Norman Lear Speaks Out
TV’s Sitcom Champ Looks at Comedy, Competition, and His Place in History
By Salley Rayl and Karen Kaye
How will Norman Lear, the man whose 20 shows over the past seven years have changed the face of television, keep things from becoming repetitious?
Maybe by being continually more outrageous. “Fernwood Tonight” [sic], the latest Lear production, is a “Tonight” show spoof that asks probing questions like, “Do leisure suits really cause cancer?,” and generally does things that make “Mary Hartman’s” wilder days look tame. Hosted by Barth Gimble/Martin Mull (see following story), “Fernwood Tonight” is serving as a “MH, MH” summer replacement. In the fall, Lear faces the task of recreating the “Mary Hartman” show without its Mary, Louise Lasser, who is leaving (the show, retitled “Fernwood, U.S.A.), will focus on other regular characters and new residents of the town). There’s no talk of hitting the panic button, though; in fact, Lear has turned the reins of the show over to other hands at his T.A.T. Productions, and is currently at work on a couple of long-term projects. Will they, too, be as controversial as ever?
“I don’t know what controversial subjects are,” says the man whose TV shows over the past few years have dealt with abortion, racial intermarriage, sexism, bigotry, menopause, and homosexuality. “I don’t follow trends, I don’t know what the hell is happening except what we’re doing.”
If that sounds paradoxical, it’s in character. When he slows down for an interview, Norman Lear proves himself to be a paradoxical man. His style is relaxed yet concentrated. He generally seems willing to listen, but almost as often appears impatient. He’s opinionated on issues, yet claims he doesn’t worry about the educational aspects of his shows. In fact, the man who’s credited with shaking up millions of Americans every week says he doesn’t even believe TV can really change people’s minds.
“I wouldn’t expect to have a half-hour situation comedy change anything that the Judeo-Christian ethic in 2000 years couldn’t change,” the 55-year-old producer states. “I would be some kind of nut to think that my little show is going to matter more than that ethic.” But after pondering the point a bit, he does concede something: “After seven years of “All in the Family,” we’ve gotten a lot of mail. I’ve never received a letter from a hardhat who was saying, ‘Right on, Archie, Archie is right about everything,’ who didn’t also say ‘Why do you idiots always make him a horse’s ass at the end of each episode?’ The point is not escaping them—bigotry is foolish and ridiculous. I don’t think it changes anything, but I think that the hardhatted bigot can see a little bit of himself, too.”
Lear’s special humor is a direct outgrowth of his own experience. “All of us who work on the shows dredge the material we use from our lives.” He’s apparently never been without that ability, either. The son of a second-generation Russian Jew, Lear recalls his parents’ bickering: “I remember sitting at the kitchen table while they were arguing, one on each side of me, in stereo. I’d sit there and just keep score. That was my way of dealing with it. As a result, I’ve found in any dramatic situation the element of comedy is always there.”
Lear believes he’s grown through his work, but also feels that he may never be able to escape the culture he grew up in. “When one of my daughters was 8 or 9, she raved about one of her teachers, a Miss Johnson. For weeks, all she could do was talk about this teacher. Then my wife and I went to Open House at the school one evening and met Miss Johnson. I turned to wife afterward and said, “How come Kate never told us she was black?” In the next second, I caught myself: “Well, why should she? What difference does it make?” I was conscious of that, but I think I’ve become less conscious as a result of working on the shows over the years—especially “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.”
Is there any topic that Lear would not touch on in his sitcoms? “Incest,” he answers, “is a subject I would want to force myself to think about, but it’s a pretty ugly subject that isn’t of any real concern among my priorities, so there’s a topic I wouldn’t care to touch.”
And what about competitiveness? While Lear has spoofed it on shows like “All That Glitters,” he’s still in a highly competitive field. Is being Number one of paramount importance to him?
“I can’t deny that it’s a kick,” he says, “but the pleasure comes with concluding a taping on a Friday night, loving the episode, and enjoying the work that preceded it. The joy is in the doing. I find I am happy when I’m doing my thing, trying to make it as good as it can be. I’d love all my shows to be at the top, but that’s not what we’re all about.”
