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How Norman Lear Made ‘All in the Family’ as ‘True to Life’ as Possible

How Norman Lear Made ‘All in the Family’ as ‘True to Life’ as Possible

When All in the Family started airing on CBS in 1971, the show pushed a lot of buttons that TV shows had just shied away from over time. Yet Norman Lear, the show’s executive producer, demanded that a sense of realism be in the show’s scripts. Lear wanted current topical subjects to be presented every week.

What Lear also aimed for was to have his show be as “true to life” as possible. To get there, though, Lear wanted his writers to be knowledgeable of news headlines. He wasn’t looking for some pie-in-the-sky, make-believe stuff. Lear wanted Archie Bunker, Edith, Mike, and Gloria to have meaningful interactions.

“It just took looking around,” Lear once said in an interview. Where, though, would writers look around for story ideas? As it turns out, Lear made sure that daily newspapers were available for everyone. Among the ones he provided were the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Writing For ‘All in the Family’ Was A Group Plan

This was a collective experience, according to story editor Michael Ross. “Most situation comedies in Hollywood are 10-to-5 jobs for the writers. But on All in the Family, there is a kind of community effort. Everybody stays with it until the final moment,” he said, according to Do You Remember. Ross’ comments were for the book

Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria: The Tumultuous History of All in the Family by Donna McCrohan.

Bernie West, another writer on the show, said in the book that writers did have leniency on their topics. “When you hear about other shows not being able to say this or that, it’s nice to be with a show where we can be as free as we are,” West said. “I’m not just talking about profanity either. It’s the topics, the treatments, and the latitude we have to make things as funny and as true to life as possible. Other shows have problems.”

Lear’s demand that All in the Family have timely topics can be seen in some of his other shows. Maude with Bea Arthur tackled such topics as racism. As a refresher, go watch Maude’s interactions with her maid Florida, played by Esther Rolle. Those scenes were some powerful things to see in the 1970s.

Norman Lear Revamped Old Shows For New Audience

Lear, who died in 2022 at 101 years old, still kept working into his later years. Along with Jimmy Kimmel, Lear brought back some of his old shows with new casts. He even accomplished this with All in the Family. No one, though, could ever replace Carroll O’Connor in his most famous role.

When television shows today bring up in-the-moment topics, they kind of owe a debt of gratitude to Lear. Dealing with CBS executives probably wasn’t fun for Lear, but he believed in his content. These true-to-life shows that Lear created are still being shown in reruns. The topics may be a bit dated in some people’s minds. Then again, they may still speak to modern viewers as well.

That sense of realism was something viewers identified with on the show. It opened the door for other shows to follow suit in time.