In Conversation: Norman Lear, Seth MacFarlane, and Phil Rosenthal
Like that quintessentially American art form the musical comedy, the situation comedy -- the kind performed in three, ten-minute acts on a single set, shot with multiple cameras before a studio audience, and then beamed weekly into millions of living rooms -- was born here, too, on a show called I Love Lucy. Of its many innovators to follow, however, there can no disputing that one stands head and shoulders above the rest: Norman Lear is the sitcom's Gershwin. He's also its Rodgers & Hammerstein, and its Sondheim, all rolled up in one.
The unassuming man in the trademark fishing hat will be 87 next month, and in that time has amassed a body of work that can only be described as mind-boggling. Starting in the early 1950s as a comedy writer on TV variety shows like The George Gobel Show and The Colgate Comedy Hour, he'd been enormously prolific throughout the 1960s. But it was the debut of an audacious new series in 1971, after three years of trying and as many pilots and Meatheads, that left his indelible mark on the landscape. All in the Family put language, characters, and situations onto American TV sets the likes of which had never been seen before -- and would never be seen again. From there, the spinoffs sprouted, and so did the hits: Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Sanford and Son, and One Day at a Time followed.
To commemorate the release of The Norman Lear Collection -- a handsomely packaged, 19-disc boxed DVD set available June 9th that includes the first seasons of all the above shows, plus six hours of bonus content (including all three Family pilots) -- Sony Pictures Home Entertainment invited a small group of journalists to a conference room on the eighth floor of the Sony Pictures Plaza building for a round table discussion featuring the man himself: Norman Lear. The Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane and Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal also attended, there to discuss how Lear's hilarious, socially provocative writing and unmatched talent for crafting memorable, believable, and highly relatable characters influenced their own work.
For a sitcom geek like me, the casual, candid, and fascinating conversation was an hour in heaven. I'll be running it in two parts, with Part One running today and Part Two running tomorrow.
In Conversation: Norman Lear, Seth MacFarlane, and Phil Rosenthal
REPORTER: [To Phil] What about Norman's show influenced you?
ROSENTHAL: I remember being eleven in 1971, when All in the Family came out. And it got a lot of press at the time. And I remember we were going to watch it. My parents enjoyed it, and they let me watch. (To Norman:) Did you get a lot of kids watching the show?
LEAR: Well I hear from people all the time that they watched it. All ages. Some of them were told not to watch it and they watched anyway.
ROSENTHAL: Right. And there was one TV in the house. It wasn't everyone has their own TV, and their own computer, and their own iPhone that they could go and watch stuff on. So my parents were watching this and so was I. Thankfully, I liked it. And so it had a tremendous influence on me. First of all, it was hysterically funny. Next, I'm learning about the world. From that show. I'm not watching the news -- I'm watching that show. I guess The Daily Show and Colbert, they've taken that place today. But as a kid, I'm getting my news from him. Right? Learning about all the issues mentioned here.
ROSENTHAL: (Cont.) So much so that when I went into CBS -- Norman knows this story -- and we were discussing the pilot for Raymond, we had pictures of all the CBS shows on the wall. And they said, "Well, what do you think the tone of the show should be like?" And I pointed to the picture of All in the Family and I said, "It would be nice if it could be like that. That's something to shoot for, I think." We decided we wanted to avoid topical issues, just because first of all, I'm not that smart, and second, I thought it would have lasting value if I stayed away from topical issues. Now Norman's a genius. He figured out a way to do the topical issues and for it to have lasting value. What's the lasting value? Well, certainly some of those issues are as timely now as they ever were. The ones that aren't, you don't mind that they're not, because it has the more important ingredient, which is the family.
LEAR: The cast.
ROSENTHAL: The relationships. And the humor came from character, number one. This is what I learned, mostly. That <span
class="pullquote">Comic gold was when you knew what was in the character's head, and I got that from watching All in the Family. I got that from when Edith started to talk, and they shot Carol O'Connor's face, and you knew what he was thinking. The audience was screaming laughing, because they knew what he was going to say. This was what we were aiming for in our show. It was a direct line from him to us, and to any other show that does anything like it. It's theater, first of all. It's not a lot of fast scenes, it's not quick cutting. It's not the illusion of entertainment. You are sucked in, because what they are talking about is worthwhile, and their relationships are worthwhile, and you care about the characters, and you laugh at the characters, because you related to the characters. And it's from him, and it spread to all the other shows that have that imprint.
