The Media Dramas of Norman Lear

A kitchen scene from All in the Family;
photograph from Everett

Here is a brief excerpt from a “classic” article by Michael J. Arlen for The New Yorker, published in 1975. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain information about subscription rates, please click here.

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How a mass-entertainment sitcom got America to deal regularly with racism.

I have been trying to figure out what is so fascinating about the comedies of Norman Lear. Right now, six of Mr. Lear’s shows are being broadcast every week to a prime-time audience: “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son,” and “hot l baltimore.” The first five programs named are currently among the dozen most popular programs in the nation, while the sixth, and newest, “hot l baltimore” (the title refers to the Hotel Baltimore, a riffraffy version of “Grand Hotel”), after just six weeks, has received a warm reception, despite a degree of wariness on the part of network-affiliate stations, several of which appear to think that in populating his run-down inn so freely with prostitutes, homosexuals, and other social misfits Mr. Lear may have been pushing his gift for jokey topicality farther than the mass audience will bear. Even so, it’s probably a good bet that roughly a hundred and twenty million Americans watch Norman Lear comedies each week—which adds up to a total of roughly five billion viewers every year. Perhaps what is most fascinating about Mr. Lear’s œuvre is the dimensions of its success, for he seems to be one of those ordinary but uncommon figures who come along every so often in our mass-entertainment culture and manage to achieve—more or less single-handed and with the appearance of naturalness—what tens of thousands of business geniuses and consumer theoreticians spend half the energies of the Republic vainly striving after; namely, a “feel” for what the public wants before it knows it wants it, and the ability to deliver it.

What is not so fascinating about Lear programs is easier to determine. Surprisingly, they are not very funny, for the most part, which is to say that the level of acting—at least, the stage presence of the actors—is generally of a higher order than the humor in each show: the jokes and joke situations. The humor is not bad, but it certainly isn’t brilliant. “In my building, the roaches are so big that the crunch drowns out the television.” And “Deep down, you know, he respects you.” “Yes, but I don’t want to dive that deep.” On the whole, there are few unusual comedy routines in Lear comedies, and there has been virtually no introduction or creation of striking new comedy characters, with the possible exception of Archie Bunker, in “All in the Family,” who was transplanted from the successful BBC series “Till Death Us Do Part,” and, in any case, derives from a mass-entertainment cartoon that stretches back from William Bendix and Wallace Beery to Sancho Panza and Shakespeare’s Pistol. And even Bunker, who has most of the best lines in his show, is given an overabundance of easy malapropisms: “Salivation Army,” “Let him who is without sin be the rolling stone,” “ ‘Pilferers will be prosecuted’ means ‘Queers stay out of the men’s room.’ ” In fact, much of the aura of comedy in Lear shows (as in other television comedy programs, with the exception of Carol Burnett’s) derives from television’s electronic institutionalizing of the old theatrical claque: the sound track of taped audience laughter, which rises and falls, whoops, giggles, and shrieks, taking on a blurry identity of its own, like a lunatic Greek chorus, and nudging the isolated viewers into an impression of high spirits.

