Through most of the 1950s and ’60s, television programmers believed the best way to success was to serve up the least objectionable programming. Don’t rock the boat too much, they figured, and large numbers of viewers will follow.
Norman Lear killed that philosophy forever.
Starting with “All in the Family,” Lear and his Tandem Prods. proved American audiences weren’t necessarily as fragile as webheads thought.
“There was this elitist notion that viewers wanted to get away from their problems, so we’ll give them escapist fare,” Lear says of the prevailing programming wisdom of the day. “But people are able to laugh at serious issues if you frame it through the right lens.”
For Lear, that meant strong characters who also had heart: Archie Bunker (“All in the Family”), Maude Findlay (“Maude”), Fred Sanford (“Sanford and Son”), Florida Evans (“Good Times”), George Jefferson (“The Jeffersons”), Ann Romano (“One Day at a Time”).
Lear’s seemed to push new envelopes with every show he produced.
“Good Times” took on poverty in black America. “Maude” examined women’s rights, including abortion. “One Day at a Time” made single moms heroes.
Former CBS and ABC program exec Harvey Shephard says viewers accepted Lear’s politically explosive shows because they were well written … and he never preached.
“Norman always allowed a sense of balance in presenting all points of view,” Shephard says. “It was a brilliant way to do comedy and help viewers see the humor that comes from serious issues.”