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Norman Lear Panel A Highlight At 2014 Produced By Conference

Day Two at the Produced By Conference: A full house listens as Norman Lear shares his stories. (photo credit: GP Productions)

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Steve Levitan was happy to allow some off-topic meandering during his Produced By panel. The producer behind “Just Shoot Me” and Emmy-winning series “Modern Family” kicked off the second day of the sixth annual Produced By Conference, presented by the Producers Guild of America, by leading a one on one discussion with TV icon Norman Lear. In between discussing the creation of game-changing programs including “All in the Family” and “Golden Girls”, Lear shared stories about former Warner Bros. founder Jack Warner (he insulted a Chinese diplomat during a dinner party by asking where his laundry was), the challenge of producing multiple programs simultaneously (“If they needed a broom to sweep up, I grew one out of my ass.”) and the funniest person he ever worked with (Bea Arthur, whom he claimed “made me laugh in places in my body that I didn’t know existed.”)

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Levitan dug into the session by asking how Lear was able to green light the game changing “All in the Family.” Lear reflected on the changes the United States encountered after World War Two. After the U.S. “won” the war with the bombing of Hiroshima, the tone of the country evolved into one of self-importance.

“Americans started to take themselves too seriously,” said Lear. “Early on, the foolishness of the human condition was clear to me.”

Lear felt television’s early programming reflected this trivial attitude – content was funny but simplistic. He wanted to present the language of the time, and explore greater issues than “the roast is burnt and the boss is coming to dinner.” In creating Archie Bunker (played by Carroll O’Connor), he looked to the youth and inserted dialogue he felt was no different than what kids were saying in the school yard. He credited the team of writers that surrounded him, and admitted the initial refusals to pick up the show were a benefit to its ultimate success.

“I’m glad they said no, because it forced me to start over and make it again. ‘All in the Family’ was a lot of writing and re-writing,” said Lear. “It was my show, I created it, but I was only one of the writers. We worked to show a complete 360 degrees of Archie; we jumped in the pool and got completely wet.”

Levitan asked Lear if, at a point when he had four prime time shows on the air, he felt very powerful. Lear explained he was too busy jumping from project to project and dealing with issues pertaining to the actors to recognize the grand scheme of what he was creating. He discussed his first meeting with O’Connor. The actor’s delivery of the character was exactly what he envisioned Archie Bunker to be, and informed the actor that he character was now “ours” and that he had the part.

“That was a bad negotiating tactic,” joked Levitan. “He came back to me and said he had worked on the script. I told him, ‘Carroll, I write the script. If you think you can’t do this, you can’t, but I want you.’ We went through this with every show,” said Lear.

While Lear had created hit shows that changed the TV landscape, he addressed a number of his greatest failures. One concept fluctuated between the career and family lives of four women. Another focused on a pompous windbag salesman he fashioned after his father. Using the setting of the Bunker’s house and inserting a new family, he created a series highlighting a black family whose members had conflicting political and religious values called “704 Hauser.”

“They were raising their son in the image of Thurgood Marshall, but he was more of a Clarence Thomas who had a conservative white Jewish girlfriend,” said Lear. “I feel if I had eased up on the issues it could have been successful. It was just too much to swallow.”

Through his failures, he learned that the comedy always has to come first, and the message needs to “slip under the door.” Lear also shared his interpretation of what is not only a huge hurdle for producers focusing on creating entertaining content today but also a major element deteriorating culture in general: the overwhelming focus on celebrity.

Levitan wrapped up the presentation by asking Lear what advice he had for the young producers who were trying to break into the business today.

“Work at what you want to do,” said Lear. “Don’t worry about being a pain in the ass. You’re a nice person, so show up and get there.”

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