Toward the end of Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, a new doc about the TV visionary and political activist, Amy Poehler attempts to sum up Lear's impact. "Do you know how fucking hard it is to make people laugh, to tackle big issues and get big ratings?" she tells an audience at an event honoring Lear. "It's so hard that people don't even do it anymore."
The audience claps, and Lear smiles, but the TV game-changer says now that he doesn't quite agree with the assessment. There's hope, he says. "South Park has taken on major issues, and Seth MacFarlane doesn't shy away from things," the TV legend says via Skype, his signature white sailing hat perched atop his head as he sits in front of stacks of books, his 2015 memoir on display. "And there are shows like Transparent that tackle transgender issues, and in dramatic television, people put a tremendous amount of effort to include political and difficult topics."
Nevertheless, it seems unfair to compare any show to the revolutionary canon he helped create in the Seventies: All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Sanford and Son and Good Times, among others. Later this month, Lear will turn 94, but he hasn't retired; he's executive-producing a new take on One Day at a Time for Netflix later this year. He has a personal drive that the career-spanning doc, which comes out in theaters Friday, contextualizes well, with the movie covering everything from a difficult relationship with his dad to becoming a voice for political secularism – and, of course, all those TV shows in between. It's a passion, he says, that's built from a love for all walks of life. In fact, if there's one thing he'd like to see more of on TV, it's diversity.
What social issues do you wish you saw more of on television these days?
I wish we were recognizing the leadership we don't have across the board in establishment America. I'm part of a show called America Divided, and my episode focuses on living in New York City.
I couldn't believe that a doctor or lawyer with an average income and average practice cannot afford to live in New York City anymore. Also, it bothered me to learn that African-American, Hispanic and other minority families are being forced out of apartments that they are legally entitled to live in, because landlords want to rent the apartments for more money. These are difficult times and we need more attention paid … certainly in the media.
On the subject of leadership, what do you make of Donald Trump?
I think he represents the middle finger of the American right hand.
Now there's an image.
I think people understand that about him, too.
What TV shows today make you laugh?
South Park and Modern Family are funny. I love The Carmichael Show and Black-ish. Those really make me laugh. And I like Louis C.K., but I haven't seen his new show yet.
Let's talk about the documentary. How did it feel to see your life played back for you?
In 93 years, I have not had this experience before. I loved the earlier works of the filmmakers [Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing], especially Jesus Camp, which was just a giant documentary. So when the producers came to me with the idea for the doc and said that I would not have anything to do with making it, I had no problem saying yes. I couldn't have guessed that it would be so artful. I'm very indebted to them.
One of the most interesting themes of the film is your difficult relationship with your father, whom you've compared to Archie Bunker. Since you wrote an autobiography and recounted your story for this doc, do you see him differently?
It's been a long journey. I have been much more comfortable thinking of him as a rascal. That's my favorite word: "rascal." But he was many other things. But when I look back at my life, which has been so interesting, I can't blame him for anything. What I learned as a result of the experience of having him as my father overwhelmed the degree of hurt I felt.
One of the most touching scenes in the documentary is when you're watching the All in the Family episode where Archie defends his father's shortcomings to Mike. You well up with tears during that scene. What was going through your mind?
I've seen that scene so many times but I've never seen it without crying. It always brings me to tears, but I think that is as much part of me as the audience member as I am behind the scenes on the show. When I watch anything, it's with a "take me" attitude. "Here I am. Take me." That scene shakes me up every time.
"I think he represents the middle finger of the American right hand."
— Norman Lear on Donald Trump
Carroll O'Connor, who played Archie, felt a lot of mixed emotions about the role. How did you help him work through those?
We disagreed a great deal. The episode of the show where he's with the woman who gives birth in the elevator; that's a great example. He didn't want to do that one. He had attorneys and managers and got the network involved. But we made the show, and he wound up loving it. I think he got an award for it.
I remember his reading when he auditioned. He sat down and read a page and a half before I went, "Oh, my God, have I got Archie Bunker right here." My words were one thing, but I never imagined the Archie Bunker he brought to it. There's only one. [Pauses] I was able to handle my end of our disagreements because I worshiped what he brought to the character as an actor.
All in the Family didn't get great ratings to begin with. Why do you think the network stuck with it?
At the end of our very first season, Johnny Carson, who was hosting the Emmys that year, had the notion of starting the show with the Bunkers turning on the set to watch the awards show. It gave the show the kick in the ass it needed. There was a big audience that had heard about All in the Family but had not seen it, so we when we came on late in the season — when the other two networks were in reruns — people picked up on us.
In the years that followed, you went on to work on Sanford and Son, Good Times, Maude and The Jeffersons, which all presented unique takes on the American experience. How did you handle the responsibility of presenting real-life cultural and equal-rights issues on television at that time?
Well, I had realized that the shows that were on television for years like The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, which are perfectly good shows, had episodes where the biggest problem a family might face would have been that the roast was ruined when the boss was coming over to dinner. That was fine, but it made a giant statement, too: There were no women or their problems in American life on television. There were no health issues. There were no abortions. There were no economic problems. The worst thing that could happen was the roast would be ruined. I realized that was a giant statement — that we weren't making any statements.
At one point, the documentary shows a portrait of you as an African-American, and the nameplate calls you an African-American leader. What's the story behind that painting?
It was a Christmas gift from, I think, the cast of The Jeffersons or Good Times or maybe both. But it was given to me as a gift by the black casts.
It says, "Born 1974," on it.
That was the year The Jeffersons was going on.
The right wing, especially evangelists, did not appreciate that at the time. Did the reaction ever bother you?
No, I was mostly pleased. The ratings topped. People were interested in seeing themselves very correctly.
There were no women or their problems in American life on television. There were no health issues. There were no abortions. I realized that was a giant statement — that we weren't making any statements.
Weren't you working on a film at one point in the late Seventies about evangelists? What was the plot?
Oh, my God. I'm glad you reminded me. It was called Religion, and it was about two black mounted policemen in Times Square. They're talking about saving money and taxes, and they figure if they become ministers of the Universal Life Church — I'm a minister at that church, by the way, and married several couples — they could write off their garages as chapels and their vacations as religious retreats. One finds God; the other finds power. Television cameras are attracted to him, and he becomes a major Pat Robertson–type individual and gets into serious trouble as a result of that mismanaged power, and he's saved by his friend — the guy who found God as a minister. As I hear myself describe it, I love it again.
It's too bad it didn't come out.
Well, it may. It's not over 'til the fat lady sings.
How does it feel to you to be called so influential and important?
I've always had a desire to help people — every person — understand how important they are and we all are. I remember my sister once complained to me about something that was going on, and I said, "Why don't you write your city council or mayor?" Here answer was, "Well, clearly, I'm not Norman Lear."
I thought about it and called her a few days later and said, "You know, Claire, you're a religious person. How can you, if you're a priest, get your fingers close enough to measure the difference between Norman and Claire Lear and how much they matter? You make people smile. You sing at the hospital. You're there to help. How can you measure the difference between us?" And I feel that way about any two of us that ever was. I like to help people understand how much they mean in the course of their lives to other people.