Norman Lear, the legendary screenwriter and producer, died yesterday aged 101.
Lear made his name with shows which were either remakes of British originals or spin-offs from those remakes. His first big hit, All in the Family, was a remake of the British show Till Death Us Do Part. Debuting in 1965, Till Death Us Do Part featured Alf Garnett, a white, working class bigot from London’s east end, who would sit in his living room arguing with his daughter’s middle class, left wing boyfriend, Mike. It was, as the episode below demonstrates, a curious mix of didacticism and cheap laughs.
The same thing happened to a greater degree with All in the Family. As I wrote for our magazine, Thinking Minnesota, back in 2018:
On television, 1971 saw the debut of All in the Family, which served up the blue-collar bigot Archie Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, as the butt of jokes by his clever, liberal son-in-law, played by Rob Reiner. The theme tune, Those Were the Days, ran:
Boy, the way Glenn Miller played
Songs that made the hit parade
Guys like us, we had it made
Those were the days!
And you knew where you were then
Girls were girls, and men were men
Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again
Didn’t need no welfare state
Everybody pulled his weight
Gee, our old LaSalle ran great
Those were the days!
But, to the producers’ shock, lots of Americans felt like this and Bunker struck a chord with them. They had expected the country to snigger along with Reiner. Instead it nodded along with O’Connor. On November 2nd, 1980, two days before Ronald Reagan was elected president, millions wept along with Archie as he confronted the death of his beloved wife, Edith. Things came full circle in 1982 when Family Ties debuted. Here, the target of the humor was the grumpy dad, an aging hippie who worked for public television. He was constantly bemused, as Archie Bunker had once been, by his son Alex Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox, an ambitious, would-be millionaire entrepreneur who quoted Milton Friedman.
The British equivalent of Family Ties might be Only Fools and Horses, which debuted in 1981 and whose hero, the ‘entrepreneur’ Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter, became something of an avatar for Thatcherism.
Lear got more mileage out of Speight’s idea than Speight ever did. All in the Family has the most spin-offs for a prime-time television series, directly spawning five other shows – Maude, The Jeffersons, Archie Bunker’s Place, Gloria, and 704 Hauser – three of which were very successful in their own right, as well as two of those spin-offs each having a spin-off of their own – Good Times and Checking In.
Lear’s second big hit, debuting in 1972, was Sanford and Son, a remake of the British show Steptoe and Son which had been running since 1962. Sanford and Son is my favorite of Lear’s shows, largely down to Redd Foxx, who is about as funny as anyone who ever lived.
But it was an inferior product to Steptoe and Son. A recurring theme – especially in its later episodes – is how young Harold Steptoe dreams of a better life for himself away from his uncle Albert and how Albert repeatedly thwarts his attempts to realize these dreams, often by making Harold feel guilty for deserting him. It is a funny show, certainly funnier than Till Death Us Do Part, because whereas Speight was interested in writing about politics, which is rarely funny, the writers of Steptoe and Son, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, were more interested in writing about people, who are. But it is also a deeply depressing show which is, at heart, about an abusive, codependent relationship. Of all the sitcoms which have blended tragedy and comedy – like M*A*S*H, Taxi, or Cheers – Steptoe and Son was the first.
Once again, Lear got good mileage out of this idea. Sanford and Son produced two spin offs itself, Sanford Arms and Grady, though neither of them lasted long.
Lear ruled network comedy in America for more than a decade with these shows. The last of his ‘British’ shows, The Jeffersons, was ending as his last big hit, Diff’rent Strokes, was entering its final season. His genius lay in knowing a good thing when he saw it.