Playboy Interview: Norman Lear
A candid conversation about television (not intended for the “family hour”) with the creator of Archie Bunker, Maude Findlay, Fred Sanford and the rest
It has been estimated that about 120,000,000 Americans—more than half the nation’s population—watch the television shows of Norman Lear. His established series—“All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times,” “The Jeffersons,” and “Sanford and Son”—have enjoyed a collective rating unprecedented in the medium and, because of their potent mixture of humor and social comment, have earned for their creator a power and influence perhaps never attained by anyone in the history of entertainment.
His new series—“The Dumplings,” “One Day at a Time,” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”—promise to be just as popular and precedent-shattering as his earlier efforts. Certainly, they can only enhance Lear’s reputation as TV’s most prolific talent, an accomplishment of which Johnny Carson took notice after watching Lear accept one of seven Emmys awarded to “All in the Family” in 1972: “I understand Norman has just sold his acceptance speech as a new series.”
Lear’s prodigious output—which would be remarkable even if most of his shows weren’t always in the top 10 or 20—has been eclipsed only by his controversial image. Depending on one’s perspective, the 53-year-old writer-producer is a corrupter of society’s moral standards or a courageous trailblazer who, in turning such video taboos as infidelity, homosexuality, abortion, and impotence into mass entertainment, has helped decontaminate them as public issues. Lear’s battle with the censors to get such subjects on the air has recently been diverted to the “family hour,” a new programming concept designed by the FCC and the networks to keep part of the prime-time evening period free from “excessive sex and violence.” Though it has been challenged from all sides, including the U.S. Catholic Conference, for everything from its vagueness to it abridgment of parental rights, proponents continue to defend and enforce it.
Since it appears that the family hour will be with us for some months to come—and perhaps much longer—it seemed a propitious time to speak with the man standing in the eye of the storm. Playboy asked Los Angeles journalist and broadcaster Barbara Cady, whose last assignment for us was the January, 1975, “Playboy Interview” with John Dean, to see what makes Lear tick. She reports:
“On my first visit to Norman Lear’s office, I thought I’d gone to the wrong address. Instead of the phone-clanging, door-slamming atmosphere of the typical Hollywood production headquarters, it was subdued and civilized. Instead of the usual harried and often rude staff, I found a group of friendly people seemingly intent on making one another’s day—and mine—not only productive but pleasant. At first I thought they might be on their good behavior for my benefit, but after my fourth or fifth visit, I realized that all this relentless—and infectious—good cheer was emanating from the boss’s office.
“Though he’s addled with a daily schedule of phone calls, business meetings, story conferences, rewrite sessions, rehearsals, and tapings that has made monsters or basket cases of men half as old and successful as he is, Norman—as everyone calls him—never seems to be in a hurry and seldom forgets to take time for some kind of warm personal contract with the people who work for him. It’s the sort of treatment that inspires affection as well as loyalty. ‘If one of us comes in to work feeling low,’ he told me, ‘by 11 o’clock that morning, everyone else’s positive attitude—and genuine concern—has cajoled that person into cheering up.’
“Over and over, in his conversations with me, he refused to take credit for his achievements, stressing that the success of his shows was due to ‘the hundreds of talented people, the best in the business,’ who work with him. He even had a few kind words for some of the network executives who’ve tried to pasteurize his shows. Could this pussycat, I wondered, be the pioneering creator of the most daring and controversial shows on television? The dread adversary of censors everywhere? A litigant in a lawsuit claiming that the family hour is a violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of speech? The cochairman of a militant caucus of writers, producers, and directors dedicated to wresting control of the television industry away from the networks? Yes.
“In the course of our many taping sessions, it became clear to me that Norman is a laboratory specimen of that all-but-vanished species, the bleeding-heart liberal. He really believes in the basic goodness of man, in human brotherhood, in love as the universal balm. And personally and professionally, he lives by those beliefs. His wife is a feminist. His staff is a model of racial and sexual integration, his shows are miniature morality plays for the social causes to which he devotes himself off-screen as well on, and he champions the right of his writers to speak their minds with an intransigent high-mindedness that has become legendary.
“But, like the rest of us, he falls short of his own ideals. A self-proclaimed humanist and pacifist, he admits that he isn’t sure that he could sit and quietly converse with a genuine archconservative and that he still feels guilty about his blood lust to kill Germans in World War Two. He also tells very funny toilet jokes, and though he complains about the tyranny of ratings, he loves to see his shows get high ones. He has, in short, an assortment of failings at least as human—and therefore as forgivable—as his ideological nemesis and least lovable character, Archie Bunker. I think they’d like each other.”
Playboy: Millions of television viewers have been turning off their sets this season. Do you agree with the popular belief that family hour may be the cause?
Lear: It’s certainly one of the causes—perhaps even the major one. Of course, the networks are busy trying to attribute the decline in ratings to some vague and mysterious phenomenon abroad in the land, rather than searching out the real cause. I would suspect that the first place to look would be in the area of content. Since the inauguration of family hour, the prime-time period between seven and nine p.m. has become a repository for a lot of the oatmeal on the medium.
The networks and the FCC have handed down to writers and producers an 11th commandment: Thou shalt not offend. When one of the top network executives was asked to define family hour, he said, “ We want the American family to be able to watch television shows in that time period without ever being embarrassed.” I’d like to ask him a few questions myself. First of all, what American family? It should be fairly obvious that all American families aren’t embarrassed by the same things. Second, how are children being protected from sex and violence by postponing it until after nine o’clock, since millions of kids stay up long after that? So who is being spared from what? It’s utterly ridiculous.
Playboy: Do any guidelines exist?
Lear: No, it’s all unspecified and unarticulated; it’s never been spelled out, never even written down. Nobody knows what the hell it is—except for what filters down to people like me from some 31-year-old blue-pencil kid out here on the West Coast, who is interpreting the thoughts of a 46-year-old executive behind a huge polished desk in some New York office building, who in turn is concerned about his 51-year-old superior two floors above him, who can’t make a decision himself because the whole thing is just impossible. You can’t inflict this amorphous concept on a creative community and expect it to continue functioning at its artistic best; it’s hard to talk through a muzzle.
But there are ominous aspects of this new edict that disturb me even more than the professional considerations. Violation of our—and the public’s—constitutional right to freedom of speech is high on my list of family hour’s destructive effects. As I interpret it, the FCC has absolutely no business influencing the content of television programming. Federal law and the First Amendment, purely and simply, forbid it. But FCC chairman Richard E. Wiley, whose February, 1975, report to a House Appropriations subcommittee very clearly outlines how family hour evolved, indicates in that same report that he exceeded his powers.
