Friday, July 27, 2012

Real TV history: Norman Lear’s 90 and one of his actors, Sherman Hemsley, has died
Hemsley seemed like a nice fellow, a humble Philadelphian success story (from handling mail at 30th Street to Broadway star to TV star; he paid his dues). RIP. My guess about Lear’s success is it wasn’t thanks to the market but a change in TV companies’ attitude, particularly where he started, CBS. First some history. Most people in the ’60s were nothing to do with the Sixties, even at the end of the decade. It was more a continuation of the ’50s. The only time most people saw a hippie was when watching the news or looking at a magazine. Towards the end of the decade, hippieness was an affectation of relatively rich kids; it didn’t become mainstream until 1973 or so (compare yearbook pictures then to ’68, as a Takimag commenter wrote). Anyway, around ’70 and ’71 most Americans still watched the happy, silly shows of the earlier era: ‘Green Acres’, ‘Petticoat Junction’*, ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ (I wonder if Al Capp sued). Lawrence Welk pulled a lot of viewers on ABC too.

Making fun of hippies in ’69. God love him.

The now-dying Andy Williams tried to go hip and it killed his show.

Then the networks actually forgot about ratings and profits, about giving the customers what they want, and decided (I don’t know why) to preach: to indoctrinate Middle America with all the rubbish from the then-New Left. So in the summer of ’71 ABC fired Welk with a phone call and CBS yanked all of its down-on-the-farm sitcoms; enter Lear.

In Lear’s first show, which made his name, the most watchable of the bunch, he obviously meant Archie Bunker to be a buffoon, a punching bag, but he and Carroll O’Connor were smart enough not to take that too far and even threw in a few digs at their own side, to pretend to be fair, so in the end they were patronizing to Archie and he endeared himself to millions.

Rob Reiner, born into showbiz, made the very funny Spinal Tap but has said he knows his obit will say ‘Meathead’. Fame most actors dream of.

But I wonder. Like I suspect Maurice Sendak’s books appealed more to hip parents and critics than to kids (sort of like those abstract fake folk-art wooden toys people who don’t have children give kids), if you can filter out the lefty critics and showbiz praise, how many actually liked Lear’s stuff then or like it now?

*There are critics who write that Paul Henning’s shows were smarter, snarkier and more surreal, than many realize.

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