"I'm not so sure America knows how to laugh at itself today as it did then," said Norman Lear, the 82-year-old creator of All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son, despite the fact that all those shows were on the air during the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War.
It was Monday, Nov. 8 -- six days after the election of President Bush left 48 percent of America, and probably about 90 percent of the Lear nation, the anti-Fox territory of its time, slack-jawed.
Lear was considering the difference between this American upheaval and the one he gave a live studio audience laugh track to in the early 1970s.
"I thought of that when I saw the reaction to Team America," he said, "and the liberals are all upset on one side and the conservatives are all upset on the other. What the hell's going on? America used to be able to laugh at itself better than that."
But the American public -- the part that tunes into CSI: Miami and Everybody Loves Raymond -- could no longer stand to see itself in satiric self-portrait. Even the right-wingers loved Archie Bunker. It's hard to imagine 20 million viewers sitting still in recliners laughing at a conversation like this:
Mike Stivic (Rob Reiner): Do you know that in many countries, England for instance, there is a law that says whatever two consenting adults do in private is their own business?
Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor): Listen, this ain't England. We threw England outta here a long time ago. We don't want no more part of England and for your information, England is a fag country.
Archie: Certainly. Ain't they still picking handkerchiefs out of their sleeves? The whole country is based on a kind of ... fagdom.
Jeff Zucker wouldn't touch that script! Homosexuality on TV, ostensibly more accepted now in Will and Grace and Queer Eye than it was then, is approached in a condescending and arm's-length manner that would have made the Lear nation throw up.
That 33-year-old dialogue, written in Richard Nixon's first term by Lear, brilliantly acted by O'Connor and Mr. Reiner, and broadcast on CBS, the network the Nixon White House loved to hate, still captures a certain intractable anger in American culture that's now expressed in voting booths, not sitcoms.
Just replace England with France.
Nixon's silent majority
Thirty-three years later, the United States is once more bogged down in a prolonged war and rattled by a traumatic political schism. Only there is no more Lear nation.
"It's a note for TV Land," said Lear, referring to the only channel that now runs his shows. "They should isolate some of those conversations and put them on."
In the 1970s, Lear's All in the Family and Larry Gelbart's M*A*S*H stoked the private emotions of Nixon's silent majority, wrestling with Vietnam and civil rights. But network television no longer dominates the viewership or binds it the way it did in the three-network age.
But even if TV executives made it their business to continually underestimate the intelligence of the American public, Lear felt that didn't always have to be the case. "That's not what the American public wants," he said. "We all have a sense of the transcendent. It's what newly elected Illinois Sen. Barak Obama was referring to in his speech at the convention, quoting Lincoln: 'the better angels of our nature.'"
But not everyone was as hopeful.
"I'm about to have a fucking nervous breakdown!" said Gelbart, the playwright, screenwriter and producer of the TV series M*A*S*H post-election.
"M*A*S*H was about people who put the people together who got blasted apart in war. ABC is putting on a new series which is about the fighting in Iraq. One was about saving lives and one is about killing and being killed."
(Gelbart was referring to a new Steve Bochco series called Over There, currently in development at FX Network, not ABC.)
Does that signal the fact that there is no new All in the Family showing up to establish a new Lear nation?
"You're not going to see that," Gelbart said. "And if he does that, Archie will be more lovable. Archie will be a heavy. He'll be somebody to emulate. God almighty! Everyone from the guy who brings in the coffee and bagels on up to the network presidents are being told what they can and can't do. And nobody's going to rock this ship."
Moment of understanding
It's true that Archie and his son-in-law Mike still have analogues on TV, but they're mostly on news: Hannity and Colmes, Hardball or The McLaughlin Group, professional pundits who yell at each other about war, gay rights and religion. The difference is that Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes never achieve emotional catharsis. Bill O'Reilly is a kind of Archie in constant search of Mike -- does no one know how to bark back effectively? ... SHUT UP!
But generally, there's no Mike, no Gloria, no Edith, no levity, "and no sense of middle ground," said Lear. "They often brought some place where they could embrace, or understand. There was a moment of understanding between them."
Imagine a long, silent shot of Chris Matthews' mug going slack at the end of MSNBC's Hardball after getting kicked in the teeth. No, these guys always have to be the star and always have to be the hero. Someday, the real winner on one of these shows is going to be the host who listens, and shows a little humility.
Lear wrote on the jacket copy for an All in the Family LP issued by Atlantic Records in 1971 that he had received a letter from a woman who watched 10 minutes of the show and immediately dialed her son, who lived in another city: "You always wanted to know what your father was like? Well, hurry up and turn on Channel 2!"
These days, the father probably started acting like Archie Bunker after watching Mr. O'Reilly.
Lear said that it was Archie Bunker as a character -- in the beginning he was seen as a failed follow-up to Ralph Kramden -- that allowed All in the Family through the door at CBS. Only afterward was Lear able to explicitly inject issues into the shows and invent George Jefferson, Maude and Mary Hartman to act out progressive social dramas.
"All that occurred to me was I grew up with my dad, and though I'm Jewish, my father used to call them schvartzes," said Lear, referring to the derogatory word his father used for African-Americans.
