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Norman Lear on Another Period of ‘Joyful Stress,’ Working Through the Pandemic

Michael Schneider
·7-min read

In his 2014 memoir “Even This I Get to Experience,” TV legend Norman Lear writes about the busiest period of his life as a time of “joyful stress.”

The 1970s were the pinnacle of Lear’s success as an uber producer, and at one point he simultaneously had eight shows on the air — including such landmark sitcoms as “All in the Family,” “One Day at a Time,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “Maude,” “The Jeffersons” and “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

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“Even doing your best work and enjoying the results of that, there is a reasonable amount to a great amount of stress,” Lear tells Variety. “And if one can learn to accept that joyfully, one can be stressed and understand that he or she is having a good time also. And so, I’ve enjoyed an awful lot of that through my career.”

Out of that “joyful stress” came Lear’s stature as one of the most celebrated TV producers of all time. The latest major accolade will be presented to him Feb. 28 during the 78th annual Golden Globes, when he receives the Carol Burnett Award for his impact in television, philanthropy and the culture overall, only the third time it’s been given.

The kudos continue to roll in, even as Lear — who turns 99 this year — remains active in the entertainment business. He continues to operate Act III Prods. with business partner Brent Miller, and together the two just announced a reboot of “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” from “Schitt’s Creek” star Emily Hampshire and “Letterkenny” executive producer Jacob Tierney. The project is through Act III’s first-look overall deal with Sony Pictures TV, where the pair are also producing an animated take on “Good Times,” along with Steph Curry’s production company and Seth MacFarlane, for Netflix — which gave the show a 10-episode order.

Lear and Miller won two Primetime Emmys in 2019 and 2020 for executive producing, with Jimmy Kimmel, the wildly successful “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” events, which re-created episodes of “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.” Their new take on “One Day at a Time,” from Gloria Calderón Kellett and Mike Royce, wrapped after a critically acclaimed four-season run last year that was unfortunately cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic (forcing it to end with an animated special).

On the film side, Lear is behind the feature documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It,” which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. And he produced Heidi Ewing’s “I Carry You With Me,” which opens May 21 in theaters through Sony Pictures Classics.And that’s not all. “We have many more that we’ve yet to discuss that are all in our everyday orbit so I am taking it literally one day at a time,” Miller says. “In fact, I just called Norman last Friday, telling him how much I’m learning and also at the same time how much I’m enjoying that ‘joyful stress,’ the stress that he had when he had so many shows at the same time on the air. And I feel like we’re approaching that again.”

Lear is relishing this latest chapter of his career, which was jumpstarted by that “One Day at a Time” reboot and has been going strong ever since. He’s reminded of how he approached having so much on his plate back in the 1970s: You just find a way.

“I haven’t been reminded of this for the longest time,” he says, “but I always used to say, look, I was planted in the terrain. And the terrain required me to have another leg, so I grew another leg. It required me to have another spine, so I grew another spine. I had two shows on the air, a third show required me to be in a few places several times a week that I hadn’t been in before. Somehow, I grew what I needed to grow to pay more attention, add more relationships. Use myself more.”

This year marks the landmark 50th anniversary of the premiere of “All in the Family,” which Lear and Bud Yorkin developed based on the British sitcom “Till Death Do Us Part.” It was a show that changed the face of the TV sitcom by tackling subjects including politics, religion and race, and became the template for more series that were both spun off from “All in the Family” or also produced by Lear. Even today, modern hitmakers such as Chuck Lorre like to point out that they’re paying homage to the work of Lear when they weave hot-button topics into their own shows.

But having laid it all out in his book, Lear these days isn’t interested in dwell-ing too much in the past. He doesn’t watch his old shows, he says, “because I’m doing new shows.” And when asked how he approaches this current professional frenzy, Lear likes to share his marvel at the simple wonder of waking up each morning to another day.

“I woke up yet again, thank God,” he says. “And I love waking up to a fresh day, to be a bit productive.”

Known for his activism and work for the social good (including his People for the American Way organization), Lear remains politically involved, and has more than a few thoughts about the end of the Trump presidency and the assault on democracy that took place with the attempted coup on Jan. 6.

“As somebody who participated in and remembers exceedingly well World War II, and that time in America, there was a love for, affection for, admiration of our country that I think has dissipated quite a lot,” he says. “We were very aware of what a special place this was. And in which ways it was so special. And, either it went to our head, or it’s another time. This is where we’re at. We’re wrestling in another culture now.”

Meanwhile, like most of us in this pandemic age, Lear is bristling with the limitations of having to spend most of the past year stuck at home. “I fucking hate it, that’s the way I’m handling it,” quips Lear, who confirms he has received his first vaccine shot. “I’m so sick and tired of waking up with the certainty that I’ll be sitting right where I’m sitting now for as much of the day as I can afford to spend in the one chair! I’ve got a lovely patio out here, I’ve got a little table out here. So, that’s the extent to which I get outside. I don’t go anywhere. Nobody wishes me to go anywhere.”

Lear says he’s still meeting up with old friends via Zoom, where he continues to join in a monthly cigar night with buddies. For the Globes, he’ll accept the Carol Burnett Award from his home, and he’s still deciding whether to go live or pre-tape his speech. When he does reflect on his career, Lear says his best advice has been to stick with your passion, even in the face of naysayers.

“If you love it, you feel like they’ll love it, an audience will love it, so go with your conviction,” he says. “Don’t let anybody talk you out of it. But listen, make sure you listen. Because you may find a way to make what you think is wonderful even better, or something more important to you will occur. Go with your conviction — but listen.”

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