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