Playboy: How did he exceed his powers?
Lear: In a nutshell, the House Appropriations Committee, which funds the FCC, was pressured by certain Congressmen to do something about excesses in sex and violence on television. The committee, in turn, leaned on the FCC, and Wiley found out that the networks were afraid enough to be toyed with. So he called the top dogs of the three networks to meet with him in Washington. The resulting report stated—and I don’t intend to put words in the chairman’s mouth, where his foot is—that the FCC had discussed some kind of arrangement whereby the early hours of the evening would be whitewashed.
Now the Writers Guild of America, the Screen Directors Guild, the Producers Guild, the Screen Actors Guild, and numerous other organizations have filed a suit against the FCC based on that report, which pretty well documents that it intruded where the law says it shouldn’t. The lawsuit also suggests that there may have been an implied or overt threat behind family hour: If you guys don’t do it our way, your stations may start losing their licenses.
Playboy: Do you know what might have prompted those Congressmen to pressure the FCC to “do something” about sex and violence?
Lear: If you were to ask the members of Senator John Pastore’s Subcommittee on Communications, or the FCC, or the networks, they’d tell you that the pressure came from the public and that it was enormous. I was curious about this vast outcry when I hear about it, so I checked with FCC myself on the amount of complaint mail it had received for the previous year—1974. The figure was so infinitesimally small when compared with the billions of person-hours of viewing that I found it startling. And the FCC hadn’t bothered to tabulate the quantity of mail it had received praising television.
Playboy: If the amount of criticism is unrepresentative, why does it have so much impact?
Lear: Because it’s persistent, vocal, and often organized. Localized pockets of extremist minorities with vested interests, like the Stop Immorality on TV people who awarded me their Shield of Shame, are inveterate phone callers and letter writers. And no matter how small the organization, if it’s galvanized into action, it can fan an ember into a 400-letter conflagration. At least that’s what Congress and the networks would consider the minuscule number of complaints.
Playboy: But there have always been complaints about sex and violence on television. What was it that precipitated family hour just at this time?
Lear: It had to have been Born Innocent, a movie of the week that was telecast in 1974, in which Linda Blair—the girl who masturbated with a crucifix in The Exorcist—was raped with a broom handle in a girls’ detention home. There was quite a flap about it, not only because the network scheduled at the height of prime-time, eight o’clock, and advertised it very heavily in advance because it knew Blair’s appearance would attract a lot of young viewers. So, in that sense, the network was waving a red flag at Congressmen who stood to gain a lot of publicity by crying out against that kind of thing. Television has always been a convenient whipping boy for the ills that afflict society.
Playboy: Does it deserve to be whipped?
Lear: Emphatically no. It does seem to me, though, that there would have to be some excesses in almost every area of television—including the news—simply because so much material has to be written and produced so fast in order to feed that hungry mouth. But what constitutes an excess? Are we talking about the gratuitous and leering big-boob joke on some late-night talk show, which I would consider excessive; or are we talking about frank discussions of human behavior that happen to relate to sex? On one “All in the Family” episode, for example, Gloria talked about her menstrual cycle and what a difficult day she was having. Archie winced at the language and they got into an argument about whether it’s right to talk about things like that even within the confines of one’s own family. The Shield of Shame people consider that offensive and excessive. I don’t. And neither do most of the millions of people who watch the show.
Playboy: How much attention do you pay to that kind of criticism from fringe groups?
Lear: None. But we pay a lot of attention to legitimate protests, to thoughtful, dispassionate—and sometime passionate—criticism. And we change our own attitudes when people show us a better point of view. The biggest job we have is to make sure we do respond to fresh viewpoints. The networks handle minority protest in another way—by caving in and copping out. Family hour is their kind of solution: It’s a gutless give-in that overreacts to a situation they helped create—and then tried to blame on us.
Playboy: How did they blame you?
Lear: Let me give you an example: A writer submits a script to the network. Program practices, a marvelous euphemism for the censorship department, holds one hand up in the stop position and tells him to watch it on sex and violence. The program department, meanwhile, which is responsible for ratings, is giving him the come-on signal under the table. “This seven-page scene here between the two leads is the guts of the show,” says the program guy. “They’re talking about the show’s central issue. It’s got to be strong—but all they’re doing is talk, talk, talk. Where’s the action?” The writer argues for a while, but when the guy keeps up the pressure, he finally throws in the sponge and gives him what he wants, since he has to support his family. So he takes the scene out of the living room and puts it in a car; then he has another car collide with it and the scene ends with two bodies in flames. This two-handed approach just drove writers nuts. And while they were going nuts, the networks were telling their affiliates, the Congress, and the complaining public, “We don’t know what to do with those guys in Hollywood. They insist on hyping up their shows and they just won’t listen to reason.” That hypocritical ambivalence was one of the primary causes of family hour.
Playboy: In response to family hour, have writers and producers been toning down their shows?
Lear: Of course—but not just during family hour. There’s been a chilling effect on the entire creative community. The average writer or producer working on a pilot for next September is having to write very carefully in order to keep family hour—representing one third of prime-time—part of his show’s potential market. It makes sense for any writer conceiving a series to come up with a show that could be a hit at any hour. Why would he or she deliver a show that—because of its strong content—immediately forfeits one third of its opportunity to get on the air? Because they like to eat, people all over this town are sitting at their desks censoring themselves.
This compromising of artistic integrity has ramifications far beyond the personal dilemmas of writers and producers. The viewing public is also going to suffer—from boredom—perhaps for years to come, even if family hour is abolished, because of the necessity of writing and selling shows far in advance of scheduling. Let’s say that NBC, CBS, and ABC schedule three new shows—all of them designed, as most of them are these days, not to offend anyone—opposite one another at some given hour. They’ll be bland versus bland. Now, unless the public turns off its TV sets during that hour, one of these nothing shows will be watched by a majority of viewers and become a success; another, the one that comes in second for the time slot, will probably become a modest success; and the third will be canceled. If this process takes place in enough time periods, and if the top two out of every three shows run between five and seven years—as many do—that means we could be looking at bland opposite bland opposite bland from seven to 11 p.m. for the next seven years.
