It’s been a tough season for humor. In October, we were shocked that Matthew Perry had died at just 54. His Chandler Bing on Friends perfected the benign snarky retort (could I be any sadder? he might have said). Yesterday, we heard that Norman Lear had died at the ripe old age of 101. Any celebrity passing is sad but when we lose someone like a Robin Williams or a Matthew Perry or a Norman Lear, it has an extra punch because of the realization that the laughter that they brought us has fallen forever silent and, even though we never knew them or perhaps even met them, that loss feels personal.
Laughter is important because it just feels good to laugh. But the simple pleasure of laughter can lead one underestimate humor as a pleasant but not really all that important experience in the grand scheme of things. Norman Lear had a different idea. Humor could be a tool to spark discussion and change minds.
I was just a kid when All in The Family debuted, and I don’t remember much about seeing it for the first time except the impression that it didn’t look or sound like any other family comedy on TV. This family was loud, their language shocking and the lead character wasn’t somebody to root for. The humor didn’t shy from tough subjects drawn from social, racial and political issues. It sparked controversy about the war, civil rights, and bigotry. It wasn’t just entertainment, it felt like it was trying to accomplish something.
All those elements and the moral lessons it set out to teach could have been nothing but a half hour of boring and heavy-handed virtue signaling and shaming, except for one thing.
It was funny.
The characters were rich and brilliantly played by Carroll O’Connor as the bombastic bigot, Archie Bunker, playing off of the pitch-perfect ditzyness of Jean Stapleton as his sweet and long-suffering wife, Edith. Rob Reiner provided Archie’s perennial foil as strident self-righteous son-in-law, Mike Stivic and Sally Struthers as Archie and Edith’s stressed-out daughter who got caught in the constant battle between her daddy and his meathead son-in-law.
The success of All In the Family made Lear the most powerful force in TV in the 70s and soon, other shows and spinoffs filled up the pages of TV Guide (ask your parents what that was) including, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons and others and, in every case, they courted controversy without sacrificing funny. Humor is, in a lot of ways, a toy. It’s just fun to play with. But Lear knew that it’s also a tool to challenge power, to point out unfairness or absurdity or hypocrisy.
In all of his 101 years, Norman Lear may not have fixed any of the problems that he wrote his shows around, but whether one agreed with his point of view or not, he made people laugh as well as think. And that's proof that laughing matters.
Dave Caperton writes and speaks about how to use compassionate humor to connect, cope and create joyful moments that can positively impact work and life. To learn more about Dave's conference keynotes, coaching and training, call 740-JOYFUL-Y or visit davecaperton.com.