If you think there’s nothing funny on broadcast television anymore, you’re not alone. Archie Bunker, Fred Sanford, Maude Findlay and George Jefferson - or at least, the guy who invented them - all agree: The sitcom is dead.
“Appointment TV doesn’t exist in my life anymore,” admits Norman Lear, who doesn’t watch broadcast sitcoms anymore even though he practically invented the modern form with shows like “All In The Family,” “Sanford & Son” and “Maude.”
When Lear wants a laugh, he turns to cable to watch cartoons like “South Park” or Jon Stewart’s satirical newscasts. He likes HBO shows “The Sopranos” and the recently departed “Deadwood.” “We’re in the Golden Age of television drama,” Lear insists. But situation comedy, not so much. He’s not even sure a show like “All In The Family,” with its hardball racial and political humor, would get on the air these days.
“I don’t know why there’s no topical humor in sitcoms now,” Lear says. “I don’t understand why a family facing all the topical problems an American family faces these days - the economy, crime, drugs - can’t be the vehicle for a comedic approach. Maybe it’s that there are too many taboos, that you’d hear from the network bosses too much. The guys still involved with TV series tell me that’s the case.”
Not that Lear didn’t hear from them a lot in the 1970s, even when his sitcoms dominated the network schedules to both critical and popular acclaim. “All In The Family,” where cantankerous reactionary Archie Bunker wrangled with his knee-jerk liberal son-in-law Mike Stivic (aka Meathead), and “Maude,” in which previously unmentionable topics like alcoholism, menopause and abortion surfaced with a frequency and candor that was startling, had Lear butting heads with network officials on a daily basis.
But Lear says the most serious disputes were not the fights with censors over whether the loudmouth Maude could call somebody “son of a bitch” (quaint though it may sound today, a real example from 1974), but conceptual battles with the network suits.
“When `All In The Family’ first went on the air in the early 1970s, CBS didn’t want me mentioning Watergate or Richard Nixon,” he recalls. `Not for political reasons, but for commercial reasons. They said if we did that, the show would have no afterlife - `no downstream,’ was what they called it - in syndication. In two or three or 10 or 12 years, they said, nobody would understand or care about Watergate or Nixon. I didn’t agree.”
With “All In The Family” reruns still on the air 36 years later, and “Maude’s” first season just issued on DVD, Lear has been proven right. But he regards it as a victorious battle in a lost war. By the mid-1970s, Lear was being defeated in these arguments because shows no longer got enough airtime to prove him right.
“The Powers That Be,” a cynical 1992 comedy about an idiotic congressman and his social-climbing wife that would be a perfect fit for a cable network today, lasted only 22 episodes. That’s more than “Hot L Baltimore,” a 1975 Lear sitcom that anticipated America’s growing appetite for bawdy and unconventional sexual humor (the residents of the seedy hotel of the title included a gay couple and a hooker, both television firsts), which lasted 13 episodes. “a.k.a. Pablo,” a 1984 attempt at Latino family comedy that beat “The George Lopez Show” by two decades, got just six episodes to prove itself; “704 Hauser,” a 1994 political and racial role reversal of “All In The Family” (black family, liberal civil-rights-era dad, conservative son), just five.
All of them, Lear concedes, had low ratings. But so did “All In The Family” when it launched in 1971. “`All In The Family’ didn’t make it in the ratings until it went into reruns that first summer,” he remembers. “CBS gave it a whole season to find its audience. That doesn’t happen anymore.
“When TV started out, the networks gave you a minimum order of one season with a new show - that was 39 episodes in those days; there were no reruns except in the summer. Then a season dropped to 22 episodes. Then the standard order dropped to 13, and now it’s six. That’s all you get, six weeks, tops. Maybe not that much. A show drops a rating point from one week to the next and they want to cancel you then and there ...
“The name of the game in corporate America is higher profits this quarter than last. And you can see it more clearly in television than anywhere else. It’s crazy. It doesn’t make any sense. Something can’t grow quarter by quarter forever. Nothing in nature or life suggests that anything can do that. But that’s the operating basis of American corporations - and television - today.”
“704 Hauser” was Lear’s last real attempt at television. These days he’s mainly concerned with People for the American Way, the liberal activist group he founded in 1981 to do battle with the religious right. (He talked with a reporter during a break in a People for the American Way fundraiser in Miami late last month.) God and politics, he insists, should not mix - though he admits there’s also a long tradition of religious backing for liberal causes, from civil rights to opposition to the Vietnam War.
“There’s an important difference,” Lear says. “The Berrigan brothers and William Sloane Coffin (religious figures who opposed the Vietnam war) never suggested that you were a good or bad Christian depending on what you said about the war. Martin Luther King never said you were not a worthwhile Christian if you didn’t agree with him. None of them ever said your compact with the Almighty was threatened by your politics.”
But Lear still keeps a hand in show business. Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the producers of the scathing and scatological Comedy Central “South Park” cartoon that he admires, asked Lear to contribute some suggestions for their 100th episode in 2003. He barraged them with so many ideas that he wound up with a consulting credit for the entire season and even provided the voice of Ben Franklin in one episode.
The invitation to voice Franklin surprised him, though not nearly so much as Stone and Parker’s political affiliations. “They say they’re Republicans,” says Lear, rolling his eyes in wonder and remorse. “I don’t know. I sure don’t have any problem with anything they say in the show.”
And there’s still a film Lear would like to produce. It was an idea he had back before he formed People for the American Way: to take on television preachers like Pat Robertson with a movie.
“It was going to be called `Religion,’” Lear says. “It’s about two guys who become preachers. One finds God, and one finds power. Robin Williams and Richard Pryor were interested.” The deal evaporated before Lear could line up money and a script, but he’s never let go of it.
“I don’t have a script I like enough yet, but somebody was working on it just a couple of months ago,” he says. “I think it’s still viable. Are you kidding? With this White House? Sure, it’s viable.”