Norman Lear created All in the Family in 1971. That sitcom made history in the Age of Nixon with its political daring and fearlessness. Lear is now 94 years old, and just published a memoir, Even This I Get to Experience. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Jon Wiener: We’re all thinking about the white working class, the people who voted for Trump and made him president: they’re sort of Archie Bunker types. We have a lot of comedy about Trump himself, but it’s hard to imagine a network sitcom today about a Trump voter. How did you manage to make humor—prime-time network-sitcom humor—out of the most controversial, disturbing, and serious issues of the day in the Age of Nixon?
Norman Lear: All in the Family worked because it was about a family wrestling with those issues—just like families across the country are wrestling with the big issues today. Some of them are pro-Trump; happily, it isn’t most of them. When Trump first appeared in the presidential race, when it first seemed possible that he might win, I said he represented the middle finger of the American right hand. The American people were looking at the leadership they’ve had for so many years, and I don’t care where you look—at politics, at American corporations—you’re dealing with people who don’t give a fuck about you. They’re just in it for their profits. A profit statement larger this quarter than the last rules our land. I can’t stop thinking about the Takata Airbag Company, whose airbags were exploding and killing people who drove Hondas. We first learned about it in 2008. But then we learned, fairly recently, that there were 10 or more other car makers that bought the airbag, and installed the airbag in 31 million cars, knowing that it had already killed some people. We’d lost our way as human beings, in terms of leadership, entirely. And I think, all these months later, that Trump is the middle finger of the American right hand.
JW: When All in the Family was getting started in the early seventies, nobody thought racism or homophobia could be funny on network TV. Today we have a similar feeling. We can have satire of Trump, but we’re worried about the Trump people—we don’t want to ridicule them; we want to understand them. We need to win them back. What was your thinking when you created Archie Bunker?
NL: There was an antecedent to All in the Family: a British show called, Till Death Us Do Part. But it was very different from All in the Family, because the central character was totally unlikable, and nobody cared that he had a daughter or a wife who loved him. I couldn’t do a show without recognizing the central character as someone who was loved by family—and was, in some ways, lovable for us too, because he was human, and carried all those human frailties with him. Archie Bunker comes out of all of those mixed feelings, and that antecedent.