The only alternative the public will have to this diet of drivel will be local, independent, or educational programming on other channels; but even they will be infected by family hour. There are people who’ve been making popular action-adventure series for years—many of them in deficit—for the opportunity of making a good deal of income in succeeding years when those shows go into syndication. Without family hour, they would be scheduled probably between seven and eight p.m. on channels five, nine, and 13 in various cities across the country. But if they can’t be merchandised at seven or eight because they’re considered too offensive or “embarrassing,” they’re obviously not going to be worth as much money.
So the residual value of many producers’ products in syndication will be cut considerably, and to the extent that they’re damaged, so is television. Because if a man can’t make money from what he’s done over the past, say, seven years, he may have to go out of business. And the more producers who go out of business, the less competition there is and the fewer shows there’ll be for the networks to choose from when they’re planning their program schedules. And they won’t have to be as good to get sold.
Playboy: So the public can’t win, no matter where it turns?
Lear: That’s right—unlike the networks, which stand to gain from the arrangement. Those successful action-adventure shows that can’t be scheduled during family hour and are therefore less valuable in syndication can now be purchased by the networks’ owned-and-operated stations at a lower price than independents would have to pay. But another even more intriguing benefit accrues to the networks. The top-rated cop show that ran at eight o’clock in the first run would ordinarily be in competition with the networks’ new series at the same hour when it went into syndication locally. With family hour in effect, it won’t. Isn’t that nice? If you’re NBC or CBS or ABC, and “Hawaii Five-O” or “Kojak” were destined to be a sensation in syndication, wouldn’t it be convenient not to have it running against you on local channels at eight o’clock? Wouldn’t it be great to have it on at other times, when sponsors were paying less for a program?
Playboy: If that’s what’s going to happen, why haven’t the producers held a press conference and made the facts public?
Lear: There’s a reluctance in the creative community to talk too much publicly about the financial repercussions of family hour on its own business, because it makes us look like we’re more interested in dollars than in the high-flown issue of the First Amendment. Well, I care very deeply about the freedom of speech, but I’m not ashamed to admit that I also care very deeply about the free-enterprise system. I like the idea that a person can go as far as his or her talents and abilities and energies will allow. So I’m angry that “All in the Family” has been moved from Saturday night at eight to nine on Monday! I’m furious about having worked five and a half long years to achieve the kind of success that “All in the Family” has enjoyed, only to have its dollar value diminished—to me and to my family and to my employees and to my favorite causes—because a handful of men have decided in their finite wisdom that this family show shall now be termed a nonfamily show! So the company that owns “All in the Family”—Tandem Productions—is suing the networks, the FCC, and the National Association of Broadcasters for more than $10,000,000.
Playboy: Though “All in the Family” has been moved to nine p.m., your other shows—with the exception of “Maude,” which has always been scheduled after nine—have remained in the family hour. When are your new shows being slotted?
Lear: I couldn’t sell my new serial, “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” to the networks, so its time slot will vary according to where each independent station puts it; but it obviously won’t be on during family hour. My two other new series, “The Dumplings” and “One Day at a Time,” were picked up by NBC and CBS, respectively, and both have been scheduled at nine-thirty p.m. on a weekday. After what happened to “All in the Family,” I can’t say I’m surprised. But no matter how many times you’ve been kicked in the shins, it still smarts.
Things have reached a point where I have no alternative but to go to a network with an idea for a show before I spend months preparing it, because I can’t be sure anymore what the hell they’re going to consider too offensive to put on the air. For the first time in my career, I’m going to ask for advance approval of a concept. The one I’m thinking about now is a very sensitive—but funny—story about a teenager who contracts V.D., and though it’s a touching drama about real life—the kind of thing millions of people have to deal with every year—I think they just may turn me down.
Playboy: If they should, is it likely they’d be candid about the reason?
Lear: No, they’d give me generalities and double talk: “I’m afraid we’d be against the code.” “What do you mean? I’d ask. “Well,” they’d answer, “you’ll just have to check the code.” Or they’d read it over without comment and finally I’d ask, “What do you think?” and they’d say, “We’ll get back to you,” and then sit on it. Nobody would say straight out, “We don’t want that subject on our network at any time, least of all between seven and nine.”
Playboy: How do you deal with that kind of response?
Lear: I can do several things. I can abandon the idea. I can take it to somebody else, as I did with “Mary Hartman.” Or I can fight. I’ll sit there and talk all day and all night, if necessary, because my sole object is to get my show on the air the way we wrote it. But if they push me to the wall, I’ll finally have to say, “Call me if you change your mind, but don’t look for me in the morning.” Then they say, “You can’t walk out! We’ve got contracts!” And I walk out. Then my attorneys call me at home and say, “Norman, you’re finished if you go through with this.” And my answer has always been, “Let them back the fucking truck up my driveway and take away my house. They can’t take my family, and I can always sit down at another typewriter and write something else. The show’s going on the way it is!” So far, it’s worked every time. Well, almost every time. I once made a show they hated, and they were right, and it didn’t go on.
Playboy: What if they don’t back down?
Lear: That could happen. They could say, “OK, smartass, you’ve pushed us too fucking far. You’re in for the lawsuit of your life.” Well, if that ever happens, so are they. But even if that day never comes, it’s always a painful experience dealing with the censors. I taped an “All in the Family” segment a few months ago in which Archie and Mike are arguing about God. Mike, who’s an atheist, says to Archie: “Look the God I would believe in, if I believed in Him, would take anything. He could take”—and Mike lets go with a raspberry. Archie, who’s in a state of shock, says: “You’d give the raspberry to Him?” And he puts his hand over his forefinger, which is pointed toward the ceiling. Well, the Thursday afternoon before I’m to tape the show, I get a note from the program-practices department that says: “Make it without the deletions we suggest and we won’t air it or even pay for it.”
Now, this is a very serious matter, but there has been no real discussion about it. All I heard 20 minutes before I got the note was, “We don’t think you should do it” and “If we let you do it, we’ll get a tremendous knee-jerk reaction to it.” That’s a favorite expression of theirs. So I call this guy up and say, “Let’s ask half a dozen or so clergymen in to look at the show. You can even pick them. I’m satisfied that any group of theologians would have to understand that America is not going to fall apart over this.” His answer to me is sensational. “The clergy does not program for CBS.” But my answer is nice too. “Who does program? The knee-jerkers?” The conversation gets nowhere, so I decide to take my chances and go ahead anyway and after the taping, he takes me aside and says—and this again is typical—“I think the show’s fine, but now we’ll have to see what happens in New York.” So after all that macho bullshit, we find out that if the show’s going to be aced, it’ll be aced by somebody else, not him.
Playboy: Are all network censors that absurd?
