Individual 2016

Individual Award: Norman Lear

Norman Lear changed the face of television—and the faces. He revolutionized and democratized a traditionally timid, overwhelmingly white-bread medium with a collection of recognizable, risible characters whose racial and gender diversity was as unprecedented as their biases and brash opinions. “King” Lear began his reign in 1971. He and his producing partner, Bud Yorkin, who had met when they both wrote for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ comedy-variety series in the early 1950s, stunned and delighted America with All in the Family, a comedy about a blustery, blue-collar bigot, Archie Bunker, his kindly, “dingbat” wife, Edith, their daughter and her long-haired liberal husband. Arguments laced with ethnic epithets never before heard on TV—hebe, polack, spade, honky—lit up the airwaves. The following year brought Sanford and Son, a comedy about an irascible junk dealer that made a superstar of veteran African-American comedian Redd Foxx, and Maude, an All in the Family spinoff about Edith Bunker’s cousin, a feminist in the Bella Abzug mold with a withering and acerbic wit. Good Times focused on a blue-collar black family living in a Chicago housing project, while The Jeffersons revolved around a feisty African-American entrepreneur who had moved up the socio-economic ladder. One Day at a Time featured a single woman raising two daughters. All’s Fair envisioned the fireworks of a romance between outspoken political opposites. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman captivated America with its deadpan, dishpan parody of soap operas and gave birth to Fernwood Tonight, a wicked spoof of late-night talk shows that presaged David Letterman’s post-modern deconstruction of the genre. All the Lear hits shared, to one degree or another, a grounding in the real, polarized America we all knew, not some fantasy nation crawling with dreamy genies, twitchy witches and friendly Martians. In Lear’s watershed shows of the ‘70s, no topic was too touchy to tackle—not racial discrimination, not sexism, not homosexuality, not abortion, not even rape. When Edith Bunker was sexually assaulted, it was as if the crime had been perpetrated against one of our own family. For creating an influential body of work that politicized the personal, personalized the political and showed us ourselves in all our ridiculousness and nobility, Norman Lear receives an Individual Peabody Award.