×

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

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • "Trust Issues" - Dylan and Lizzie

    'Instinct' Canceled After Two Seasons

    CBS has canceled “Instinct” after two seasons. Series creator Michael Rauch announced the cancellation Friday on Twitter, writing, “I’m very sad to relay the news that @instinctcbs won’t be renewed for a 3rd season. We will double up this Sunday and our season/series finale will be Aug 25.” Rauch also thanked series stars Alan Cumming [...]

  • Maisel Day

    My Mostly OK Maisel Day (Column)

    When Amazon announced its first-ever Maisel Day, I was intrigued. For one day, Aug. 15, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” fans and Angelenos (fangelenos?) could hit up various restaurants, theaters and retailers throughout Los Angeles for special deals, all at 1959 prices. Among the gems: $2.50 makeovers, $0.99 pastrami sandwiches and $0.30 for a gallon of [...]

  • Nordisk Film & TV Fond Announces

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond Backs Joachim Trier, Ole Bornedal, Yellow Bird

    Nordisk Film & TV Fond has announced three features, two series and a documentary set to receive $1.4m in financing, as well as distribution, dubbing and cultural initiative support recipients. Doing so, it highlights some of the key titles moving forward in the Nordic region. Already backed by the Danish Film Institute’s largest ever grant [...]

  • TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley' Final

    TV News Roundup: 'Silicon Valley's' Final Season Sets October Premiere Date

    In today’s roundup, “Silicon Valley” returns to HBO on Oct. 27 and Quibi greenlights a new cooking competition show “Dismantled.” DATES The fifth season of Netflix‘s “Peaky Blinders” will premiere on the streamer Oct. 4. The newest season will continue to follow one gangster family in the lawless streets of Birmingham, UK during the midst [...]

  • Peter Fonda Dead: 'Easy Rider' Star

    Peter Fonda, Star of 'Easy Rider,' Dies at 79

    Two-time Oscar nominee Peter Fonda, who became a counterculture icon when he co-wrote, produced and starred in seminal 1969 road movie “Easy Rider,” then showed Hollywood he could act about three decades later in “Ulee’s Gold,” died on Friday from lung cancer at his home in Los Angeles. He was 79. His sister Jane Fonda [...]

  • CineLink Drama Brings High-End Series to

    CineLink Drama Brings High-End Series to Sarajevo

    When the organizers of the Sarajevo Film Festival’s CineLink Industry Days surveyed the local TV landscape several years ago, they recognized the chance to make an impact. “We decided five years ago that we need to do something,” says CineLink industry coordinator Armin Hadzic. “The [regional] TV and public broadcasters were coming from another age.” [...]

  • SCHOOLED - ABC's "Schooled" stars Bryan

    'Kids Are Alright' Creator Joins 'Schooled' Season 2 as Showrunner

    Tim Doyle is taking over as showrunner and executive producer on the upcoming second season of “Schooled” at ABC, Variety has confirmed. Doyle takes over from Season 1 showrunner and series co-creator Marc Firek, who has exited the series to focus on development. The news comes just months after Doyle’s 1970s-set comedy series, “The Kids [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content