ATX Television Festival: A Conversation With Norman Lear

The TV legend gets philosophical.

Anything one human being is capable of doing, any other human being is capable of doing.

That’s the central aspect of Norman Lear’s life philosophy, summed up in a bumper sticker on his car (and the title of a documentary about his life): “Just Another Version of You.” Human beings are all the same, Lear believes, and we’re all just versions of each other, despite our surface differences.

That sounds like treacly nonsense, but if you know Norman Lear’s work you’ll guess that there’s another side to this philosophy. Lear is one of the all-time great TV creators, with a murderer’s row of classic sitcoms under his belt: All In The Family, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, Good Times, Maude, Sanford & Son. All of those shows were not only funny, they were not only wise, they not only dealt with the social issues of the day in blunt and upfront ways, they were also bittersweet. They wrestled with the darkness as well as the joy of life.

And that’s the other side of Lear’s philosophy. Speaking at the ATX Television Festival in Austin last week, where he was given a lifetime achievement award (one is too few. One award and one lifetime, I mean), he remembered his WWII service. He was the radio man on a bomber plane, and he was seated right by the bombs. He would watch them drop and radio up to the pilot to let him know the payload had been delivered. Lear would look down and see the bombs clustered as they fall upon the German countryside below.

One time, on a particularly daring raid, Lear wondered to himself whether the bombs would hit their targets or would hit civilians. He imagined a family of Germans sitting around the dinner table and exploding when the bombs fell. And he thought to himself, ‘To hell with them!’

But a few days later the thought came again, and he realized he didn’t want to be the kind of person who thought that way. And he realized that he was just as capable of hate as the Nazis he was fighting. He realized whatever one human being is capable of doing, any other human being is capable of doing. Good or bad, nobody is that different from anybody else.

Listening to Lear tell that story was like getting access to the Rosetta Stone of his career. That is the throughline that has always gone through his shows, but is most notable in All in the Family. In that show racist Archie Bunker battles his hippie son-in-law Meathead, but we love Archie. Lear lets us love him. He lets us understand him. He lets us see ourselves in him. And in some of the best episodes he lets us see that the people who call Archie out on his shit can be just as bad as Archie himself. Because what one human being is capable of doing, etc.

That feels like the recipe to total empathy. And total empathy is what made Lear’s shows unique, and what made them so personal. It was fitting that the ATX conversation with Norman Lear felt incredibly intimate, despite being held in the enormous Paramount Theater. The original moderator had to bail at the last minute so Katey Sagal subbed in, and while Sagal isn’t a professional moderator (seriously, it’s a skillset), she has a unique relationship with Lear - he’s her godfather, and he introduced her parents to each other. At one point he stopped answering a question to look at Sagal and intone, “I can see her mother in her face.” It was sweet and it was touching.

The Q&A was also funny - Lear is raucously hilarious, and he’s working hard to this day (he’s producing a Cuban remake of One Day at a Time and he has a new series he’s working on, aimed at senior citizens, called Guess Who Died?) - but what stuck with me was how emotional things got. If you haven’t watched Lear’s shows that might come as a surprise - a guy who made a bunch of sitcoms in the '70s has a Q&A that was “emotional”? - but the best of Lear’s shows were always deeply moving.

That intimacy continued to the audience portion of the Q&A. That’s usually a nightmare, with people getting up to make statements instead of ask questions and, at events like this, people getting up to try and get jobs (a lot of actors announce themselves to directors at Q&As). Both of those things happened at ATX, but the vibe was different. Maybe it was because the first person to ask a question was a black woman who thanked Lear for Good Times; growing up in the ghetto in Gary, Indiana, she said, it was the first time she saw herself reflected on TV. It continued with a surprise appearance by a kid who had been cast in one of Lear’s shorter-lived shows, Palmerstown, USA (based on Roots author Alex Haley’s real experiences growing up with a white friend in racially charged times). And it even carried through when a guy stood up to talk about how he was an actor… but it was because his grandmother had shown him Norman Lear’s shows as a kid. The guy said that having a great grandmother had made him a good man, so he knew that Lear had an amazing grandmother. Lear wanted to say hi to the guy’s grandma, who was in the audience, and then explained that his own grandparents were waiting in the car (Lear is 93, to explain that joke).

Lear’s impact on the world isn’t limited to television. After retiring from TV in the early '80s he briefly flirted with the idea of making a movie about the new breed of Evangelical TV preachers then rising to power (these are the people who would take over the Republican party, shift it hard right socially, and open the door to the Tea Party). Instead he created a non-profit, People for the American Way, dedicated to true religious freedom and freedom of speech. He found out one of the earliest copies of the Declaration of Independence was being auctioned off and he bought it in an effort to keep it out of a private collection - he toured the nation with the document.

ATX is a newish festival - this was only the third time they’ve given out a lifetime achievement award - and to get a giant like Lear to sit on their stage was an amazing achievement. To sit in the audience and listen to him tell stories and reflect on his life, and the fact that he’s constantly trying to become a better person (he entered therapy in his '80s) was an amazing experience. There is not another TV creator like Norman Lear, and he is a true titan of not just his industry but of the arts. And he comes across as a genuinely good human being, someone who is self-aware and self-critical and who is dedicated to always trying better. He said something that truly stuck with me, after Sagal complimented him on being humble (the kind of compliment Hollywood people love to give each other):

“If you know yourself well enough you know you have good reason to be humble."

There was one last question at the Q&A that I thought was great. A woman came up to the mic and explained that she grew up on Long Island in a Jewish family and loved the work of Lear, who was also raised Jewish. But she had to wonder, in all of those shows he had created featuring such a diversity of American families, why had he never created one with a Jewish family?

"They're all Jewish in my eyes," said Lear, summing it all up.