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The Enduring Relevance of Norman Lear

May 23, 2019, 8:23 PM UTC

Last night ABC ran a unique special that recreated, word for word, two episodes from two of American television’s most iconic shows.

Live in Front of a Studio Audience: Norman Lear’s ‘All in the Family’ and ‘The Jeffersons,’” pressed beloved stars into service to perform key roles, Woody Harrelson as the bigoted Archie Bunker, Marisa Tomei as his “dingbat” wife Edith Bunker, Jamie Foxx as the “militant” neighbor George Jefferson, and Wanda Sykes as his patient wife, Louise “Weezy” Jefferson.

For fans of the originals, it was like opening a time capsule. That “All In The Family” was set in Queens, the same borough that made Fred Trump and his future president son possible, was just one insight among many.

The nostalgic journey was, at times, confrontational.

Producer Norman Lear, still working at age 96, set the stage with this sober introduction. “The language and themes from almost 50 years ago can still be jarring today, and we are still grappling with many of those issues.” He wasn’t kidding. “[T]he reality of how [those issues] were enacted and endure in the world became clear, as the ABC censor had to lean on the button several times in the Jeffersons portion of the night, when the N-word screeched back from 1975,” remarks Dominic Patten in this rollicking review.

Lear had extraordinary influence in his heyday, using well-crafted, funny, and diverse characters to tackle the kinds of things – civil rights, racism, feminism, rape, homosexuality, war and beyond – that needed to be discussed by everyone’s family.

For ‘70s kids like me, watching “All In The Family,” was also the first time I felt I really knew what grown-ups talked about when I wasn’t in the room.

The show found a home in the American psyche. “All in the Family,” which aired from 1971 to 1979, launched a dozen beloved characters in spinoff shows that unflinchingly elevated important ideas.

Maude Findlay, a feminist character played by Bea Arthur, first appeared as Edith Bunker’s cousin and was the first to get her own show in 1972. There are too many “Maude” moments to recount, but the most famous is when the 47-year-old grandmother finds herself pregnant and conflicted. Ultimately, she chooses to get an abortion. The two-part episode, “Maude’s Dilemma,” attracted little controversy the first time it aired; according to The Chicago Tribune, the debut was carried by all of CBS’s 200 affiliates and only generated 7,000 protest letters. When the episode was re-run, some 40 affiliates refused to air it, corporate sponsors refused to buy air-time, and there were some 17,000 letters of protest.

It all sounds so tame, doesn’t it?

Maude’s maid Florida, who was the black counterweight to Maude’s suburban New York liberal archetype, was so popular she got her own show – the unapologetically black “Good Times,” inexplicably set in Chicago. It was the first show to ever portray a black home with two parents. And “The Jeffersons,” which followed Archie and Edith’s black neighbors when they moved on up to a luxury building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, aired from 1975 to 1985.

(Two things to note if you catch clips or the replay – Jennifer Hudson’s astonishing cover of “The Jeffersons” theme song, and Kerry Washington’s brief star turn as Lenny Kravitz’s mother.)

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Norman Lear at a fundraiser…or more accurately, I had the pleasure of embarrassing myself by leaping over chairs to sit next to him just to devolve helplessly into the kind of nerd-fan that warbles the entire “All In The Family” theme song, and yes, in both the Archie and Edith voices. Fans are fragile creatures, and his effortless kindness was such a gift. After I stopped making noise, we talked about his work and the world and what it all meant.

And then he said this, and I almost started singing again.

“You know, Edith was the Christ figure,” he told me. “That was her job, to love.” No matter what the drama, and there was always drama in their family and mine and also yours, Edith was the light. “She was the unconditional love.”

Those were the days.

