Black, White & Blue Collar: The Family Sitcoms of Norman Lear

I had the keen pleasure recently of speaking for the first time before a class of bright Emerson College LA students. The topic? The TV comedy of Norman Lear and my personal experience working for Norman at three different periods of my life. This was a Comm class, not a creative writing class (though several aspiring writers were present and asked spot-on questions), built around a terrific syllabus by Professor Richard West. The class had spent weeks reading Norman’s autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience, as well as watching episodes from his classic series All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times and more. Take a look at the goals of the class:

A) Develop a vocabulary and verbal skill set to assess situation comedy on television
B) Articulate several theoretical frameworks relevant to studying the “television family”
C) Compare and contrast various family representations of the American family via several Lear sitcoms
D) Identify and explain how family life has evolved from the 1970s to today
E) Describe how messages of culture pervade family life
F) Expand your oral and written communication skills via class discussion and written analyses
G) Demonstrate an awareness of the importance of the contributions of Norman Lear to the television industry

What a terrific framework to begin thinking about situation comedies and their impact, as good a place as any for aspiring comedy writers to launch themselves from.

I was thrilled to learn that the class of twenty-odd students had ROARED with laughter — the same as I did, more than 40 years ago — on first seeing Archie Bunker and his son-in-law, Mike, debate current social issues, or when George Jefferson put a white racist in his place with a wickedly funny line. The comedy was as sharp, inspiring, and world-shaking as the day the episodes made their first-run debuts. That’s amazing.

I also had the soul-warming opportunity to dispense practical advice to the class on writing partners, the value of the WGAW, being professional, taking care of themselves, the coming challenges of AI story-telling, and the power to create stories with the magic electronic device we all carry with us.

I must admit I stumbled upon a truth about my own writing career as I pulled my talk together: I realized loving Norman Lear’s shows and then getting to work on them SPOILED me, because from that point on, I was always driven to write fresh, truthful comedy stories about things that really mattered to me. Of the writing jobs I landed after writing for Norman, however, that ideal was rarely available or even acknowledged. Sigh.

At least there’s a wealth of brilliant, fresh, compelling, truth-filled comedy series right now, ready for the next wave of eager, young writers. Get busy!




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