Norman Lear changed sitcoms and America for the better

<span>Photograph: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for VH1</span>
Photograph: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for VH1

The canon of English letters has Shakespeare, Russian literature has Pushkin and American television has Norman Lear. No single figure has exerted a greater influence over the evolution of the sitcom in particular, but also the medium in general – the visual vocabulary for live-studio-audience cinematography, the rhythms of writing for the 21-minute format and especially the political conscience guiding the country’s preeminent populist art form through some turbulent decades. And yet with Lear now sadly departed at the dumbfounding age of 101, surveying the expansive scope of his small-screen achievements feels like reductive and incomplete portraiture. A decorated soldier, a crusading advocate for the arts and a stalwart advocate for progressivism, he was more than a writer, producer or director. He was a great statesman, his lifelong work on and off our TV sets inextricable from an overarching project to build and improve the US.

Related: Norman Lear, celebrated US TV writer and producer, dies aged 101

As a Jew growing up in the intermission between the world wars, ideological consciousness was a birthright foisted upon him from his youngest years; he traces his radicalization to age nine, when he stumbled upon an antisemitic radio broadcast from Father Charles Coughlin that rang in his ears once the time came to enlist. His tenure as an Army Air Corps gunner and radio operator in the Mediterranean and European theaters instilled in him a tireless work ethic, though as was the case for many men his age, it also left him without a clear path post-peace. Lear cut his teeth in public relations and door-to-door sales of home furnishings and family photos before catching a break in jokecraft through his cousin’s husband. He and Ed Simmons established themselves as dependable sketch-men with regular gigs on the Colgate Comedy Hour variety program, where they helped turn duo Martin and Lewis into a national sensation.

Despite going uncredited as a staff writer for Martin and Lewis’ own show, Lear’s reputation grew, and led to higher-profile assignments sprucing up vehicles for network talent: The Martha Raye Show, Celeste Holm’s failed sitcom Honestly, Celeste!, a half-hour Western called The Deputy built around the availability of Henry Fonda. A pivot to film directing never came together after United Artists delayed his tobacco-addiction satire Cold Turkey for two years, then quietly shuffled it into and out of theaters. Around this same time, he attempted to bust through his career plateau by pitching a show he’d conceived and constructed from the ground up, a take on the modern family (that later begat Modern Family) channeling the social currents of a changing era. ABC wasn’t interested. After two more retoolings, CBS bit on the pilot ultimately titled All in the Family, which met with lackluster ratings in its debut season. So began the longest, most accomplished reign in TV history.

Modeled after Lear’s own cantankerous father, series lead and “lovable bigot” Archie Bunker clashed with the upheavals of the 70s, his attachment to the good ol’ days of white male hegemony at odds with the increasingly diverse, open-minded world around him. All in the Family claimed the top ratings spot for five years with an ensemble that could venture into sensitive areas – birth control, religion, Vietnam – and come out the other side in one piece despite their differences. Bunker was proudly intolerant but never fully beyond reason, a character schematic premised on the idealistic notion that with a little patience and compassion, people can overcome their conflicts and cooperatively coexist. (This same proposition undergirds the 21st-century sitcom par excellence Community, as well as the American experiment itself.)

With a density of overlap to boggle the mind, his following series extended this humanist mission to other demographics; all within a span of roughly 15 years, Sanford and Son, Good Times and The Jeffersons portrayed the Black community with uncommon empathy, while Maude and One Day at a Time spoke to the feminist cause. (The remake of the latter, produced for Netflix in 2017, recast the single-mother protagonist and her precocious children as Latinos.) While his bleeding heart and facility with farce made his civics lessons go down easy, he avoided the mawkish and preachy, pushing difficult buttons and often leaving his viewership to sit in the resultant discomfort. He wasn’t above poking fun at his beloved home of TV either, using cult classic meta-soap Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman as a means to ironically deconstruct the genre.

Seinfeld’s stated policy of “no hugging, no learning” was meant as a direct rejoinder to Lear’s sentimental streak, but he came by his principles honestly, and regularly proved it with real-world commitment to his causes. He cofounded People for the American Way, a liberal action group dedicated to pushing back against the Christian far-right, one of their biggest wins a successful block to Ronald Reagan’s nomination of civil rights opponent Robert Bork to the supreme court. He also headed the Business Enterprise Trust, a foundation giving self-starters short on opportunity a leg up in the game of capitalism. So deeply held were Lear’s convictions about patriotic virtue that he spent $8.1m on a certified copy of the Declaration of Independence, just so he could take it on a tour reminding his countrymen about the concept of political dignity.

Lear’s genius has been so constant and unostentatious that it’s easy to take for granted, his masterpieces treated as a quasi-responsible babysitter or background noise for laundry-folding. (Additional case in point: after the Producers Guild of America named their television achievement award after Lear, it took him 17 years to actually win it.) And yet that workaday excellence is somewhat fitting for someone with an unshakable belief in the nobility of the unremarkable, a man who showed everyone that the boob tube could transmit great art and that blue-collar nobodies lived with profound drama on a daily basis. We work, we come home, we eat dinner; from the ordinary components of the everyday, he drew out lifetimes of disappointment, pathos and laughter. And to the extent that the average American calibrates their understanding of normalcy from what they see on television, Lear’s impact is incalculable. He brought his country closer together – first around their screens, then away from them.