REPORTER: What makes a great story for you?
LEAR: A great story, everything starts with great characters. I suppose you start with a great story, too, but it's the telling of the story through the characters. But what Phil is alluding to is, if you've got somebody suffering something or enjoying something, the more you care about them, the more you're invested in the story. So you start with great characters in situations that draw from those characters.
REPORTER: What was the impetus for One Day at a Time?
LEAR: I had two daughters -- well, three, but two living at home, and we had the idea. It could have been [series creator] Allan Manings who had this thought, I have no idea, but Alan was extremely instrumental in the start of that show. There hadn't been a divorced woman on TV. It might have started with reading, or knowing Alan Burns, and what's-his-face --
ROSENTHAL: Jim Brooks?
ROSENTHAL: I call him what's-his-face, too.
LEAR: When they did Mary Tyler Moore, when they brought it to the network, they wished it to be a divorced woman, and the network wouldn't hear of it. So they lost the business of it being divorce. It might have been something like that that triggered, "Now wouldn't that be interesting. To see a woman divorced with two daughters."
And the reason I mentioned my own daughters was that, when Valerie Bertinelli walked in when we were casting. She hadn't done anything. I mean, nothing. She hadn't been in a theater group. But she looked very much like my daughter Maggie, and she was extremely likable and wonderful and she was just a natural. But that's what made me think of my own kids.
REPORTER: What do you think of the state of sitcoms now? Everybody's talks about how it's dying, but then something like The Office comes around and proves it to be lasting. How do you feel things have changed?
LEAR: I don't know. Phil's maybe closer to it than I am. The minute a good sitcom happens again -- the reason why it isn't happening I don't know -- but everybody will be into it again, and the situation comedy as we knew it will be back again.
ROSENTHAL: As soon as one hits, they'll say, "Oh! The hit is over here now. Everybody run over there and start imitating that!" But even these shows, they're not catching on, or impacting the culture, in the same way that Norman's shows did. I think the critics and some of us in the business love some of these new shows, but I don't know if the audience does. I just don't know what's happening.
LEAR: South Park gets into everything, and so does Family Guy get into lots of things. So it's happening in those shows...
ROSENTHAL: And Daily Show and Colbert...
LEAR: Well, of course those shows.
REPORTER: It's something about animation. King of the Hill as well. Why do you think that is?
LEAR: I don't know. I hope Seth gets here, and hopefully we'll find out. He'll have an answer.
REPORTER: You worked on South Park for a tiny bit of time.
LEAR: Oh, when the 100th episode was approaching, they asked me if I would... [Seth MacFarlane, who was caught in traffic, enters] There's the man! They asked me if I would pitch in with them, so I spent two days with them. Seth MacFarlane! So we're going to run the Sizzle Reel again.
[That gets a big laugh. The "Sizzle Reel" was a video we watched earlier, featuring actors like Bea Arthur and Bonnie Franklin rhapsodizing Lear's talents.]
ROSENTHAL: [Handing him a sample of the boxed set] And they give you one of these! [Seth examines it.]
MACFARLANE: Wow. That's nice! Look at that. That is gorgeous.
ROSENTHAL: I'm most excited about the two All in the Family pilots.
MACFARLANE: It's heavy, too, so you can feel good about the money you're spending.
ROSENTHAL: [To Norman] You have to sign mine.
MOVIELINE: I wonder if you could talk a bit about Bea Arthur. How you originally cast her, when you had the idea to spin her off into her own show, and thoughts about her?
ROSENTHAL: Hot in bed...
LEAR: [Laughs] So hot in bed. Uh -- nobody ever made me laugh ... I'm convinced I laughed differently with Bea. Because there was a touch of madness in her that for me mirrored the insanity in our culture. She caught -- I would be a great poet if I could explain how she touched me, the way she made me laugh. But I knew her well from Off Broadway work. And nobody remembers, but I did two years of The George Gobel Show, and I brought her out here several times to do bits on the show. So I had worked with her in that sense.
