YouTube has created a channel with the misleading name of “The Norman Lear Effect.”
For those not in the know: After toiling in TV and movie writing for decades, in 1971 Lear created “All in the Family,” a CBS sitcom that was groundbreaking in its use of topicality (particularly about race) and frank dialogue. It was a major hit that spawned several spin-offs, leading to further TV hits created by Lear. In the 1970’s, Lear was the auteur equivalent of Lucille Ball — it seemed as though any TV channel you turned into, you coul find one of Lear’s shows being broadcast.
Lear was my hero when I was a kid. Even though I was only 10 years old when “All in the Family” premiered, I greatly appreciated its depiction of working-class life. I could never relate to “The Brady Bunch” with its cutesy kids and fluffy dog. I could easily relate to “AITF” with its sounds of toilets flushing and loudly arguing family members.
In 1978, Lear left his perch as producer of “AITF” and his other hits, and he went on to pursue other interests. The shows of his that were still running were folded into a production company named Embassy Communications, which went on to produce hits of their own.
The trouble was, the Embassy productions were bland shows that followed the same formula: One-note characters bleating out one-liners in “harmless” situations were the exact opposite of “AITF’s”
confrontational plots. If you’ve ever seen “Silver Spoons” or “Who’s the Boss?”, you’d never mistake them for Norman Lear productions.
(Johnny Carson perfectly summed up the situation in a 1979 Rolling Stone interview where he praised the writing on Lear’s “AITF” and “Maude” while comparing it to the cutesiness of other sitcoms:
“In some of the stuff I see, the kids are funny, the housekeeper is funny, the garbage man comes on and he’s funny. Everybody is throwing funny things around, but there are no convincing relationships between the characters. Well, in the first place, you don’t really give a s**t. You don’t know these people, so you don’t care. Writers have just written jokes for them.”
Unfortunately, that’s a perfect description of “Diff’rent Strokes,” an Embassy production that premiered shortly after Lear left TV.)
(Another test I would use against these shows is memorability. TV fans still talk about, “Remember the episode where Archie Bunker… [fill in the blank — met Sammy Davis Jr., got locked in the basement, etc.].” I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could fondly recall any plotline of “Silver Spoons.”)
The reason I’m ranting about this is because YouTube’s “The Norman Lear Effect” is mixing the good with the bad. They’re posting complete episodes of “AITF,” “One Day at a Time,” and other Lear hits, which is fine with me. (If only they’d post eps of Lear’s short-lived but bawdy and funny “Hot L Baltimore” (1975), featuring ensemble work from future stars Conchata Ferrell and James Cromwell.)
But YouTube is also posting episodes from Embassy productions that I don’t want to hear about again, much less watch. (I don’t ever want to be forced to watch another episode of “Archie Bunker’s Place,” the Lear-less “All in the Family” spin-off in which Carroll O’Connor took an iconic TV character and ran him into the ground.)
You would think that Lear, who is now 98 (!!) years old, would have a big enough body of work that he wouldn’t try to take credit for anyone else’s. But no, if it came from his production company, apparently he’s glad to say that he had his fingerprints in it somewhere. It’s rather like tracing the lineage of the guy who created the limerick to the guy who wrote, “There once was a man from Nantucket…”
If you need a guide to try and sort this out, go to Wikipedia’s entry on Norman Lear. It has a chart that lists only the shows with which Lear was directly involved. “Silver Spoons” and its ilk are not on that chart. If we’re going to remember Lear (as well we should), let’s remember the stuff that he did best.