In Conversation: Norman Lear, Seth MacFarlane & Phil Rosenthal, Part 2
Yesterday, we brought you Part One of a fascinating roundtable discussion with brilliant sitcom provocateur Norman Lear, and two of his appreciative disciples, The Family Guy's Seth MacFarlane and Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal. In Part Two, Norman recalls the Maude abortion episode shitstorm, Phil relates the dumbest network notes he's ever gotten, Seth reveals which celebrities he's pissed off, and all three commiserate over the idiotic network pseudoscience that is "audience testing."
It's after the jump.
In Conversation: Norman Lear, Seth MacFarlane, and Phil Rosenthal
REPORTER: Norman, did you ever get any complaints [about your content]?
LEAR: This is the most amazing thing. You take Maude's abortion. That show might have been on in November or December or something. Two episodes. Nothing happened. I don't remember getting any letters. But by the time it went on in reruns, the crazies on the Right, what's that guy's name?
REPORTER: Randall Terry?
LEAR: Yeah, Randall Terry. Those guys learned about it, and now they were lying down in front of Bill Paley's car in New York, they were lying down in front of my car here. They were carrying on with parades and all that shit when it went into reruns. But there was nothing that we did that you couldn't hear in any schoolyard in America.
class="pullquote right">We just did an abortion episode of Family Guy that we screened. And there was a lot of talk in the room about Maude and the fact that nobody's touched this since Maude, and that maybe an animated show could do this. And we said if we're going to do this we, we may wait until the end to reveal it, but it's going to happen. And they were waffling, and they let us take it through the initial production process, and we said we will let you finish the show if you want to release it on DVD but we can't air it.
ROSENTHAL: Just because of the subject matter, or what you did with it?
MACFARLANE: I don't know. And my suspicion was that it had to do more with the overall subject matter. But you know, we did say, if we do this we're not going to leave it open ended. We want Lois to have the abortion.
ROSENTHAL: Did you have a dramatic moment with it?
MACFARLANE: Yeah. For us, it was handled with some care.
LEAR: Weighing the pros and cons of the situation...
MACFARLANE: Exactly. But they do make a decision at the end. But they just said, "We can't do this." It's crazy. If you think about it, in the '70s, were people just smarter back then?
LEAR: I think we're exactly the same. It's the people who think for the people. The notion that, what's the expression, "No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people." If they're not well-educated, they're wise at heart. And they've seen and heard it all.
REPORTER: Do you expect there will be a groundbreaking show, or is it all up to cable and online?
MACFARLANE: There has to be. Everybody thought the sitcom was dead and then Cosby came along. I feel like it has to happen again, but it is harder for all those reasons. It's the system, and the people in place are a different breed. I would love to have sat in one meeting, and heard what the people that Norman dealt with talked about, and how they reacted, and what that process was that made them okay with airing something like the Maude episode.
LEAR: Let me tell you the story, because I love this story. There was a guy who was running network practices at the time, and Maude said, "Walter you son of a bitch." It was an episode where she thought he'd been cheating, he came close to cheating. It was a moment where it was so right. So I get the automatic response of, "You gotta be kidding me." They thought we put that line in so we could get away with two other things, that kind of bullshit, which we never did. And so they said you can't do that. So I went up to Swafford. His name was Tom Swafford, and he was a great guy. He ran program practices.
And he called and said, "Come on. She can't say 'son of a bitch.'" And we talked about it at some length, and along the way he said, "There's got to be something else that would be every bit as good..." And I said, "Every bit as good?" And he said, "Every bit as right for the moment." And I said, "Here's what I'll do with you. You take 24 hours, and if you can call me back and say, 'Norman, she said XYZ,' and if you're looking me in the eye over the phone and I, Tom Swafford, think it's every bit as good, and every bit as right for the moment, and every bit as good for her character, then I'll do it. I won't say a word. You just have to say that. And he called me back and said, "I can't say XYZ, but I can't say it's as right." We went on with "son of a bitch" and I don't remember a single letter coming in. Nothing.
MACFARLANE: You can say 'goddamnit' but you can't say 'son of a bitch.' Now it's the reverse. Now they don't even give you a note. You can say "son of a bitch," you can say "bastard."
LEAR: I heard you say "fuck" a lot.
MACFARLANE: [Laughs] On the DVDs you can.
LEAR: On Bill Maher.
MACFARLANE: Oh yeah. Well, that's HBO. But it's funny. If they were to offer one word or phrase to come out of your character's mouths, it wouldn't be "fuck" or "shit." It would be those little expletives, like "Jesus Christ," those things that people say just casually, that don't even register, but makes things sound more real. And it's hard. I think it goes back to religion, and the network's intimidation.
ROSENTHAL: And our letters always started the same way: "Dear Jew."
LEAR: Did you deal with religion in the show?
ROSENTHAL: Yeah, once or twice. I don't know, I kind of feel like when we were there, Standards and Practices kind of took a vacation. They didn't care. If anything we had a note once, "Could you get a little edgier, a little hotter, a little sexier." I said, "Have you seen the cast? Who are you looking for in a bikini? Doris Roberts?"
