Lear, now 94, established a unique brand of American television in the 1970s: family shows that confronted real, often serious, issues while still making audiences laugh. Earlier sitcoms tended to be more rosy — ignoring issues such as economic or health problems and focusing instead on household quandaries, childhood mischief and the like.
“Maude” featured the first TV character to get an abortion. The original “One Day at a Time” followed a single mother at a time when divorce was taboo. “All in the Family,” a show that earned the ire of President Richard M. Nixon, called out Archie Bunker’s bigotry. “The Jeffersons,” a spin-off of “All in the Family,” also navigated uncharted small-screen territory with upwardly mobile black couple George and Louise Jefferson.
Most recently, Lear’s blueprint has inspired ABC’s “Blackish” and NBC’s “The Carmichael Show.” The latter, a multi-camera sitcom, more closely resembles Lear’s shows, delving boldly into issues such as race, class and politics. Lear is a fan — during a conference call Thursday with the producers of “One Day at a Time,” Lear told reporters that he thinks Jerrod Carmichael’s sitcom “is terrific,” and that he had met with the comedian early on in the show’s run.
And “Let’s do Norman Lear today,” is how “Blackish” creator Kenya Barris pitched his show. “He told honest stories and he told stories that other people wouldn’t tell,” Barris said during the Television Academy’s 2015 event “An Evening With Norman Lear.” “And he told them unapologetically with courage — not just bravery, but courage.”
The admiration is mutual. Lear visited the “Blackish” set last year, brainstorming with the show’s writers. Variety reported that a conversation prompted by Lear inspired an April episode that explored the upper-middle-class family’s financial insecurities and varying opinions about gender roles. A month later, the show paid tribute to Lear with an episode parodying “Good Times”— the Lear-developed sitcom about a family living in a Chicago housing project — aptly dubbed “Blackish Times.” Barris is also writing a film adaptation of “Good Times.”
Now in its third season, “Blackish” has comedically tackled everything from the N-word to the ugly history of racism connected to America’s public swimming pools. And the show won critical acclaim for an emotional episode about police violence.
Lear’s influence can also be seen on Seth MacFarlane’s raunchy animated comedy “Family Guy.” There are frequent references to Archie Bunker’s clan in the long-running Fox show, but the most obvious one is the opening sequence, which features Peter and Lois Griffin crooning a tune at the piano a la Archie and Edith. “I could sue for that!” Lear jokingly told the New York Times in 2015 during a joint interview with MacFarlane.
Outside of television, Lear’s legacy is also reflected in hip-hop. During the panel discussion “An Evening With Norman Lear,” rapper Common spoke about his love for “Good Times,” set in his home town, and “The Jeffersons,” whose acerbic George Jefferson (Sherman Hemsley) boasted a swagger familiar to the rap community. The character’s rise to success also lends a common thread.
“Hip-hop was about coming out of the inner city and maybe not having much and turning that into something,” Common said. “The whole ‘moving on up thing’ . . . figuratively moving on up to a higher place — that’s the basis of hip-hop, really.”
But above all, Common recalled “The Jeffersons” — and Lear’s other shows — as funny. Getting an audience to laugh has always been the primary goal, according to Lear, who recently described watching that happen in the ’70s — and again — on the set of the Netflix revival.
“To stand behind an audience when they laugh from the belly is to see them throw back their heads — it’s a wave, you know,” Lear said at a November event hosted by the Paley Center for Media. “And it’s as spiritual and deep and profound as anything I know in life. Just watching a couple hundred people laugh from their gut.”