I wrote previously about the revolution of New Hollywood and the counterculture movement’s impact on the film industry. Well in the seventies this began to effect television as well. Some of the popular sitcoms that came out in the sixties include Bewitched, Hogan’s Heroes, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Flying Nun, I Dream of Jeannie and Gilligan’s Island. Compare these shows to the ones that came out in the seventies and this shift is evident. The person most responsible for that shift is Norman Lear, the writer, producer and political activist who is behind some of the most popular shows of the seventies.
Born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1922, Norman Lear grew up in a Jewish household and his advocacy was largely inspired by the antisemitism he heard coming from the radio via Catholic priest Charles Coughlin. His involvement in entertainment came much later and mostly by accident.
Lear attended Emerson College in Boston but dropped out in 1942 to join the United States Air Force serving as a radio operator and a gunner who flew in 52 combat missions (and was eventually awarded the Air Medal) before being discharged in 1945 and beginning his post-war career in public relations.
After restarting his career in California, he fell into show business when he met Ed Simmons, an aspiring comedy writer who was married to Lear’s cousin in Los Angeles. Lear and Simmons went into business as door-to-door home furnishings salesmen and door-to-door family photo salesmen before they finally got a break as writers of comedy sketches for such comedians as Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Rowan and Martin throughout the 1950s. Simmons and Lear wrote frequently for Martin and Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour which aired on NBC from 1950 to 1955.
Afterwards Lear wrote and created other shows, including some sitcoms, and even got into the film industry with movies like Divorce American Style (1967) which he wrote and produced, and Cold Turkey (1971) which he directed, but his biggest success was back on television with the CBS sitcom All in the Family.
First pitched to ABC in 1968 as Justice for All and again in 1969 as Those Were the Days, the third attempt to sell the show was a pilot called All in the Family which ABC again rejected but CBS was interested in. CBS had a desire to move away from rural fare like Hee Haw, The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres in favor of a show that was more urban when Norman Lear came to them with All in the Family, and the network aired the show in 1971.
Loosely based on the British sitcom Till Death Do Us Part, which reminded Lear of his own relationship with his father, All in the Family followed the life of an American working-class family with clashing political ideals. While the series was a sitcom with a studio audience, characters on the series regularly discussed very serious real-world topics such as racism, religion, menopause, rape and the Vietnam War, and that had never been done in an American sitcom before.
The series starred Carroll O’Connor as the stubborn conservative bigot Archie Bunker (one of my favorite TV characters of all time because O’Connor played him brilliantly), Jean Stapleton as his ditzy but sweet wife Edith Bunker, Sally Struthers as Archie and Edith’s equally stubborn daughter Gloria Stivic and Rob Reiner as Gloria’s liberal hippie husband Michael Stivic aka Meathead.
The injection of realistic drama and topical themes made All in the Family a hugely influential sitcom and it is often cited as one of the best television shows in history for how fearlessly it shook up the sitcom formula.
Unlike most shows in the fifties and sixties which were shot on film and inserted a laugh track in post, this show was shot on videotape in front of a live studio audience giving the show a live television atmosphere which made it feel even more realistic, and the show’s popularity led to other sitcoms adopting the same rules. According to Lear, none of the laughter from the audience in that show was canned and much of it was real.
While the show wasn’t that popular in its first season when it ran from January 1971 to April 1971, it picked up in the ratings during summer reruns where it ranked number one in the ratings and eventually became so popular that it was the first show to top the Nielsen ratings five years in a row in its nine-season run from 1971 to 1979. It eventually won Emmys for Outstanding Series, Outstanding Series – Comedy, and the writers and actors were awarded with Emmys as well, including all four principle stars.
The show served as a launchpad for several spin-offs including Maude (1972-78) starring Bea Arthur as Edith’s liberal cousin Maude Findlay, The Jeffersons (1975-85) starring Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as Archie Bunker’s former next-door neighbors George and Louise Jefferson who now lived in a luxury apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-83) which continued Archie’s life after purchasing a tavern in the eighth season of All in the Family, as well as the short-lived spin-offs Gloria (1982) and 704 Hauser (1994).
In addition to these spin-offs, Norman Lear helped produce over 15 other shows. Among the most popular is Sanford and Son starring stand-up comedian Redd Foxx (cleaning up his foul-mouthed act for television). Lear co-developed the show with Bud Yorkin as an adaptation of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson’s British sitcom Steptoe and Son and it ran for 6 seasons from 1972 to 1979 on NBC a consistent ratings hit, serving as a precursor for more shows featuring African-Americans in leading roles on television, which started happening much more frequently in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Good Times created by Eric Monte and Mike Evans was the first African-American two-parent family sitcom on television, running for 6 seasons from 1974 to 1979 on CBS. This popular series starred Esther Rolle as Florida Evans (a character who first appeared in the series Maude causing most people to call this a Maude spin-off although Maude is never mentioned in this show and Florida’s circumstances as Maude’s housekeeper are completely different in this show), John Amos as Florida’s husband James, Ja’net Dubois as Florida’s neighbor and friend Willona, and Jimmie Walker, Bern Nadette Stanis and Ralph Carter as James and Florida’s children J.J. (“Dy-no-mite!”), Thelma and Michael Evans.
One Day at a Time created by Whitney Blake and Allan Manings was developed by Norman Lear for 9 seasons from 1975 to 1984 on CBS. This sitcom follows the life of a divorced mother played by Bonnie Franklin who raises her two daughters played by Mackenzie Phillips and Valerie Bertinelli in Indianapolis. The series was based on co-creator Whitney Blake’s own life as a single mother. The series was reimagined decades later in 2017 by Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce with a Cuban-American family and Norman Lear executive produced this critically-acclaimed version as well, for 3 seasons on Netflix and for a final fourth season on Pop until 2020 with Justina Machado, Rita Moreno, Isabella Gomez and Marcel Ruiz playing the Alvarez family.
Most bizarre in Lear’s developnent library might be the cult hit soap opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman which ran from 1976 to 1977 in syndication for over 300 episodes across 2 seasons. It was funny and is still seen as a classic that is responsible for some of the most iconic episodes of television that decade (the title of the series was a parody of what Lear observed as the tendency of characters in soap operas to repeat the same dialogue over and over).
The thing that many of Norman Lear’s shows have in common is that they all walk the line between comedy and drama and many serve to be much more than just entertainment. Some have made statements that no TV series has ever made. Lear intended for Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to be a satire on the impact of American consumerism. One Day at a Time was a reflection of second-wave feminism. Good Times tackled death and the grief that comes afterward when one of the main characters in that series died. The lead character in Maude not only discussed abortion but she decided to have one. All in the Family attempted to humanize gay people. The Jeffersons attempted to humanize transgender people. These things set the stage for television’s evolution into more mature directions, which is why Norman Lear is one of television’s most important figures.