When we were doing this episode of All in the Family, and I wanted somebody that could swing from the floor. You know, and nail him. Having grown up in the family I grew up in, I knew there was nothing like an old relative with a big grudge: 22 years ago you did not invite Gert to the wedding. She comes in ready to kill. And I knew Bea Arthur, there was nobody who could handle a line, ha ha, when somebody with something on her mind like Bea. So, we cast her. The show was on in New York and was not off before Fred Silverman was on the phone with me, saying, "My God, there's a show in that woman."
ROSENTHAL: Oh -- great.
LEAR: But we had been in rehearsal for some days, so we were way ahead of that. But before the show was off the air, he was on the phone saying you got to do this. So that's how that came about.
REPORTER: [to Seth] We were talking about you before you came on the air, that the only shows pushing the envelope are animated ones. Why do you think that is?
MACFARLANE: Well, to me animation sort of skirts under the radar. One of the things that's sort of tragic about the TV landscape now is that, is that you really can't, just because of legality, you really can't push the envelope. And I suppose this isn't even so much about the FCC as it is the conservative swing of the networks. You can't push the envelope as much as you used to be able to. So when I watch All in the Family reruns, in so many ways that show is so much edgier than anything that's on TV now. It's more cutting-edge than anything that's on TV. To me, for a number of reasons, it's always the show I cite as my favorite of all time. You couldn't do that show now, not because people would reject it. I think people would embrace it. It's that the networks and studios don't have the confidence in their viewers to do that. Hopefully will come along and take that risk, but, you know, at the moment, the animated shows, because they're one step removed from reality can sort of sneak by. You know, it's sneaky.
REPORTER: [To Norman] Did the political climate at the time allow for those shows?
LEAR: I really don't know how to explain it. It took me three years to get the show on the air, let's put it that way. In this collection, they found -- I always had one of the two pilots we made before the show went on the air, and they found the other one. So you see three years of stabs at it. The leads were the same -- Caroll O'Connor and Jean Stapleton -- but the young people were different. In the third year, luckily the fates were aligned. The script was absolutely the same. I wouldn't change the script.
ROSENTHAL: Did Caroll's tone change at all?
LEAR: No! It was very much the same. It just got better. But it's the same piece of work.
ROSENTHAL: Edith talked differently at the beginning, right?
LEAR: She might have.
ROSENTHAL: She had a more refined way about her, didn't she? And then she found that voice.
MACFARLANE: It's like Carrie Fisher -- she started British, and then said the hell with it.
LEAR: But she found the running around. I don't know, maybe, I haven't seen them all together. But it might have been by the third time we did the pilot. Even Bob Wood, who at the time was running CBS, and when he said, "Yes, I want to do this show," he wanted to do another pilot. And I didn't want to do another pilot. So they put six on the air. We made 13, but they decided to try six at a time. They put it on late mid-season, and by the time the other networks were going into reruns, people had started to hear about this crazy thing going on, and the ratings started to tick up. We just sneaked by. I think if we had gone on in the fall, we wouldn't have made it.
REPORTER: Can you talk about the censorship battles you've had? You mention you skirted the lines a lot.
LEAR: Phil mentioned topicality. So the first battle I had, the whole show was about Richard Nixon. And they said, no one's going to know about Richard Nixon in ten years, and you have to think about downstream. But with performances like that, it doesn't matter what they're talking about to a great extent.
MACFARLANE: It's language. It's Archie used to shout, 'Gaddammit!' And it's just that much more impact, that much more real, instead of saying 'damn it.' It's a simple little thing. That's why I always wondered, was that a fight?
LEAR: That was a fight. As a matter of fact, when they took control of it -- every once in a while, when they run the original, and he said, "Goddammit!" -- they did something with the sound when they took control of it, so you don't hear it clearly.
MACFARLANE: Also one of the trends in TV now is that flawed characters are frowned upon. If somebody is not perfect in every way, they're like, "How are they going to be likable, are they going to be affable enough?"
ROSENTHAL: They said that to me. I said, "Can I ask you something? Who in your family is likable?"
MACFARLANE: All in the Family comes up all the time, all the time in networks conversations. Because every writer loves this show. We went through this a few years ago with Fox. I did a pilot in which the mother was very much a Jean Stapelton-type, and that's why her 40-year-old son was living at home, because she was such an enabler.
So we said, look, only someone this flawed and enabling would generate an offspring like that. And it was all about, "No, she's got to be independent, she's got to stand up for herself." And there's always that argument that you have where the network is saying -- and I could be wrong about this -- but the network is saying, "Look, Archie and Edith butt heads all the time." And we're like, "No! She stood up to him, like, once every eight or nine shows, and that's why it had impact."