On Point

The Oreo gaffe was no jokeThe public display of ignorance by HUD Secretary Ben Carson was a disgrace, asserts Jamil Smith, and it’s not the first time. The most recent example is his exchange with Rep. Katie Porter, who quizzed him on a basic foreclosure-related term, “REO” or real estate owned. It turned into a cookie “joke” that would not end. “It is because we have such an estimation of Carson’s intellectual capabilities that his lackadaisical, sophomoric responses were so outrageous,” says Smith. And then there is the doubly stuffed meaning of “Oreo.” “Throughout the hearing, he was willing to debase himself to a level heretofore unseen. Labeling Carson an ‘Oreo’ is imprecise: It’s more that he is black on the outside, Trump on the inside.”Rolling Stone

The Proud Boys are awful
In chat logs obtained byThe Huffington Post, the Proud Boys seem to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re not a rowdy drinking club, but a hate group intent on violence. They’ve been regrouping ever since ten members were arrested for assaulting protestors outside a Republican event in NYC last year.  The chat logs document their quest to have a big “win” during a rally in Providence, RI, scheduled for last April. The idea was to launch a bloody battle against “antifa” and attract more followers.“We’ll grow this group of patriots and we’ll never back down,” says the event organizer. “All I want to do is smash commies too. Actually I’m lying, I’m way past just hitting them. When the time comes I will stop at nothing to fully eradicate them all!” says one enthusiastic “patriot.” The Proud Boys’s leader is Vice Media co-founder Gavin McInnes, by the way.
Huffington Post

Washington Post food critic vows to include accessibility information in reviews
It’s an inclusive idea hiding in plain sight, and I applaud Tom Sietsema for walking us through his rationale. It begins with some pointed feedback. “A number of readers have told me my reviews would be more helpful if I let them know whether they can simply get through the door,” he begins. His reviews of D.C.’s  Old Ebbitt Grill joked about the antiquated bathrooms – down a flight of stairs. “But the thing that jumped out at me — a person with a disability who cannot use stairs without assistance — is that the restrooms … are down a flight of stairs,” one reader wrote. Accessibility is a measure of welcome and a signal that all diners have been considered and served with care.
Washington Post

On Background

What it meant to be the first black firefighter in South Dakota
We live in a time when our “black firsts” are dying off; their stories a sometimes a poignant reminder of how not far we’ve come. Ed Washington lived a life as Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s first black firefighter, a black man from the Deep South who had first come to South Dakota to study botany. “The white farmers weren’t exactly receptive to an African American botany major from Mississippi telling them how to farm,” begins this tender send-off from the Argus Leader. “Add in the blistering cold and frozen lakes of winter, and Edwin Washington was indeed a stranger in a strange land.” He is remembered honestly and fondly by a community who valued him.
Argus Leader

Reversing the Great Migration, one life at a time
Minda Honey had been living in Southern California since 2008, doing the things that young starving artists do to find their place in the world. But did her life matter? When she finally completed her education in creative writing, she decided it was time to go home to Kentucky. “Trips home surrounded by friends and family who’d known me for decades reoriented me in space and time,” she says. “When I was with them, I didn’t have to try so hard to belong.” She became part of a great remigration, a return to a familiar place and what some people hope will be a new South. And yet, it’s all bittersweet. “Of all the things the South is—the bigotry, the poverty, the stifling Christianity—it is also warm and welcoming, a truth I struggled to remember after Donald J. Trump was announced the next president of the United States.” Her life, now affirming and affordable, is now uncertain in a new way. “Personal accomplishments felt trivial; political challenges felt insurmountable,” she writes.
On She Goes

Women: What to do if you’re interrupted at work
There’s good advice here for women who want to be prepared to face the bias that is often present in the workplace. Start by calling it out, says Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity and inclusion at Atlassian. “When starting the conversation [about salary negotiation] set the stage by naming the biases that might affect the discussion,” she says, such as the research that shows that when women advocate for themselves, they’re perceived as less likable. “[T]his can help offset a stereotype-driven bias before it happens,” she says. And if you’re interrupted in a meeting, don’t stop talking. “James, I’d love to quickly finish this point,” is an easy way to make your point. And allies, if you see someone else get railroaded in a meeting, you can do the same thing on their behalf, regardless of gender or hue.

Aidan Taylor assisted in the preparation of today's summaries.


It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Archie Bunker hated calf’s liver. If you know Archie from “All In The Family,” the television comedy series in which I play his dingbat wife Edith, then you know what I mean. Archie’s a bigot, a super bigot, and we get most of our laughs from his outrageous points of view, his rantings against other races and almost anything new or strange to him…By being extreme, and therefore ridiculous and funny to us, Archie has made millions of people aware of the absurdity of prejudice. I have confessed to my own absurd dealings with liver because it points up something that I was aware of long before Archie came along: Prejudice is an assortment of deceptively small personal judgments — deceptive because of their great cost in our daily lives.
—Jean Stapleton