Norman Lear: A Life on Television – An Entertainment Tonight Special

Norman Lear honored during NORMAN LEAR: 100 YEARS OF MUSIC AND LAUGHTER,, a star-studded evening airing THURSDAY, SEPT. 22 (9:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on ABC (ABC/Christopher Willard).

CBS and Entertainment Tonight moved quickly to present the new entertainment special, Norman Lear: A Life on Television.

Through Norman Lear’s career creating and producing television series, he had a belief that comedy should also deliver social commentary and perhaps even change lives. Chuck Lorre and Greg Berlanti are among today’s modern producers that have several shows on TV at the same time. However, none have come as close as Lear when it comes to pushing the buttons. Lear’s credits include producing, writing, creating, and developing over 100 shows for television. He was also a film producer, too. It’s very fitting that CBS aired the special because that was Lear’s longtime home in the 1970s and 1980s. At one point, he had eight different shows on the air!

Can you imagine All in the Family airing today? In all likelihood, the satire would go over people’s heads. And yet, millions tuned in week after week to see what was making Archie Bunker angry. Lear based it on a UK sitcom. The initial names for the series included Those Were The Days and Archie Justice. When it premiered in the 1970s, the network had a thousand extra operators, perhaps expecting complaints. An episode during the 8th season “caused the biggest ruckus” in Lear’s words. The audience reacted appropriately with one of the most boldest choices on TV at that time. Archie’s chair can now be found at the Smithsonian American History Museum’s Entertainment Nation.

Norman Lear: A Life on Television.
Norman Lear: A Life on Television. Courtesy of CBS.

Spinoffs included The Jeffersons and Maude. Maude is notable for touching on serious issues, especially abortion. It’s an episode that people still discuss to this day especially when discussing abortion rights and popular culture. The Jeffersons would end up shattering stereotypes on television. The series also included the first biracial kiss on television.

Other Lear-created series included Good Times, Sanford and Son, and One Day at a Time. Together with Jimmy Kimmel, Live in Front of a Studio Audience recreated a number of series in three specials. I was present at the Barker Hangar in January 2020 when Lear accepted the Critics Choice Awards for the 2019 special.

Another clip is taken from If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast. The 2017 documentary is streaming on Max. It also features Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Betty White and numerous other nonagenarians. Following this clip, the special looks back at Lear’s childhood and young adult years, including his military service. Lear moved to LA in his late 20s and the rest is history.

All in all, the special ran just shy of 43 minutes. There’s a vast amount of archival material when it comes to Lear. In this instance, they draw on many interviews in the ET vault that have never been seen before. Interviews with Jimmie Walker and Mackenzie Phillips are among the new interviews that are featured. Meanwhile, the special also features clips from last year’s interview between Kevin Frazier and Norman Lear, conducted for the producer’s 100th birthday.

If you have time, I highly recommend watching the 2016 American Masters documentary, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You, on PBS. The network just re-broadcast it on Friday. It’s available to stream on the PBS app and website through January 5. As far as I can tell, one does not need the PBS Passport subscription to stream through the app, just a PBS account.

While Norman Lear: A Life on Television should be streaming on Paramount+, I did not see it listed there. However, it is currently available on demand through YouTube TV subscriptions.

HOST: Nischelle Turner
FEATURING: Norman Lear, Oprah Winfrey, Mackenzie Phillips, Jimmie Walker, Jean Stapleton, Carroll O’Connor, Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, Lenny Kravitz, Roxie Roker, Marla Gibbs, Kevin Frazier

Norman Lear: A Life on Television premiered December 8, 2023 on CBS at 8 PM ET/PT and streaming on Paramount+. Grade: 4/5

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.