Norman Lear speaks from experience

by Tori Bilcik / Beacon Correspondent • December 4, 2014

After changing the face of television in the ’70s through iconic shows like All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Good Times, Norman Lear recently released his latest creative endeavor: his new memoir, Even This I Get to Experience.

Funded by scholarships, Lear entered Emerson in 1940, but dropped out after two years to join the Air Force during World War II. It was an easy decision, he said, because it was clear to him the U.S. was on the right side. Lear said he didn’t consider re-enrolling; by the time the war was over, he was married and soon to become a father.

He originally wanted to become a publicist, but learned about comedy while at Emerson by frequenting a renowned burlesque theater in the city. The sitcoms he later produced were notable for tackling themes like poverty, race, and abortion at a time when those topics were taboo on TV.

Lear spoke with the Beacon on the phone about his memoir, which was published in October and takes readers through his childhood during the Great Depression, his time at Emerson, his family, and the various career paths he has explored.


Berkeley Beacon: What do you hope to convey with the title of the book, which seems to have become a sort of tagline for you?

Norman Lear: I had hoped it would say everything about my attitude towards life. I tell the story in the book of how that title came about. It came about at a very rough time, when I was going through hell and couldn’t help thinking, “even this I get to experience.” That’s the way I reacted. And it was my son-in-law who called the next day and said, “We’ve got to bury you instead of cremating you, because one day I have to take your grandchildren—my children—to a stone that reads ‘even this I get to experience.’”


BB: During those rough times, what motivated you to stay so positive?

NL: Learning that that was the way I needed to be to get through the crap. I was dealt some difficult stuff, and I wasn’t going to get anywhere knuckling to it. I had to stand against it, reach past it to the better part.


BB: In your memoir, you describe yourself as having lived a "multitude of lives." You've been a writer, producer, activist, student, a member of the Air Force, a husband, father, and son, just to name a few. How did you manage to condense all of these lives into the contents of one book?

NL: I had many careers, but one life. So the book is covering that one life, and not completely because there are a lot of stories that I had to leave out.


BB: How did you decide what stories you would leave out?

NL: Well I had the help of a wonderful editor, Ann Godoff at Penguin. I didn’t agree with her all the time, and there are things in there that she would have seen cut. We went back and forth over a number of things, but she was an enormous help in making the book practical and sensible in terms of its length.


BB: Did you ever look at all the material you had and think there was too much for you to write about for you to ever finish the book?

NL: I was concerned about that, yes. But you know, growth never stops. I grew a great deal in the course of writing and matured into somebody who could see himself live without having to tell this story, or describe this incident, and leave enough out to make a sensible book and not feel it wasn’t complete.


BB: Since it took over 20 years to put together all of the stories you wanted to include in this book, how did your writing process evolve?

NL: I made notes and told myself I was going to write it. I did other things, focused on other things on the side. I made notes and I collected my files together and my correspondence, things that were written about me, appearances on talk shows, et cetera. Then I decided finally, about four and a half years ago, I would write. I sat down finally to write off of all this stuff that had been accumulated.


BB: What fueled your decision to come to Emerson?

NL: I won a scholarship to Emerson. I won the Hartford County prize in the first American Legion Oratorical Contest. It’s interesting that they called it in that year an oratorical contest—Emerson College was known as the Emerson College of Oratory, only some years before my freshman year there.


BB: Even though you didn’t study film or television here, did Emerson contribute to what later became your career?

NL: It was part of my instruction as to how to be a human being. I loved Emerson. I loved the feeling there, I loved the sophistication, I loved what I considered the liberal attitude, and specific teachers. [In the memoir] I talk about Gertrude Binley Kay, who was a director and a Boston Brahmin. She was glorious. And there was Dr. [S. Justus] McKinley, who taught speech. And it was small, there were maybe 200-and-something women, and seven or eight guys. That was nice too; we felt as though we were very special there.


BB: What experiences during your time at Emerson helped shape your career?

NL: There was, in what was called Scollay Square, a burlesque house called The Old Howard [Howard Athenaeum], which I went to. I rarely missed a weekend and learned so much from the comics and the strippers about what turned out to be my field, comedy. It wasn’t what I thought I wanted at the time. I had never thought about writing or producing comedy. I wanted to be a press agent, because I had one uncle who used to flick me a quarter. He was my role model; I wanted to be an uncle who could flick a quarter to a nephew.


BB: So it was just coincidental that you wound up at Emerson?

NL: I was a kid of the Depression, and my folks couldn’t really send me to college. It was a lovely accident of fate in the way my life was running for two reasons. First, I entered that contest, and I didn’t know the college, but they would pay [the winner’s] tuition. The second reason was that for the American Legion Oratorical Contest, everyone had the same subject, which was some aspect of the Constitution. The title of my speech was “The Constitution and Me,” and I was looking at it as a member of the Jewish faith—and a member of a minority—and wondering if those promises of the Declaration, the Bill of Rights, et cetera meant more to me as a member of a minority than they might to somebody who didn’t depend on it as much.


BB: What did you learn about yourself in writing this memoir?

NL: I learned about myself that I’ll never learn at all, because I learned things last week that I never knew. I think, as I say in the book, there’s the horizontal journey, in which we learn a lot about a lot of things. Then there’s the vertical journey into oneself, and that seems to never end. It’s interesting that we come at the very end to the biggest piece of learning at all—what will happen to us. Nobody has come back to tell us. There are a lot of answers that are a matter of faith. There is no answer as a matter of science, and maybe we get to know that, which makes for a very big and splendid surprise.