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Norman Lear and the power of TV to start conversations

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TV writer-producer Norman Lear reflects on his brand of shows about real people dealing with some of the most important issues of the day and how he thinks TV can start necessary conversations.

The legendary TV writer and producer Norman Lear is the subject of a new PBS documentary called "Just Another Version of You." The title is taken from a bumper sticker on his car. It's also how he views himself in the world: "At my core, that's what I feel. We are versions of one another."

Not surprisingly, a portion of the documentary is dedicated to Lear’s break-out hit show, “All in the Family.” The series, which launched in 1971, starred Rob Reiner as the hippie son-in-law Mike to Carroll O’Connor’s bigoted Archie Bunker, ran for eight seasons and, in the process, spawned the spin-offs “Maude” and “The Jeffersons.” It also branded Lear as a TV producer who made entertaining comedies about real people dealing with some of the most important issues of the day.

When Lear put “Good Times” on the air in 1974, it was the first time an African-American family was at the center of a network sitcom. Lear broke another television barrier when Bea Arthur contemplated an abortion on “Maude.” And he's still at it. Lear tells The Frame that he just completed a new version of "One Day at a Time," a Netflix series about three generations of a Cuban-American family starring Rita Moreno that will be released in January 2017.

To achieve his level of success, Lear has faced many conflicts and fostered many collaborations. When he visited The Frame, he shared some of his experiences from almost 50 years of life in the TV business.

Interview Highlights:

On collaboration and resolving conflicts:

Creator/collaborator or collaborator/creator, mine was a giant collaboration. I wasn't the only one. I had the last word, but there were a lot of people who had a lot to say. Certainly the black actors in these shows. There were times we didn't agree and I thought they were right the times we didn't agree and I thought they were wrong. The buck stopped with me, and I had to make those decisions. But I didn't feel as a white man that I couldn't make decisions that involved black actors because — you know, the title of my documentary is "Just Another Version of You," and at my core, that's what I feel. We are versions of one another. You may be black, a good deal younger than I, but you're a man, you're a person, and we have a common humanity. I've always felt that.

Norman Lear at the NPR studios in Culver City, CA.
NPR/Melissa Kuypers
Norman Lear at the NPR studios in Culver City, CA.

On how facing ageism when pitching his show "Guess Who Died," set in a retirement home:

They were saying it's not our demographic. That was always the statement: "Not our demographic. It's funny as hell, we think, but not our demographic." But what's happened now is the New York Times asked the women, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who made the documentary — the one we're talking about — they asked them to do a seven minute op-doc about "Guess Who Died." That op doc is so powerful... It sold the show. 

On how "that's not our demographic" is a poor excuse for making shows about young, straight, white men:

And that's what they did. Everything you just talked about happened because young creative people pushed and pushed and got all of that going forward. We still have a long way to go on the race issue. When I think of how far LGBT issues came out, the whole issue came out, and where we are today with that, it's so clear how much media mattered in that regard. We have a long way to go with racial issues and such.

On TV's role in tackling social issues:

I don't know if it can lead the way, but it can certainly trigger conversation, and that's what I think it's all about. You couldn't look at some of those shows and not talk about it – I'm talking about some of the shows we do. If anybody's watching "South Park," the chances are they're talking about a lot of things the next day, because it's always dealing with something that's vital and giving really satirical scrutiny on something despite the fact that it's all about kids in South Park. It's a marvel.

To hear the interview click the play button at the top of the page or get The Frame podcast on iTunes.

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