And Then There's Norm


The Onion's AV Club has a pretty interesting interview with Norman Lear, who in days of yore bestrode the TV world like a colostomy bag. Sample:

O: If you were just reflecting back what people saw in their daily lives, why were these shows so controversial?

NL: They weren't that controversial. That's the heart of it: My shows were not that controversial with the American people. They were controversial with the people who think for the American people. That's a very hard thing to help the establishment know. We're still an establishment that thinks the average mentality is something like 13 years of age, that never forgot H.L. Mencken's notion that nobody lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people. That's the horseshit the establishment has always lived with.

The American people may not be the best-educated, but they're very wise at heart. I remember making a picture called Cold Turkey, before All In The Family, in Winterset, Iowa. There were a couple of shop owners on the town square that everybody knew, and I knew very well, who were gay and had been living together for a great many years. And it was no big deal in the town. From that moment, I thought of Iowa as my second home. And when they used to say, "This will never fly in Des Moines," or "There'll be a knee-jerk reaction in the Bible Belt if you do this," I would say, "Don't tell me that. I come from the Bible Belt, and I'm a son of Des Moines." There was no real controversy with All In The Family. That came from the people on the business end.

Whole thing, with further discussion of the great, forgotten Dick Van Dyke smoking comedy Cold Turkey, right here.

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  1. My Tivo has been watching for “Cold Turkey”, “Viva Max!” and “Where Have All The People Gone?” for nearly five years now with nary a bite. 200 channels of digital cable and not one shows the kind of solid, entertaining B-list filler that used to warrant two hours on Dialing For Dollars every weekday afternoon back in the ’70s.

  2. Good interview, but I can’t believe Robinson brought up Lear’s work on South Park without asking the obvious followup: “What did you think of the Rob Reiner episode?”

    Cold Turkey isn’t that great a movie, but it does feature Bob Newhart’s best performance for the big screen.

  3. Reminds me of the up-roar over Married With Children. The right said it was vulger. The left said it was sexist. The middle kept it on the air for 10 years.

    Whoa Bundy!

  4. >Reminds me of the up-roar over Married With
    >Children. The right said it was vulger.

    That was before MWC HQ congealed their weltanschauung into the sticky mass now known as FOXNews. What the “right” (or left) thinks of it now is anybody’s guess. In reality, the show just served as an alternative to sappy contemporary fare — and everybody loves alternatives.

    Lear was right about one thing, though: All in the Family was “controversial” only insofar as it tackled issues that hadn’t been addressed on TV before — things like rape, swinging, and the sound of a toilet flushing. If the show hit a nerve with Middle America, it was because Lear strove to piss *someone* off by constantly pitting a hippie freeloader against a bedrock nitwit.

  5. Fox used to be a real alternative to the Big Three. After 9/11, Fox decided that since the Big Three were sucking off the Left, someone needed to suck off the Right, and it might as well be them.

  6. This is particularly interesting insofar as a lot of people would pigeonhole Lear as one of those folks who would presume to know better about Middle America than Middle Americans themselves. Perhaps they’re wrong to think that of him after all.

  7. Interesting that he acknolwedged that small towns are not necessarily as closed-minded as those on the coasts would think. I live a small town (near a big city), and although people here love to vote against gay marriage and the like, it’s also the case that the two women who run the bar next door have been a couple for years. As Lear notes, no one seems to care one way or the other.
    Of course, I also live disturbingly close to Kansas, where medieval thinking still rides high in the saddle.

  8. Great interview. It may not sound like great praise, but the interview makes Lear sound like…a nice guy. I mean, in the course of the interview he points out that a) people aren’t idiots, b) but they do have base instincts, c) that doesn’t mean you can’t address them as adults, and d) the people with the money determine what issues get discussed on TV. And he does it without coming off as pious, pompous, or platitudinal, at least in my opinion.

    Jesse, aren’t you forgetting the Sally Struthers episode?


  9. My Tivo has been watching for “Cold Turkey”, “Viva Max!” and “Where Have All The People Gone?” for nearly five years now with nary a bite. 200 channels of digital cable and not one shows the kind of solid, entertaining B-list filler that used to warrant two hours on Dialing For Dollars every weekday afternoon back in the ’70s.

    It’s not on DVD either. Another hole in the fabric of plenitude. There’s no video at all of Where Have All the People Gone? It’s $35 for a used VHS copy of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark… In a world like this, survivors should envy the dead!

  10. “that never forgot H.L. Mencken’s notion that nobody lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

    Mencken is still correct. It’s just that issues must be framed in a certain way to resonate or hit a hot button.
    For example, Bush is a terrible salesman, because his Social Security plan could resonate if he would just talk about how it should be YOUR money. Then he should shut up.

  11. Tim,

    I think there used to be a VHS copy of Where have all the people gone?, as suggested by this Movies Unlimited link. Judicious use of craigslist and ebay might secure you a copy.


  12. I’m with Ruthless. I think Mencken was pretty much spot on. I mean, look at the ghastly number of “reality” TV shows on the air today.

  13. What’s with the moronic ‘colostomy bag’ joke?

  14. I wish people would take the time to get the quote right. Mencken’s criticism wasn’t limited to the American people, but rather to the “plain people.”

    “No one in this world, so far as I know–and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me=-has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.” –HLM

  15. Eeek! A quick eBay search for WHATPG reveals copies aplenty, including a cheap Canadian twofer DVD (paired with the Rock Hudson classic Embryo) that came out last summer. Guess I’m gonna be getting my Peter Graves on.

  16. Lear takes one experience and declares it as representative of the plain people.

    The small-town folks likely accept their queer neighbors, because they are neighbors first and queer second. That doesn’t mean that the small-towners accept all queers. Likely the Winterset folks would be uncomfortable with Number 6’s bartenders.

    Then there’s the real Archie Bunkers and Al Bundys who live in cities and hate queers. They’re not being thought for by the Great Anti-Lear Conspiracy.

    What a pompous windbag…

  17. the real Archie Bunkers

    I confess my ignorance about Queens, but I always thought it odd that Archie was a die-hard Republican.
    Having grown up in a working class area, I admit that “hard hats” voted for Nixon, and even Reagan polled well, but they were historically Democrats. It’s either his bias or mine at work, I guess.

    loosely autobiographical

    I thought it was derived from a Brit show,no?

  18. > What’s with the moronic ‘colostomy bag’ joke?

    Maybe it’s a gas on ‘colossus’? Or maybe Lear served as a receptacle for the psychic expulsions of the American id back in the seventies? What’s got your knickers in a twist, guv’nor?

  19. I like the part where he just stole shows from British TV and did things that had never been seen before on American television … unless you count Playhouse 90, most of the “Playhouse” anothology shows that came before it, and a lot of other programming.

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