Lear: No, some of them are very nice guys, though you don’t make out any better with them than with the hard-asses. The vice-president in charge of program practices at CBS, Tom Swoffard, is a very educated, sensitive gentleman in a most complicated job. I know he fights me tooth and nail sometimes even when he agrees with me, but his position requires him to disagree. And, you know, I can’t find anything to dislike about that. But it would distress me terribly if my feeling this way about him cost him points with the network; I’m not supposed to like him.
I really don’t get to know the junior executives too well, because they spend only a season or so with a show. The network moves them around so that they don’t fraternize with the enemy. The head of program-practices here on the West Coast—where the action is—has changed two or three times in the past few years, each time with a view toward getting someone tougher. I sometimes think that there’s a camp somewhere where they whip censors into shape for shipment to the California firing line. But some of them, especially the younger executives, are very unlikely censors. They know that censorship is anathema to the American viewpoint and are really embarrassed by their job. They try in every way not to appear to be doing what they were hired to do.
Those who are uneasy about it come on humble: “I’m here to be helpful. I know how the network feels and I don’t want to fight with you.” Others are just kidding themselves: “Look, Normie,” they say, “I don’t mind the word damn personally. Hell, it’s part of the language. I mean, I understand, fella. All of us in program-practices, we all understand. But it’s the times we’re living in. The word damn offends a lot of people—even if it doesn’t offend me!”
Playboy: How abut their bosses? What kind of men are they?
Lear: I don’t really know. About four or five times a year, when I deal with network executives directly, I find them bright, engaging men and understand exactly why they operate so successfully in their own spheres. But when they retreat into that monolithic conglomerate and become units of “the corporation,” suddenly they become vague and faceless. You don’t know them anymore and they don’t seem to know you. And they start treating the people who create their shows the same way they treat the viewing public: as “they.” It’s the we-versus-they syndrome that afflicts the entire culture. We understand and they don’t. We liberals understand and they don’t. Or we conservatives or blue-collar workers or Catholics understand and they don’t. We, the network executives, moral guardians of the nation—a handful of people sitting around on the 34th floor of some black building in Manhattan—know what’s in the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere. And we know what best for them.
By Americans, of course, they mean the people of Des Moines, a city they love to use as the bellwether of a nation they view as inhabited almost entirely by hicks. This country is far more hip and sophisticated than the networks give it credit for, but television has psyched out such large segments of our society that many people have come to believe that they really are witless, corn-fed rubes. Think about all the small-town jokes you’ve heard just on “The Tonight Show.”
Playboy: Don’t TV executives justify themselves by saying they’re only giving the public—whether from Des Moines or not—what it wants?
Lear: Of course—but they offer the public only what they think it’ll buy. The networks give people cop shows because last year they bought cop shows. They give them cookies from any cookie cutter because last year they bought my cookies. How do they know there wouldn’t be as large an audience for a John Cheever or a Ray Bradbury drama as there currently is for a Norman Lear or a Mary Tyler Moore show? There are a great many writing styles that could provide new and exciting kinds of theater for American audiences. Unfortunately, whenever a really fine drama does get scheduled on one network, the program inevitably has to compete with shows on the others with which the public is already familiar and will therefore usually choose to watch. In 1973, for example, CBS put on Joseph Papp’s production of Much Ado About Nothing. It was a superb show, in my opinion, but it was put on opposite to very popular programs. When it didn’t succeed in the ratings, the feeling among my liberal peers was: “Fuck ‘em. The great unwashed get what they deserve.” What they don’t seem to understand is that the public goes with what is most familiar to it, and it is ever thus. The average person has enough difficulty getting from Monday to Friday, paying that life-insurance premium or dealing with that problem child without having to watch something strange or different when he sits down to watch TV. Because he hasn’t grown up with Chekhov, he’ll go to “Celebrity Sweepstakes” almost every time.
Playboy: That sounds a bit patronizing.
Lear: I certainly don’t mean it to be—or feel that way. I’ve never seen anything I thought was too good for the American people or so far above them that they’d never reach for it if they had the chance. If the industry were to assume some of its responsibility for leadership, it could give the viewing public the opportunity to get acquainted with Chekhov. In the interests of their viewers, the three networks could get together, choose a time slot and decide, “Hey, at nine o’clock you do Chekhov, you do Shaw, and I’ll do Ibsen. Then next week I’ll go to Molière, you go to Racine, and you go to Miller.” If they tried this experiment for three years, say for two hours once or twice a week, I maintain that the American public would gravitate to the best of the three dramas rather than turn to reruns of “I Love Lucy” or switch off their sets during that time period. And after a while, I think the ratings would rise to the same level as the sitcoms or cop shows previously scheduled at the same hour.
Playboy: Couldn’t it be argued that people have the right to watch something escapist, if that’s what they happen to be in the mood for?
Lear: Sure, and it could be argued that they should have the right to watch something more trenchant and memorable, if that’s what they happen to be in the mood for. But the way the economics of the medium are set up—as competition for ratings—good drama is almost always going to lose out because it’s not as popular as “Kojak” or “Maude.” For Christ’s sake, we’re talking about only a couple hours a week; those who like my shows or game shows or mysteries have the rest of the evening and the rest of the week to indulge their appetite for light entertainment.
Playboy: But by block-programming culture, wouldn’t you be shoving it down their throats, removing their freedom of choice?
Lear: I’d rather shove culture down their throats once in a while than a steady diet of shit, present company excepted. Maybe they wouldn’t have the chance to watch shit during that two-hour period, but is that such a terrible thing? The way things are now, they seldom have the chance to watch anything else.
Playboy: What else would you like to see changed?
Lear: Well, for some time now, it’s seemed to me that you could get better and more varied programming by limiting the run of a show. I would be happy, for example, to agree to take any show of mine off the air after five or six years to make room for another one—either mine or somebody else’s. The inevitable result, it seems to me, would be much more competition among producers to come up with new and better shows, if they wanted to stay in the business. Nobody could afford to rest on his or her laurels—or residuals.
Playboy: Considering all the trouble the networks have in coming up with a hit—and all the money they make from one when they do—is it realistic to hope that they would allow a show to leave the air while it was still successful?
Lear: Probably not—even though they’d be improving the level of programming, and therefore increasing their revenue, if they did agree to it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good idea.
Playboy: Are the people who run the networks too dense to recognize a good idea when they see one?