The future for Lear of course includes work on his favorite TV projects—“All in the Family,” “One Day at a Time,” “Good Times,” “Sanford Arms,” and “Maude”—and additional plan to work in film. “I love films,” says the man whose fortune was made in TV and whose last feature film, Cold Turkey, was a mild box-office flop, “because they allow the writer and director and me to make love to the concept for as long as it takes to get it they way one wants it. That’s terribly exciting.”
Doesn’t he ever worry about running out of outrageous story ideas for his TV shows?
“I can’t conceive of any one show ever running out of stories,” he answers. “They’ll run out of gas in other ways, but they’ll never run out of stories.”
. . .
The Johnny Carson of Fernwood
Martin Mull Plays Host to a Menagerie
By Marilyn Nierenberg
Is Martin Mull the devil-may-care composer who dares to rival Marvin Hamlisch and Johnny Cash with his alternative renditions of “Dueling Tubas” or “A Girl Named Johnny Cash”?
Or, is Martin Mull the actor on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” who plays the twin brothers Garth and Barth Gimble?
Or, is Martin Mull as Barth Gimble the nutty host of “Fernwood Tonight,” the fictional talk show that makes a mockery of the other “Tonight” show?
The answer to all of the above is yes. Martin Mull turns out to be a zany musician, actor, and comedian who is definitely not Telling the Truth about anything.
That’s really quite alright, though, since the show Mull/Gimble is hosting this summer promises to be one of the weirder things to hit late-night TV since the woolliest days of “Mary Hartman.”
“Fernwood Tonight” is a hodge podge of standard segments like “Rocket to Stardom,” where unknown talent gets a chance to shine. For her audition, Baby Irene (Georgi Irene), a Shirley Temple look-alike, tap dances to the accompaniment of pianist Howard Palmer (Bruce Mahler) who is enclosed in an iron lung machine.
Another segment titled “Bury the Hatchet” allows two parties to air opposing views. The audience is then allowed to vote on the issue at hand. In one sketch the parents of a Catholic priest complain that their son was programmed by the church. The mother laments, “They’ve made a zombie out of him. All he does is kneel and speak a foreign language all day.”
Mull sings and says he plays “Guitar well, piano poorly, drums Book I, and reasonable bass.” (Mull has recorded five albums.) Fernwood locals like Loretta Haggers (Mary Kay Place) and Tom Hartman (Greg Mullavey) also make special appearances. Mull reports, “The other day Tom came on the set and danced to the Disco Duck Polka wearing crutches.”
The 34-year-old Mull dabbled in many creative areas before he found his niche (such as it is) on TV. Until last year, he was mainly known by a small cult following as a writer and performer of “alternative songs.”
Mull appeared on “Cher” and numerous talk shows before he was spotted by Al Burton, creative supervisor of T.A.T. Communications. Six months later, he was cast for the part of Garth—a nasty wife-beating failure of a man—on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.” Martin explains, “I had never acted before, and the role of a wife beater was a despicable part that I don’t identify with. I do hope that Garth did some good by informing people that wife beaters exist.”
Mull felt badly when his role was cut. (Garth is stabbed to death by the limb of a collapsible Christmas tree.) At the cast Christmas party, he suggested to Norman Lear that Garth return as a twin. He says, “Lear had obviously heard that one before. I guess everyone comes up with a similar idea when it’s their turn to leave the show.”
Coincidentally, Lear had been toying with an idea for a fictitious talk show to be set in Fernwood, Mary Hartman’s hometown. Lo, and behold, the character of Barth, Garth’s twin, was magically written into the script to be played by…Martin Mull.
Mull doesn’t think that viewers are O.D.ing on Fernwood fantasies. He says, “Fernwood Tonight” is enough like people are accustomed to for them to know and understand it. And it’s different enough for them to laugh at it. As long as it’s entertaining, people are ready for it.”
If Barth dies, is there a triplet waiting in the wings? Martin says, “Barth could have a sex change operation and emerge as Barthella.” But seriously folks, if “Fernwood Tonight” is picked up for the fall season, Mull remarks, “Barth will react very matter-of-factly and say I was too good to be put out to pasture.” How Martin Mull will react is another story. He spelled it out in caps, “W-H-O-O-P-E-E!!! (Renegotiate).”