Friday, March 20, 2015

If Norman Lear isn't an "Iconic Character of Comedy," who is? (And a mensch besides)


Wednesday night at the Museum of the Moving Image, Norman will also be signing copies of his book. I know from Howie how hard he worked on it, and how much it mattered to him. I wouldn't be surprised if I pick up a copy at the museum bookshop.

by Ken

For a lot of us, Norman Lear is twice a hero. First, and most conspicuously, he changed the face of television. When Alan Alda appeared at the Museum of the Moving Image on that magical night in October 2013, as the first in an "ongoing series" called Iconic Characters of Comedy presented jointly by MoMI and the Comedy Hall of Fame, that CBS wouldn't have considered doing M*A*S*H (1972) if it hadn't already allowed TV comedy to enter a new world of reality with The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970) and Norman Lear's All in the Family (1972).

Guess who's next up in the Iconic Characters of Comedy series. Yes, this Wednesday, March 25, it's Norman Lear's turn. MoMI and the Comedy Hall of Fame are presenting a program called "The Architect, Norman Lear: How Lear Changed Comedy and the Culture." As soon as I got the e-announcement of the event, I clicked through to buy my ticket. (Okay, I did check my calendar first. But if there'd been a schedule conflict, I would have tried to decided it in favor of the Iconic Characters of Comedy event.)

Of course there's another reason why Norman Lear is a hero to American liberals. With, finally, the creation of People for the American Way, he did as much as any one person can do to take the curse off the term and fight back against right-wing propaganda to promote good solid American liberal values. PFAW has had a decidedly mixed history, demonstrating perhaps how hard it is to guard any organization against the in-creep of status-quo-loving bureaucrats and careerist opportunists. But I think there is, as I suggested, a limit to what even the most visionary founder can do. He created the organization, and he meant business.

I've been hearing "Norman" stories for years from Howie, who was brought into PFAW, where he's made as much trouble as he could, and also gotten to know Norman well. I might have been able to press it into a chance to meet Norman, but what would I have said? "I'm a big fan, a big fan"? (At least, if I get a chance to say hello to him on Wednesday, I can tell him I'm a friend of Howie's!)

I actually came late to All in the Family. I had been really put off by the mindless bigotry of Archie Bunker, which seemed to be making him a hero to many American televiewers. Eventually, when I started actually watching the show regularly, I discovered what Norman and Carroll O'Connor, whom I suppose we can think of as the joint creators of Archie, always knew: that Archie is at heart an enormously decent human being, but one whose brain is crammed full of the ghastly distortions of mindless American orthodoxy.

Then there was Edith. My mother loved Edith, and it's not hard to see why. It's not hard to see why any mother would love Edith, who had no head for politics (fortunately, in this case) but took the job of motherhood so seriously. "Mom" is of course a pillar of traditional American values, and Jean Stapleton as Edith showed us why.

So who are these Iconic Characters of Comedy?
Week in and week out, for years, we invite our favorite television characters into our homes. We come to know and accept them, in spite of the fact that they may have different ideals and values. Exposure to them modifies our experience, and helps modulate social change. Some characters have become iconic, as both catalysts and reflections of evolving American social values. Iconic Characters of Comedy is a high-profile discussion series designed to celebrate key artists and their work; tracing the comedic experience of the artist, the development of the character, and the social ramifications and influence these icons have had. The series will pair artists with esteemed moderators, to create unforgettable and illuminating evenings. 
I've already described the Alan Alda event, "The Rationalist: Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H," as "magical." It was one of my great evenings. Alan Alda, in conversation with Jeff Greenfield, gave abundant evidence of being just as smart and funny and thoughtful and insightful as one would have assumed, and with all that he shared about his 11 seasons of work on the show as an actor and his additional work as a writer and even director, he and the TV M*A*S*H team knew exactly what they were trying to do, and often had to fight awfullly hard to be able to to do what for those 11 seasons they did so amazingly well. That night I left feeling like I was walking on air.

The Iconic Characters of Comedy series also included a wonderful evening (for some reason not listed on the ICoC Web page) last October with Marlo Thomas, "The Visionary: Marlo Thomas, TV's First Independent Woman," in conversation with Gloria Steinem and Debra Messing. That was a great night too, and for pretty much the same reasons. In producing as well as starring in That Girl, Marlo had a strong sense of how revolutionary the show was, and with the help of people who also understood, fought hard to create a new presence in TV comedy. As the event description put it, "Paving the way for Mary Richards, Murphy Brown, and other iconic women's roles to come, Ms. Thomas's character helped to ignite a seismic cultural change, challenging female stereotypes and reshaping the way women's roles were perceived on television and in society."


The Architect, Norman Lear: How Lear Changed Comedy and the Culture

Part of Iconic Characters of Comedy
Wednesday, March 25, 7:00 p.m.

Norman Lear in conversation with Bill Carter and Al Roker

Co-presented with the Comedy Hall of Fame

All in the Family. Maude. Good Times. The Jeffersons. As writer, producer, director, satirist, and political activist, the legendary Norman Lear created some of the most important and influential comedy programs in television history. As President Bill Clinton said when giving him the National Medal of Arts, “He held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” Norman Lear revolutionized the medium of television by infusing comedy with social commentary. His work created a profound sea change and ushered in the modern era of comedy, by creating such iconic characters as Archie Bunker, Maude, and J.J., in sitcoms that dealt openly with issues of race, class, sexism, politics, the women’s movement, and war, reflecting a country in turmoil. 

In this evening presented by the Comedy Hall of Fame, Norman Lear will join us for a discussion that will include clips from his greatest shows, moderated by former New York Times media reporter Bill Carter and Al Roker, feature anchor on NBC's Today show. 
Both member and nonmember tickets ($12/$20) can be bought online via the link on the event Web page.

See ya Wednesday!

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