Norman Lear knows that you always gotta open with a joke. When the legendary 92-year-old writer and producer joined a conference call to discuss his horses in this year’s Emmys race, he responded to questions of “Is that Norman?” with “I’m just checking to make sure — let me look at the label on my coat. Yes, it’s me.”
Lear’s first writing credit was in 1950, and since then he’s been a force whose influence has reverberated through the world of television. And thanks to executive producer Jimmy Kimmel, some of his most iconic shows, including All In the Family and Good Times, have been given a new modern appreciation thanks to Live In Front of a Studio Audience. The second installment, broadcast live in December 2019, featured an all-star cast including Woody Harrelson, Marisa Tomei, Ellie Kemper, Ike Barinholtz, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Eisenberg, Justina Machado, Andre Braugher, Viola Davis, Tiffany Haddish, Jay Pharoah, and Jharrel Jerome recreating two classic episodes, with a live audience delighting in the action.
Of course, right now audience laughter only lives in reruns and our memories, but Lear isn’t deterred by current events when it comes to getting to tell stories. Alongside producer Brent Miller, he talked about how they’re still developing new projects, including an animated series — something he has always wanted to do. Beyond some consulting on South Park in 2003, the closest he’s come was making a failed pilot in 2000 featuring Kirk Douglas, Anne Bancroft, and Alice Hirson.
Below, Lear and Miller dig into what’s keeping them occupied right now, with Lear reflecting on the joy and power of rehearsal, the animated One Day at a Time special, and the one failed project that haunts his nightmares. Also, Mr. Lear gets a little salty about my use of the phrase “laugh track,” and he was 100 percent right to do so. (Again, I’m sorry.)
To start off, let me ask — how are you keeping busy these days?
NORMAN LEAR: You know what helps with keeping busy is poor eyesight. The eyesight is one of the changes, if change is the right word, in one’s nineties. So it takes me several hours to read the New York Times, and that used to take me 36 minutes. So I keep busy half the day reading the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And the rest of the time talking to Brent about the things we’re going to do, as soon as we get back into our office. But we’ve been very busy on the development side, which is really exciting. Some stuff we haven’t been able to announce yet, but I can tell you that [the shutdown] has just not slowed us down in the least.
Does this include a new Live In Front of a Studio Audience?
LEAR: I think there’s a possibility there, don’t you, Brent?
BRENT MILLER: I sure hope so. I mean, we’ll definitely have some adjustments to make with the audience like everybody is having; but we definitely are excited to do another one. And we just, as Norman said, need to get back on the lot so we can make it happen.
I mean, you can tell that every actor on stage feels like they’re part of something special.
MILLER: It was. Everybody felt that. We felt that. The thing that I always have to remind myself was the night that we did that show, there was an impeachment happening. I don’t know if you recall that. We were literally doing a show that was done in 1970. I think that one was ’71, the episode that we did. And to have it be so relevant all those years later was, I mean, it was just amazing.
LEAR: Human nature doesn’t change and the problems of human nature to a large degree remain the same.
Though in rewatching it, at the very end of course Jimmy Kimmel was giving his lovely sendoff and because it was back in December he says, “Hope next year’s better,” which plays differently when watching it today.
LEAR: Yeah. Oh, gosh. Kimmel, it’s worth remembering that this was his idea.
MILLER: You’re right. It almost gave me goosebumps when you said that, because it’s how quickly things change.
Speaking of things changing — I was watching the One Day At a Time animated episode, and it caught me off guard when, after the first joke, there was no pause for a laugh, because there was no studio audience to laugh. From your perspective, how has it been, seeing the absence of a laugh track for so many of the shows being produced right now?
LEAR: I want to, if I may, withdraw the expression “laugh track” because we don’t use a laugh track. Those are people sitting in their seats. And those laughs are not amplified or anything. If we have to do something again after most of the audience is gone, we have to add a laugh. But otherwise, it is real laughter.
Of course. I apologize — I know the term has that implication.
LEAR: Yeah. Yeah.
But how would you feel if you get to go back to Live In Front of a Studio Audience, but you can’t have an audience? How do you feel the lack of live audience laughter will affect things?
LEAR: Well, I know how it’ll affect me. I will be terribly disappointed if we have to do a laugh track. There’s just nothing more deeply meaningful, or spiritual even, than a couple hundred people laughing at the same thing at the same moment. Standing behind an audience like that and watching them lift a little bit out of their chairs with a belly laugh and go forward and then come back, 300 people as one, it’s an amazing experience and there’s nothing quite like it. So I pray we are always able to have an audience.
Do you feel like there’s a way to have a live audience without them physically being in the studio?
LEAR: You think that’s possible, Brent?
