The TV sitcom has always been a cultural barometer of sorts, but never more so than during Norman Lear’s 1970s heyday. The writer-producer, who died Tuesday at 101, ushered all kinds of realities — political, social, generational, racial, personal — onto our TV sets and into our conversations.
Using humor and irony as a Trojan horse, he introduced truths and directness to a mainstream — and an industry — content to giggle over the “cement pond” on “The Beverly Hillbillies” and Arnold the Pig on “Green Acres.” He nudged us from the fusty ideals of “Make Room for Daddy” and the escapism of “Gilligan’s Island” toward a more accurate, vital, and current take on America and Americans. He held up a mirror.
There is no overestimating the power of what Lear accomplished with his hit comedies, which included “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “Good Times,” “One Day at a Time,” and the jewel in his crown, “All in the Family.” We needed to talk openly about segregation, discrimination, abortion, and sexism, among other things, and Lear enabled us to, through the provocative characters and stories he presented. Certainly Rod Serling had already steered issues such as nuclear war and modern anxiety into our living rooms with “The Twilight Zone,” and brilliantly so; but they were broad, cerebral visions. Lear delivered topical situations more intimately bound up in viewers’ daily lives and idioms. The recurring flush of a toilet — a running joke on “All in the Family” — epitomized that.
It was odd, in retrospect, that while the country was in the midst of profound conflicts and major social shifts, TV was giving us banal comedies largely geared toward children. Even if a controversial issue was in play on a show — the sexism on “Bewitched,” or the class issues on “The Beverly Hillbillies” — they were dressed up in silliness and inconsequentiality. It was an unhealthy approach by a mass medium, to ignore all the discord and strife tearing individuals and families apart. Lear helped the medium out of that spiral of avoidance, giving us some of TV’s first truly adult comedy.
Lear delivered diversity to prime time, featuring Black families, single mothers, and interracial couples instead of essentially pretending they didn’t exist. Divorce was taboo on TV, despite its increase among the marriages in this country, but Lear gave us women on the other side of a split, including Bea Arthur’s titular character on “Maude” and Bonnie Franklin’s Ann on “One Day at a Time.”
In the fifth episode of “All in the Family,” in 1971, Lear featured the first gay character on prime time with a clever story line that was ahead of its time. Archie runs into an old friend who is very masculine and used to be a football player. Yup, he’s gay, and Archie’s world view is rocked. Lear also included one of TV’s first trans characters in a similar story line on a 1977 episode of “The Jeffersons.”
We often take these things for granted now in TV — not just the diversity, but the frankness. But many of us are unaware of just how incendiary it was in the 1970s, when, on “Maude,” Maude decided to have an abortion. It was an ongoing fight for Lear, as the TV establishment — executives, censors, advertisers — predictably resisted his controversial material. But he had enough success — “All in the Family” quickly earned a bunch of Emmys (22 over the course of the series), and it was the No. 1 show on TV starting with season two — so he had some clout to fight against the network forces at CBS that had taken down the politically charged “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” only two years before “All in the Family” premiered.
The resisters included the president, Richard Nixon. In the White House tapes released during the Watergate inquiry, Nixon is heard saying, “Goddamn it, I do not think that you glorify on public television homosexuality. You don’t glorify it . . . any more than you glorify, uh, whores. I don’t want to see this country go that way. You know what happened to the Greeks. Homosexuality destroyed them.”
Impressively, many of Lear’s best shows hold up beautifully. “All in the Family” continues to be as funny and satirical as it was in the 1970s, and the tension between conservatives and liberals that it portrayed remains resonant. One of my Lear favorites is “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” a soap opera drenched in satire, a kind of live-action manifestation of Roy Lichtenstein’s comic-strip panels. About the detached life of a housewife who has been driven into a kind of passivity by the aggressions of consumer culture, it gave us a Mary who definitely wasn’t going to make it after all. It was, like so much of Lear’s work, human, humane, and hysterical.