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Sitcom creator Norman Lear talks dangerous television, ‘Family’ inspirations

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now, those were the days, from the man who created "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons," and so much more on and off the TV screen.

    Jeffrey Brown has our look.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "In my 90-plus years, I have lived a multitude of lives," so writes Norman Lear about a life that's including bombing emissions over Europe in World War II, the founding of a leading political advocacy organization, and the consideration of some of the most seminal programs in television history, most famously "All in the Family."

  • CARROLL O’CONNOR:

    What are you kicking about? Ain't you your wife always telling me that coloreds and whites ought to work together?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • ROB REINER:

    Not to stop Puerto Ricans from moving next door!

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It's all captured in a new memoir, "Even This I Get to Experience."

    Norman Lear joins me now.

    Welcome to you.

    NORMAN LEAR, Author, "Even This I Get to Experience": Thank you. I love being here.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You had been writing television from the '50s on. Were you dissatisfied with what television was doing? Did you want to blow it up in some sense?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    No, actually, I was writing for live television. And I said to myself, someday, soon as I can, I have got to do a situation comedy.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And when did you decide though that it had to be a different kind of situation comedy, something that was tackling something really not seen before?

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    I don't ever recall making such a decision.

    I read about a British show called "Till Death Us Do Part" about a father and son not unlike Archie and Mike. And I said, my God, that's me and my dad. I have got to write about this.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, that's what comes out of the book. Many of us grew up about Archie, but he is in part based on your dad. Right?

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    He is. That's right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Your dad used words like meat head and…

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    My dad called me meat head dead from the neck up.

  • CARROLL O’CONNOR:

    I'm tuning you out, meat head.

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    And he used to yell at me that he was — I was the laziest white kid he ever met. And I would say, why would you put down a race of people to call me lazy? That's not what I'm doing. You're the dumbest white kid I ever met.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    We laugh now. And you turned it into a kind of humor. It couldn't have been funny then for you.

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    No. But I think somehow I got a sense of the foolishness of the human — my favorite phrase, the foolishness of the human condition.

    You know, he went to prison when I was 9 years old. And then the night that he was taken away, there were a ton of people at the house, and somebody puts a hand on my shoulder and says, you're the man of the house now, Norman, 9 years old. I'm the man of the house.

    Somehow, I got it. You know, this fool is funny.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You know, you describe in the book here about the battles you had with the network officials and what's called the program practices department, a wonderful name, right?

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    Euphemism. Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, of course.

    Give us an example of one where you were up against the officials and you decided you sort of couldn't back down, right?

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    Well, the very first "All in the Family."

    Mike and Gloria were alone in the house on a Sunday morning when the elders were at church. And he decides to take her up stairs again. They go up the stairs. The door opens, and Archie needed to come in early because Archie disliked the preacher and the sermon.

    And so they come in bellowing at each other. The kids hear them and start to come down the stairs. And Archie guesses what was happening, and he says:

  • CARROLL O’CONNOR:

    11:10 of a Sunday morning.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    And they want that out. Well, that battle continued to within a half-hour of the show's going on the air in the east.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    And they insisted on taking it out.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    They wanted the reference — There was no sex in it, but there was the reference to what was probably going on, on a Sunday morning.

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    Right. Right.

    And I said I would if they — they could, of course, have cut it in New York. It was a simple cut. It wasn't that I couldn't live without that line. I could. But I saw very clearly in that instant that if that silly little — you know, if I lost that silly little battle, I would never win another one.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Is it interesting for you now to think about what's happened with television, where a line like that is so tame in a sense now? Is television as radical as, I don't know, dangerous, to use one word, as it was when you were doing that?

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    I don't think — I think what's dangerous is 24 hours a day, 335 channels, or whatever the hell there is. Too much is too much.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Why is that dangerous?

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    Because people have other things to do.

    And if there was a sense of — a bigger sense of responsibility in the various leadership positions in our country, things would be not as grotesquely overly done as they are now.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Meaning…

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    I think we have become a — much more a nation of consumers than citizens.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And media is part of that, you mean, too much television, too much everything?

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    And media and the companies that support media, not alone, because it takes all of those companies that are advertising on media.

    But they are the ones who dictate. I get a kick out of the fact that people will pick on the writers in California for being responsible for the content. The people seriously responsible for the content are the people who buy it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Multitude of lives, right, that's the line you use at the beginning of the book that I quoted.

    What caused that? What drives that?

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    I like getting up in the morning, and I like better having something to do when I get up in the morning.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    And — and I care.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right.

    The book is "Even This I Get to Experience."

    Norman Lear, thank you so much.

  • NORMAN LEAR:

    Thank you, sir.

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