ROSENTHAL: She'd get him a beer!
MACFARLANE: She was blindly loving, which was what was so hilarious. And you liked him because she liked him.
LEAR: Jean asked me in rehearsal, while we were doing the original pilot, "You know, I get it, and I think I can do this, but I would love to know what I'm thinking when he's doing all of this." And I said, "You are ... Patty Andrews. The middle sister of the Andrews sisters. And what's going through your head, 'Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree.' That's where your head is." And she took it and went with it. She had an inner life that could handle all of that.
REPORTER: But it seems like all the great sitcoms are about flawed characters.
MACFARLANE: Well, you're speaking logically, but that doesn't really work.
REPORTER: What's the most bizarre note you've gotten?
MACFARLANE: It's usually about sex or religion.
MACFARLANE: Yeah. I always use this example as a classic kind of thing. It was a joke we did with Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper. And he says, "Drink this all of you." And they lift the goblets to their mouths. "For this is my blood." And they all do this vaudevillian spit take.
MACFARLANE: And they said, "Absolutely not. There's no way." And that's something that's always so frustrating, that that's the one institution.
LEAR: Did you do it?
MACFARLANE: We put it on the DVD but that's the best we could do.
ROSENTHAL: Yes, but even more insane. I understand you getting a lot of resistance, but we had a nice little family show. On the pilot, a CBS person, a woman, said, "The brother scares me. You should have less of the brother. I wouldn't leave the kids alone with the brother."
ROSENTHAL: That's more about her, right?
MACFARLANE: Yeah, yeah, exactly.
ROSENTHAL: Cause he's Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. It's not like, an edgy character.
MACFARLANE: He's an edgy guy...
REPORTER: [To Norman] Are there any shows that weren't successful that you wish had worked out?
LEAR: Oh yeah. There's a show called Apple Pie. (Clip here.) They did six. At the opening credits you heard the Franklin Roosevelt "We Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself" speech on an old-fashioned radio. So that was the time. Drifters through the country, people riding trains, out of work, dust bowl period. And she had been left a home -- a widow of a number years -- on a farm, and she had no family. This is all back story. When we come up on her, she is advertising for a family. So when we come up, she's had ads in the paper, and she has a -- God, great actor, played the grandfather, and she had a son, and a daughter. All had responded from ads. And she was interviewing somebody she was hoping would be the husband, and Dabney Coleman came in.
REPORTER: All's Fair?
LEAR: Oh God, I loved All's Fair. That was Richard Krenna and Bernadette Peters. She was a liberal photographer journalist, and he was George Will, and they had a physical thing, they were together, and I loved that. And that had a character who played a jester in the White House, and that was played by -- what was his name, became a big star -- Michael Keaton.
REPORTER: Doing your show today, what topics would you want to cover?
class="pullquote">You know what I want to do? I want to do the other side of South Park. I want to do old people in the right location, with their families. Just reversing it, because I think we don't hear a lot from them.
MACFARLANE: Nobody's ever done a multi-camera sitcom, I don't think, that takes place in a retirement home.
ROSENTHAL: I'm doing it now.
MACFARLANE: Really? Ah, good for you.
ROSENTHAL: Yeah, but I'm doing it in London. Because I didn't even bother going to the networks, because I knew what they'd say. "We love everything except the old people."
ROSENTHAL: "Can it be about something else?" So I had this idea to go to the BBC. Because it seems first of all shows come here from there, and they welcome old people.
MACFARLANE: Yeah. The Golden Girls was a huge hit, and that wasn't the '50s, it was the '80s.
ROSENTHAL: They don't want to know from twenty years ago.
MACFARLANE: You think with the amount of failure -- I got really hammered at a Fox party recently, and I was talking to a couple of the development people, and I said, "If you guys just take your instincts and do the opposite, everything you have would be a hit." I think it's a weird stalemate right now.
ROSENTHAL: I would almost agree with you, but it's not even their instincts. It's what they think...
LEAR: Will work or won't work.
ROSENTHAL: Either the advertisers' instincts or the public's instincts...
MACFARLANE: Well, it's fear. ♦
Click here for Part Two of In Conversation: Norman Lear, Seth MacFarlane, and Phil Rosenthal.