Lear: Not too dense, just too afraid. They’re frightened to try anything really daring—block programming good drama, cutting down on commercials, limiting the run of a TV series, whatever it might be—because it would involve taking chances. Even if a new idea promises to make them millions—and serve the public interest well enough to propitiate even the FCC—they don’t want to take the risk, however small. Nobody wants to be the first to try something new.
Playboy: So you’re going to force the issue.
Lear: Yes, that’s why I’m cochairman of an organization called The Caucus for Producers, Writers, and Directors. Those of us who create the shows you see on television feel that the public interest will not be served so long as the decisions about everything on television continue to be made monopolistically by a handful of dollar-oriented network executives. So we intend to go to the public with our case and try to persuade it that television programming would undergo a dramatic improvement in quality and variety if the authority and responsibility to make those decisions were given to the creative community.
We think that what goes on the air should be determined by the personal judgment, good taste, and creative imagination of professional showmen, rather than by the charts, graphs, ratings, and research data employed by network programmers. If we’re boring or offensive, the public will know exactly whom to blame and the guilty parties will be held accountable in the market place. With the networks no longer responsible for program content, it would be possible to try out the kind of fresh approaches to programming and advertising practices that I’ve described, and it would open the door to really exciting innovation and experimentation in themes and formats for new shows; it could even replace imitation with originality as the formula for success.
Playboy: You certainly paint a rosy picture.
Lear: Maybe so, but we’d sure like the chance to prove we can do it. What have we—and the public—got to lose by trying? A lot less than we—or they—stand to lose by letting the general level of television entertainment remain as low as it’s always been.
Playboy: Surely you don’t expect the networks to let you wrest creative control from them without a struggle.
Lear: Of course not. We expect it to be a very hard-fought battle, and it’s one we can’t expect to win by persuading the networks to relinquish their power. That’s why we plan to take our cause directly to the public. If we can convince the people that we’re sincere—and that what we want to do will be good for them as well as for us—then the kind of pressure they could bring to bear on Congress could eventually force the networks to give us the chance we’re asking for. But we also want the networks to understand that we aren’t staging a coup to take over the television industry. We simply believe that transferring creative control to its rightful hands—the creators—can only improve television programming.
Playboy: If you were the final arbiter of program content for your own shows—which are among the most outspoken and controversial on television—do you think you might be tempted to become more circumspect about themes and language since you, rather than the network, would be responsible for the consequences of offending viewers?
Lear: Not at all. I’ve won almost all of my battles with the censors over the years. So what you see is pretty much what you’d get from me. I’m sure I’ll be tackling themes that are at least as challenging as some of those we’ve dealt with, but I’m equally sure that those who anticipate a storm of protest will be just as wrong as they’ve always been, because the public is a lot more grown-up than most of us have ever given it credit for. If I do overstep my bounds, all the viewers have to do is reach out and turn to another channel; I’ll get the message. But I think our ratings show that we have a fairly good idea of what it takes to keep them from doing that. It’s called entertainment—entertainment with something to say.
Playboy: Your shows seem to have something to say about almost everything—from bigotry and atheism to impotence, abortion, and homosexuality. In relying so heavily on controversy, you’ve been accused of being both trendy and exploitative.
Lear: Is it trendy or exploitative to deal with issues that concern people in the real world rather than with the kind of mindless drivel that used to preoccupy the families in situation comedies? The biggest problem they used to face was when the boss was coming to dinner and the roast was ruined. Where is it written that entertainment shouldn’t make you think while it’s making you laugh?
Playboy: But some critics have complained about what they feel you’re encouraging people to think. In making Archie Bunker a harmless, likable blowhard, for example, they’re convinced that you’re not only lampooning bigotry but trivializing it and making it socially acceptable.
Lear: In my experience, bigotry is most insidious—and common—when it occurs in otherwise lovable people. I abhor bigotry, but I think it’s important to understand where it comes from, to realize that there are more areas of agreement between people like Archie and people like me than there are areas of disagreement. We all share a common humanity that the other man can’t perceive as long as we continue to treat one another like cardboard cutouts labeled “bigot” and “liberal,” or “we” and “they,” for that matter. I think we all have what the Jews call tam, the quality of being embraceable and human even at our worst.
That’s something I learned growing up. When I read an item in TV Guide about a hit series in England call “Till Death Us Do Part” about a father and a son-in-law who fought about every social and political issue, I was transported immediately to the relationship I enjoyed with my own father. We never agreed about anything; we fought about everything. I’d tell him he was a bigot, he’d call me a goddamn bleedin’-heart liberal, and we were both right—but also wrong.
Playboy: That sounds like a promising theme for an American television show.
Lear: That’s what I thought, too. That’s what made me want to try it out over here and feel that I could make it work. The whole show came to me full-blown. My father even used to tell my mother to “stifle” herself.
Playboy: How did you ever persuade CBS to schedule a show laced with insults like that, not to mention anti-Semitic remarks and such epithets as spick and spade?
Lear: It didn’t happen without a struggle. They liked the concept of the show, but when they read the first script, they started getting cold feet and demanding all kinds of cuts. I just told them, “It’s gonna go the way it is or it’s not gonna go.” And eventually—to my amazement really—they ran it just that way. Kind of sneaked it on one night with no advance advertising or anything. They had extra phone operators on every switchboard in the country waiting for the calls. But no states seceded. There was a big reaction, but more than half of the calls were absolute raves. My faith in the wisdom and maturity of the American people was borne out. It proved that they were ready—and had probably always been ready—for so-called adult entertainment. It proved that the time had come to stop running scared and listening to the think tanks that told us the Bible belt wouldn’t accept that. It proved that people could be trusted to decide for themselves what they found acceptable. And they didn’t just find us acceptable; they loved us. That fall, “All in the Family” was the number-one show on television.
Playboy: Then came “Sanford and Son”—another spin-off from a British series.
Lear: Thanks for not calling it a rip-off.
Playboy: Well it was derivative. And in this case, surely, you couldn’t draw on your own life for inspiration, as you had with “All in the Family.”
Lear: As a matter of fact, I did. You may well ask what makes me think I can produce a true-to-life show about blacks—actually, three shows now, counting “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons.” Well first of all, none of the white men and women who work on our black shows do so without the help of black writers and the enormous contributions of our almost all-black casts. The actors infuse the scripts with the nuances of black culture; they help in honing attitudes for black sensibilities; they aid in tooling dialog to the black idiom. But that’s only part of the answer. I feel I’m qualified to work on black shows because, in a sense, I feel I’m black myself. I haven’t lived in a black skin or suffered the indignities that a black man my age would have suffered in this society, but I know what it’s like to be treated as an inferior, because I’m Jewish. I know what it’s like not to have a pay check. I know what it’s like not to have enough food in the house. I know something about love and conflict between a man and a woman, about the anxieties of growing old, about the fierce pride that a parent can have for a child, about the fear and the love that a child can feel for a parent. So in the deepest sense, I have drawn on my own experience—on everyone’s experience—in producing all these shows.
