Even This I Get to Experience
by Norman Lear.
Penguin Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 448 pages, $33.
British comic novelist and television writer Douglas Adams was once asked to explain the difference between a comic writer and a wit. “A wit will think of a funny response at a moment’s notice. A comic writer will think of a very funny response two minutes later,” or in Adams’s case, two days later. American television sitcom auteur Norman Lear definitely falls into the latter category. In looking back and recounting anecdotes and incidents from his nine decades of life for his new autobiography Even This I Get to Experience, his inner editor and gag-man takes over and he interjects with funnier lines, responses, and observations that he should have made at the time. It is as if he is reading his life story like a second-rate script for one of his sitcoms that needs to be punched up with more good jokes and a bit of action. Ironically, his life has been so eventful and consequential that it needs no embellishment or commentary.
Even This I Get to Experience is well titled. It reflects Lear’s approach to writing his autobiography. Over two decades of delaying and postponing the project, and poring through masses of diaries, notes, letters, and recollections from friends and family, he was awed at the sheer magnitude of material he had lived through. In fact, his life and career could have filled several volumes. He spent his early life under the fickle whims of a confidence-man father, H. K. Lear, and a disparaging mother (Mrs. Lear remained unimpressed with her son’s achievements for the next sixty years, even asking him why he was at the bottom of Forbes list of richest Americans). His father’s imprisonment for fraud left him shunted among several eccentric Jewish immigrant grandparents and cousins. But this is no resentful tale of a tragic childhood. His experiences left him with a bemused and affectionate tolerance for failures that infused his later television series. During World War II, he left college to enlist in the Army Air Force and flew over fifty missions as a gunner and radio operator. Early attempts at a career in radio and publicity led him to Hollywood in the late 1940s, where he got his break pitching jokes to Danny Thomas.
Success came quickly after that, as he found work writing for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Lear moves perhaps too quickly through these early years. During this period, he moved from one writing job to another with several well-known television celebrities, but few besides Jerry Lewis left him with many good anecdotes.
One of the few flaws in Lear’s writing is that his story is always told from the perspective of the ninety-two year-old Norman Lear of today. He frequently interjects with contemporary cultural references and retroactive commentary on his past choices. When names pass through his life, he updates us on their future careers, and modern relevance. He never allows the reader to fully immerse themselves in his past. Lear admits to this problem in his introduction, which offers an interesting observation on the act of reflecting on one’s life. He admits how hard it is to understand and capture the mind of his past self without the clutter of several subsequent decades of analysis and experience.
The pace and style changes with the death of H. K. Lear in 1957. His father’s passing is a turning point in the narrative, and his writing becomes more self-aware. The younger Lear could just as well have been a different person whose life story Lear was telling. But after this point, he is unquestionably talking about himself.
This period also coincides with his political development. Lear today has a well-known reputation for liberal politics. He founded the advocacy group People for the American Way and created over a dozen television series famous for dealing with such progressive issues as race, gender politics, and the post-sixties cultural wars. He even achieved the liberal honor roll of inclusion in President Richard Nixon’s enemies list. Yet for a man who became the face of Hollywood liberalism, Lear’s liberalism was unlike the contemporary Left or even the 1960s progressives who were younger than he. It is fascinating that his autobiography is infused with unabashed patriotism, curiosity for religion, and respect for strong family values, all of which are cornerstones of modern conservatism. Lear was often a liberal at home with and in his country, which could not always be said of the leftists of the 1960s and 1970s.
Love of country is evident from his childhood enthusiasm for national holidays, parades, and pageantry to his recent purchase of an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, which he presented on a national tour in the early 2000s. Similarly, family was a vital factor in his career. His first writing partner was his cousin’s husband. His subsequent partnership with writer Bud Yorkin evolved because their wives were friends and their children the same age. He first met Rob Reiner, whom he would later hire to act on All in the Family and eventually produce films with, as a boy at family vacations with his colleague Carl Reiner, Rob’s father. All of his successful television serieswere based around passionate and volatile families, and he frequently uses the term to describe the cast and crews of all his shows and business ventures. Not surprisingly, despite some familial disarray characteristic of his time and place (he married three times and has six children spanning five decades), his own family is a central part of the narrative.
