The kicker about that headline that mistakenly referred to Norman Mailer as the oldest-ever Emmy winner is that Norman Mailer was born after Norman Lear. Mailer was almost a full year younger. And Norman Mailer will attempt to kill no more wives, but Norman Lear still has works listed as in production. What’s more, they reach more people and are of course less toxic; Norman Lear has spent decades trying to show America the toxicity of certain attitudes and making us laugh at the same time.
He initially wanted to be a press agent, because he had an uncle who was a press agent who flipped him a quarter every time he saw him—and someone who could afford to flip a kid a quarter in the ’20s and ’30s was clearly a man with money. He wanted that kind of job. Certainly better than going to jail for selling fake bonds, as his father had. (Despite being Jewish, his parents were also partial inspiration for the Bunkers, apparently.) After a brief stint in a Flying Fortress during World War II, he went to Hollywood.
In fact, what he became first was a comedy writer. In many ways, I think he was what we now call a “show-runner” for The Martin and Lewis show on the radio, which eventually launched him into television. He created and produced some of the most iconic television of the 1970s, even if I don’t always myself like the shows in question. I can’t get into All in the Family, myself, but you can’t talk about ’70s comedy without mentioning it. The only way you can talk about ’70s television at all without bringing it up is if you deliberately skew the conversation to keep from including it.
But beyond the Bunkers, there were the Jeffersons. The Sanfords. James and Florida Evans, the first black couple to be main characters of a US sitcom. The Findlays. The Romanos—and he was an executive producer on the show where the Romanos became the Alvarezes, because the one thing Norman Lear has always done is give voices to people who didn’t always have them.
Arguably, many of Lear’s shows in the ’70s were more progressive than sitcoms today. I was explaining to my partner as I wrote this that Maude has an abortion on a Very Special Two-Parter, and he was frankly shocked by the fact that it had aired on network television. He assumed, in fact, that the network censors just hadn’t seen the episode, somehow. What I myself hadn’t realized until today was that the episode aired even before Roe v. Wade, though Maude’s abortion was legal in New York State. There is still no one like Norman Lear, and we’re kind of running out of time for anyone to take over being like him.