite the sound and the body language, they were dialing left, claiming to dislike much of what they were seeing, and they were really unhappy with it. But really!
“Who wants to be seen as having no problem with words such as spic, kike, spade, and the like spewing from a bigot’s mouth?”
While I can’t say I could have predicted this behavior, unlike my friends at CBS I understood and was elated by the audience’s reaction. Who, sitting among a group of strangers, with that dial in his or her lap, is going to tell the world that they approve of Archie’s hostility and rudeness? And who wants to be seen as having no problem with words such as spic, kike, spade, and the like spewing from a bigot’s mouth? So our focus group might even have winced as they laughed, but laugh they did, and dialed left. Comedy with something serious on its mind works as a kind of intravenous to the mind and spirit. After he winces and laughs, what the individual makes of the material depends on that individual, but he has been reached.
CBS gave me a heads-up a few days before that All in the Family would start airing Tuesday, January 12, 1971, at 9:30 p.m. (right after The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Hee Haw). I alerted everyone in my world. There were some who still couldn’t believe it was actually happening. Monday morning, the eleventh, Program Practices paid me a visit and—hold everything—asked me to make one trim in our pilot episode.
As taped, this for the third time, our story opens on a Sunday morning with Gloria putting the finishing touches on an anniversary brunch she is plan- ning to surprise Archie and Edith with when they return from church. Michael is helping her, but in a touchy-feely mood. It turns serious. They rarely have the house alone together, he says, and he wants Gloria to go upstairs with him. She demurs. He continues his pursuit, catching her and kissing her. The front door opens and Archie and Edith come in. Archie has caused them to leave church early, and enters complaining about the preacher and the sermon they walked out on. They go into the dining area and encounter Mike and Gloria in a passionate embrace. Archie takes it all in and says, as if he caught them in the act, “Eleven ten on a Sunday morning!” CBS insisted we eliminate that line.
“Why?” I asked Program Practices. “Because it makes it explicit.” “Makes what explicit?”
“What they were going to do.”
“At eleven ten on a Sunday morning.” “Yes.”
“So? They’re married, aren’t they?”
“It doesn’t matter. It won’t f ly in Des Moines.”
“And there’ll be a knee-jerk reaction in the Bible Belt?”
“Not if you cut the line.” I said it didn’t make sense, and the line was in. “Then we’ ll cut it,” he said. “Either way it won’t be in the broadcast.”
That was the first time it occurred to me that the network could have the last word by editing out what we didn’t agree to. Fred Silverman called later to mollify me.
“You’ve got a great show, Norm. What does one line matter?”
I told him the line had to stay in and he said I could talk myself blue in the face but “the boys upstairs” had drawn a line. (I learned later that William Paley, who started and owned the network, had had grave reservations about the show.)
“Somehow I knew that far more than differing opinions over one line was at stake here.”
Somehow I knew that far more than differing opinions over one line was at stake here. As tiny as this issue was, much of the program content of the series depended on our relationship with Program Practices, and that would be determined right here and now by the way this difference of opinion was resolved.
I knew myself to be reasonable and open-minded, with some fine, experi- enced writers and a brilliant cast to sift ideas through. And I knew that Program Practices had their people living so much in the fear of offending that the satisfaction of reflecting life realistically, even when it hurts, was anathema to them. Then, too, there were many rungs on their ladder, so no Program Practices executive could think just for himself without worrying for and about those above him. That became my definition of mounting fear, and I was sure I couldn’t work that way. The report back to CBS in New York was that the offending line was to remain.
At five p.m. L.A. time, an hour and a half before the show was to go on in New York, Bob Wood called with a breezy “Hi, fella.” He had a terrific compromise idea and felt sure I’d have no problem with it.
“Listen, you’ll love it, we’re gonna run the second episode first,” he said. “Then next week we’ll run the show intended for tonight. We won’t change a word and you’ve saved your precious line. Done?”
“No,” I said. We weren’t done, and the rest of the conversation was like drowning in the dark, legs pumping to keep head above water, hands grasping for something, anything, to hold on to. “The point is that we can’t keep giving in . . .”
“But we’re still talking one line . . .” “Yes, but after that, trust me, I know where this is going . . .”
“So, you’d lose an entire series for one stupid line?” “It isn’t the line, it’s the decision.”
“So you’d lose the series for one stupid decision? Is that what you’re telling me? We got twenty-five minutes to airtime, is that what you’re telling me?”
“I’m sorry, Bob.”
“My whole world was flashing before me. Was I being foolish, childish?”
My whole world was f lashing before me. Was I being foolish, childish? I certainly wasn’t being brave because there was still a three-picture deal sitting out there. And there was Frances, and all my good friends, advising me to take it. The question was all about what was motivating me. Was it a matter of ego, of my having to have my own way? Or was CBS being ridiculously wary? Would Program Practices ever be strong enough to think for itself? Not if you’re right, Norman, about understanding the gutless, fear-ridden place they’re coming from.
“I’m sorry, Bob,” I repeated. “I want the pilot to air first and the line of dialogue to remain as taped.”
“And if not?” Bob asked. “Don’t expect me back.”
When we hung up it was about 6:10 L.A. time, twenty minutes before the show was about to go on the air in New York. We were working on the script for what would be the fifth episode, preparing to close shop and race home to see our debut with our families. At six-thirty, just as I was about to call a friend in New York and ask what they were showing on CBS, the phone rang. It was Silverman from New York.
“Rest easy,” he said. “You won this one.”
I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry, and I was no clearer about that at home three hours later, where a few friends and members of the cast and com- pany who lived nearby were gathered around our TV set with us as the show began in the West and I found out what came with my victory. Before the fade-up on Carroll and Jean at the piano singing “Those Were the Days” (to which Jean had added that crack in her voice on the line “And you knew where you were then”—we did more than four hundred tapings and it never failed to get a laugh), there appeared this advisory:
“The program you are about to see is “All in the Family.” It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter we hope to show—in a mature fashion— just how absurd they are.”
The first episode of the nine-season run of All in the Family followed. Thirty minutes later America had been introduced to the subversive mind of Norman Lear, and not a single state seceded from the Union.
Despite my being aware that with every episode going forward we would face the same mental masturbation from the network that preceded episode one, I slept well. But I was totally unaware of how much my life would change—and how much the establishment would come to believe that TV and the American culture had been “radicalized” overnight.
Five years later we had seven series on the air and Mike Wallace was intro-ducing me on 60 Minutes as the man whose whose shows were viewed by more than 120 million people each week.
– Excerpted from Even This I Get To Experience by Norman Lear, © 2014, with permission of The Penguin Press