We gave it a B-
As a kid, Norman Lear, the celebrated television producer who helped nurture the new medium in the ’50s and expand its potential in the ’70s with a string of bold blockbuster sitcoms (All in the Family, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons, to name a few), dreamed of breaking into showbiz as a publicist. After a childhood spent chasing the affection of narcissistic parents and a stint in the Army Air Forces shooting Nazis out of the sky, Lear scored a job as a ”pressman” by circulating a cheeky press release full of hype about himself. Now 92, he has done something similar, but much longer: His sharply written, always entertaining, yet surprisingly shallow autobiography is a glowing survey of his important work as an entertainer, liberal activist, and American citizen.
Lear introduces himself by excavating the childhood hurt that would define his life and inform such characters as Archie Bunker and Maude: his fraught relationship with his father, H.K., charismatic yet callous, a shifty salesman whose dubious schemes and reckless drive to provide yielded chaos for the family and landed him in jail. Lear excels at profiling those who shaped him, from his extended family to his Army buddies to Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin (he made his name in Hollywood writing for them on The Colgate Comedy Hour), and he has a way with choice, juicy anecdotes. The story about Jerry Lewis’ penis and a birthday candle is an all-timer. But he doesn’t flatter himself with bitter remembrances of his first two marriages. Both were difficult, loveless relationships that left lasting bruises, but his harshness toward his bipolar, suicidal second wife of 30 years, Frances — mocking her clumsy feminist awakening, resenting her wet-blanket antics during Vegas getaways — rings graceless.
You keep waiting for Lear to turn his critical eye inward, particularly as his portrait of an ambitious, pill-popping workaholic takes shape. It never really happens. His lack of humility hurts the section of the book that should be the best, his chronicle of his seminal ’70s work. The memoir proceeds from the assumption that All in the Family et al. are certifiable Classics That Changed Television — and they are — but there is no attempt to assess their relevance today. We get story after heroic story of Lear doing no wrong as TV auteur and provocateur, challenging America to confront social realities, battling network execs who would censor him, humbling difficult stars who would undermine his great work. He responds more defensively than thoughtfully to the lingering criticism that Archie Bunker, lovable bigot, represented a soft, problematic response to prejudice. And he comes off as insensitive if not condescending scolding Esther Rolle and John Amos — the leads on Good Times, one of the first sitcoms to center on an African-American family — for stifling the creativity of his mostly white writing staff by constantly worrying about the show’s stereotypes, morality, and worldview. This from a man who is now so proud of USC’s Norman Lear Center, devoted to studying media influence. Lear — a generous soul, to be sure, with an inspiring passion for his country (the last 100 pages detail his political activism, including launching People for the American Way) — has produced a wealth of pop culture worth bragging about. His memoir? Not quite one of them. B-