TV pioneer Norman Lear has plenty to say

Story highlights

  • Norman Lear's book, "Even THIS I Get to Experience," chronicles a fascinating life
  • Lear was present at television's beginnings
  • He helped reshape the form with "All in the Family" and other shows

(CNN)A conversation with Norman Lear is as wide-ranging as you want it to be.

After all, this isn't just the man who created "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Jeffersons" and other shows, remaking television in the process.
Lear wrote for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis when they were the biggest act in the country. He was present at the creation of the 2000-Year-Old Man. (Well, he believes he was, but he'll defer to Mel Brooks.) He was a gunner and radio operator who flew bombing missions in World War II.
    All this and more is in his memoir, "Even THIS I Get to Experience," just out in paperback.
    Moreover, at 93, he's far from done. A documentary about his life, "Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You," will premiere on the first day of the Sundance Film Festival, and a new version of another Lear hit, "One Day at a Time," has been in the works.
    Lear was recently in Atlanta to accept honors from Morehouse College and the City of Atlanta. He graciously sat down with CNN to talk comedy, politics, media and the importance of time.

    On the wild early days of television

    You think a YouTube phenomenon is something new? Lear and his writing partner, Ed Simmons, were the 1950 equivalent.
    After jobs as a Broadway press agent and small-appliance salesman, he lit out for Los Angeles, spending days selling home furnishings and nights writing routines. He and Simmons connived to get a bit in front of comedian and raconteur Danny Thomas. It was a hit. Suddenly, the sky was the limit.
    "Two days later, we're in New York writing the Jack Haley 'Ford Star Revue.' Two weeks after that, Martin and Lewis are going on television and Jerry Lewis sees a sketch on the Jack Haley show and says, 'I want those writers,' " he recalls. "Overnight, we were television writers."
    They wrote for Martin and Lewis for three years. One early sketch, "Movies Are Better Than Ever," poked fun at the decline of the big screen and got the team a lot of water-cooler chatter.
    TV was an incredible calling card.
    "We had no f****** experience at all. And there were guys in radio who had been working 18, 20 years, and they were well-known comedy writers. But we were television comedy writers because we had written a television show for two weeks," Lear says. "That's the way America works. Suddenly, we were more valuable than we could possibly have been had we been writing for seven years in radio."

    On what made 'All in the Family'

    Lear and producing partner Bud Yorkin actually shot the pilot of "All in the Family," then called "Justice for All," in 1969. ABC turned it dow,n and it remained in limbo until almost two years later, when CBS picked it up. Lear was glad for the delay, because he found two new leads.
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    "The real gift of the two-year delay was that, finally, it was Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers," he recalls of the pair who played Archie Bunker's liberal son-in-law, Mike, and daughter, Gloria. "The other couples (cast) in the two other pilots were very good; I think the show would have worked with them. But they were not Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers.
    "One of the great miracles of it all ... I cast them, but I was not responsible for the chemistry that developed in every direction between those four talents. That was miraculous to have watched that happen just by way of their personalities, their individuality and the way each (worked) in every direction with the other three."
    The show was the No. 1 program in America for five straight years.

    On the state of America

    Lear is a well-known liberal -- he founded the progressive group People for the American Way -- but he's a believer in reaching out to others with different viewpoints. (An early-'80s special he produced, "I Love Liberty," featured arch-Republican Barry Goldwater.) He's been friends with business and political leaders of many stripes.
    So he's dismayed by the tone of the country's politics.
    "I think the American people are so confused as a result of the poor leadership that exists everywhere one might look for leadership," he says. "Everywhere you look, there's 'what's in it for me,' as opposed to 'how do we take care of us?' "
    He attributes the rise of Donald Trump to "the American people giving the establishment the finger, and Donald Trump is the friggin' finger."
    He's also not fond of the news media. In an interview with CNN's Brian Stelter this year, he described media coverage as "bumper-sticker news."
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    He expanded on that in Atlanta.
    "The news is a big money-making operation now, and as a result, it's as headline-oriented as what used to be in Hearst," he says, invoking the yellow-journalism empire of the past. "There's no leadership in the media, either. I think we're so ill-served."

    On times past and time existing

    Comedian Fred Allen is mostly forgotten today, but in his prime -- from the 1930s through the '50s -- he was considered the wittiest man on radio. (The title of his memoir, "Treadmill to Oblivion," neatly summarizes his dyspeptic view of broadcasting.)
    Lear was friends with Allen. They would take long walks, Allen handing out crisp dollar bills to local beggars. He, Allen and Simmons developed a long-running in-joke involving andirons, ingots and a sales rep named Harry Saminow. (Don't ask.) The trio would get together and riff on details without breaking character.
    Lear laments that the creation of such a shtick is probably impossible these days, when elaborate correspondence and in-person meetings have been reduced to text messages and FaceTime.
    "I think about it, and I want to cry, because it took a great deal of time, respect and affection in both directions. But it existed then," he says. "The fact is, time existed for that, and it wasn't (unique) in this world. It was part of a fabric of living these lives. Not today. Not today."