Playboy: Did you draw on your own experience—or someone else’s—in creating “Maude?”
Lear: Oddly enough it was network pressure that gave birth to “Maude.” In the first year of “All in the Family,” Mike was constantly arguing with Archie, and I wanted to bring in somebody from Archie’s past who could belt him with 30 years of experience and bad blood. I immediately thought of Bea Arthur, an incredibly talented actress I had worked with on “The George Gobel Show”—and decided to make her Edith’s cousin. Her name would be Maude, and since Edith was ill and Gloria was working, she’d come to take care of the house so that Edith didn’t have to be running up and down the stairs. I also made her responsible for having introduced Archie and Edith.
Playboy: That’s quite a responsibility.
Lear: Archie thought so, too. But from the beginning, I was more than confident—and so was the character I dreamed up—that Maude could handle it. And as an actress, Bea had the power and the authority to really let Archie have it between the eyes. You know, with the kinds of grievances that hang over family relationships for generations like giant clubs. Well, Maude really let Archie have it with all those clubs. She slugged him good. And five days after that show aired, the network started calling me every other day to ask me about doing a show with Bea Arthur.
Playboy: Weren’t you interested?
Lear: Sure—especially since there wasn’t really any very strong female personality on television. But I didn’t have a fully developed idea of how it would work as a series until it occurred to me that we could have as much fun with the bullshit aspects knee-jerk liberalism as we were having with Archie and his knee-jerk bigotry. From that point on, my wife, Frances, was enormously instrumental in Maude’s development as a strong female image—just as she was in my own development as a feminist. During the early years of our married life, I watched her trapped in the same situation that most women were trapped in. But as she became aware of her condition, I watched the seeds of her consciousness begin to flower. And as Frances became more aware of Feminist issues, she began to make me more aware. So as she and I grew stronger—separately and together—Maude probably grew more venturesome, too.
Recently, I did an episode of “Maude” in which she visited a psychiatrist and gained some startling insights into her relationship with her father. The show—a one-character tour de force featuring only Maude and the back of her doctor’s head—was based on some of my own experiences with therapy. I find that when I can work something from my life into my shows, I get a kind of immediate feedback that constantly enriches me—any my work.
Playboy: Some of your detractors charge that one of your failings is that you put too much feeling into your work—that you’re almost shamelessly emotional.
Lear: The last part of that is absolutely right; I am shameless about my feelings. But how can you put too much heart into your work? I know I wear my emotions on my sleeve—sometimes I think I must sound like a walking soap opera—but, frankly, I can’t find anything wrong with that, personally or professionally. I think many of my critics may have an emotional problem themselves. Like so many people, they can’t seem to handle sentiment. They don’t like to admit that once in a while it’s really kind of nice to let one’s emotions override one’s intellect. I like wet people. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always divided people into wets and drys. If you’re wet, you’re warm, tender, passionate, Mediterranean. You can cry. If you’re dry, you’re brittle, flaky, tight-assed, and who needs you?
Playboy: Critics have also complained about the high-decibel level of hostility and conflict on your shows; they feel it’s not believable—and not funny.
Lear: The anger on my shows is a celebration of love and life. For all the noise and conflict, Maude and Walter are very much in love. And so are Edith and Archie, and James and Florida, and Mike and Gloria. I grew up in a family very much like those of my characters, a family that—to quote my friend Herb Gardner—lived at the top of its lungs and the ends of its nerves. But I find warmth in that, and so do my characters. You don’t get warmth without friction, so I rub my characters together hard and I get the theatrical friction I need. And the laughter. My critics don’t seem to understand that great humor always comes out of great pain. The shows I produce—like life itself—are tragicomedy.
Playboy: How do you feel about another of the common criticisms of your shows—that the issues they raise are never explored with any real depth or bite?
Lear: Most of those accusations about superficiality and softness seem to come from the same critics who used to condemn the medium because there weren’t any shows like ours. I guess there’s just no satisfying some people. Even I’m not fully satisfied with every show; but considering the restrictions imposed on us by he half-hour format and the program-practices department, I think we do a pretty damn good job of providing entertainment with something worthwhile to say to a great many millions of people. If I sound passionate about it, that’s because I care very much about what I do and I’ve worked very hard to make these shows not only the most popular on television but also the best. I’ve always made it a matter of pride to deliver real lollipops.
Playboy: Real lollipops?
Lear: My father was a salesman. He sold garages, playrooms, small appliances, anything and everything. He used to boast that he could put shit on a stick and sell it for lollipops. And sometimes he was almost as good as his word. That’s what convinced me to spend my life giving people real lollipops.
Playboy: Are there any other ways in which you’ve tried to emulate him?
Lear: I loved him, but I’m afraid that his life was an object lesson in how not to deal with people. He was extremely outgoing and affectionate but enormously insensitive. He was one of those people who treat absolutely everybody the same way, never taking into consideration that the person they’re talking to might be just a little different from the person they were talking to ten minutes before. And, consequently, he would bully people much weaker than he and he wouldn’t recognize the strength of people much stronger than he. And so his life was a series of near successes. He was a man who always thought he was going to make his fortune in ten days to two weeks. And every month the ten days and the two weeks would pass and he was ready with another ten days to two weeks. Even when I was still a boy, I knew I didn’t want to be like him or have a life like his. I wanted to be like my Uncle Jack.
Lear: I thought you’d never ask. Uncle Jack was a theatrical press agent and he was a legendary success in the family because he was reputed to earn more than $100 a week. Every time he saw me, which was three times a year, on holidays, he’d flip me a quarter. That was six bits every year, rain or shine, and I decided I wanted to be that kind of uncle someday myself—the kind who could afford to flip a quarter to his nephew. So I resolved to become a press agent. I sent off a letter to 25 companies all over the country. I got two replies—one from a Broadway press agent who offered me $40 a week to write two-line quips for gossip columnists. Eventually, I graduated to ghosting full columns for people like Dorothy Kilgallen and Walter Winchell in exchange for mentioning our clients.
Playboy: How long did that go on?
