written by Amma Marfo
As a kid who spent much of my time bonding with my parents over the Nick-at-Nite slate of the early to mid nineties, I (admittedly unknowingly) grew up with Norman Lear as an idol. And if you derived any enjoyment from shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Good Times, Maude, or Sanford and Son, that may be the same for you. I loved Lear’s shows because they helped me learn more about the world in a way that shows made for my time - like Friends, Seinfeld, Wings, and the like, didn’t.
Much as I didn’t always want to believe it, and much as the adults in my life tried to hide it, the world was a complicated place made more complicated by biases, inequality, and the impact of history on the present. Lear’s shows never tried to hide that, and I appreciate that all the more now as an adult. I wish more shows were having conversations like Lear’s had then.
Reading Lear’s incredibly thorough autobiography (made all the more impressive by the sharpness of his recollection- after all, he is 93 years old!), Even This I Get to Experience, I was reminded of the depth of conversation Lear’s shows started in my house, and how I can’t imagine where those conversations would start nowadays for children growing up today. Ever the diplomat, I value rumbling with difficult ideas so as to let all sides of a discussion or debate be heard. And it blew me away to learn in detailed terms just how the actors playing these characters rumbled with these ideas in their own right. Lear evokes an incredible moment of transformation as he describes how the actor Carroll O’ Connor struggled with the inflammatory and offensive lines he had to deliver as his iconic character Archie Bunker:
For the next eight years Carroll would continue to dislike every script at the start. It was nothing but fear, and blind anger was his only defense. Certainly he bettered many a scene with it, but it needn’t have taken his belligerence to get there. The marvel of Carroll’s performance as Archie Bunker was that at some point each week, deep into the rehearsal process, he seemed to pass through a membrane, on one side of which was the actor Carroll O’ Connor and on the other side the character Archie Bunker.
I love the story of this transformation, because it reminds me of the process I go through when I have to confront any idea- even one I come up with! Some ideas are so big that they rightfully inspire fear. Me writing a book? Me leaving my job? Those were (and are!) big, scary ideas. And the first few times they presented themselves, I let them be big enough and scary enough to get dismissed altogether. They’re complicated: write a book? Who will read it? Who will publish it? Will it matter? They’ve got high stakes: leave your job? How will you get insurance? What will you do during lean times? What makes you think you’re good enough?
But at some point, either through force of repetition, faith, or some serendipitous combination of the two, you can pass through that membrane that Lear cites when talking about O’Connor- the membrane that leaves you on the other side ready to tackle the idea. O’Connor’s Bunker battled with huge ideas- racism, sexism and misogyny, religion, and more topics that were only being whispered about until All in the Family brought them up in homes around the country each week. And these were ideas that previously hadn’t been expressed on TV because network executives thought them too big and too scary. But, as Lear expresses in defense of his staggering body of work:
[W]hen you throw a pebble in the lake the water rises. It’s far too infinitesimal a rise for our eyes to register, so all we can see is the ripple. People still say to me, “We watched Archie as a family and I’ll never forget the discussions we had after the show.” And so that was the ripple of All in the Family. Families talked.
This post isn’t designed to encourage you to check out the Norman Lear canon of programming (although you should, it’s incredible for its time and we need more like it now). Instead, think of it as a means to assess your next big idea. Where can you make a ripple? How big does that idea seem to you? And what can you do to push yourself through the membrane to emerge from the other side as the person ready to tackle that idea? Talk it out with friends, take steps to improve your skills so you can fathom a solution, and take measured risks. Getting to the other side is worth it. It makes change happen. It makes the world better. It raises the discourse (and the water level) to somewhere new and necessary.