Norman Lear on Ending His Long TV Absence With ‘One Day at a Time’

Norman Lear portrait
Michael Lewis for Variety

In the 1970s, Norman Lear reigned as TV’s most prolific and influential comedy writer and producer — the person responsible for such landmark shows as “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” and “Maude.” This month, Lear will end his 22-year absence from series television with the premiere of “One Day at a Time,” a reboot of his classic comedy about a single mother raising two children.

His return to a TV landscape that has shifted radically in his absence could not be timelier.

Sony, which acquired rights to Lear’s library when it purchased Columbia in 1989, had long been toying with the idea of rebuilding one of Lear’s comedies around a Latino family. It was the idea of Lear’s producing partner Brent Miller to focus on “One Day at a Time,” but Lear’s involvement was never in question, even before the wheels were rolling on the project.

“My name’s going to be with it,” the 94-year-old recalls saying. “I’ve got to be with it.”

The new series, which bows Jan. 6 on Netflix, evolves the original’s premise, focusing on a Latino family led by a female Army veteran. In tone, structure, and willingness to charge headfirst into the issues of the day, it is in keeping with the rest of Lear’s library. It is also of the moment — the same moment that finds a man who campaigned on building a border wall, promised mass deportations, and labeled large swaths of immigrants “rapists” and “murderers” about to be installed in the Oval Office.

LEAR AT WORK: The TV legend, 94, is flanked by Mike Royce, Gloria Calderon Kellett, Justina Machado, and Rita Moreno; right, he confabs with director Jody Hahn.

What it’s not is Lear’s first crack at making a Latino sitcom for American television. In 1984, he launched “aka Pablo,” starring Paul Rodriguez as a struggling standup comic and scion of a Mexican-American family. ABC canceled it after six episodes.

“We were doing the immigrant experience, which occurred when the Irish came here, when the Jews came here, when the Italians came here,” Lear says.

The new “One Day at a Time” is a continuation of that effort. The Netflix series mashes up the experiences of Lear and showrunners Mike Royce and Gloria Calderon Kellett — Lear as a World War II veteran, Royce as a parent of two teenagers, and Calderon Kellett as the daughter of Cuban immigrants.

It stars Justina Machado as Penelope, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan struggling to make ends meet in Los Angeles, where she lives with her teenage daughter, her middle-schooler son, and her mother — a Cuban émigrée played by Rita Moreno, who Lear recruited to the role. (Schneider, the creepy building superintendent of the original, is reimagined as a charming, dopey hipster played by Todd Grinnell.)

Lear credits Royce and Calderon Kellett as the driving forces behind the series. But his own involvement was far more hands-on than that of many high-clout executive producers who slap their names above a title and then simply cash their checks. Though he steered largely (but not entirely) clear of the writers’ room, he provided notes on every draft of every script.

“When we were in pre-production, breaking stories, breaking arcs, he was in it and had very strong ideas,” says Glenn Adilman, executive vice president of comedy development for Sony Pictures Television, which produces the series. “He’s at every table read, every run-through.”

Calderon Kellett recalls Lear fighting to keep a joke about “Jesus shit” in an early episode. Sony and Netflix had given notes cautioning against the use of the phrase in what was being marketed as a family show but told the producers they could keep it if they insisted. “Norman was like, ‘Let’s do it! Screw everyone!’” Calderon Kellett recalls. She and Royce eventually talked Lear into accepting the milder “Jesus crap.” However, she adds, “Norman still feels like it should have been ‘Jesus shit.’”

Lear was also present at every taping. As with his old shows, “One Day at a Time” was shot in front of a live audience. Lear warmed up the crowd before filming began on each episode, telling jokes and sharing stories. After waxing nostalgic about his career before episode nine, for instance, he called a woman from the audience up and attempted to get her to help him with the set-up to a complicated joke. When she stumbled through multiple attempts, he berated her. But then, when she finally stuck the landing, he forgot the punchline. After the audience’s laughter cleared, Lear revealed that the woman was one of his five daughters.

“I wanted to deal with the election cycle, but we couldn’t.”
Norman Lear

“We’ve been doing that since she was 7 years old,” Lear told the crowd. “I used to scream at her. The audience would want to kill me.”

Production on “One Day at a Time” began as Donald Trump was in the early stages of locking down the Republican presidential nomination. By that time, Trump had impugned a U.S.-born judge’s Mexican heritage and had Univision anchor Jorge Ramos removed from a press conference. He had yet to call out “bad hombres” or extol the virtues of the taco bowls at the Trump Tower Grill. For Lear, who made his name wrestling with the Nixon era on “All in the Family,” Trump should have been a bottomless well of inspiration.

But there was a problem: In the old days, Lear would instruct his writers to look at newspapers and build stories around what they read. One episode of “Good Times,” of which he is particularly proud, was inspired by news of a spike in hypertension among African-American men. CBS affiliates were so flooded with phone calls from viewers seeking information about the condition that the network attached a dedicated phone number to subsequent reruns for people to call and learn more.

The logistics of making a show for Netflix, however, prevented the team behind “One Day” from getting too topical. A production schedule for a broadcast comedy makes it possible to rush a script to air within weeks of being written — and for writers to respond in real time to the events of the day. Netflix’s binge model does not. All 13 episodes of season one, shot in the heat of the election, will be released simultaneously on Jan. 6, two months after Trump’s victory was secured.

Lear makes no secret of his feelings about the president-elect. “It scares the shit out of me,” he says. “I don’t think we have a president who is a well man.” And he would have relished the opportunity to take on Trump directly. “The one thing we couldn’t do was be really topical. Because the way Netflix works, on Jan. 6, all 13 will be available,” he says. “I wanted to deal with the election cycle, but we couldn’t.”

SOCIAL COMMENTATOR: Lear’s comedies are famous for their topicality. His only lament is that the Netflix prodution schedule, which prioritizes binge watching, can’t lean into the news.

But Calderon Kellett says the election does cast the show in a new light. One episode, in which Penelope’s daughter and grandmother clash over whether the latter will have a quinceañera, features a very non-broadcast joke about teen brides and rape. “We wrote that sexism episode a long time ago,” Calderon Kellett says. “Re-watching it now, after the election, it feels like a completely different thing that we didn’t intend.”

Lear praises Netflix for the creative freedom it allowed, even if he acknowledges that the binge strategy may have kept one of TV’s all-time greatest punchers from taking regular swings at breaking news. “I think we would have dealt with the election,” he says when asked how “One Day” would have been different on broadcast or cable. And he believes in the show’s ability to find a broad audience even in a politically and socially fractured environment.

“There is nothing that suggests to me it couldn’t,” he says, noting that the appeal of “All in the Family” was in the greatness of Archie Bunker as a comedic character and the late Carroll O’Connor’s portrayal of him. “I think ABC will look at it and say, ‘Oh, shit!’”