Legendary producer Norman Lear lived up to his top billing at the Texas Book Festival before a packed House Chamber on Sunday. It was one of those magical festival moments to left everyone in the room wanting another hour or two or three.
Lear read from the beginning of his memoir, “Even THIS I Get to Experience,” recounting how his life changed at the age of 9 when his father was arrested and his family was in disarray. Texas Book Festival board member Dave Shaw observed that the relationship between Archie Bunker and his son-in-law Michael on Lear’s ground-breaking show “All in the Family” paralleled that of Norman and his own father.
That led to musings on Archie. “I never thought of Archie as a hater; he was always afraid of tomorrow. … he was always afraid of not being able to provide for his children,” Lear said.
As for Edith Bunker, Lear said, “The best way I can talk about how Edith grounded the show is to talk about two episodes.”
The first was the episode “Archie the Hero,” in which Archie was driving a cab and had to give CPR to a female passenger. The woman came to the house to thank him, and Edith answered the door and discovered the she wasn’t a woman –– she was transgendered man, Beverly, and Edith fell in love with him and they became friends. “The answer to what would Edith do is that she loved, she simply loved,” Lear said.
The second episode was “Edith’s Crisis of Faith,” when Beverly was killed because of who and what she was. “Edith couldn’t believe a God who would let this happen, and she lost her faith. We really toiled over it. We invited people who taught philosophy at UCLA to talk with us.”
What made his shows so relevant? “We brought in what was current, and we were reading the newspapers and what was impacting our lives was affecting our storylines,” he said. “We didn’t deal with anything that isn’t still troubling our nation, whether it’s the economy or abortion.”
Lear feels that “Mary Hartman Mary Hartman” would still resonate today, because “It was about how the media is impacting the family and through the family one particular housewife.” It also dealt with “how inured to violence and tragedy we were becoming because of the media.”
Lear has also been an outspoken political activist, being told by Pat Robertson his arms were too short to box with God and making Nixon’s enemies list. That came through in his commentary on the media: “The media is far more –– the words ‘our enemy’ are in my head –– are doing us no favor. The news media in general has no context, nothing but screamers and bumper-sticker conversation.”
If not for Lear’s involvement, three films wouldn’t have been made. “I was the guy who read them and knew they would be wonderful and that Rob [Reiner] was the person to do them,” Lear said. “I couldn’t explain till I lived to be 1,000 –– and I fully intend to –- why no one would make ‘The Princess Bride,’ ‘Stand by Me’ and ‘This Is Spinal Tap.’ ”
“Maude” was the first show to tackle abortion, and as Lear observed, it may still be the only one. “The network didn’t want us to do it, of course, and it resulted in a better show. … The show went on the air, and they hired extra operators to take the complaints, but they didn’t need the extra ops cause nothing really happened. When it went into reruns, the anti-abortion groups were prepared then, and someone laid down in front of (CBS honcho William) Paley’s car in New York and it happened to me, too.”
Speaking of “Maude,” Lear had nothing but praise for actress Bea Arthur: “She made me laugh in places I didn’t know existed in my body.”
When asked about what current shows come close to achieving what his did, he didn’t hesitate: “South Park.” “I can’t overstate my respect for ‘South Park’ or Seth McFarlane or ‘Modern Family.’ ” He also cited “Transparent,” starring Jeffrey Tambor, who, Lear said, “trots a line between hilarity and heartbreak.”
Finally, an audience member asked how we can change the media. “I can’t begin to guess where we’re going to be 50 years from now vis a vis technology,” Lear said. “On the one hand, it brings us closer together. On the other hand, you see a family of five at a restaurant and three of them are on their phones. Is it bringing us together or separating us? It’s both.”