Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (PBS, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After The Contenders PBS showed a couple of other documentaries, one an American Masters presentation on TV writer and producer Norman Lear which was an interesting program that could have been a whole lot better if directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady had trusted their material more. They had the advantage in that Lear is still alive (at age 92!), still in full possession of his faculties and gave them full cooperation. Alas, they saddled their show with a bizarre set of framing sequences showing Lear getting ready to achieve a lifetime achievement award from somebody or other (one of those the late Billy Wilder once called the “quick before he croaks awards”) from which they cut back and forth to the actual story: Lear, a contemporary and friend of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner (both of whom appear here as interviewees), served a similar apprenticeship as a TV writer — though he wasn’t involved in the ground-breaking Sid Caesar Your Show of Shows that launched the careers of Reiner, Brooks, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart and Neil Simon. Lear got his start on the Colgate Comedy Hour when its stars were Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (I hadn’t realized that Martin and Lewis were on this show before Abbott and Costello were!) and then worked on TV shows hosted by Martha Raye, Tennessee Ernie Ford (the entire montage of his 1950’s and early-1960’s TV work was scored with Ford’s hit record of “Sixteen Tons” playing in the background), George Gobel, Bobby Darin, Andy Williams, Henry Fonda and Danny Kaye (though the last four were only specials, not series).

He also produced a TV show called The Deputy which was unmentioned on this tribute, though according to the summary it was a Western that prefigured the social concerns of Lear’s later comedies: “The Deputy is Clay McCord, a storekeeper in 1880’s Silver City, Arizona Territories, who is an expert shot, but refuses to use his gun because he believes they are the major cause of frontier violence. However, he is persuaded many times to be The Deputy to help keep order when the Chief Marshal Simon Fry is out of town.” Lear rose through the ranks of Hollywood and wrote scripts for Frank Sinatra’s vehicle Come Blow Your Horn and the mordant (though annoyingly sexist) satire Divorce American Style, but his career changed when he saw a British TV sitcom called ’Til Death Do Us Part, written, produced by and starring Johnny Speight in the role of a bigoted proletarian whose layabout son-in-law moves in with them and sparks endless arguments. Lear bought the U.S. rights to this show and wrote a pilot for it called Those Were the Days which ABC turned down; later, after further tweaking — and one important story change; instead of an aimlessly drifting guy with no job or prospects for one, the son-in-law character became a college student, thereby giving him a reason for not working that U.S. audiences would find acceptable — he shot another version, called it All in the Family, and sold it to CBS. The network put it on rather gingerly as a mid-season replacement for something or other and it became an instant sensation, though it also sparked a public debate as to whether putting on a loudmouthed bigot like Archie Bunker (as played definitively by Carroll O’Connor, who shared his character’s origins as a New York Irish-American but not his politics — O’Connor was a liberal and I can still remember the galvanic shock a lot of people went through when he appeared in 1972 in a commercial for George McGovern for President) was encouraging bigotry or fighting it by holding it up to ridicule. The latter was obviously Lear’s intent, though it must have disheartened him when a lot of the mail the show received was from people who agreed with Archie Bunker and were glad one of the “liberal” TV networks had finally put someone like them on the air.

I remember watching the show at the time and generally loving it (and having something of a crush on Rob Reiner, Carl’s son, who played the “meathead” son-in-law and at the time was a big man but not as enormous as he later became — not that different, come to think of it, from my mom’s crush on Orson Welles, whom she didn’t see on screen between The Lady from Shanghai and Touch of Evil, by which time he’d become bloated — even more than he was for real because Welles famously wore body padding for his Touch of Evil role — and my mom remembered leaving the theatre where Touch of Evil was playing and wondering, “What happened to him?”), though one night I was at my father’s when it was about to come on and my half-sister said, in a surprisingly prissy tone of voice for her age (about 10), “Oh, we don’t watch that show. They shout at each other.” Lear had a string of hits after All in the FamilyGood Times (which I hadn’t realized he made before The Jeffersons — indeed, The Jeffersons was a response to the criticism he’d got from a lot of Black people, including Good Times cast members Esther Rolle and John Amos, that he was just feeding the stereotype that all African-Americans were ghetto dwellers, and he decided to answer that by putting on a show about affluent Blacks who had made it in business and lived in “a dee-luxe apartment in the sky”), Sanford and Son (another British TV import whose leads Lear changed from white to Black for the U.S. version), the ferociously brilliant Maude (inevitably this show showcases the famous episode in which Maude gets pregnant at 62 and decides to have an abortion) with Bea Arthur’s performance matching O’Connor’s All in the Family work for sheer rightness for the part, and a wide variety of shows including One Day at a Time (not mentioned here but ground-breaking in its own way as the first TV series about a divorcée), the soap-opera spoof Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (among other things, the first series to depict an openly Gay character as a “regular”) and its spinoff Fernwood Tonight, and mini-series like a.k.a. Pablo, Sunday Dinner (a show in which Lear wanted to explore religion and how it figured into the lives of 1990’s Americans) and 704 Hauser (famously the address of the Bunkers in All in the Family).

Then, at the end of the 1970’s, Lear abruptly left Hollywood, turned over the reins of his hit shows to Alan Horn (now head of production at Disney) and focused on the activist group People for the American Way, which he started as a direct challenge to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the others in the so-called “Christian Right” who had emerged as a major political force in the late 1970’s and were basically preaching that unless you were a Right-wing anti-choice anti-Queer Republican you couldn’t possibly be a real Christian. Though Lear has done TV work since then (his page lists subsequent credits even though this documentary doesn’t mention them), he’s mostly lived in semiretirement, including writing an autobiography called Even This I Get to Experience and starting a late-in-life family with a second wife and a new set of kids (his first wife, Frances, left him in the late 1970’s because she could no longer stand his workaholism and didn’t want to keep living in L.A.). Lear’s story is a fascinating one, and his success occurred at an historically interesting juncture in American mass entertainment, before the proliferation of cable channels, the Internet and social media, when there were still “water-cooler” shows huge audiences watched one night and talked about the next day — and Lear’s mission was to make shows that would entertain people but also get them thinking about the big social issues of the day and listen to other points of view than their own with the fig-leaf of comedy to make the medicine go down. It’s hard to imagine anything like Lear’s career happening today, not only because the audience is so fragmented but because the down side of so many entertainment choices is that you can (and most people do) watch only shows that reinforce what you already believe, not challenge it. After the Norman Lear American Masters I watched a third show on PBS — a Frontline rerun from June 2015 called Growing Up Trans — which I promise I’ll be commenting on later.