How Norman Lear Changed TV

The renowned television producer Norman Lear, who died yesterday at 101, pursued his craft with an assiduous fervor throughout his seven decades in the entertainment industry. But when I interviewed him back in 2020, for a story that focused in part on his role in ushering in prominent Black television shows of the 1970s, Lear characterized himself as an enthusiastic viewer above all. “My primary role has been to have a great time!” he said, with a laugh. “I don’t know that anybody enjoyed those years and those shows [like me]—not just my shows; all kinds of shows and [the] entertainment field in general. Nobody enjoyed it more than I.”

If anyone knew how to watch, it was Lear. His great appreciation for the work of making television reflected his commitment to the less glamorous task of observing and attempting to understand other people. When developing series and talent alike, Lear prioritized the challenge of depicting experiences and viewpoints different from his own—and in doing so, he changed the trajectory of American television.

His most famous series, All in the Family, premiered in 1971 and kicked off a wave of sitcoms that reckoned with the world outside their characters’ living rooms. The show grafted elements of Lear’s relationship with his father onto the dynamic between the cantankerous conservative patriarch Archie Bunker and his long-haired, liberal son-in-law, Mike Stivic. Through the intersecting tensions between Archie; his wife, Edith; his daughter, Gloria; and Mike (whom Archie preferred to call “Meathead”), Lear captured the cultural turmoil of the 1960s and investigated the larger social forces that shape interpersonal conflict. “I’ve always instructed writers to listen to their families closely, deal with the problems in the family that the kids were going through, what the relationships—father-son, father-daughter, etc.—were going through,” he told me.

Lear sought to broaden the scope of what mass audiences considered a quintessentially American family. Sanford and Son, his second major sitcom, focused on an Archie Bunker–esque Black widower and his peace-loving son, a duo who countered the constraints of American domestic storytelling in both race and family structure. The Jeffersons, a spin-off of All in the Family, turned its attention to Archie and Edith Bunker’s Black neighbors, George and Louise Jefferson, whose move to a high-rise luxury building created ample opportunities to explore the anxieties of upwardly mobile Black families. Throughout his career, Lear told his writers to “read the papers and deal with the problems the entire culture was going through—the families living up the street and down the street, not just your own,” he said.

Lear’s assessments of the world didn’t stop at newspaper clippings and the proverbial families on the street. He was the rare Hollywood giant who took the time to look around him on set, and in the industry more broadly, to connect with a younger generation of creators whose backgrounds differed from his own. As important as the sitcoms Lear produced is the work he did to elevate writers, including those who never wrote for any of his famed series.

When speaking with writers and producers behind some of the most beloved Black sitcoms of the ’90s, I was struck by how often they cited Lear as a catalytic force in their career. He wasn’t a lofty, inspirational figure, they said, but a mentor who took a clear and unwavering interest in their work. Kim Bass, who co-created the teen comedy Sister, Sister, recalled Lear taking him out to lunch and giving him advice. Sara Finney-Johnson, who co-created the Brandy-led sitcom Moesha, got her start as a production assistant in Lear’s office. She remembers Lear asking her what she wanted to do in her career; when she said she wanted to write, he introduced her to the author Alex Haley the next day. “I saw how he treated writers and how he promoted people, and that made me feel like I can maybe run a show one day,” Finney-Johnson told me. “That’s how he was: He just wanted you to be the best you could be and encourage you and push you.”

The ’90s are often regarded as the golden age of Black sitcoms, and many of the creators who worked diligently to bring those shows into the world are still working now. What’s more, Lear continued producing and developing series well into the 2010s, extending the glow of his success to other generations of creators—directly and otherwise. In 2017, Netflix premiered the first season of One Day at a Time—a remake of Lear’s 1970s sitcom—which was centered on a Cuban American family led by a single mother. The show ran for four seasons and attracted a devoted fan base, which connected with the series’ heartfelt depictions of characters who survived difficult circumstances partly by doubling down on moments of joy.

In that, it epitomized the ethos of the man who loved to see other people find jubilation through TV when the world feels relentless. When we talked, Lear told me that there was no better feeling than watching a diverse audience laugh as hard as they could. As he put it, “Laughter and pleasure adds time to one’s life.”

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