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Opinion: Norman Lear shocked, thrilled, and stirred television viewers

Norman Lear, who died this weekat the age of 101, produced TV sitcoms, which are often considered the basic bologna-on-white bread sandwiches of television: set-up, punchline, chuckles and roars, then repeat.

But in the early 1970s, Norman Lear and his producing partner, Bud Yorkin, changed the recipe. They found laughs in subjects that were often no laughing matter: racism, sexism, homophobia, the war in Vietnam. And people tuned in.

All in the Family came first: different generations and attitudes, all living and fussing under the same roof in Queens, New York. Archie Bunker sat in his recliner, spouting dumb, bigoted malaprops.

"They got the greatest country in the world right here," said Carroll O'Connor as Archie. "The highest standard of living. The grossest national product."

Then came Norman Lear's spinoffs from that show: Maude, a middle-aged liberal relative of the Bunkers, who was sharp-tongued, politically correct, and often overbearing.

Then The Jeffersons: Archie Bunker's Black next-door neighbors in Queens, who strike it rich in the dry cleaning business, and move to the Upper East side of Manhattan — I'll quote the theme song here — "to a deluxe apartment in the sky".

Then Good Times, in which Florida Evans, a character who first appeared as Maude's housekeeper, and her family live in public housing in Chicago.

There's a fair debate even today about whether Norman Lear's historic sitcoms got 120 million Americans to laugh at the stupidity of bigotry — or just laugh it off.

The most stunning moment of Norman Lear's sitcom mastery might have been from the broadcast on Saturday night, Feb. 19, 1972.

Sammy Davis Jr., the great Black entertainer — playing himself — rode in Archie Bunker's cab, but left his briefcase. Archie took it home. Sammy Davis Jr. is grateful, and comes to Queens to pick it up, but first must sit through some of Archie's absurd orations. Archie insists that he's not prejudiced. Sammy Davis Jr. purports to agree, telling Archie in front of his family, "If you were prejudiced, you'd walk around thinking you're better than anyone else in the world. But I can honestly say, having spent these marvelous moments with you, you ain't better than anybody."

And then, while posing for a photo, Sammy Davis Jr. kisses Archie Bunker on his cheek. Smack! An interracial, same-sex kiss, on prime-time TV in 1972. This week, we remember Norman Lear by hearing what followed: an audience shocked, thrilled and maybe a little uncomfortable to see TV history being made right in front of them, and what may be the longest studio sitcom laugh ever.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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