Norman Lear — the man who many refer to as “The King of Television” — is celebrating his 100th birthday today. Lear almost single-handedly changed the network sitcom genre forever, first with All in the Family (AitF) and then a year later with Sanford and Son. Heck, any one of the first three All in the Family spinoffs — Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons — would have made for a stellar career for any television producer and writer.
I was a kid when All in the Family premiered. I watched it and thought it was funny, but I obviously didn’t understand the cultural impact. I just thought that’s the way sitcoms were. The timid network sitcoms of today all aspire to do what AitF did over 50 years ago: tackle the social and political issues of the day while being entertaining. Unfortunately, the modern situation comedy is heavy on the situation and almost devoid of any comedy.
Lear is an avowed lefty. He is, however, from a different era. He is a World War II veteran. He was a gunner on a B-17 and flew over 50 combat missions. Today’s lefty television types don’t have that kind of background.
Lear also understood that his audience was made up of people who were all over the political spectrum. Archie and Meathead were political opposites, but Lear mined both characters for comedy gold. Were AitF written today by one of the lesser lefties in Hollywood, Meathead would be Mother Teresa and Archie would be LITERALLY HITLER. Sitcoms today are only playing to half the room.
Lear’s greatest sitcoms were popular when I was a pre-teen and adolescent, and it’s impossible to overstate the role they played in my formation as a comedian. He’s been a fact of life since I first began paying real attention to television comedy. I’m celebrating 40 years in stand-up this year. When I first stepped on stage in 1982, Norman Lear had been in showbiz for over three decades.
While so many lefties seem to go through life bitter and constipated, Lear at 100 remains optimistic and almost childlike in his approach to life.
“Not for a second. We’ve had ups and downs and but it’s always a good time,” the icon told Variety ahead of his 100th birthday on July 27. “It feels very much like 99, which felt a lot like 89!”
And he has no plans to slow down — or stop cracking jokes.
“I think the big secret is never forgetting to wake up in the morning. It starts with getting out of bed,” Lear says. “But there isn’t a day when there aren’t stories to tell — exciting, relevant and of the moment stories.”
The legend has no plans to stop working, even as he celebrates a century on Earth. According to Variety, Lear is co-producing a new version of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, another of his sitcoms that doesn’t get mentioned much these days but — again — would have made a career for any other producer.
Happy Birthday to the man who turned the sitcom world on its head, gave us some of the most enduring characters in television history, and got the censors to sign off on a lot, including the first audible toilet flush ever broadcast in prime time.
I will leave you with this gem, dear readers: