19:47
TED2016

Norman Lear: An entertainment icon on living a life of meaning

Filmed:

In the 1970s (and decades following), TV producer Norman Lear touched the lives of millions with culture-altering sitcoms like All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Good Times, pushing the boundaries of the era and giving a primetime voice to underrepresented Americans. In an intimate, smart conversation with Eric Hirshberg, he shares with humility and humor how his early relationship with "the foolishness of the human condition" shaped his life and creative vision.

- Producer, activist
Writer, producer and free-speech champion Norman Lear defined decades of US popular culture with his groundbreaking TV shows. Full bio

- CEO, Activision
Eric Hirshberg leads Activision, one of the world's largest interactive entertainment companies. Full bio

Eric Hirshberg: So I assume that Norman
doesn't need much of an introduction,
00:12
but TED's audience is global,
00:16
it's diverse,
00:18
so I've been tasked
with starting with his bio,
00:19
which could easily take up
the entire 18 minutes.
00:22
So instead we're going to do
93 years in 93 seconds or less.
00:24
(Laughter)
00:28
You were born in New Hampshire.
00:30
Norman Lear: New Haven, Connecticut.
00:31
EH: New Haven, Connecticut.
00:33
(Laughter)
00:34
NL: There goes seven more seconds.
00:37
EH: Nailed it.
00:39
(Laughter)
00:40
You were born in New Haven, Connecticut.
00:43
Your father was a con man --
I got that right.
00:44
He was taken away to prison
when you were nine years old.
00:47
You flew 52 missions
as a fighter pilot in World War II.
00:50
You came back to --
00:53
NL: Radio operator.
00:54
EH: You came to LA
to break into Hollywood,
00:56
first in publicity, then in TV.
00:59
You had no training as a writer, formally,
01:00
but you hustled your way in.
01:03
Your breakthrough, your debut,
01:04
was a little show
called "All in the Family."
01:06
You followed that up with a string of hits
01:08
that to this day is unmatched
in Hollywood:
01:10
"Sanford and Son," "Maude," "Good Times,"
01:12
"The Jeffersons," "One Day at a Time,"
01:14
"Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,"
01:16
to name literally a fraction of them.
01:17
Not only are they all commercially --
01:19
(Applause)
01:21
Not only are they all
commercially successful,
01:25
but many of them push our culture forward
01:28
by giving the underrepresented
members of society
01:30
their first prime-time voice.
01:32
You have seven shows
in the top 10 at one time.
01:35
At one point,
01:39
you aggregate an audience
of 120 million people per week
01:40
watching your content.
01:43
That's more than the audience
for Super Bowl 50,
01:44
which happens once a year.
01:47
NL: Holy shit.
01:48
(Laughter)
01:49
(Applause)
01:51
EH: And we're not even
to the holy shit part.
01:53
(Laughter)
01:56
You land yourself
on Richard Nixon's enemies list --
01:57
he had one.
01:59
That's an applause line, too.
02:01
(Applause)
02:03
You're inducted into the TV Hall of Fame
on the first day that it exists.
02:05
Then came the movies.
02:08
"Fried Green Tomatoes,"
02:10
"The Princess Bride," "Stand By Me,"
02:11
"This Is Spinal Tap."
02:14
(Applause)
02:15
Again, just to name a fraction.
02:16
(Applause)
02:17
Then you wipe the slate clean,
02:19
start a third act as a political activist
focusing on protecting the First Amendment
02:20
and the separation of church and state.
02:24
You start People For The American Way.
02:26
You buy the Declaration of Independence
02:28
and give it back to the people.
02:30
You stay active in both
entertainment and politics
02:31
until the ripe old of age of 93,
02:34
when you write a book
02:35
and make a documentary
about your life story.
02:37
And after all that,
02:39
they finally think
you're ready for a TED Talk.
02:40
(Laughter)
02:43
(Applause)
02:44
NL: I love being here.
02:49
And I love you for agreeing to do this.
02:51
EH: Thank you for asking. It's my honor.
02:53
So here's my first question.
02:56
Was your mother proud of you?
02:57
(Laughter)
02:59
NL: My mother ...
03:02
what a place to start.
03:03
Let me put it this way --
03:06
when I came back from the war,
03:09
she showed me the letters
that I had written her from overseas,
03:10
and they were absolute love letters.
03:16
(Laughter)
03:21
This really sums up my mother.
03:23
They were love letters,
03:25
as if I had written them to --
03:26
they were love letters.
03:29
A year later I asked my mother
if I could have them,
03:33
because I'd like to keep them
all the years of my life ...
03:37
She had thrown them away.
03:42
(Laughter)
03:43
That's my mother.
03:48
(Laughter)
03:50
The best way I can sum it up
in more recent times is --
03:52
this is also more recent times --
03:59
a number of years ago,
04:01
when they started the Hall of Fame
to which you referred.
04:02
It was a Sunday morning,
04:06
when I got a call from the fellow who ran
the TV Academy of Arts & Sciences.
04:08
He was calling me to tell me
they had met all day yesterday
04:13
and he was confidentially telling me
they were going to start a hall of fame
04:16
and these were the inductees.
04:21
I started to say "Richard Nixon,"
04:27
because Richard Nixon --
04:29
EH: I don't think he was on their list.
04:30
NL: William Paley, who started CBS,
04:32
David Sarnoff, who started NBC,
04:35
Edward R. Murrow,
04:38
the greatest of the foreign
correspondents,
04:40
Paddy Chayefsky --
04:43
I think the best writer
that ever came out of television --
04:45
Milton Berle, Lucille Ball
04:47
and me.
04:49
EH: Not bad.
04:51
NL: I call my mother
immediately in Hartford, Connecticut.
04:52
"Mom, this is what's happened,
04:55
they're starting a hall of fame."
04:56
I tell her the list of names and me,
04:58
and she says,
05:00
"Listen, if that's what they
want to do, who am I to say?"
05:01
(Laughter)
05:03
(Applause)
05:07
That's my Ma.
05:10
I think it earns that kind of a laugh
05:11
because everybody
has a piece of that mother.
05:13
(Laughter)
05:15
EH: And the sitcom Jewish mother
is born, right there.
05:17
So your father also played
a large role in your life,
05:20
mostly by his absence.
05:25
NL: Yeah.
05:26
EH: Tell us what happened
when you were nine years old.
05:28
NL: He was flying to Oklahoma
05:30
with three guys that my mother said,
05:35
"I don't want you to have
anything to do with them,
05:37
I don't trust those men."
05:40
That's when I heard,
05:42
maybe not for the first time,
05:43
"Stifle yourself, Jeanette, I'm going."
05:44
And he went.
05:48
It turns out he was picking up
some fake bonds,
05:50
which he was flying
across the country to sell.
05:55
But the fact that he was going
to Oklahoma in a plane,
05:59
and he was going to bring me
back a 10-gallon hat,
06:03
just like Ken Maynard,
my favorite cowboy wore.
06:07
You know, this was a few years
after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic.
06:14
I mean, it was exotic
that my father was going there.
06:19
But when he came back,
06:22
they arrested him as he got off the plane.
06:24
That night newspapers
were all over the house,
06:26
my father was with his hat
in front of his face,
06:30
manacled to a detective.
06:33
And my mother was selling the furniture,
because we were leaving --
06:35
she didn't want to stay
in that state of shame,
06:39
in Chelsea, Massachusetts.
06:43
And selling the furniture --
06:46
the house was loaded with people.
06:50
And in the middle of all of that,
06:52
some strange horse's ass
put his hand on my shoulder and said,
06:54
"Well, you're the man of the house now."
07:01
I'm crying, and this asshole says,
"You're the man of the house now."
07:04
And I think that was the moment
07:11
I began to understand the foolishness
of the human condition.
07:14
So ...
07:19
it took a lot of years to look back at it
and feel it was a benefit.
07:22
But --
07:28
EH: It's interesting
you call it a benefit.
07:29
NL: Benefit in that it gave
me that springboard.
07:31
I mean that I could think
07:34
how foolish it was to say
to this crying nine-year-old boy,
07:38
"You're the man of the house now."
07:41
And then I was crying, and then he said,
07:43
"And men of the house don't cry."
07:46
And I ...
07:49
(Laughter)
07:51
So ...
07:52
I look back, and I think
07:56
that's when I learned the foolishness
of the human condition,
07:57
and it's been that gift that I've used.
08:02
EH: So you have a father who's absent,
08:06
you have a mother for whom
apparently nothing is good enough.
08:08
Do you think that starting out as a kid
who maybe never felt heard
08:11
started you down a journey
08:17
that ended with you being an adult
08:18
with a weekly audience
of 120 million people?
08:20
NL: I love the way you put that question,
08:23
because I guess
I've spent my life wanting --
08:26
if anything, wanting to be heard.
08:30
I think --
08:36
It's a simple answer, yes,
08:40
that was what sparked --
08:42
well, there were other things, too.
08:45
When my father was away,
08:47
I was fooling with a crystal radio set
that we had made together,
08:50
and I caught a signal that turned out
to be Father Coughlin.
08:56
(Laughter)
09:01
Yeah, somebody laughed.
09:04
(Laughter)
09:06
But not funny,
09:07
this was a horse's --
09:09
another horse's ass --
09:10
who was very vocal
about hating the New Deal
09:12
and Roosevelt and Jews.
09:14
The first time I ran into an understanding
09:18
that there were people
in this world that hated me
09:21
because I was born to Jewish parents.
09:24
And that had an enormous
effect on my life.
09:27
EH: So you had a childhood
09:32
with little in the way
of strong male role models,
09:34
except for your grandfather.
09:37
Tell us about him.
09:39
NL: Oh, my grandfather.
09:41
Well here's the way I always
talked about that grandfather.
09:43
There were parades,
09:49
lots of parades when I was a kid.
09:50
There were parades on Veteran's Day --
09:52
there wasn't a President's Day.
09:54
There was Abraham Lincoln's birthday,
09:56
George Washington's birthday
09:58
and Flag Day ...
10:00
And lots of little parades.
10:03
My grandfather used to take me
10:05
and we'd stand on the street corner,
10:07
he'd hold my hand,
10:08
and I'd look up and I'd see a tear
running down his eye.
10:10
And he meant a great deal to me.
10:15
And he used to write presidents
of the United States.
10:18
Every letter started,
10:23
"My dearest, darling Mr. President,"
10:25
and he'd tell him something
wonderful about what he did.
10:28
But when he disagreed
with the President, he also wrote,
10:33
"My dearest, darling Mr. President,
10:36
Didn't I tell you last week ...?"
10:37
(Laughter)
10:39
And I would run down the stairs
every now and then
10:41
and pick up the mail.
10:46
We were three flights up,
10:48
74 York Street, New Haven, Connecticut.
10:49
And I'd pick up a little white envelope
reading, "Shya C. called at this address."
10:52
And that's the story I have told
about my grandfather --
11:02
EH: They wrote him back
on the envelopes --
11:07
NL: They wrote back.
11:09
But I have shown them myself,
11:12
going way back to Phil Donahue
and others before him,
11:17
literally dozens of interviews
in which I told that story.
11:22
This will be the second time I have said
the whole story was a lie.
11:28
The truth was my grandfather
took me to parades,
11:36
we had lots of those.
11:40
The truth is a tear came down his eye.
11:42
The truth is he would write
an occasional letter,
11:45
and I did pick up those little envelopes.
11:49
But "My dearest darling Mr. President,"
11:52
all the rest of it,
11:55
is a story I borrowed from a good friend
11:58
whose grandfather was that grandfather
who wrote those letters.
12:02
And, I mean, I stole
Arthur Marshall's grandfather
12:10
and made him my own.
12:16
Always.
12:20
When I started to write my memoir --
12:22
"Even this --"
12:24
How about that?
12:26
"Even This I Get to Experience."
12:27
When I started to write the memoir
12:30
and I started to think about it,
12:32
and then I --
12:34
I --
12:36
I did a reasonable amount of crying,
12:38
and I realized how much
I needed the father.
12:42
So much so that I appropriated
Arthur Marshall's grandfather.
12:47
So much so, the word "father" --
12:51
I have six kids by the way.
12:54
My favorite role in life.
12:57
It and husband to my wife Lyn.
13:01
But I stole the man's identity
because I needed the father.
13:07
Now I've gone through a whole lot of shit
13:13
and come out on the other side,
13:16
and I forgive my father --
13:18
the best thing I --
13:20
the worst thing I --
13:21
The word I'd like to use about him
and think about him is --
13:23
he was a rascal.
13:26
The fact that he lied
and stole and cheated
13:29
and went to prison ...
13:33
I submerge that in the word "rascal."
13:37
EH: Well there's a saying that amateurs
borrow and professionals steal.
13:41
NL: I'm a pro.
13:48
EH: You're a pro.
13:49
(Laughter)
13:50
And that quote is widely
attributed to John Lennon,
13:52
but it turns out
he stole it from T.S. Eliot.
13:55
So you're in good company.
13:57
(Laughter)
13:58
EH: I want to talk about your work.
14:02
Obviously the impact of your work
has been written about
14:04
and I'm sure you've heard
about it all your life:
14:07
what it meant to people,
14:10
what it meant to our culture,
14:11
you heard the applause when I just
named the names of the shows,
14:12
you raised half the people
in the room through your work.
14:15
But have there ever been any stories
about the impact of your work
14:19
that surprised you?
14:22
NL: Oh, god --
14:24
surprised me and delighted me
from head to toe.
14:26
There was "An Evening with Norman Lear"
within the last year
14:33
that a group of hip-hop impresarios,
14:38
performers and the Academy put together.
14:42
The subtext of "An Evening with ..."
14:47
was: What do a 92-year-old Jew --
14:49
then 92 --
14:53
and the world of hip-hop have in common?
14:55
Russell Simmons
was among seven on the stage.
14:57
And when he talked about the shows,
15:00
he wasn't talking about the Hollywood,
15:05
George Jefferson in "The Jeffersons,"
15:09
or the show that was a number five show.
15:13
He was talking about a simple
thing that made a big --
15:16
EH: Impact on him?
15:25
NL: An impact on him --
15:26
I was hesitating over the word, "change."
15:28
It's hard for me to imagine,
15:31
you know, changing somebody's life,
15:34
but that's the way he put it.
15:35
He saw George Jefferson
write a check on "The Jeffersons,"
15:37
and he never knew that a black man
could write a check.
15:43
And he says it just
impacted his life so --
15:48
it changed his life.
15:53
And when I hear things like that --
15:55
little things --
15:58
because I know that there isn't
anybody in this audience
16:00
that wasn't likely responsible today for
some little thing they did for somebody,
16:03
whether it's as little as a smile
or an unexpected "Hello,"
16:10
that's how little this thing was.
16:15
It could have been the dresser of the set
16:18
who put the checkbook on the thing,
16:23
and George had nothing to do
while he was speaking, so he wrote it,
16:24
I don't know.
16:28
But --
16:29
EH: So in addition to the long list
I shared in the beginning,
16:31
I should have also mentioned
that you invented hip-hop.
16:34
(Laughter)
16:37
NL: Well ...
16:38
EH: I want to talk about --
16:40
NL: Well, then do it.
16:42
(Laughter)
16:43
EH: You've lead a life of accomplishment,
16:49
but you've also built a life of meaning.
16:52
And all of us strive to do
both of those things --
16:54
not all of us manage to.
16:57
But even those of us who do manage
to accomplish both of those,
16:59
very rarely do we figure out
how to do them together.
17:03
You managed to push culture
forward through your art
17:06
while also achieving world-beating
commercial success.
17:11
How did you do both?
17:15
NL: Here's where my mind goes when I hear
that recitation of all I accomplished.
17:23
This planet is one of a billion,
17:31
they tell us,
17:35
in a universe
of which there are billions --
17:36
billions of universes,
17:42
billions of planets ...
17:44
which we're trying to save
17:47
and it requires saving.
17:49
But ...
17:53
anything I may have accomplished is --
17:55
my sister once asked me
what she does about something
17:59
that was going on
in Newington, Connecticut.
18:03
And I said, "Write your alderman
or your mayor or something."
18:06
She said, "Well I'm not
Norman Lear, I'm Claire Lear."
18:09
And that was the first time
I said what I'm saying,
18:13
I said, "Claire. With everything
you think about what I may have done
18:18
and everything you've done," --
18:22
she never left Newington --
18:24
"can you get your fingers close enough
18:26
when you consider the size
of the planet and so forth,
18:28
to measure anything I may have done
to anything you may have done?"
18:32
So ...
18:36
I am convinced we're all responsible
18:38
for doing as much
as I may have accomplished.
18:42
And I understand what you're saying --
18:47
EH: It's an articulate deflection --
18:49
NL: But you have to really buy into
the size and scope
18:50
of the creator's enterprise, here.
18:54
EH: But here on this planet
you have really mattered.
18:56
NL: I'm a son of a gun.
18:59
(Laughter)
19:00
EH: So I have one more question for you.
19:02
How old do you feel?
19:06
NL: I am the peer
of whoever I'm talking to.
19:09
EH: Well, I feel 93.
19:14
(Applause)
19:16
NL: We out of here?
19:22
EH: Well, I feel 93 years old,
19:24
but I hope to one day feel as young
as the person I'm sitting across from.
19:25
Ladies and gentlemen,
19:29
the incomparable Norman Lear.
19:30
(Applause)
19:32
NL: Thank you.
19:38
(Applause)
19:39

