Skype session with Norman Lear on tap at THT
I’m a Baby Boomer, born in 1950. I guess I was in the first wave of kids who never knew life without television. My early recollections of living in my small town outside Philadelphia included watching TV shows like “Ding Dong School,” “Howdy Doody,” “Mickey Mouse Club” and “Davy Crockett” with Fess Parker.
These shows had an impact. I snagged a coonskin cap and fringed leather jacket, inspired by Mr. Crockett and, when I was in second grade, I refused to take off my “Superman” costume after Halloween and kept wearing it to school underneath my clothes. I imagined I was Clark Kent, until one day I tried to leap out of a tree inside the pen where my mother stashed my younger brother and me when she had other things to do. I was sure I’d be able to fly, at least a little bit, enough to clear the high and heavy welded wire. I fell to the ground with a painful thud — and broke my collarbone.
As I approached 10 years old, cool new shows included Western-type programs like “Rin Tin Tin” and “Gunsmoke,” and family shows like “My Three Sons,” “Father Knows Best” and “Leave it to Beaver,” which popularized slang words like “gyp,” “mess around,” “crummy” and “mushy,” Beaver’s pejorative term for what girls did when they showed interest in him. Family conflicts erupted around transgressions like spilling ink on the rug or only pretending to take a bath, by rumpling up towels or secretly stashing a baby alligator in the toilet tank.
I wrangled a scholarship to boarding school when I was 13 and stopped watching TV, since it was banned, except when we were admitted to the infirmary where we could catch a glimpse of “Batman,” “Get Smart” or “The Twilight Zone.” And when I went to college, TV was simply the last thing on my mind. The Vietnam War was churning and musicians like Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and the Jefferson Airplane set new cultural benchmarks.
But while I was in college something new and groundbreaking happened on TV when Norman Lear’s show “All in the Family” burst upon the scene and demanded our attention. For that and only that, I turned back to the tube. The show carried hints of “The Honeymooners,” where Jackie Gleason’s explosive bus driver character of Ralph Kramden laments his inability to overcome his poor hardworking life and schemes to get rich. But “All in the Family” was different. Its conflicts were rooted in the political and social conflicts of the moment, not just one man’s thwarted aspiration. These were complications that TV largely avoided. The Smothers Brothers popular show was cancelled for the brothers’ insistence on discussing the Vietnam War and showcasing guests like the Madonna of protest songs, Joan Baez.
Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” starred Carroll O’Connor as Archie Bunker, a working class bigot who finds himself at odds with family members, especially his equally stubborn son-in-law, Mike Stivic, played by Rob Reiner, who needles Archie for his unrelenting homophobia, racism, misogyny and his general inability to adapt to a modern outlook on life. Indeed, Archie patronizes his daughter, Gloria, who tries to mediate arguments, and he calls his caring but ditzy wife, Edith, a “dingbat.”
“All in the Family’s” televised conflicts provoked uncomfortable laughs while striking raw nerves that threatened to upend entire families on a weekly basis. In Lear’s world, the “basket of deplorables” weren’t “the other” or far away. They were up-close-and-personal, living under the same roof. And Lear’s compassionate but insistent refrain was to simply to engage, to “deal with it.”
The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival will present a special screening of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s new documentary film, “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” at the Middlebury Town Hall Theater on Wednesday, Sept. 21. Showtime is 7 p.m. After the screening, part-time Vermonter Norman Lear will appear by Skype for an interview with me, Jay Craven. Audience questions will be welcomed.
Editor’s note: Jay Craven is artistic director of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.