LEAR: That would have been interesting.
ROSENTHAL: They actually said that though, that they wanted a little more sex.
MACFARLANE: That show didn't require it though. That show, when it was on, it was generally regarded as the funniest show on the air.
ROSENTHAL: Well, thanks.
MACFARLANE: It didn't need that.
REPORTER: Would you say even bad publicity is good publicity in show business?
LEAR: Column inches. I don't know how many times I've written friends. There's been some bad news, some bad articles -- all that matters is column inches, unless there's been some tragic thing that's happened.
REPORTER: [To Seth] Do actors ever get back to you about their depictions on the show?
MACFARLANE: Occasionally. Who was it -- David Arquette called and said he was amused by us making fun of him. It happens. I think it's about 50/50 for people calling in angry, and people calling in delighted.
LEAR: Who was pissed off?
MACFARLANE: Demond Wilson.
MACFARLANE: Yeah, yeah he was kind of angry.
LEAR: Because he thought somebody remembered?
MACFARLANE: And Ellen Cleghorne. So I guess it's the African American community. I feel like there have been others. Every once in a while they pop up. I made fun of Marlee Matlin at one point, and my assistant called me and said that Marlee Matlin called and said she'd be happy to do her own voice next time. And I went like, "Marlee Matlin called?" So you do get people who want in on the joke; they know the joke's going to happen anyway and they'd rather be in on it.
REPORTER: Did you get creative notes, and when did they stop?
LEAR: I don't remember them. They were so occupied with being afraid of this or that.
ROSENTHAL: Well that's reason right there [to push buttons]. So you don't get the notes. The whole first season you get [them]. But then if the show is successful, then suddenly it's creatively perfect.
MACFARLANE: They never said, "So what are the stakes for Meathead in the second act?"
LEAR: I truly don't remember.
MACFARLANE: There you go. Leave the artist alone and you'll have a hit.
ROSENTHAL: I got a call in the eighth season -- they'd left me alone pretty much from the first season until then -- <span
class="pullquote right">After the eighth season I got a call, 'We did some research. The wife seems bitchy.' 'Yeah, and?' 'Well, you might want to take a look at that.' 'Really? In Season 8 we should change it?'
LEAR: On Hot L Baltimore -- that's another one -- I do remember creative notes on that.
MACFARLANE: Wasn't your show, Seinfeld, Roseanne, Cheers -- weren't those all shows that "tested badly?"
ROSENTHAL: Yeah. Well, we tested OK. Not as bad as that bomb, Seinfeld.
MACFARLANE: And yet they still treat it as gospel. They're still slave to the numbers.
ROSENTHAL: Testing is bullshit. Testing is ass-covering. That's all it is. So that they can point to that and say, "It wasn't me, it was testing." I'm still waiting for the expose on testing. Because testing is -- 99% of every show that gets on television craps out. And almost all of them tested very well, so why are we testing? Because it's not really what they say it is. It's to cover their ass.
REPORTER: Filmmakers say the only time testing is really useful is for comedies.
ROSENTHAL: To see where the laughs are? But that's not even really testing.
MACFARLANE: Yeah, that's just screening it for a bunch of people. I mean, we do loose screenings; a lot of people there work on the show, they're production people who haven't seen it. Certainly in animation you screen it, you have 40 people who work there see it.
There's something strange about in testing how you have the guy who works for the phone company, the receptionist, the constructor worker, all these people in different professions sitting around in a room telling a writer how to do their job. If I stood at the bottom of a telephone pole going, "No no no, you're fucking that up," it would be absurd. The whole concept is just ridiculous. Why not get those people to do the job? Why hire a writer if you're not going to trust them?
LEAR: There's a degree of lunacy in our business. Take sweeps weeks. Now you all know sweeps weeks, don't you? Is there anything more ridiculous, lunatic? And these are all the smartest people in business. The most successful people, and tons of money depends on it -- and they'll go with that station that got great ratings by flagging "incest" all week, which they're never going to do again, because it rated higher, and they're going to pay for that for a year.
MACFARLANE: They must know it doesn't work, because the networks know in secret that the Nielsens really aren't that accurate but it's the only system they have. So they must know that.
LEAR: When I was doing All in the Family, I sat behind the glass. And I'm seeing the bodies going, you know, in great belly laughs the body goes forward then lurches back. These people were roaring, and the dial indicates they're roaring. But the other dial says they hated it, because they're not going to say they like Archie being racist.
ROSENTHAL: Sometimes it's just a straight line. Dial to the left, I don't like it. Right, I like it.
MACFARLANE: The movie Phil was in, The TV Set, was the best. Because the way the guy was instructing them was unclear. "If it makes you feel uncomfortable, then turn it down." Well maybe the point of the story at that point is to make you feel uncomfortable.
ROSENTHAL: Literally, you see. On a straight line, it dips. 'I don't like this line.' So what do you think the note is from the network? 'Can you lose these lines.' 'You mean the setups to the jokes?' 'Yeah, just do the jokes.'
REPORTER: Is there a better way?