"I'm accusing him of putting down a race of people and he'd say, 'That's not what I'm doing.' He called me 'the laziest white kid I ever made.' 'You're putting down a race of people and calling your son lazy?' He'd say, 'That's not what I'm doing: You're also the stupidest white kid.'"
From there, he developed capital within the network and ran with his conscience.
"The foolishness of the human condition is infinite," said Lear. "I started off there. But I had two children then and read a newspaper seriously and collected people around us who also did, so everybody understood they had to read the New York Times as well as the L.A. Times and we came in to scrape the barrels of our lives and our families and our experiences and our culture and found the humor there. The sudden rise in the incidents of certain kinds of cancer in black males -- that's a show. We got it out of the papers. That was what was going on in the culture."
Feeding the beast
Lear says he loved South Park and The Simpsons and said some sitcoms are still well done. Will and Grace and Frasier were beautifully written, he said, even if they often danced around issues like gay marriage. "They just didn't elect to deal with it," he said. "You'd have to ask them why."
Partly, he surmised, it had to do with bureaucracy of getting material on the air. TV networks have long since defined their audience through demographic research -- managing to research entire subjects out of the scripts and off the air.
A lot of those huge tracts of red states that George W. Bush won Nov. 2 were Nielsen families with 56-inch screens.
"There's some great comedic writing on television today, but I think it's by election," he said. "And maybe it has to do with the fact of supply and demand. You know, basically, people in my community are working for a living, however well paid they are, but the demand for what they create comes from someplace else."
Gelbart took a tougher line.
"We are commissioned, we write, we act, we produce only through the permission of these media giants who, incidentally, are the purveyors of a lot of the smut in our living rooms and our hotel rooms," he said, which managed to inflame the red-state "Bible thumpers" and turn up heat on Hollywood.
Gelbart also says that when M*A*S*H was greenlighted by CBS, Walter Cronkite, a critic of the war in Vietnam, was the network's anchor, "So they had their credentials, so they had made quite clear that they questioned the war. None of these networks question any more.
"The answer to everything is money," he said. "Any question you ask. And these people live in a very green state, the Murdochs and the Redstones. The notion that we are a liberal media is just insane. There may be some liberal talking heads in the news department, which is more and more a subdivision of the entertainment department, but in the end they are feeding the beast."
John Landgraf, the president of entertainment at the FX Network, owned by Rupert Murdoch, said his Iraq TV series, Over There, would address reality -- he called it "aggressively truthful" -- and not simply be a partisan stance on the war.
"Some of the soldiers are highly patriotic and very supportive of the war and others are more cynical, intellectual, and some are frankly just scared to death," he said. "I think it's an uncomfortable situation from my standpoint with everyone backed off into camps with their own media and their own news outlets.
"What drama and comedy are good at doing is revealing human truth, not political truth. And that ought to transcend partisan rhetoric."
As for Gelbart's suspicion that he might be making war propaganda, Landgraf offered an olive branch: "You ought to tell him to come develop here," he said.
Palpable love of country
Another FX series in development is a reality show called 30 Days, conceived by Morgan Spurlock, who directed Supersize Me, in which a real-life subject lives in the world of an unlikely opposite for an entire month.
Ben Silverman, the 34-year-old president of TV production company Reveille, which is making the program, said he had a pilot featuring "a guy from West Virginia living as an Arab guy in an Arab family as a Muslim for 30 days."
But Silverman said you can't lead a TV pitch to network bigs with hot-button issues; you had to lead with characters.
"You're constantly looking to get a conversation going," he said. "Taking real issues with a distinct point of view is a way to get a conversation going. The great NBC dramas of their day, in the '80s -- and it was considered a vapid time -- were St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues. They had real depth and topicality, but they were broad based. It can't be about issues; it has to be about characters with great points of view."
Silverman said he had once met with Lear to ask him how he managed to get his shows off the ground with network executives in the first place. He has since taken a page from Lear's playbook: All in the Family was an import of the BBC's Till Death Do Us Part; Silverman has translated the BBC's The Office for NBC, starring Steve Carrell as the boss.
But he couldn't see how programs with explicit issues could make it past the real boss: Jeff Zucker.
"I don't know how broadcast tackles it," he said. "I'm going to try and sell it. But it hardens you and it doesn't sell and then there's other stuff," like his latest creation for NBC, The $25 Million Dollar Hoax, hosted by Ed McMahon. They bought that.
Lear, meanwhile, has been traveling the country displaying the Declaration of Independence, part of a youth voting project, Declare Yourself.
"Listen, I've got 10-year-old twin daughters," he said, "and I said to my wife the other day, they will likely never know -- well, they won't, they won't know the country I was 10 years old in, when at my grandfather's knee we would stand on street corners and watch parades and I'd look up and see the tears running down his cheek as the flag went by and the martial music, and I would see parades all the time, five, seven times a year, down city streets, And you know, there was a palpable love of country.
"The way I've watched, as I've traveled the Declaration around the country, they come close to it after an hour and a half on the line and you can see and then they move off and write down what they are feeling. It isn't there every day like when I was a kid."
For a moment, Lear sounded equal parts Archie and Michael, a character in a lost TV show that will never air.
Joe Hagan writes for the New York Observer, where this article originally appeared.