5 Times Norman Lear Made Us Righteously Squirm

‘I enjoy stirring feelings, even the negative feelings’
5 Times Norman Lear Made Us Righteously Squirm

Right from the jump, Norman Lear was determined to make America confront itself. The late television comedy pioneer, who passed away yesterday at the incredible age of 101, created a pilot for his breakthrough sitcom All in the Family full of provocative language and themes designed to make network censors pass out. As documented in Kliph Nesteroff’s Outrageous: A History of Showbiz and the Culture Wars, Lear "wanted the audience to hear all of Archie’s epithets, to see his sexual hang-ups, to meet the whole family.” He never shied away from causing discomfort, especially when he believed he had righteous reasons for doing so. “I enjoy stirring feelings,” he said, “even the negative feelings.” Here are five times Lear did just that in ways that have rarely been seen on television, before or since.

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‘All in the Family’: Edith’s Crisis of Faith

Fair to say that Beverly LaSalle was television’s first legit drag queen — we’re not counting Milton Berle getting cheap laughs in a dress. The character proved so popular that Beverly made repeat appearances. In her last, a group of gay-bashing thugs attacks Beverly, beating her to death. The senseless tragedy causes Edith to question her faith in God. Logo TV called it “a groundbreaking storyline for 1975” — and even today.

‘Maude’: Maude’s Dilemma

In an episode that my hometown CBS affiliate refused to run, Maude makes the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. The episode ran with a CBS disclaimer and continues to make waves, even in Lear’s own household. "I have a glorious daughter who disagrees with every bit of that (episode),” the producer revealed on the Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music and Laughter special. “This is a glorious young woman in thousands of ways, but she will disagree about that loud and clear." 

‘All in the Family’: Archie is Branded

“I have never been in a situation in my life, however tragic, where I didn’t see some comedy,” Lear says in the documentary Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You. That includes instances of anti-semitism he’d heard on the radio while growing up. The Jewish producer mined these memories for an episode where a Neo-Nazi group, mistaking the Bunkers for Jewish neighbors, paints a swastika on their front door. 

‘Good Times’: The Family Gun

Lear dealt with guns multiple times. George bought a gun for self-protection on The Jeffersons and his granddaughter Jessica nearly shoots herself with it. The plot is replicated on Good Times when James buys a handgun after the rate of violent crime skyrockets in the neighborhood. When Thelma gets mugged, James angrily goes to retrieve his gun only to discover it missing. When he hears about a 5-year-old in the projects who shot himself, he worries that his gun might be responsible.

‘All in the Family’: Edith’s 50th Birthday

Brutal. Lear spent more than a year researching the topic before writing a two-part episode where Edith Bunker, one of TV’s most beloved characters, is raped. The two episodes dealt not only with the brutal crime but its horrible aftermath as well. The New York police department, along with numerous rape crisis centers, used the episodes as an educational tool. “You could watch a hundred poshly produced Shakespeare plays on public TV and never feel as devastated as you do watching the assault on Edith Bunker,” wrote Washington Post critic Tom Shales, calling the episode “television at its very, very best.”

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