MACFARLANE: Yeah: Shut the fuck up and let us do our jobs. I mean, that's the solution. It would be absurd for someone like Norman to get creative notes from anybody.
LEAR: Creative notes existed around this table. This is the way we sat. We were giving each other creative notes all the time.
MACFARLANE: But those are colleagues.
LEAR: And they became colleagues because they know.
ROSENTHAL: And a good note can come from anywhere. I always say, the network and the studio are at the very least people. And you're doing the show for people. Sometimes they're the only people before the show is on who you come across, and I do want their input. Now, there's a difference between just blindly changing everything because they say so, and thinking like a person who might know about the subject more than them, and deciding on your own.
The best advice I ever got was, "Do the show you want to do, because in the end they're going to cancel you anyway." Right? You can't come to them, "But I took all your notes!" Those notes are probably what killed you! Right? They don't say, "Yeah, you're right. We shouldn't have. Stay on the air." No, you're dead. So you may as well go down the way you want. But that doesn't mean be a shmuck and don't listen to anybody.
That said, I will say that there's probably a difference between getting a note from Fred Silverman, and Ben Silverman.
MACFARLANE: Wow. Oh come on, Phil Rosenthal!
Those people do exist here and there. I think it's also the executive comfortable enough in their own intelligence to not give notes for the sake of giving notes, and feel like they're changing something. He's the one who will negotiate with you. We found that in Kevin Reilly over at Fox. I have not always had good experiences with the heads of that network since I've been there.
ROSENTHAL: But he seems like a smart, great guy.
MACFARLANE: He does. I keep waiting for him to, you know, freak me out and be a disappointment. But the notes are there. They are given when he has them. They're not forced upon us. On the rare occasions that they are, it's done in a way that they are fully accounted for, even though he's under no obligation to do that. But I feel like those people are rare. And I would guess they are more rare now than they were 30 years ago.
ROSENTHAL: (To Norman) Fred was great, right?
LEAR: He was. And there's no such thing as listening too hard. A cameraman -- I remember this so many times -- or somebody whose position you didn't even know just asks a question about something in the show. And the fact that they asked that question and didn't know the answer, you'd say, "Oh my God," and changes are made.
ROSENTHAL: The writers assistant has the fix on the joke. Right? Thank God. There's no ego. You're so grateful to have it.
MACFARLANE: Oh yeah.
MOVIELINE: What do you guys make of the biggest show on TV right now, American Idol?
LEAR: We watch it together.
MACFARLANE: I've seen it once or twice.
ROSENTHAL: I've seen every one.
ROSENTHAL: My kids. I have an 11-year-old girl heartbroken that Adam Lambert lost.
MACFARLANE: Do you have scars on your wrists?
MOVIELINE: (To Seth) Being on the same network, is it forcing you to do things you'd rather not be doing? Is it killing the sitcom -- is reality TV in general?
MACFARLANE: I think it's doing a job on the music industry. Reality TV, I could be wrong about this, I feel like it's not as powerful as it was a few years ago, when you had that slew of Joe Millionaire type shows. I could be wrong but I feel there aren't as many of those lingering. American Idol is basically Star Search. It's Star Search but it's a lot meaner.
ROSENTHAL: But that's the secret that they don't want to ever say, which is that it's the most old-fashioned type of a show. It goes back to Ted Mack's Amateur Hour. Right?
MACFARLANE: That's true. And when you're pitching a comedy -- you look at a show like Raymond or All in the Family, those are both shows if you said, what's the premise, what's the hook, there would be nothing. It's just a good show with great characters, and it's simple, and in comedy that's what makes a hit. There's just so much pressure to find a high concept, and that's just death. Death.
ROSENTHAL: It's the low-concept that lasts.
MACFARLANE: It's backdrop, characters, and people who can make it come alive on a weekly basis.
REPORTER: Can you talk a little bit about [politics in your work]?
LEAR: I've always been interested in [gesturing to Phil and Seth] young people.
ROSENTHAL: I'll go find one.
LEAR: You're asking why?
REPORTER: What informed this?
LEAR: Well, I had a grandfather when I was a little guy who was a rabid patriot. I mean, he just loved this country. He came from Russia. When I was a little guy, there was parades all the time. There was a parade on Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July, and Armistice Day, and Lincoln's Birthday and Washington's Birthday. There were all these parades, and I would stand on street corners with him holding my hand, watching parades, and he'd be crying when the flag came by, and the martial music played, and so I loved to be my grandfather's grandson, and an American.
When I was a boy, I heard anti-Semitism and racism, and I just, I fell in love very early with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and those guarantees and everything it meant to my grandfather. It started with him. And everything it meant to me. I was in my freshman year in college when Pearl Harbor came. That was the one war that Americans can be totally proud of. I'm in love with being a citizen, and I'm in love with turning on other kids to be citizens. It just comes out of that. I introduced Tom Brokaw last night at a library thing. He wrote The Greatest Generation. I was part of the Greatest Generation. ♦
Click here for Part One of In Conversation: Norman Lear, Seth MacFarlane, and Phil Rosenthal.