MILLER: I don’t know. I mean, I think that people are getting creative and if there’s any industry that will figure something out to keep going, it’ll be the entertainment industry. But to not have people in the room, I think is… that’s a challenge. As Norman said, to feel that energy, the actors, there’s a reason they choose to work on a multi-cam as opposed to a single-cam, is that they can feel that energy that comes from the audience and they react to it and they get better and better and better with the audience there. I mean, Norman can tell you stories about, which I love, the stories of Archie [Carroll O’Connor] and Meathead [Rob Reiner] going back and forth and learning from each other basically in real time doing a take.
LEAR: It was an episode in which, I forget exactly for what reason, but Archie and Mike had to sleep in the same room. And what we were seeing was the next morning when they got up and, and Archie saw Mike put on a sock and then another sock and then a shoe and a shoe. He always put on a sock and a shoe and a sock and a shoe. So they did what maybe was seven minutes of arguing about a shoe and a sock or a sock and a shoe. And it was, I mean, the glorious thing for those of us writing the show was that we walked into rehearsal never expecting it because we hadn’t written it. It’s something that came up in rehearsal between John Rich, the director, and Archie and Mike. For the writers, it was a gift from the gods.
As a writer, what have you learned about writing for actors that allows for moments of spontaneity like that, moments that you didn’t necessarily script for?
LEAR: If you’ve got actors that find gold in them thar hills… I’ve been very fortunate because I can’t remember when I was disappointed in a rehearsal. I’ve spent my life watching actors make something better out of everything that was written for them.
When it comes to casting those actors, what do you look for?
LEAR: You look for the talent that… I guess the answer is what I was just talking about. People. I’ll never, ever forget coming out to California. I started casting All in the Family in New York. So I must’ve read 30 people for Archie. And then I came out to California and I heard some more. And then one day this guy Carroll O’Connor walked in. We were sitting at a bridge table opposite each other, the bridge in the middle of my office. And he read one page and I heard something that I hadn’t heard in the 40 to 70 actors I had heard before. And what I had written was further implemented by his ability to get inside the character and make more of it than was on the page.
I imagine you’ve gotten to see the animated One Day At a Time episode?
LEAR: I loved that experience. Brent looked for an animation studio somewhere in this country and couldn’t find one that could get it done in time and then tell her what happened, Brent.
MILLER: And then we ran into Smiley Guy Studios out of Toronto who decided that they would take on the challenge of giving us an animated episode in eight weeks, as opposed to 24, and worked literally night and day to pull it off.
LEAR: I thought it was terrific.
It’s just nice to see the characters again. I mean, which is just generally always how I feel about One Day At a Time. In terms of the animation, do you feel like this is something other sitcoms are going to approach doing?
LEAR: Well, I hope other sitcoms include us. I’d love to do an animated show. Sought to do one many, many, many years ago and it didn’t work out, but I’d love to do one again.
Why didn’t it work out?
LEAR: We weren’t able to sell it. We made it ourselves and I thought it was absolutely terrific, but we just weren’t… This was about elderly people. It was called… Do you remember the title, Brent?
MILLER: Till the Fat Lady Sings.
LEAR: Yeah, Till the Fat Lady Sings. It ain’t over till the fat lady sings.
So it was about old people. What were they doing?
LEAR: It was about a group of old people who were friends.
So when it comes to animation, are you developing anything like that actively right now?
MILLER: We are. We hope to announce it really soon, but I can tell you that Norman is finally in the business of animation as he wanted to be.
Wow. I feel like TV has changed so dramatically just in my lifetime, and so I can’t even imagine what it’s been like for you.
LEAR: It’s changed a great deal and it hasn’t changed at all at the same time. When we were on the stage with One Day At a Time, I’m in awe of those actors and what they were able to do with it.
Are there other shows from the past that you hope to get the One Day at a Time treatment?
LEAR: You mean one of the ones that I loved that didn’t happen, that didn’t work? I thought the funniest woman in the world at the time was Nancy Walker. Do you know the name? She was a glorious comedienne, glorious. And I had an opportunity to do a pilot with her and didn’t get it right. She was absolutely wonderful. But we didn’t get it right. At the core of any nightmare I used to have through the years, there’s Nancy Walker.
Is that show one that you feel like you could get right again today?
LEAR: Yes, but I don’t have Nancy Walker. She was the most unique comedienne and actress.
Now that you’re getting the chance to recast your older shows, what’s the difference between writing for a particular actor versus writing a role, and then finding the right actor for it?
LEAR: Well, that’s an entirely different experience, but basically, first comes the words and then comes the interpreters. So it’s pretty much the same in that sense. It’s the same; for me, across the years it’s the same.
To wrap things up, I just want to ask… You’re reading the paper each day — what’s been your reaction to kind of just how things are evolving right now?
LEAR: Well, I have six children and four grandchildren. And when you ask me a question like that, I realize I see the world through their eyes because they have more time to experience what exists at the moment and what will come in the future. And I think it was a safer, more pleasant world when I was their age. And I’d like to live long enough to see the world get back to that where I could feel the same about their futures.