×

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.

Click image for large preview

More TV

  • Picture shows: Gemma Foster (SURANNE JONES)

    India's Hotstar to Remake BBC Thriller 'Doctor Foster'

    Hit BBC thriller “Doctor Foster” is to be remade in India following the sale of the scripted format to streaming platform Hotstar Specials. Disney-owned Hotstar has collaborated with BBC Studios to adapt the series for Indian audiences. Indian filmmakers Tigmanshu Dhulia and Aijza Khan are directing the show, which is yet to be titled and [...]

  • Facebook Logo

    Facebook Watch Signs Content Pact With France's M6, Unveils European Short-Form Slate

    Facebook Watch has inked a content pact with French channel M6 and unveiled a slate of short-form content from European digital publishers for the platform. The deal with M6 will see the French broadcaster place spinoff programming from some of its hit shows on Facebook Watch. M6 will run pre- and after-show clips, interviews, and [...]

  • TV News Roundup: Amazon Drops ‘Marvelous

    TV News Roundup: Amazon Releases ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Season 3 Trailer

    In today TV’s news roundup, Amazon Prime Video releases the Season 3 trailer for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and Showtime announces Celeste Barber’s standup special premiere date.  DATES Showtime’s forthcoming comedy special “Celeste Barber: Challenge Accepted” will air Nov. 1.  This marks Barber’s televised standup debut. She is best-known for her viral Instagram hashtag #celestechallengedaccepted. [...]

  • Tom Succession

    'Succession': Matthew Macfadyen on the Status of 'Tomelette' After Season 2 Finale

    Matthew Macfadyen hasn’t even seen the second season finale of “Succession” yet, but says he wasn’t surprised by how it ended when he read the script. Over the course of the series, Macfadyen’s character Tom has suffered at the expense of the Roy family on personal and professional levels. Will he turn a new leaf [...]

  • Jason Sudeikis Apple

    Jason Sudeikis Sets Ted Lasso Comedy Series at Apple

    Jason Sudeikis is bringing his Ted Lasso character to Apple’s upcoming streaming service. Variety has learned that Apple TV Plus has given a series order to “Ted Lasso,” on which Sudeikis will star in addition to writing and executive producing. In the series, Sudeikis plays Lasso, an idealistic all-American football coach hired to manage an [...]

  • CENTRAL PARK FIVE

    Netflix and Ava DuVernay Sued by Police Interrogation Firm

    The company behind a controversial police interrogation technique filed a federal lawsuit on Monday against Netflix and director Ava DuVernay, claiming that it was defamed in DuVernay’s miniseries on the Central Park jogger case. John E. Reid and Associates developed the Reid Technique in the late 1940s, and it has continued to offer training materials [...]

  • Noah Oppenheim

    NBCU Has Likely Succession Plan Set at NBC News

    NBC News President Noah Oppenheim has been battling Ronan Farrow in recent and disturbing headlines, but the executive remains the most likely candidate to succeed NBC News and MSNBC Chairman Andy Lack, according to people familiar with the matter. Lack, who has seen NBC News through one of its most tumultuous eras, has a contract [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content