Norman Lear, King of Sitcom, Gets Documentary Treatment

Elisa Lichtenbaum | October 17, 2016

Television comedy can trace its heritage to one man: Norman Lear. Largely responsible for the explosion of bold American television in the 1970s, Norman Lear’s name is synonymous with the sitcom, and his distinctive style can be seen in everything from Modern Family to Black-ish and beyond.

Lear’s TV series (All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Maude) – all character-driven, with theatrical sets and live audiences — changed not only the face of national television, but the content of national discourse. Bringing provocative subjects like war, poverty, and prejudice to 120 million viewers every week, Lear proved that social change was possible through an unlikely prism – laughter – and created some of the greatest moments in television history.

New Documentary on Norman Lear

(l to r) Jean Stapleton, Carroll O'Connor, Norman Lear, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers on the set of "All in the Family".

(l to r) Jean Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor, Norman Lear, Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers on the set of “All in the Family”.

With unprecedented access to the 94-year-old television legend, his work, and his massive personal archives, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, premiering this month on American Masters (a THIRTEEN production), combines stories from his turbulent childhood and early career with his groundbreaking TV success and social activism.

The documentary also features colorful stories from Lear’s family, friends, and collaborators, including John Amos, George Clooney, Alan Horn, Bill Moyers, Rob Reiner, Phil Rosenthal and Russell Simmons, as well as cinéma vérité moments with Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Jon Stewart, Amy Poehler, and Lena Dunham.

Filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp, 12th & Delaware, DETROPIA for Independent Lens) reveal a psychologically rich man whose extraordinary contributions emerge from both his personal story and his own self-professed childlike view of the world. Their film traces how a poor Jewish kid from Connecticut started writing for The Colgate Comedy Hour with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, created All in the Family, and became one of TV’s most successful showrunners.

Norman Lear’s Childhood

During their early conversations with Lear, the filmmakers noticed his frequent references to early childhood – and especially vivid recollections of himself at age nine, when his father went to jail for a phony bond scheme, his mother sold their furniture and took his sister to live with her in a faraway town, and Lear was left behind, shuttled for years between relatives in Connecticut and Brooklyn.

“Understanding Lear’s early life was crucial to a more intimate reading of his work as a creator, writer, and producer of television and film,” they said in a statement. “At times, Archie Bunker is an obvious stand-in for his own small-minded and bigoted father. Divorce American Style (written by Lear) is partly an absurdist take on his parents’ own failed marriage. In fact, everywhere you look in Lear’s work, there are both direct and loose ties to the lessons he learned as a young boy on his own, struggling to make sense of societal paradoxes and the frailty – and ridiculousness – of human nature.”

Legacy and Future

Toward the end of the documentary, Amy Poehler, introducing Lear at an awards ceremony, says, “Do you know how hard it is to make people laugh, to tackle big issues and get big ratings? It’s so hard that people don’t even do it anymore.”

Tell that to Lear, who at 94 is working on a reboot of the 1970s sitcom One Day at a Time starring Rita Moreno — among other projects — and shows no signs of slowing down.

American Masters — Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You premieres Tuesday, October 25 at 9pm on THIRTEEN and nationally on PBS.

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