Lear: Two years. Then I took a detour back home to go into business with my father, who was sure he was going to make a killing—within ten days to two weeks—by manufacturing aluminum hot plates. The whole thing went up in smoke one day when he bought a freight car load of aluminum that shattered when it was pressed into hot plates. There was no reason for me to stay home any longer—in fact, I couldn’t afford to—so I decided to resume my soaring career as a press agent, in California. And even though I got a job my first night in L.A.—as press agent for a little-theater group—I wasn’t getting any salary. So I supplemented my nonincome by selling baby pictures for a while. And in my spare time, I hung around with my cousin Elaine’s husband, Ed Simmons, who had come out to California to become a comedy writer. One night we were sitting around, not doing anything, and we decided to write a parody. I don’t remember what it was about, but we finished it that same night and then jumped into the car and rode all over town, making the rounds of night spots, and finally sold it to a comedienne for $25. That was twice what I’d made selling baby pictures that day, so we started writing together every night—one-liners, comedy routines, musical parodies.
Playboy: Did they sell, too?
Lear: Usually the night we wrote them. We might have gone on like that for years—there were a lot of entertainers in a lot of little clubs around town in those days—if I hadn’t thought of a routine for Danny Thomas one evening. I called his agency, because I didn’t have his phone number, and in a very out-of-breath voice announced that I was Merle Robinson of the New York Times; I always used the name Merle Robinson, which happened to belong to a friend of mine, whenever I thought I was likely to get in trouble. Anyway, I told them I needed Danny’s number to ask him a question or two to finish up an interview I’d just done with him. They gave it to me and I called. He answered the phone himself and, immediately, I explained how I had gotten his number, and he enjoyed the story. Then I told him my partner and I had a routine for him and he said, “How long is it?” “How long do you want it to be?” I asked. “About seven minutes.” And I said, “That’s how long it is.” He wanted me to go right over and show it to him, but I told him we couldn’t make it for a few hours; I didn’t tell him it was because we hadn’t written it yet.
The upshot was that he did the routine at Ciro’s and David Susskind—who was then an agent—called us up the next morning. “Do you guys write television?” “Sure we write television.” “Can you be in New York to do ‘The Ford Star Review?’” “Sure we can.” So we borrowed money and went to New York. They picked us up at the airport, drove us directly to an apartment and locked us in. We had to come up with two sketches for a show that was going into production in two days. Within a week, Eddie and I were each making $350 a week.
Playboy: That made you an even bigger success than Uncle Jack.
Lear: Yeah, but my father kept me from getting a swelled head. He knew what a struggle I’d been having in California, so I called him from New York to tell him—with every bit of excitement I was feeling—“Dad, I’m writing for “The Ford Star Review” and I’m making $350 a week.” He paused for a moment, and then he said, “Well, when you make $1000 a week, that’s a lot of money.”
Playboy: What happened after “The Ford Star Review?”
Lear: Jerry Lewis, who was making an early TV appearance with Dean Martin on “The Colgate Comedy Hour,” saw our first “Ford Star Review,” and on the strength of one our two sketches, said he had to have us. We didn’t play hard to get. When Martin and Lewis became a smash, we became a smash.
Playboy: Was your father finally impressed?
Lear: He didn’t say, but every one of my parents’ friends and neighbors seemed to be. After the first show, I spent that weekend at my folks’ home in Hartford, Connecticut, and everyone dropped by on Friday evening to see the prodigal son. After the chitchat was out of the way, there was a long, long pause, during which all eyes in the room fastened on me—the visitor from Hollywood. After what seemed an eternity, my mother’s best friend spoke out for everybody, loud and clear: “So what’s new with Jeff Chandler and Gloria DeHaven?” As it happened, I didn’t know either of them and I said so. My mother’s friend scoffed, “Come on, we’re family. You could tell us.” “But really,” I said, “I’ve only been in Hollywood for two weeks. I don’t know those people.” “Big shot,” she muttered, scowling. And from the other side of the room, I heard my mother, in utter agony: “Norman, for God’s sake, tell her what’s with Jeff Chandler and Gloria DeHaven!” To this day, I can’t tell you how much I regret that I didn’t just make something up for them.
Playboy: Did you stick with Martin and Lewis till they broke up?
Lear: No. When the friction between them began, the fun was gone and Eddie and I left. For a while, he and I wrote—and I directed—“The Martha Raye Show.”
Playboy: How did you pick up directing?
Lear: I really don’t know. In those early days, they simply pointed cameras at the performers. Martha herself asked me to direct the show—I guess because I’d sat through the staging each week and had come up with a few useful suggestions and instant rewrites. After two years of that, I came west again. Eddie and I had an offer through our mutual friend Bud Yorkin to write for Tennessee Ernie Ford’s nighttime show. But we weren’t going to be head writers and the salary was much lower than we’d become accustomed to, so Eddie didn’t take the job.
Playboy: But you did?
Lear: Of course. I’ve always felt it was better to work for less money than not to work at all. It’s a bit of wisdom I pass along to anyone who’ll listen. Anyway, next came two years of writing and directing for “The George Gobel Show.” When Gobel went off the air, I was lucky enough to cross paths again with my friend Yorkin. Bud was extremely hot—having just done the first “Evening with Fred Astaire,” which really set television on fire—and he asked me to form a company with him. We called it Tandem Productions, because we thought of ourselves as two guys on a bike pedaling uphill.
Playboy: Was it uphill from the start?
Lear: Not really. Bud, as I said, was hot. Our first deal was with Paramount to do six pilots for television. The first one we did was “Band of Gold,” a two-person repertory company with James Franciscus and Suzanne Pleshette. They played a different married or unmarried couple in a romantic story every week. The show was scheduled on a Friday night and went off the schedule on Monday—but I still think it’s a great idea.
Playboy: But not a very auspicious start for a new company.
Lear: You might say that. But almost immediately, Neil Simon, who was a friend of mine, sent me a hilarious play he’d just completed called One Shoe Off. Paramount, which had asked us if there was a theatrical film we’d like to make, loved it and bought it. Bud was going to direct and I was going to produce and write the screenplay. And Frank Sinatra, if I was going to have my way, was going to star in it. It had then, by the way, acquired the title Come Blow Your Horn. The only problem was getting Sinatra to read the script. Once, when I hadn’t heard from him for weeks, I had corner of a room—what I called a reading kit—set up on his front lawn: rug, reading chair, footstool, lamp, pipe, slippers, robe an album called Music to Read By and a copy of the script. It turned the trick.
Playboy: What followed Come Blow Your Horn?
