Legendary king of CBS comedies Norman Lear (“All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons”) met up with the heir to his throne, Chuck Lorre (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Mom”), for a fascinating conversation at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills on June 2. They engaged in a freewheeling discussion about the state of television comedy today, their battles with CBS standards and practices and why they create the kind of shows they create (listen to their entire 55-minute conversation above).
Sporting the signature white porkpie hat so identified with Lear, Lorre was clearly excited to share the stage with the renowned comedy icon, noting that prior to Lear’s work the term “sit-com” was very appropriate (“’I was married to a witch’ – that’s a situation”). But after “All in the Family,” there was no more “sit” in the “com,” since Lear focused on people in relationships simply dealing with one another. Lear is a four-time Emmy winner, while Lorre is an eight-time nominee still looking for his first win. Both men have been inducted into the TV academy’s hall of fame (Lear in 1984; Lorre in 2012).
Lear recalled his epic battles with the network standards executives, who, he assured us, individually were very nice people (as a standards guy myself for 18 years, I thank you, sir) but whose jobs were to keep him from saying what he wanted. He recalls the pilot of “All in the Family” when, while Archie and Edith were at church, Mike and Gloria set up a surprise brunch for the Bunkers’ 25th wedding anniversary. Once done they realize they had the rare occasion of having the house to themselves and scamper upstairs. Archie comes home early because he didn’t like the sermon (of course), and seeing Mike and Gloria heading down the stairs, sizes up the situation and questions, “11 o’clock on a Sunday morning?” CBS wanted that line out. It aired the way Lear intended.
Lear still relishes his outlaw status in the political world. One of his fondest memories is of a mention on the Richard Nixon tapes. The then-president discussed “All in the Family” with aide John Ehrlichman, bemoaning the series’ treatment of Archie Bunker, “How can they make fun of such a good man?” When asked his opinion of Donald Trump, Lear says that he considers him to be “the middle finger of the American right hand.”
Lorre discussed in detail his series “Mom,” which has already won Allison Janney two consecutive Emmys as Best Comedy Supporting Actress. He was inspired by a lesson he learnt from Lear 25 years ago to tell stories that had no contrivance but were simply a reflection of how life happens. Referencing his own background, Lorre explained that with “Mom” he wanted to discuss recovery from the seemingly hopeless state of mind and body of alcoholism and addiction. While he knew recovery could be funny, he couldn’t find a way to make addiction and its darkness into a comedy. The key was to make the show a story of hope, emphasizing that while recovery may be clumsy at times, it’s also possible.
Lear, remarkably fit at age 93, is still hard at work and is currently mounting a Latino reboot of the Bonnie Franklin comedy “One Day at a Time” for Netflix, starring Rita Moreno, Justina Machado, and Stephen Tobolowsky. “We finished shooting our third episode last night,” Lear casually observed. Lorre could only shake his head in admiration.
It was that kind of night.
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