Norman Lear, the megasuccessful television producer in the 1970s and a sugar daddy for liberal causes in the '80s and '90s, has a hit series again. Actually, it's his breakthrough, "All in the Family," which Nickelodeon and its sister cable channel, TV Land, splashily revived earlier this month. Lear is making the promotional rounds to gin up interest in his old show, and that means he's out there also giving his leftist views on the issues of the day.
Nickelodeon's "All in the Family" minimarathons (eight episodes each night) during the week of October 12 were preceded by a spoken message that they were "intended for mature viewers." Lear called the warning "unnecessary, maybe even foolish." That wasn't surprising, since he opposes even the parental-guidance ratings that appear in the upper-left corner of the screen at the beginning of programs, remarking that they look "a little nutty. It's hard to believe people pay any attention to" them.
Lear is a civil libertarian, and sometimes that means having no standards. And there's no doubt that "All in the Family" liberalized television subject matter and language. But this doesn't mean that Lear had no standards for "All in the Family." Quite the contrary: his artistic standards demanded real quality, and real humor in his comedy.
Sure, Lear pushed the envelope for liberal causes in the process. He had something to say, and regardless of your opinion on the matter, at the very least, it was interesting.
Compare the Lear product with today's "hit" sitcoms, like "The Drew Carey Show" and "Friends." They are to art what Congress is to principle, and they will bore you to death with their stupid, even infantile, attempts at vulgar humor.
Lear should not be blamed for the '90s plague of prime-time smut. But it is lamentable that he will not denounce the artistic decomposition overtaking his industry; he has even defended it on occasion. He's a fan of Comedy Central's garbage heap "South Park," and, on Howard Stern's slimy radio program, he and the host recently slighted someone who's trying to clean up airwave pollution: comedy colossus Steve Allen, the original host of the "Tonight Show."
Allen is the spokesman for a Parents Television Council campaign against television's sleaze (full disclosure: I'm the PTC's chairman). A PTC advertisement, published in the New York Times the day before Lear's appearance on Stern's show, caused Stern to call Allen a "loudmouth" and Lear to dismiss the PTC as "far-right."
Allen, for the record, is politically about as "far-left" as I am "far-right," so Lear's slam was rather silly. But what had Allen done to upset Mr. Lear and Mr. Stern so? In an ABC interview, Allen had described "All in the Family" as "brilliant," but added that while "we should always worry about how far censorship would go... we [also] have to worry about how far freedom goes."
Lear, especially when wearing his People for the American Way hat, has been hyperobsessed with supposed threats to free speech (Eek! It's Jerry Falwell!). Nonetheless, in many ways America has become more "tolerant" and "open," as he would put it. True, liberal politics aren't especially popular, but liberalism had started to decline even before "All in the Family" went on the air, and continued to do so after it departed.
Socially and culturally, however, it's a different story. Abortion, which Lear championed on his sitcom "Maude," is legal throughout the land, and his views on other social issues, such as homosexuality, are advanced frequently on prime time. Perhaps most notably, when Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet, she walked a trail Norman Lear blazed when DeGeneres was in junior high school: a first-season episode of "All in the Family" centered on Archie's drinking buddy, a burly ex-football player, admitting he was gay.
Indeed, the cultural left is in such control of the entertainment industry that, say some, its political correctness has inadvertently caused television's pervasive sexual permissiveness. Brian Lowry wrote in the October 13 Los Angeles Times that "there's room to ask whether the headaches associated with tackling 'issues'... have [yielded] sitcoms that revel in sex jokes and innuendo at least in part because such humor, however tedious, doesn't risk alienating any particular political constituency."
Some just don't care to do anything about this awful state of affairs; some simply just don't care, period. But a few, like Steve Allen, are fighting for television's redemption, trying to remind their peers not to confuse liberty and license.