The English literary canon boasts Shakespeare, Russian literature has Pushkin, and American television claims Norman Lear. No individual has wielded a more substantial influence over the evolution of the sitcom and the medium at large. Lear’s impact extends to the visual language of live-studio-audience cinematography, the rhythms of writing for the 21-minute format, and, notably, the political conscience guiding America’s preeminent populist art form through turbulent decades.
Sadly, Lear has departed at the remarkable age of 101, leaving behind a legacy that transcends mere television achievements. Beyond being a writer, producer, or director, Lear was a great statesman, dedicating his life’s work on and off our TV sets to an overarching project aimed at building and improving the United States.
Growing up as a Jew between the world wars, Lear’s ideological consciousness became a birthright from a young age. His radicalization at age nine, prompted by an antisemitic radio broadcast, stayed with him through his military service as an Army Air Corps gunner and radio operator in the Mediterranean and European theaters. Lear’s tireless work ethic and commitment to progressivism were forged during this period, despite the uncertainties of post-war life.
After early experiences in public relations and door-to-door sales, Lear found success in jokecraft on the Colgate Comedy Hour. His reputation as a skilled sketch-man grew, leading to higher-profile assignments on various shows. Despite setbacks in film directing and initial rejection of his groundbreaking concept for “All in the Family,” Lear persevered, and the series marked the beginning of the longest and most accomplished reign in TV history.
Modeled after Lear’s own father, Archie Bunker, the lead character in “All in the Family,” embodied a “lovable bigot” whose views clashed with the societal changes of the ’70s. The series tackled sensitive topics and held the top ratings spot for five years, exemplifying Lear’s belief in the power of patience and compassion to overcome conflicts.
Lear’s subsequent series extended his humanist mission to different demographics within roughly 15 years, showcasing empathy for the Black community in “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” and “The Jeffersons,” as well as addressing feminist issues in “Maude” and “One Day at a Time.”
Despite his bleeding heart and comedic flair, Lear avoided being mawkish or preachy. His civic lessons often pushed boundaries, challenging viewers and leaving them in discomfort. Lear’s commitment extended beyond the screen; he co-founded People for the American Way, fought against the Christian far-right, and supported self-starters through the Business Enterprise Trust.
Lear’s genius, marked by constant and unostentatious excellence, is easy to take for granted. His work, often treated as background noise, is fitting for someone who believed in the nobility of the unremarkable. His impact, both on screens and in real-world causes, brought America closer together. Lear’s legacy reminds us that television can transmit great art, and through the ordinary, he drew out lifetimes of disappointment, pathos, and laughter. As the average American’s understanding of normalcy is calibrated by what they see on television, Lear’s incalculable influence has brought the country together, first around screens and then beyond them.