Sensitive to anti-Semitism and frustrated whenever his patriotism was questioned, he was a fan of left-leaning magazines The Nation and I. F. Stone’s Weekly. He also found a friend and guru in blacklist foe John Henry Faulk, whom he idolized just because the libertarian Texan felt to him more authentically and appealingly American than his other leftist influences. However, Lear’s reputation as a liberal firebrand truly began during the Kennedy administration. His progressive politics coincided with those of the youth of the sixties, despite being a generation older than his fellow activists. Lear believed that political activism was a hobby he could not afford to pursue until he had proven himself a “good provider” for his family. Only after achieving success in Hollywood could he indulge his political leanings. His strict personal priorities, as well as his differences from both the older generation of socialists and the young progressives of the sixties, gave him a unique liberal perspective. He was able to recognize and sympathize with both sides of the emerging generational gap in America. This ability helped create the television series that revolved around that conflict, and made Lear a household name: All in the Family.
The section of his autobiography that Lear devotes to his remarkable run of successful television sitcoms in the 1970s offers the greatest insight to his creative and business skills. It is also frustrating because of the wealth of material and the rapidity with which Lear covers it. He created numerous series, a half dozen of which—All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman; could each have filled an entire book on their own.
These series played a prominent role in the cultural debates of the era. All the shows were based around multi-generational families. And families at home saw on their television screens reflections of the same arguments, disagreements, and social and political conflicts that they were having in their own homes. Each week, Archie Bunker and his hippie son-in-law Mike could argue about the latest controversial issue. In a lesser writer’s hands, the comedy could have turned into a painful lecture. Mickey Rooney even turned down the role of Archie, arguing that for him, or any other well-known actor, to play such a bigot would be betraying the loyalty and preconceptions of their fans. But Lear had no interest in conflict where the decks were stacked in anyone’s favor. The series aired and quickly became a hit. And to the surprise of everybody but Lear, the show appealed to conservative audiences. They identified with Archie in spite of his foolishness and manners. They appreciated hearing their opinions voiced, even in comical fashion. Lear’s broad life experience developed the empathy he had for all his characters that enriched their debates. At the time, some critics accused Lear of making Archie “too lovable a bigot.” But Archie was inspired by those whom Lear knew and loved in his life, his father chief among them.
Tackling social ills in sitcom format led to some problems that even Lear could not predict. His subsequent series Good Times was about a working-class black family living in the Chicago projects. This was the first black family sitcom on television, and some of the older actors were very conscious of the fact and their obligations to society. They became very protective of their characters and the representation of African Americans. This was problematic in a comedy, where the point is to laugh atthe characters. When Jimmie Walker’s clownish character became the breakout star of the show and was given a more prominent role, the older actors refused to participate, and eventually left the series. Lear understood that in comedy, all social and political intent is less important than getting the joke to land. In this case, he seemed unprepared for the minefield he had stepped into.
Struggles with network censors were common, especially given Lear’s taste for introducing controversial issues in his shows. These were not all barriers that he felt passionate about, but they were still barriers, and he had a compulsion to break them, His taste for melodrama was probably a reaction to the excessively “wacky” sitcoms of the sixties; but unfortunately he created a trend where all comedy series eventually turned into morality plays with occasional gags. His accounts of conflicts with the censors grow repetitive although his memory of each is vivid. He clearly enjoyed them, just for the opportunity to fight.
Empathy and a desire to engage are talents neglected by many contemporary television comics and entertainers,who seem instead to prefer to preach solely to their flock. But flocks today are smaller and more dispersed—scattered across multiple Internet and cable channels. All in the Family earned weekly audience numbers that dwarf most modern series. It is unsurprising that of all the politically inclined comedy entertainment on television today, Lear has developed the closest affinity for the libertarian inclinations of the animated sitcom South Park, in which he has even guest acted. Most of the barriers being built nowadays are built on the liberal side.
Lear is a gracious writer, eager to give credit to others, but he isn’t overly humble either. He never doubts his place in American culture. Despite that, even at 450 pages, this is too short a book for too long a life.
Patrick McCarthy teaches at Marymount Manhattan College.