Television comedy can probably be divided into two eras: B.L. and A.L. — Before Lear and After Lear. Norman Lear's seminal 1970s sitcoms —"All in the Family" and its offspring, from"Maude" to "The Jeffersons" — used the laissez-passer of comedy to bring politics, race, abortion and sexism into the nation's living rooms, and made Archie Bunker a virtual member of all of the nation's families. Then in 1981, Lear founded People For the American Way. In Washington, on Thursday night, the organization celebrates the upcoming 90th birthday of the man who pushed the TV definition of family and praises his own wife and six kids as "the greatest family in the history of families."
We have reality TV and "American Idol" TV, and Steven Colbert and Jon Stewart. Does television now reflect the country's drift into corners? Are we faced with either the asinine or the acerbic?
I often wonder why there couldn't be a class-action suit against the U.S. government for giving away or selling the airwaves, for doing such a bad job in the public interest. There's such power [in TV] and they've paid so little for it. I go back to a speech I gave at Harvard in the late '70s or early '80s, that the name of the game was a hit on Tuesday night at 8:30, not what the quality might be, not what we should do by way of educating or informing the American public. Same thing with the news. But as it became a profit center, the Lindsay Lohans of the time became the jewels.
Did you think, 30 years later, that there would still be a need for People For the American Way, or that it would instead be "mission accomplished"?
On the board at the time was a minister who would always say, "We want to be sure that we're not an organization that overstays its usefulness." We were always aware — and the country was not and is not — of how severely the religious right is determining so much of what is happening in America, politically, socially, in every direction. There's never been a time in the 30 years when there wasn't enough to rail against.
Has the religious right made common cause with the corporate right?
The confluence of big business, neoconservative minds and the religious right occurred when each thought it would be useful to be in league with the other. In league, they are an enormous threat.
You revere the Constitution; you own an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. How can so many people who also revere these documents disagree so vehemently over what they mean?
I find the far right accepting, if not asking for, credit for things that the left clearly brought into being, like 80% of FDR's social legislation. The right is not fighting the need for social legislation; they're just railing that it's overused. They believe all men are created equal; they believe in equal opportunity under the law. Those are credos they feel they own. The left gave away God and moral values and the flag; they took them, and we let them.
Why did it happen?
I think we ceded God because we found it embarrassing to talk about our most cherished beliefs in religion in a public setting. A few thought it didn't belong in a public setting constitutionally, which is correct. But we became embarrassed. When the right took it, they did it bumper-sticker style, so if you didn't believe exactly like them, you were not a believer.
It's hard to fit onto a bumper sticker "We believe in God but don't think it should be in the public arena for political debate." You'd need a Hummer.
Or a train!
If you had the chance to put a bumper sticker on every car in the country, what would it say?
Wow. "Just Another Version of You."
Did you have a political epiphany growing up?
I might have had a political epiphany listening to Father Coughlin [the fascist radio priest] spew this racial and anti-Semitic hatred. I have picked up on that strain in American life ever since.
How did the country that won World War II, created the Marshall Plan, come to have problems like this huge income gap and one of the highest murders rate in the developed world?
I'm glad you ticked off the Marshall Plan. I fought in World War II [as a B-17 radio operator and gunner], and when the war was over, Eisenhower was a giant hero. Eisenhower warned us about a lot of what is happening in his [presidential] farewell address. He called it the military-industrial complex; in his notes it was the congressional military-industrial complex. His words were clear and stunning and startling, and we paid no attention. I was thinking of a way to adopt Eisenhower as a Democrat because you never hear his name from the right.
Hollywood has been called "liberal" at least since Charlie Chaplin. Is there any substance to that?
Yes, I think the arts through the ages have given us far more liberals. I'd like to see a study going back in time, and I believe we'd find that among painters and architects and playwrights and composers, by far they have been of liberal instinct. And that's why Congress has always been denying money to the arts.
I've been to conferences where everybody was a "progressive," and two days go by and you don't hear the word "liberal." At one of them, that was my talk: How is it possible they've beaten the words "left" and "liberal" out of us?
Does it annoy your critics on the right that you're a billionaire businessman who did it in Hollywood, and by tweaking the noses of the establishment?
I didn't have money on my mind, and that's the truth. It sounds self-serving, but I was married very young and wanted my wife and children safe. One way you make them safe is financially. I remember when I had to fly to New York — in those years, we used to get to the airport early and buy airline flight insurance. The first time I woke up and realized I didn't have to do that any more, I had enough insurance — that made me feel wealthy.
You've made your share of political donations; what do you make of the Citizens United ruling?
Citizens United made us a different country. Money can buy anything now: It can buy a governor; it can buy a mayor. One of the greatest concerns about four or eight years with Romney [as president] is these lifetime appointments in the federal courts and the Supreme Court especially. What would it mean to this country? Look what it's meant so far. There's Citizens United because of this court.
People talk about the political messages in your shows. I don't know that this was your intent, but people do listen better when they're laughing.
People also laugh harder when they are interested and concerned and care. When you've got people worried about what's going to happen [to a character], then you can present a laugh to them, and the laugh is far bigger. That's why the old expression "I laughed so hard I cried." It's a very thin line. We enjoyed playing both of those elements.
Some viewers never saw Archie Bunker as a buffoon.
I've got hundreds or thousands of letters to prove it. There was never a letter that lionized Archie that didn't also criticize us. Any letter that said, "Right on, Archie," also said, "You horse's asses."
To my pride and joy they said they'd wanted to do Archie, and the only way they could figure to do it was an 8-year-old, so that's where Eric Cartman came from.
What television do you watch now?
It sounds as if you think television is always about families.
Before "All in the Family," on CBS alone there was"The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres," and they were children of"Leave It to Beaver" and "Father Knows Best," where the biggest problem the family faced was the roast is ruined and the boss is coming to dinner. Look at what a point of view all of those shows were expressing: There were no racial problems in America; there was no divide around the world; there was nothing to worry about. If that isn't a point of view I can't imagine what is.
Do you watch Fox TV?
What do Fox and Limbaugh mean to this country's politics?
When I was a little boy, I used to love traveling carnivals. The barkers, they were liars and cheats, especially the ones who asked you to pay another quarter to "come [behind] the curtain and see the hermaphrodite." I think of them when I listen to these guys. They're carnival barkers. Who could have guessed they would move from the carnival to the public mall?
email@example.com This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript.