In recent years, as television continues its ascent to the top of the pop culture food chain, Norman Lear has become a kind of god, revered as a pioneer of television comedy and the standard-bearer for the “issues” sitcom. Jerrod Carmichael of The Carmichael Show and Kenya Barris, who created Black-ish, have both cited Lear as a major influence. A new documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, doesn’t really make comparisons between Lear’s heyday and the current state of TV comedies, instead focusing on its subject’s life and work. But Norman Lear also paints a picture of a long-lost time when a sitcom could start a national debate — because the entire nation was watching.
Created by Jesus Camp directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Norman Lear, which just had its international premiere at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, is a loving homage to the 93-year-old creator of hit ’70s sitcoms All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Maude, and many more — according to the film, at one point in the 1970s, six of the country’s top ten television shows had been developed by Lear.
For fans of television’s early decades, Norman Lear will delight with its liberal use of archival footage. There’s a great montage early in the film of variety shows that Lear wrote for during the 1950s and ’60s, like The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Martha Raye Show, and The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show. And of course, the film devotes plenty of time to Lear’s most famous product, All in the Family, which was based on a British sitcom called Till Death Do Us Part that featured a progressive son and a conservative father.
The filmmakers include All in the Family’s notorious disclaimer, which played over the opening credits: “The program you are about to see is All in the Family. It seeks to throw a humorous spotlight on our frailties, prejudices and concerns. By making them a source of laughter, we hope to show — in a mature fashion — just how absurd they are.” The disclaimer may sound laughably earnest from our vantage point, but it also indicates the role that this show played in so many Americans’ lives during the 1970s: At its peak, some 50 million people watched All in the Family every Saturday night.
Ewing and Grady dig up some wonderful footage of Carroll O’Connor on The Dick Cavett Show, with Cavett wading into the audiences with his skinny microphone to take audience questions. (The impression the segment gives is that of a time when TV felt less polished but more alive, a sort of public square where regular people could throw in their two cents — like Twitter without the snark.) O’Connor’s Archie Bunker was a notorious bigot, a figure that inspired both condemnation and admiration. In the documentary, Lear expresses concern that O’Connor, an Irish Catholic, had to bear the burden of a character that became beloved for the wrong reasons. (For more on Archie Bunker and the “bad fan,” check out Emily Nussbaum’s 2014 New Yorker article, “The Great Divide.”)
Norman Lear deftly balances its subject’s career with his personal life, which greatly informed Lear’s work. He talks about hearing Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic broadcasts on the radio as a kid in the 1930s: “How the fuck did I understand that? But I did,” he says. “It never left my mind.” Lear’s wife, Frances, was a staunch women’s rights activist, and particularly after she gave birth to three daughters, Lear joined her cause. “We all became feminists,” he says in the film, followed by a clip from Maude, the 1972-1978 sitcom starring Bea Arthur as a liberal, middle-aged woman who supports legal abortion and civil rights.
Again, if you’re a fan of these shows, Norman Lear’s archival footage is a real treat. Here, we see the table read of the infamous 1972 episode where Maude has an abortion. There’s also some great rehearsal tape from Good Times, where star Esther Rolle argues with Lear about a script. In a 1990 interview, Rolle talks about the “Dy-no-mite!” catchphrase delivered by her fictional son, J.J., played by Jimmie Walker. The character and the catchphrase became a hit with audiences, but Rolle didn’t approve: “I insist that you can have comedy without buffoonery.”
Lear listened carefully to criticisms of his shows. His aim was never to recreate prejudice but expose it for what it was: an intractable disease that is often passed down through generations like a family heirloom. In the documentary, Russell Simmons remarks that Good Times was for white people, but Lear’s subsequent show about a black family, The Jeffersons, “represented the American dream for black people.”
Norman Lear manages to fit all this and more into a brisk and enjoyable 91 minutes. Toward the end of the film, Amy Poehler delivers a speech before presenting Lear with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Pen Center USA. “Do you know how hard it is to tackle big issues and get big ratings?” she says. “It’s so hard we don’t even do it anymore!” Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You is an affectionate portrait of a man who took the country’s most difficult, pressing conversations about race, class, gender, sexuality, and politics and planted them squarely in America’s living rooms. And then he made it funny.