the early 1970s was one of the most transitional eras in TV history, and the transition was in full swing by the time the 1971 Emmy Awards took place. Nowhere was this more evident than in the comedy categories, with Ed Asner and Valerie Harper nominated for their supporting roles in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” alongside Gale Gordon for “Here’s Lucy” and Agnes Moorehead for “Bewitched.” If anyone had any question as to which direction the tide was turning, though, it was answered when “All in the Family” was named not only for new series but also best comedy. Series creator Norman Lear — who, at age 95, remains as busy as ever, serving as an executive producer on the Netflix reboot of his classic ’70s series “One Day at a Time” — reflects on winning his first and second Emmy.
For the 1971 Emmy Awards, Johnny Carson personally suggested the idea of having the show open with the Bunkers preparing to watch the ceremony.
That’s true, and it came at the right time, because we hadn’t yet picked up the kind of numbers that would result in a [second season] pickup. But after his having done that, the ratings picked up, and that’s what resulted in a larger audience. Two shows later, they picked us up.
When looking at the footage of you taking the stage to accept your Emmy, what stands out first and foremost is the magnificent mustache you were sporting at the time.
You know, there’s a secret behind that mustache. I was suffering from sores all over my lips and inner cheeks. And I was flying into Sloan Kettering every other week because they were the people who knew the most about it. And they beat it. But the mustache at the time covered everything.
You mentioned during your acceptance speech that it took you a few seconds to walk up to the stage, but it took three years to get to the table in the first place.
If I was saying it now I would say that it took me 51 years, some months, weeks, and days to get to that second. Because that’s the way I think of it now.
You made a point of sharing your award with Bob Wood, the president of CBS at the time, who was responsible for “All in the Family” getting on the air at all.
Bob Wood was the one who made the decision. When he initially made the decision, it was to do 13 episodes, and then he asked if he would just do a pilot first. We’d already done two pilots at that point. I said, “I can’t do another pilot. This just has to go on the air.”
Going into the evening, had you been excited about the possibility of winning an Emmy? Did Emmys mean anything to you at the time?
I don’t think I was really thinking about it. We were working our a—s off to make a buck. We were a bunch of guys who were all married with kids, and nobody was at the peak of any career, so we were all hard-working writers. That’s what was on our minds — succeeding at that level and continuing to draw down some money! Everything that happened, happened. But it wasn’t preconceived at all.
Did it feel like a triumph once you actually won the award?
I was thrilled and excited. But it was a triumph I’d never thought of.