Norman Lear blasted presumptive Republican Presidential nominee Donald Trump Thursday night telling a Writers Guild audience “He IS Archie Bunker. I think of Donald Trump as the middle finger of the American right hand.” Lear went on to ask somewhat angrily, “Why is this happening? Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, can we all seriously agree this is bad for America?”
He continued by adding an opinion of why this is taking place right now. “I think this is a case of the American people saying, ‘this is the kind of leadership you are giving us,’ because they didn’t invent him. The Republican party handed it to them. I think they are saying ‘screw you’. I don’t think they are married to the notion that he is going to be a great President.”
In fact, Lear reminisced about his proudest moments involving another infamous GOP figure and that President’s reaction to the treatment he got on network TV from Lear 45 years ago. “Have you never heard Nixon in the White House tapes talking about All In The Family and Archie Bunker? It is the greatest three minutes of my life. He’s talking with John Erlichman about this theme song and asks, ‘how do they make such fun of a good man?'”
It was my honor to host a far-reaching and rather unprecedented conversation between two titans of TV comedy at the Writers Guild Theater Thursday evening as Lear and Chuck Lorre discussed many things including the state of comedy today, the responsibility of the media, the differences between their respective eras of television comedy, and many other topics. They addressed a nearly full audience of WGA members who came to hear a pair of icons of the medium in a rare dual conversation organized (with the support of Warner Bros.) by the Guild’s diversity committee on longevity in a business that more often than ever seems to discount the talents and contributions of anyone over the age of 50.
“This is the first moment I have heard you say just what you said. This is the first moment I have sat and looked out at this crowd. The first moment I have sat in this chair, with Chuck Lorre in this chair. This is the f**king beginning,” Lear said to appreciative laughter acknowledging his belief that everything is in front of him, even at age 93. “Every minute is another beginning. I couldn’t believe anything more.”
In fact, Lear revealed that on Wednesday night he completed taping – as always in front of a live audience as does Lorre’s shows – the third episode of Netflix’s Hispanic reboot of an all new version of his hit ’70s series, One Day At A Time, now starring Rita Moreno. The man is ageless and has to easily be the oldest working active TV producer in the business today. In fact, the 63-year-old Lorre was hard-pressed to keep up with Lear’s total recall of a 66-year TV writing career and seemingly in awe of the man sitting beside him who has broken so many barriers in the medium. But Lorre had his own tales to tell, and it was interesting to see these two men who, at different times, have absolutely ruled the CBS comedy roost. Lear, of course, dominated much of the 1970s into the 80s with the likes of All In The Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, One Day At A Time and so many others, while Lorre has scored consistent top ten hits with Dharma And Greg, Two And A Half Men, Mike And Molly, The Big Bang Theory and Mom to name just a few.
Lear talked about some of his pet peeves including a diatribe against a corporate America system in which companies had to do, quarter by quarter, better than the last which is what he thinks is partially responsible for the rise of Trump. When I mentioned CBS head Les Moonves’ now famous quote about Trump’s ratings-getting ability in this election year ( “It may not be good for America but it is good for CBS”), Lear didn’t mince words. “I couldn’t say it better,” he said describing the cynicism he sees rampant in the world today. Although Lorre didn’t address the Trump phenomenon as directly as the always candid Lear, he did relay a personal connection to the candidate, despite Trump’s (false) claims at the time to the contrary. “Let me just point out that Two And A Half Men beat The Apprentice REGULARLY in the ratings,” he laughed.
Although Lear said TV has mostly lost the mojo of the topical kind of half-hour comedies he did in the ’70s like All In The Family, he did single out for praise the animated South Park for continuing to carry the flag. “South Park did it brilliantly I think,” he said. Lorre added that it has changed over the decades. “There is a pendulum swing (regarding network comedy). It became very conservative again in the 80s. Then there was a decade of sarcasm in the 90s,” he said before mentioning that somewhere along the line he – and it – changed. “The big reason as to why it changed is the country – God bless America – always finds the middle but the swings can be terrible.”
Lear honestly admitted the sheer amount of TV programming is daunting these days and the only Lorre show he has watched is Big Bang which he had high compliments for with obvious respect from one TV comedy pro to another. “I think America’s greatest product is excess in everything,” he laughed.
Lorre, for his part, could not praise Lear’s shows enough. “He clearly made it obvious to everyone that comedy was not predicated on contrived situations. Even the word sitcom fell apart the way he began to work,” he said.
“Beginning with All In The Family that was just life, the comedy was people in relationships dealing with one another. There was no more ‘sit’ in the comedy. It was the comedy of life and that’s something I got a taste of when I was on Roseanne many years ago. It was boot camp. Everyone who worked on it got better,” he said of the two years he worked as a writer on that landmark show.
Both Lear and Lorre were very generous in talking about their various iconic shows, how they were cast, written and watched. Lear told of how it took two pilots for ABC and a third for CBS before All In The Family finally hit the air, eventually becoming the number one show on TV for five years. Similarly, Lorre talked about the fights surrounding his shows on the same network, pushing the limits of broadcast TV in very different ways, particularly with the raunchiness of Two And A Half Men and now the raw honesty of Mom which Lear made a point of saying he was going to watch. It is certainly the kind of show Lear would have gravitated toward.
There was so much covered in the 95-minute conversation that the WGA says it will be sending the video tape of the evening out to the entire membership of the guild. Near the end of the conversation, the pair talked about eventually working with each other. Lear already had an idea he has been trying to launch for years. “There’s a show I want to do called BALLS! Shall we do it together? It’s about an international company based in the south that makes balls. Another major international company wants to buy this little company and it would be great for the town. But the guy who owns it is 94 years old and you never see him. He lives upstairs and his three sons want to see him dead,” he explained of the main plotline. “Seems like a Viacom kind of thing,” Lorre laughed. That’s Lear, always on the cutting edge, as both these iconic writer/producers usually are.