Lear: A movie called Divorce American Style, a very trenchant comment on marriage and divorce in this country. After that, Bud and I went our separate ways—but within the company. He did a picture called Inspector Clouseau and I did The Night They Raided Minsky’s. After Minsky’s, I did a film with Dick Van Dyke called Cold Turkey. It was the first theatrical film I’d directed, and the whole experience—falling in love with Iowa, where it was shot, and with Iowans—was a four-month orgasm. As a result of that success, I found myself with a very promising future in films. But then I spoiled everything by selling a TV pilot, an American adaptation of a British TV series, to CBS. It was all about a bigot and his son-in-law who fight all the time.
Playboy: And the rest, as they say, is television history.
Lear: But not the end of it, I hope. By the time this interview comes out, I’ll have three new series on the air—“Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” “The Dumplings,” and “One Day at a Time.”
Playboy: Are they more cookies from your cookie cutter?
Lear: Well, I think they definitely have the Lear stamp, but I do believe that none of the series would fall into the “safe” category, by any means—and there is more experimentation in the areas of form and style. For years I’ve wanted to do something with soap operas, something completely different from their mercilessly slow pace and plot development. So I asked some writers, who thought I was kidding at first, to come up some story treatments on exhibitionism, impotence, mass murder—homey topics like that—and to treat them humorously. I had no intention of trying to make the actual topics humorous, just the characters’ reaction to them. In one of the episodes, for instance, our heroine, Mary Hartman, finds out from a visiting neighbor that a mass murder has just taken place down the block. “The Lombardis, their three kids, two goats, and eight chickens,” gasps the neighbor. “What kind of a madman would kill two goats and eight chickens?” Mary responds in deadpan astonishment. CBS fronted $100,000 for the first few episodes, but when they saw what direction I was going in, they decided that what they really wanted was another of my cookies. I ended up, as I said, selling the show to independents.
We’re in production with “One Day at a Time,” which is a series about three women in Indianapolis: a newly separated 34-year-old mother and her two teenage daughters. All three know where they’ve been, but they’re still looking for where they are. I wanted to explore the real relationships that exist between adolescents and their parents, and also, of course, what it’s like for a single mother—in this case, a very independent one—to fend for herself and her family in a society full of sexism and agism. So while she’s fighting for economic self-sufficiency and the right to bring up her children as she sees fit, she’s also very up-front about her sex appeal. She deals with agism—her own, actually—in her relationship with a man of 27 who is very much in love with her and bent on marriage. The seven-year age difference doesn’t bother him at all, but she thinks a lot about it. We’re not running up the feminist flag in this series, but the possibilities for exploration of morals and attitudes within those basic concepts is exciting.
We’re also doing a little something different with “The Dumplings,” a series drawn from a Canadian comic strip that’s recently been released in the U.S. James Coco and Geraldine Brooks play two people who are dumplings in both their nature and their chubby physique. What’s strange about them is that they’re so uncomplicated and so very much in love. They operate a lunch counter in an office building and because they work only between ten a.m. and three p.m., they devote the rest of their time to simply being together.
Playboy: The premise doesn’t sound very compelling.
Lear: But it is. The Dumplings don’t have any problems. I’d call that pretty unusual for openers. All of the humor—and the warmth—comes out of the idea that because two people let their love shine all around them, the world can’t deal with them; they’re too pure. In the face of all odds, they’ve managed somehow to keep their innocence and their optimism. The outside world impinges on all our private lives to such a great degree that it’s almost impossible for us to maintain our values and keep dreaming our dreams. But the Dumplings do it. In their first episode, they have a chance to move up in the world. But it interferes with a moment together that’s important to them and they won’t give up the moment for the opportunity. It’s rare to manage that in our culture.
Playboy: With the three new shows, you have a total of eight on the air, five of them—and possibly more, by the time this is published—in the top 20. That makes you the biggest and most successful producer in the most influential medium in the world. How do you like the power trip?
Lear: I suppose I have a certain amount of power, in a limited sort of way, but it isn’t anything I can viscerally connect to. I’m much too involved in whether or not the next show is going to be good and what we can do to make it that way. I can’t think of my batting average as much as, Jesus, I’ve got to get up to bat again on Tuesday and again on Thursday and again on Friday, and then again next week. As long as you’re constantly playing the game, I don’t know where you find the time to dwell on what it all means. Anyway, I just don’t see any evidence that I influence peoples’ opinions all that much. If anybody thought he was going to erase prejudice with a situation comedy, he’d have to be an asshole. Are people less bigoted than they were before “All in the Family” or “Sanford and Son?” Are they thinking any differently about social issues since “Maude?” And even if they are, am I responsible for it?
Sure, there are some very specific efforts that are tangible. When we did a show on breast cancer, we knew in a matter of weeks that any number of women had been helped by it because they were in touch with their local societies, who in turn, informed us by asking for the tape. But I’ve done four or five shows about handguns and none of them—or the five or six assassinations we’ve lived through in our lifetime—has changed attitudes on that issue to any marked degree that I can see. When it comes to social change, we’re just throwing pebbles into the water. Whether the ripples eventually make any waves, I have no idea.
Playboy: Is making ripples worth throwing the pebbles?
Lear: Of course. I make shows about people in conflict; but they’re bound together in love—and laughter. I think it’s never been more important that it is today to emphasize the things that connect us with one another. Sometimes I stand in the back of the theater where my shows are taped, and I love to watch those 300 heads rock back with laughter. The warmth of sharing that moment with them—and watching them share it with one another—makes me want to take them all home with me. And whenever anybody tells anything nice about what I’m doing, it’s like my first compliment. You’d think I’d be jaded by now, but I can’t get enough of it.
Playboy: Is that why you keep on producing?
Lear: I do what I do not because I want people to think I’m terrific, though of course I hope they will, and not because I expect to change the world, though of course I’d like nothing better, but because I love it. This is a tough business and it can be incredibly frustrating, but there’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing. If there’s anybody anywhere having a better time, you’ll have to point him out to me. I’m like the twin in shit.
Playboy: The twin in shit?
Lear: Don’t you remember that old story about the twins, one a pessimist and one an optimist? A psychologist takes them and puts each one in a room full of shit. And the pessimist stands in the corner holding his nose. That’s not me. I’m the kid in the other room—rolling in the shit, throwing it up in the air, having a fantastic time. The psychologist asks him why in the world he’s behaving that way and the kid says, “If I’m in a room full of shit, there’s got to be a pony in here someplace.”