“I’ve never heard that anybody conducted his or her life differently after seeing an episode of ‘All in the Family,’” Norman Lear wrote in his 2014 memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience.”
But Lear also wrote, “People still say to me, ‘We watched Archie as a family, and I’ll never forget the discussions we had after the show.’ And so that was the ripple of ‘All in the Family.’ Families talked.”
They’re not talking any longer. Or, at least, they’re not enjoying it.
According to a poll released last summer by the Pew Research Center, people in both parties find conversations with people who have different political views to be “stressful and frustrating,” and a majority of respondents said that talking to people with whom they disagree about politics leads them to think they have less in common.
Americans need to learn to talk — and to fight — about politics again. Fortunately, a new generation of Lear-inspired sitcoms — ABC’s single-camera family comedies “black-ish” and “Fresh Off the Boat,” and the multi-camera shows “The Carmichael Show” and Netflix’s reboot of Lear’s “One Day at a Time” — shows us how to do it.
“Despite all the arguing we do, I suspect that we don’t believe a lot of things because of arguments,” Maclean’s critic Jaime Weinman wrote in an email. “We take positions based on what we want, or what our loved ones want. The success of an issue-oriented sitcom is in getting us to see fictional people as our loved ones, which enables us to think a bit about ideas and perspectives we might not encounter very often in real life.”
Lear recalled an episode of “All in the Family” in his memoir.
“Empathy, like silence, is another sound that can’t be measured in decibels,” he wrote. “Nothing caused our live audiences to ‘shout’ their empathy more loudly than Edith’s reaction to the news that a transvestite who’d become her friend was murdered by a street gang simply for being a man in women’s clothes.”
That episode aired in 1977. America was in a dramatically different place on issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. But Lear’s audience could embrace the slain character because Edith did.
Weinman suggested that part of what makes multi-camera sitcoms with live studio audiences particularly effective at staging political argument is the very thing that has gotten them tarred as square and retrograde.
“Though sitcoms are usually written by liberals, the multi-camera sitcom format is in some ways inherently conservative: It has to stick to things that a randomly selected audience of strangers will find funny, which means it can’t go too far beyond the stereotypes and assumptions that we carry around with us,” he wrote. “‘Will & Grace’ affirms a lot of stereotypes, and the premise even allows viewers to wish Will wasn’t gay, because then he and Grace would be perfect for each other. But having flattered those preconceived notions, it was then able to move us gently in a slightly progressive direction.”
Relying on sitcoms, or any other element of pop culture, to deliver partisan electoral results is a mistake. But artists who want to create the cultural conditions in which political change is possible would do well to learn from Lear and the sitcoms that are inspired by him.
“Comedy with something serious on its mind works as a kind of intravenous to the mind and spirit,” Lear wrote.