Late in Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s wonderful new documentary profile of the television legend, Amy Poehler beautifully cuts to the quick. Introducing Lear, the mastermind behind All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, and many more at a promotional event for his autobiography, Poehler marvels, “Do you know how fucking hard it is to make people laugh, to tackle big issues, and to get big ratings? It’s so hard that people don’t even do it anymore!” And with a couple of noteworthy exceptions (more on those in a moment), she’s right. Lear’s television productions not only tackled hot-button issues like race, class, feminism, and abortion – they did so decades ago, when there were only three networks, and thus understandable fear of alienating or upsetting a giant audience. People flocked to Lear’s shows, devoured them, discussed them; they found themselves both entertained and challenged.
“What was new,” Lear explains in the film, “is that we were engaging with reality,” in a medium that had mostly taken great pains to keep the real world out of the frame; in 1968, one of the most socially tumultuous years in recent history, the most popular television shows were escapist fare like Mayberry R.F.D., Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, Here’s Lucy, and The Beverly Hillbillies. In the following decade, Lear turned that hands-off model on its head. With such big issues and unheard voices at stake, Lear’s pioneering wasn’t always easy, and Just Another Version of You doesn’t shy away from the sometimes confrontational and challenging nature of these collaborations,. But over the course of the 1970s, Lear assembled a television empire notable not only for its ubiquity and profitability, but its conscience and responsibility. Those notions seldom go hand in hand.
One of the stylistic masterstrokes of Ewing and Grady’s film is an interview set-up in which subjects view clips from those old shows and react to them. Remarkably, the scenes still play; they’re still funny, still bold, still smart. These are undoubtedly period programs, from the dress and references to the specifics of the issues. But in many ways, they haven’t aged at all. I asked Lear how he managed to pull off the neat trick of creating shows that were both of their time and timeless.
“Well, I think the human condition is the human condition,” he explains. “We evolve in reaction to technology, and who knows what we’re going to be with all the new technology now in 100 years. But culturally it takes a long time. What’s happened with the gay community is one of those rare instances of the media moving things forward so much. In that area of our culture we see a lot of progress. But usually the human species takes a long time at evolving.”
And to be fair, there is some evolution happening on television; in fact, the heirs apparent to Lear are not only carrying the torch of satirical social commentary, but doing so from perspectives that have been traditionally underrepresented (particularly in the writer’s room – even Lear’s). Jerrod Carmichael has made no secret of his affection for Lear’s work, and its influence on his Carmichael Show, which has taken on such comparatively fraught topics as police brutality, Bill Cosby, and Islamophobia. Lear says the admiration is mutual. “Oh yes, I love The Carmichael Show,” he exclaims, with the enthusiasm of a genuine fan, “and Jerrod and I have become good friends. I think what they’re doing is stunning. I also like Black-ish; what Kenya Barris is doing is perfectly terrific. They’re both, I think, on the curve equally, in terms of commenting on the culture.”
Yet much of contemporary popular culture seems comparatively timid – there are few shows on network TV taking the risks and tackling the issues of an All in the Family or Maude, even when the surplus of viewing options means they don’t have to appeal to such a large audience. “I don’t think the problem has as evolved in one direction or another, it’s pretty much the same,” Lear says. “Some wit, I think it was H.L. Mencken, once said ‘Nobody ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people’. But I never believe that for a second. Provably, we’re not as well educated as we should be. I think we’re seventeenth among the Western nations, that’s a shame. But the American people are basically wise at heart. They certainly get it over time. But the establishment doesn’t believe that.”
Carmichael’s second season finale addressed the troubling campaign of Donald Trump, with Jerrod’s conservative parents joining the “Make America Great Again” campaign, to his chagrin. So to draw the clear line – would Archie Bunker have been a Trump voter as well? “Well, that’s an interesting question.” Lear says, thoughtfully – reluctant to jump to any ill-considered assumptions about his most famous creation. And then the shocker: he thinks Trump partisanship is a bridge too far for even America’s most politically brazen character. “When he was asked to be part of a group burning a cross on a neighbor’s lawn, he wouldn’t do it,” Lear reasons. “I think he was caught up in what is represented by Fox News today, but not in the ideology of hatred.”
That ideology shows up, rather startlingly, in Just Another Version of You, as Lear recalls hearing the nativist and anti-Semitic radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin; he hears them again, and even with all these years to process them, the hatred still brings tears to his eyes. So is Trump the modern iteration of that voice? “Well I certainly see him in Pat Robertson every time he opens his mouth,” Lear says. “And the religious right generally – I’m not talking about the mainline churches, but I am talking about the religious right. Mixing politics and religion as they continue to do is very troublesome. I think a good deal of the Tea Party is grounded in what amounts to the religious right, what Jerry Falwell used to call the Moral Majority.”
The rise of that organization, and the general cultural conservatism of the Reagan era, proved a challenge to Lear – and makes for one of the most fascinating sections of the film. After dominating the television landscape in the 1970s (at one point, six of the top ten shows were Lear productions: All in the Family, Sanford and Son, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, and One Day at a Time), Lear stepped away from his busy production schedule. It was a move motivated in part by family needs and in part by exhaustion, but also by a desire to interact more directly with the politics of the day. Rather than social commentary via entertainment, Lear turned to activism; he co-founded the People For the American Way in 1981, which has spent the past 35 years fighting for progressive causes.
In the process, Lear may have lost his creative outlet — but he doesn’t seem to mind. “I don’t live well with regret,” he explains. “If I’m feeling terrific at any given moment, I have to bless every single split-second that added up to that. And that’s the way I look at life. This is a great day, two of my six kids are in town and last night we taped a new episode – a terrific episode of [Netflix’s new remake of] One Day at a Time with a Cuban-American family. So every split-second of everybody I ever knew that added up to this moment has to have been good or I wouldn’t have gotten here!”
The entire conversation is like that, vibrating with a sunniness that’s just as omnipresent in his autobiography Even This I Get to Experience and in Just Another Version of You. But his positivity is particularly striking in light of a life that has been, in many ways, quite traumatic. He had a difficult childhood, his father imprisoned, sent to live with relatives on Coney Island. Two marriages ended in divorce; one of them included an attempted suicide (which, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, he still has trouble discussing when recording his audiobook). He was not always, he confesses, a good family man. In some instances, like a still-powerful clip of Archie Bunker’s son-in-law forcing him to confront the notion of his father’s fallibility, that meant working out his personal pain through art. In others, it meant manufacturing his own reality as a retroactive escape.
And yet, here he is – nearly 94 years old, sharp and funny and entertaining as ever. There’s a scene in the documentary where he visits with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner (I could’ve watched an entire movie of that hang-out, by the way), and the sheer volume of years in that room is sort of astonishing: Lear is 93, Brooks has just turned 90, Reiner is 94. Among their contemporaries, Don Rickles and Bob Newhart are still making people laugh at 90 and 86, respectively. Yes, there are a million clichés about laughter and medicine and so on. But when you look at that group of funny people, the idea of laughter and creativity keeping us young and vibrant is inescapable.
“I do believe laughter adds time to your life,” Lear insists. “I mean that very seriously. It can’t be proved, but by the same token it can’t be disproved. There’s no scientific evidence to suggest laughter doesn’t add time to my life.”
Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is out today in New York and July 15 in Los Angeles, hitting additional cities throughout July and August. It will air on PBS’ American Masters in October.