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.
JW: At the time, the network, CBS, was anxious about putting this character on TV—a racist, a sexist, a homophobic guy. I know you had a lot of big battles with them. What, to them, were the most threatening and dangerous elements, that gave them the most worries, and led them to put pressure on you?
NL: The Maude abortion episode went on when nobody knew it was coming. After it aired, nothing happened. No complaints. Maybe the sponsor got some letters, or the network got some letters. I got a few letters. But relatively nothing happened. It wasn’t like the American people didn’t experience abortion up the street, down the street, across the street. The subject was alive and well in our homes. Nothing happened.
But when the show went into reruns eight months later, the religious right knew the show was coming. They were thoroughly prepared. In New York, some people laid down in front of Mr. Paley’s car—he was the CEO of CBS. There were people who laid down in front of my car, when I came into Metromedia, here in LA. In the mail, and elsewhere, there was a storm. But that was all from people who knew it was coming, and represented a tiny fraction of the American audience.
JW: Today, there’s a lot of political satire about Trump, especially on Saturday Night Live. Trump has made it clear that he’s irritated by Saturday Night Live. Did you ever hear from Nixon? You didn’t have direct satire of the president, but certainly you took up issues of Vietnam and what Archie called “draft dodging.”
NL: In the White House tapes, Nixon talks about a show about Archie and his good friend, a fullback on a football team. They were arm wrestling, after Archie had left the house because he was in an argument with his son-in-law about who was gay and who wasn’t. And he’s telling this guy about it, and he says, “Can you believe he said that you… He’s telling me that you’re,” and he couldn’t get the word out. And while their arms are clenched, the fullback says, “He’s right, Archie.” And only Carroll O’Connor could deliver what he delivered there: “Ah, C’mon,” he says. “You’re kidding.” “No. Archie, he’s right.”
Richard Nixon saw that episode, and he’s on tape saying, “They’re making fun of a good man.” And then he talks about gays, and says the whole Greek culture fell as a result of homosexuality. He used the word “fags.”
And he also put me on his enemies list.
NL: That’s exactly the way I felt about it.
JW: There’s one respect in which there could never be another Archie Bunker, another All in the Family for the Age of Trump: TV has changed so much now. All in the Family had 60 million people viewers. Today, no show, except for the Super Bowl, gets an audience like that. No network sitcom will ever have the audience that All in the Family had.
NL: This is my favorite statistic: The water table in New York fell during commercials on All in The Family.