Nearly 40 years ago, CBS’s Saturday night schedule started with “All in the Family” and was followed by “MASH”: two classic shows that launched a lineup recognized as one of the best in TV history.
In the years since the programs aired, All in the Family” creator Norman Lear and “MASH” star Alan Alda have each continued to be involved in the public discourse in their own manner, reflecting the divergent ways that industry figures engage in activism outside of their craft. Poised to be honored with special Founders Awards at the International Emmys, both recipients were able to put each show’s political influence in perspective.
“What I used to hear all the time is, ‘If you got a message, there’s Western Union,'” Lear says. “I used to say, ‘We’re not sending messages. We are serious people. We are writing about serious things, and we see the world through the end of a telescope that shows the comedy.’
“Then I began to realize, of course we were voicing our opinion in our work — not sending messages, but simply voicing our opinion.”
Lear also points out that while “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times” and other shows marked a sophisticated shift in primetime in the 1970s, the networks were sending a kind of message in the decade before.
“When I thought about how big a message our shows might be sending, it didn’t even begin to compare with the shows that might be preceding us: ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘Green Acres,’ all those shows,” Lear says. “There were no social problems. There was no race issue. There wasn’t a bad economy. There was nothing worse than ‘The roast is ruined, and the boss is coming to dinner.’ Well, what a giant message that was. ‘America, we have problems, but we have a bunch of happy families, largely white, so chuckle.'”
Outspoken on a host of progressive issues during the 1970s, as well as instrumental in lining up industry support for candidates and causes, Lear in 1981 founded People for the American Way, created to counter the growing influence of the religious right. It continues to counter rhetoric from the right, and took an active role in the most recent campaign.
But Lear says that too much media attention is paid to political participation by figures from entertainment, especially compared to executives in other industries. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, showbiz trailed other professions, like law firms and the securities and investment industry, as the top contributors to Democrats.
“I lived in Hartford, which is an insurance town, and the major people in Hartford were the people who ran the insurance companies,” he says. “When they took sides in politics and made major contributions and so forth, you didn’t have the media looking in to the fashion industry or the insurance industry or the automobile industry. It is this fascination with celebrity, (but) I think of us as just other Americans with points of view. But because of the spotlight is on Hollywood, too much attention is paid to whether we are more singularly involved than any other community, and I don’t think we are.”
Alda says “MASH,” with Larry Gelbart, Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe among those leading its creative push, was somehow seen as a political show. Almost from the start, Alda wrote and directed episodes of the show, becoming the first person to win Emmys for acting, writing and directing of the same program.
“There is an impression, I think, that ‘MASH’ was making political statements a lot,” he says. “I think it was rare that it ever happened. It was usually only a satirical swipe.
“The show, I think, was not political, although some people seemed to think it was. I guess if they draw that conclusion, they are entitled to it. But I never mixed my writing with politics. It was always a separate activity that I did off camera.”
During the 1970s, Alda campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, and he incorporated some of his experiences and observations from his involvement in politics in “The Seduction of Joe Tynan,” which he wrote and starred in in 1979.
But then he largely stepped away from political activism.
“Well, I made a conscious decision,” he says. “I gave at the office. For 10 years I was very active, and I really wanted to concentrate on making a contribution through what I knew how to do best, which is acting and writing.
“There are a few pitfalls (to getting involved in politics). One is that it can distract from what you do, from your day job in a number of ways. But what I do with science is not endorsing anybody. It is actually doing work based on what I can contribute because of what I know about communication.”
From 1993 to 2005, Alda was the host of “Scientific American Frontiers,” bringing a more accessible and humorous approach to scientific wonder. Three years ago, he followed that experience by helping create the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where he is a visiting professor.
He had been campaigning for something like the center for about 10 years, he says.
“This is not a celebrity endorsement,” he says. “This is actually me contributing what I learned about communication throughout my lifetime. For instance, we trained (science students) in improvisation, and I still don’t think anybody has done that before. It turns them in to much more communicative people. All of this is not intended to dumb down science, but to make it vivid and clear.”
He recounts a story of a member of Congress who told of listening to a panel of scientists before a congressional committee, and members passed notes to one another, asking if they knew what the scientists were talking about.
“It sounds like a gag, but it really happened,” Alda says. “They want to understand the sciences, and the scientists want to be understood. There are intelligent people on both sides, so they should be able to speak a common language.”
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