Norman Lear told me, ‘I hate the word satire’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – American TV producer Norman Lear was heralded as a leading light in political satire but he did not believe it. ‘I hate the word satire,’ he told me, ‘because I don’t know that the level of our work on television is true satire.’

I spoke to Lear, who died on Dec. 5 aged 101, in 1992 when he was executive producer of a series called ‘The Powers That Be’ about a hapless U.S. senator played by John  Forsythe (pictured). It lasted for twenty-one episodes unlike his previous hits such as ‘All in the Family’, ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘Maude’.

For a story in the Los Angeles Times, I asked Lear where political humour stood in comparison to times gone by. ‘I don’t see any except for Gary Trudeau,’ he said. ‘I don’t know that any of us on television are doing any really forceful political humour. I think you guys who talk to us about this are indulging us; helping us feel we are doing som really crusading political humour. I haven’t seen any evidence of it, certainly not in my work. I hope to get there but I cannot honestly say that we’ve done anything with a cutting edge like what I hear about the British series “Yes, Minister”.’ 

With Bill Clinton then about to enter the White House, I asked hin if it was easier to lampoon Republicans than Democrats. ‘The senator we’ve conceived is not a Republican, he’s a Democrat,’ he said. ‘He was conceived at the time of the Clarence Thomas hearings where we saw an array of empty suits, Democrats and Republicans; men who were totally befuddled; totally out of the mainstream; having no connection with the culture let alone with women. He is any one of those guys in suits that we watched mishandling Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.’

He had found as much fault with his own party as with Republicans, he said, amd the challenge in terms of comedy was the same. ‘It isn’t just the administration of the presidency, it’s the entire culture,’ he said. ‘We are a culture obsessed with short-term thinking. I don’t see anything happening that’s going to stop that. We have a press that’s enslaved to the quarterly profit statement and corporations totally captivated by short-term thinking. I don’t know that I have given vent to the anger I feel about these things. The truth is that I haven’t and I don’t know what would happen if I did. It’s worth thinking about. I am going to try.’ 

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