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About the Speakers:

Norman Lear - Producer, activist
Writer, producer and free-speech champion Norman Lear defined decades of US popular culture with his groundbreaking TV shows.

Why you should listen

With his blockbuster TV hit All in the Family, Norman Lear introduced new icons -- Archie and Edith Bunker -- while simultaneously redefining television and its role in America’s moral conscience. The series spawned hit spin-offs like The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time and Maude, making Lear a household name throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Lear’s free-speech activism dovetails with his entertainment career. In 1981, Lear founded People for the American Way in response to a wave of religious fundamentalism he viewed as a threat to the separation of church and state. In 2001, he purchased an early print of the Declaration of Independence, showing it throughout the US as part of the Declaration of Independence Road Trip.

Lear's memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, was released in 2014. The PBS documentary series American Masters will release Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You in theaters July 2016 and on PBS and Netflix Fall 2016.

More profile about the speaker
Norman Lear | Speaker | TED.com
Eric Hirshberg - CEO, Activision
Eric Hirshberg leads Activision, one of the world's largest interactive entertainment companies.

Why you should listen

Under Eric Hirshberg's leadership, Activision has delivered the largest entertainment launch in history three times with Call of Duty, the biggest new franchise launch in the industry's history with Destiny, and both the biggest kids' game and the biggest action figure line in the world with Skylanders. All of this has helped Activision Blizzard to be named as one of the 50 most innovative companies in the world by Fast Company and one of the 100 best places to work by Fortune.

Before his time at Activision, Hirshberg built the award winning advertising agency, Deutsch LA as its Co-CEO/Chief Creative Officer. Under Eric's leadership, DeutschLA was named Agency of the Year seven times. Hirshberg has been named one of the 10 most influential people in marketing by Advertising Age Magazine and one of the 50 most creative people in business by Creativity Magazine.

Hirshberg also sits on the boards of the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture and The X-Prize Foundation. In 2015, Hirshberg gave the commencement address for the School of the Arts and Architecture on June 13, 2015.

More profile about the speaker
Eric Hirshberg | Speaker | TED.com