NORMAN MAKES THE HIT PARADE!
US sitcom titan Norman Lear has moved on up aged 101. If his primary claim to fame in the UK is “that chap who Americanised UK sitcoms”, in the States he was one of the most important figures in TV history. He was there from the medium’s nascency, writing jokes for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the early 50s and attempting several unsuccessful sitcoms that decade. The most ambitious was a 1959 project where the same two actors would play different married couples in each episode, but it would’ve made audience brains self-destruct and didn’t get past the concept stage.
In an alternate universe, he might’ve only QOed off being Katey Sagal’s godfather had he not read an article about Till Death Us Do Part. He instantly saw potential in Americanising the concept of a crude racist having the piss taken out of him by the changing world around him, and after being sold the rights to adapt it by Beryl Vertue he spent years trying to bring it to TV. The odds seemed long when the US TV landscape was still dominated by inoffensive farming sitcoms, but Lear kept the faith with his idea, now christened All in the Family.
AitF debuted in 1971, and pulled no punches from the getgo. Even the earliest episodes addressed racism, antisemitism, and miscarriages. The nucleus was the US Alf Garnett, Archie Bunker, with cigar instead of pipe, many malaprops, and a repertoire of insults – stifle yourself, dingbat, meathead, blowing raspberries – that mostly came from Lear’s own dad. Underneath the crusty bigotry he still had kernels of good in him, clearly caring about his family despite many squabbles – the type of character depth that wasn’t really there on past US sitcoms. Just like Warren Mitchell, Archie actor Carroll O’Connor was left wing and (like Lear) was chagrined by his right wing fanbase completely missing the point of the character.
The most prominent feuding was with Archie and leftist son-in-law Michael “Meathead” Stivic, whose own stubbornness had more in common with Archie than either would admit. Even Archie’s deer-in-headlights wife Edith, deftly balanced between simple and sagely by Jean Stapleton, proved a counterpart in just seeing people as people rather than by race or creed. Minorities volleying against his bigotry with good humour were some of the best comebacks against him, including a macho NFL friend who smugly relishes at Archie’s bewilderment upon learning he’s gay (Archie’s hero, Richard E. Nixon, grumbled about it in one of the Nixon tapes). The best of all was Sammy Davis Jr., playing his guest appearance so naturally you’d think he was a series regular rather than a special guest star:
Lear would’ve been a pivotal TV figure off All in the Family alone, but he built a sitcom empire. And they never shied away from hot-button topics. The next was Sanford and Son, the US version of Steptoe and Son with a heart-attacking Redd Foxx at the forefront and a huge fandom in Michigan, so we hear. One Day at a Time starred Bonnie Franklin as a single mother of two, and the Louise Lasser-helmed Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was provocative even by Lear standards with its pisstake of soap operas and didn’t last long.
All in the Family remained the motherlode for Lear, and it spoke to the strength of its cast that its side characters spawned two endurant spinoffs. The Jeffersons starred the Bunkers’ affluent black neighbours, anchored by Sherman Hemsley’s volcanic George Jefferson (something of a black Archie Bunker), and was noteworthy for an early portrayal of a prosperous black family. Bea Arthur’s titular unapologetic liberal Maude only appeared in two AitF episodes yet held her own so well against Archie Bunker that she proved she could hold her own series, and was the first TV character to get an abortion. Completing the circle, dy-no-MITE! Maude spinoff Good Times managed to be a Norman Lear original that got adapted into a UK sitcom (short-lived The Fosters) rather than from one! AitF itself ran out of steam but Archie remained so popular that it continued through Archie Bunker’s Place, best remembered for the episode where Edith dies.
Lear’s 80s and 90s efforts were mostly short-lived, though he kept active politically and founded the leftist People for the American Way to counteract Jerry Falwell’s deceptively-titled Moral Majority. In the 2010s he produced live studio reenactments of All in the Family and The Jeffersons, which won him his first Emmy in decades aged 97, and a Latino reboot of One Day at a Time was his biggest sitcom in years. His TV legacy of giving the US sitcom newfound depth and using the medium to discuss the undiscussable will continue to tower.
21 teams saw the old LaSalle was ready to be scrapped, and blow a pithy raspberry to any hopes of Lear making 2024. Among his pickers are Eternity Tours, Grim McGraw, Over The Rainbow, and joker points for none other than Norman Lear and All His Friends.
27 July 1922 – 5 December 2023, aged 101
21 TEAMS (💀💀💀💀 4 POINTS, 🃏 (x1) 8 POINTS)