As Lear would observe, television did not yet exist when he was born, and he has lived long enough to see broadcast television lose its central place in the American imagination. But when television was dominant, Lear was dominant, and he had a big agenda. He wanted to change America, and he did.
Historian Kathryn Montgomery once observed, “In the war for the American mind, entertainment programs have become political territory.” But it was not always so. The most watched television program of the 1960s was The Beverly Hillbillies. In a study of American television, Dennis Tredy points to the fact that 1960s programming was dominated by two genres: rural comedies (The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction) and odd-ball comedies that strictly avoided politics and often avoided reality as well (Mister Ed, My Mother the Car, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, and The Addams Family).
When television was dominant, Lear was dominant, and he had a big agenda. He wanted to change America, and he did.
Driven by his liberal passions and a determination to force political change through television, Lear built a progressivist empire, eventually championing causes that ranged from abortion to sexual liberation, feminism, and the welfare state. Lear was also insistent upon pushing boundaries in terms of what broadcast standards would allow and the public would accept. In one famous episode, he deliberately poked at both standards and conventions by using the noise of a loud flushing toilet on All in the Family before his character Archie Bunker entered the room. It was so shocking that critics named it “the flush heard round the world.” It would be heard again and again.
Happy 100th Birthday to the one-and-only Norman Lear. You are a gift to the world and a role model to yours truly! pic.twitter.com/dZKn1ChQvB
— Arthur Albert (@ArthurAlbertTV) July 27, 2022