If the level of humor in Lear comedies is routinely professional—which in itself wouldn’t be unusual, save for the enormous success of the programs—what is more visible is the level of anger. For, while the sound track is laughing, the characters in Lear comedies are mainly snarling. Again, Archie Bunker stands as the prototype of the Lear angry-man character. When Bunker first appeared on American screens, in 1971, representing the politically and socially threatened silent-majority blue-collar worker, his outbursts on politics and race were taken as quaintly liberating and timely. They also had a specific quality and direction to them: blacks moving into the neighborhood, or being hired at a nearby factory. For some time now, though, Bunker’s anger has become random—a random musical note that is methodically sounded by the script as it travels through each half hour. It is an accepted form of stage business. In a recent episode of “All in the Family,” for example, within a space of about fifteen minutes Bunker snarled and mugged such lines as “What’s the stink in the oven? What kinda animal you cookin’ in there?” (It’s a fish.) “So, Irene is a Catholic. That means I gotta pay for her mistakes?” (Irene leaves.) “Whadda I care if she leaves. She’s not my guest, she’s your guest.” “C’mon, throw the fish on the table!” “Don’t stay in there—c’m here! Move it!” “Listen to this, Commie pinko!” “Let me remind you of something, Meathead!” “Yeah, Dingbat, I’m talkin’ to you in English!” “Get in, get in. Just put your keyster in the chair and shut your mouth.” If Bunker’s anger has settled in as a conventional shtick—like Groucho Marx’s walk or Jack Benny’s stinginess—it has also been picked up and incorporated into all the other Norman Lear shows, and, for the most part, with the same quality of randomness. On “Sanford and Son,” which was transplanted from “Steptoe and Son,” another BBC series (about two Cockney junk dealers), Fred Sanford is an irascible and bullying black man—often with only the sound track and the vaudeville mugging to tell one that the show is a comedy. In a recent episode, Sanford was waiting for the arrival of his younger sister and her new “mystery” husband. First, he wanted his truck. “Where’s our truck?” he asked angrily. “Julio borrowed it,” said his son, referring to a Puerto Rican neighbor. Sanford grimaced broadly and slammed his fist on a table. “Now, you gone got Puerto Rican all over our truck!” The taped audience erupted in laughter, the joke presumably being that it was a joke. Then the married sister appeared with her new husband—a white man. The audience giggled apprehensively but delightedly as the husband—a soft, droll figure—sidled warily into the room, unseen by Sanford. Time passed and Sanford still didn’t notice him. Then he mistook the man for a taxi-driver. Then, finally introduced to and embraced by the new brother-in-law, he went into an elaborate and energetic sequence of grimaces and double takes, crashing about the room in a fury that was again comic mainly in the laughter of the unseen audience. “How come you’re lookin’ that way?” Sanford’s sister said to him, feeding the line. “I just got hugged and kissed by a Snow-Whitey,” replied Sanford. Afterward, he called the white husband “Mr. Intermarry,” “Paleface,” “Honky,” “Color-Blind,” and “The White Tornado,” each one to bursts of applause from the tape; indeed, the only purpose or reality of the white husband’s existence seemed to be as a butt for Sanford’s jokey snarls.

Anger as stage business runs through nearly all Norman Lear’s comedies, but it is a curious, modern, undifferentiated anger, provoking laughs from the sound track, and providing the little dramas with a kind of energizing dynamic—sometimes the only dynamic. At the beginning of an episode of “The Jeffersons,” George Jefferson enters his new apartment already angry—vaguely and generally angry. Maude, in “Maude,” appears to be angry at Walter, in one particular instance, for eating too much, but clearly—clearly to the audience—she is just angry; it is a state of being, interrupted periodically by stage-business jokes or stage-business sentiment, or sometimes stage-business problems. What is notable here is that anger in a Norman Lear comedy isn’t something isolated or set apart—as with, say, Sheridan Whiteside in George Kaufman and Moss Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” or in the traditional routines of “insult comedians.” It has become part of the spirit of the occasion, like music in a musical comedy. Also, as with the characters themselves, who, despite their fits of problem-solving and self-awareness, return each week to the same unserial starting point, it is a rage that rarely extends much into the future, or even into the present. An individual outburst of temper may sometimes produce a concrete result, such as the disruption of a dinner, but for the most part these acts of the new anger are strangely actionless, and, in any case, are soon automatically defused and retracted. King Lear’s rage has travelled, by way of Sheridan Whiteside’s irritability, into the release-rhetoric of the psychotherapist’s waiting room.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Michael J. Arlen worked as a reporter on Life for five years, from 1952 to 1957, before joining the staff of The New Yorker in 1957 where he remained until 1990. His first book was Living-Room War, a collection of his television pieces centered on the Vietnam War. The book title is a term coined by Arlen that has gone on to be heavily referenced in Academic writings and editorials. His two best-known books are Exiles (focused on his childhood in the South of France) and Passage to Ararat (about his Armenian heritage), both of them personal histories which first appeared in full in The New Yorker.

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