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Norman Lear Looks Back on Early Days as TV Comedy Writer

If anyone deserves to write a memoir, it’s Norman Lear, who reinvented television comedy in the 1970s with “All in the Family,” and whose “Even This I Get to Experience,” a how-to book about understanding the TV business, comes out in paperback Oct. 27. Lear was first mentioned in Variety on Nov. 15, 1950, as part of a story about an exodus of L.A. writers moving to New York for TV jobs.

How did you get the New York gig?

Ed Simmons and I had written a routine for Danny Thomas’ nightclub act, which led to New York and Jack Haley’s “Ford Star Review.” Jerry Lewis saw a sketch that he knew he could do better, so he wanted us. MCA handled both shows, so it was easy to move over to Martin & Lewis. Within three weeks, we were writing for “The Colgate Comedy Hour.” Suddenly Simmons & Lear were major comedy writers. All those other writers came out of radio, but we were the TV writers. But the joke of jokes was that we didn’t have any experience.

Did you watch TV?

We didn’t own a set. We used to go to my uncle’s house to watch Milton Berle.

You hadn’t been in L.A. long.

We moved there at the end of ’48. I was a kid of the Depression, and I had one uncle who was a press agent; as the family said, “He was a good provider.” He would slip me a quarter. I wanted to be an uncle who could slip a quarter to his nephew, so I wanted to be a press agent, too. I didn’t even know what that was. I didn’t want to be a star, I wanted to be the guy with the star.

What were cross-country flights like?

I was the only one in the family who had done that. I took a TWA red-eye at 11 p.m., and they had sleepers. I think we arrived at 8 in the morning. And the 747 had an upstairs lounge for first-class. You could go up and smoke a cigar, and they served caviar. Nobody wore sandals, everybody was dressed up for every flight.

Did you have any key teachers?

There were two. Roland Kibbee was head writer on “The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show” (Bud Yorkin was producer-director). I would sometimes do the opening monologue. Roland taught me that even a simple thing like that has to have a throughline — a beginning, middle and end. It had to have a story, and had to be taken seriously. And then Nat Hiken, who later created (“The Phil Silvers Show”).

What did you learn from him?

He taught me funny.

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