Eddie Murphy reminisces, in Delirious, that he went into show business for the women. He figured that if Jimmie Walker of Good Times was getting some, he was going to bed everything in sight. (He says this far more succinctly, and profanely.)
And this, the great comic’s observation of a black man’s success in an hitherto white man’s TV world, shoots straight at the heart of the profound impact of Norman Lear’s work.
Lear has just turned 90: Celebrating this occasion is a viral 90-second video that cuts his immense life into a collage set to the Good Times theme song.
Lear’s reputation, his scandal and success were established a long time ago: Since the 1970s and into the 1980s, the TV maverick has largely stayed out of the genre that he, with All in the Family in 1971, seized and changed forever.
The video is fascinating, as it is largely incomprehensible, yet manages to leave a profound sense of what shock waves his work sent through pop culture; of how his work tackled not only “taboo” topics (as an Time magazine cover exclaims), but also the way in which we watch and understand television.
Our entire sensibility, in other words.
While Lear is responsible for creating so many shows – from the incredible Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman to The Facts of Life to Who’s the Boss – it is his early work that stands out the most as exemplary and uneasy (in the extreme) attempts – in the manner of the 90-second video – to tackle enormous issues or events within a small setting and amount of time.
The Lear shows’ aesthetic and structure were unique, subtly designed to maximize viewer discomfort and confusion.
They were shot on video, not film, for a raw, if not Theatre of the Grotesque, look, and before a live studio audience, and the reactions were visceral and unlearned.
Where audience responses are now guided by signs, music and experience, it was a free-for-all then: Random, inappropriate laughter abounds; strange, expressive coughs and strangled noises; the faint murmur of weeping.
It is strange to hear them now, reacting freely, wrongly and – when the actors just killed it – with palpable passion: We will never hear anything like it again.
In their dated-ness, off-look and furthering of the hokey catchphrase, these old shows may seem like quaint preludes to our highly stylized contemporary exploration of the issues of race, class, gender and sex. But watch them again.
Sadly, Sherman Hemsley, spinoff star of TheJeffersons (Maude was also launched from All in the Family), died last Tuesday, prompting a marathon on TV Land and TV One.
Watching these shows, or if one goes on YouTube, you will come across Lionel’sEngagement from All in the Family, an episode that bristles uncomfortably with the Bunkers’ and Jeffersons’ racial discomfort with each other. It showcases Hemsley – Chris Rock’s obvious muse – in his full-blown glory as an angry, proud black man, who screams, ultimately, at his wife – of an unwanted guest – “You see Louise? That’s what happens when you invite white!”
Archie Bunker, played without precedent in this genre by Carroll O’Connor, was the first blue-collar TV hero: a bigot and sexist, whose detractors, his liberated daughter and her leftie, graduate student husband, were such antagonistic foils that the debates on every episode led to a full-bodied discourse about the grey areas between right and wrong; about the uncomfortable intersections between, say, race and class, or sex and gender (or all of the previous).
On one episode, Mike Stivic, Archie’s son-in-law, shockingly referred to as a “Polack” in every episode of a show where racial epithets flew like shrapnel, is called out by Lionel Jefferson for seeing him only as a black man, a cipher, and not a human being.
In another, the middle-aged Edith is sexually assaulted by a young man; in another, she joins a circle of feminists for a pyjama party.
And in the best-known episode, Sammy Davis Jr., a Jewish black man, visits the Bunker home on Hauser Street in Queens, N.Y., and eggshells are walked on about his glass eye.
Nothing was off limits in Lear shows: Maude would go on to have a late-life abortion, and bellow her discontent with a world in which she took her place among Lady Godiva and Joan of Arc (re: Right on Maude of the ear-wormy And Then There’s Maude theme song).
But all of this political discomfort and occasional outrage (Archie began as a straight-up racist pig, and softened; modified his views) is not, surprisingly, what distinguishes the early Lear shows, including Sanford and Son.
What made Lear’s world so integral was his having presented the average lives of black folks, simply doing things around their homes; being moderate, happy or angry or sad; getting into minor scrapes, or eating, or arguing or kissing.
We remember 1974’s Good Times as Jimmie Walker yelling “Dy-no-mite!” (Did this viral cry help to create the badass nonpareil Dolomite a year later?)
But if you watch Good Times, or Sanford and Son, or The Jeffersons, these are dramatic comedies about men, women and children who rarely interact with white people – Fred Sanford literally needs a translator while speaking with a white cop on a episode called We Were Robbed – and who, like the dramatis personae of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and unlike Mike Evans’s Lionel, are not symbols, but “real people, “ within a “community,” and distinguished by the “dead-on orality” that writer Edwidge Danticat ascribes to the Hurston novel in the foreword to the book.
If it weren’t for Tyler Perry’s odd and prolific efforts, there would be nothing like these shows on today. Maybe there is no longer a need for shows not inviting white, as television keeps staggering toward broader and broader ideas about inclusion.
But, need or not, Lear’s heroic input is missed, as is his (no wonder the South Park creators adore him) no-holds-barred and dive-right-in approach to politics, currently being marginalized as no-fun and ably covered by the news and talk shows.
“You can’t change people’s minds,” the nonagenarian once said. “But you can get them to think.”
Is that what’s happening these days?