Even This I Get to Experience

by Norman Lear

(Penguin, $32.95, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

In 1999, when President Clinton honored Norman Lear with a  National Medal of Arts, saying he  has held up a mirror to American society and changed the way we look at it.” That’s no exaggeration. The comedy genius behind “All In the Family, “Maude, “The Jeffersons,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times,” “One Day at a Time” and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”  gave us plenty of laughs but also made us more aware of our attitudes about race and women’s rights and income disparity and a whole lot more. Lear was one of the first seven television pioneers inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1984 and has won many other arts and  humanitarian honors. He also founded the progressive organization, People For the American Way, which supports Bill of Rights guarantees and calls attention to violations of constitutional freedoms. He also founded other non-profits, such as the Business Enterprise Trust and the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and co-founded the Environmental Media Association.

What is this book about?

Lear, now 92, looks back on his long and storied career, with its many ups and considerable downs, and in relaying his own personal history also gives us a history of entertainment and comedy in America, plus political history as well. All of them are entwined in this man’s career. Lear was born in New Haven to parents who were, to put it mildly, difficult people. He was there as TV became a major shaper of the American conscience and consciousness, was involved in the creation of more than 100 TV shows, and ever the proud liberal thinker.  Lear boasts about being described by evangelical TV  preacher Jerry Falwell as the “No. 1 enemy of the American family” and being on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Those who might question his politics should remember that he dropped out of college in 1942 to join the U.S. Army Air Forces as a radio operator and gunner during World War II. He flew 52 combat missions in the Mediterranean Theater and earned an Air Medal with four oak leaf clusters. He also purchased one of the original copies of the Declaration of Independence, which he took on tour to every state. In this book, Lear tells his fascinating life story with frankness and a sense of fun befitting one of the best comedy minds of our generation.

Why you’ll like it:

It’s always a kick to go behind the scenes, and that kind of pleasure is intensely magnified here because the guide is one of the seminal figures in American entertainment. Lear may be in his 90s, but he is still a vigorous commentator and master storyteller. You will learn what it was like to break taboos in what could be shown or discussed on the air in the ‘60s and ‘70s, including profanity, racial slurs, and toilet humor. Of course, what seemed shocking or groundbreaking then is considered pretty mild today. Booklist says of Lear’s reminiscences: “This is, flat out, one of the best Hollywood memoirs ever written. An absolute treasure.” Read it and see for yourself.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “The television producer whose controversial sit-com hits—All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, One Day at a Time—virtually defined the culture of the 1970s looks back on his triumphs and vexations in this feisty, thoughtful autobiography. Lear vents sharply conflicted feelings about nearly everyone and everything: his father, a charismatic con-man; his mother, a sour woman who constantly disparaged him (when he made Forbes 400 Wealthiest Americans she noted he was near the bottom of the list); Carroll O’Connor, a sublime Archie Bunker but also a megalomaniac forever threatening to shut down the show over script complaints; the United States, which, as founder of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, Lear celebrated in patriotic extravaganzas while deploring patriotic excesses. Lear pens sharply observed studies of the creative process on his many iconic productions and bares plenty of raucous, sometimes bawdy anecdotes—readers get to experience a nude and lewd Jerry Lewis—before the narrative peters out in a third-act haze of nostalgic testimonial and light spiritual rumination. Still, in keeping with the bigoted, mouthy, complex and loveable characters he created, Lear’s knack for sizing up a flawed humanity makes for an absorbing read.”

Library Journal points out: “Creator of some of the most significant series in television history and a dedicated political activist, Lear presents an amazing life story, from flying 50 bombing missions over Germany during World War II to buying an original copy of the Declaration of Independence, which he shares regularly at schools, libraries, and public institutions nationwide.”

Kirkus Reviews says in a starred review: “A TV titan on his memorable life and storied career. Lear, best known as the creative mind behind such classic comedies as All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times, recounts his extraordinarily eventful life with his signature wit and irreverence. The result is not just a vividly observed and evocative portrait of a long life, but also a fascinating backstage look at the evolution of the American entertainment industry. Born to a charismatic and wildly unreliable con man—Lear’s father would miss a chunk of his son’s childhood serving a jail term for fraud—and an unaffectionate, self-obsessed mother, Lear flailed about in various unsuccessful ventures before teaming with friend Ed Simmons to write comedy, eventually penning sketches for the likes of Jack Haley, Martha Raye, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in the early heyday of television. After a stint as a film director and producer, Lear returned to TV to create the epochal series All in the Family, which famously brought sensitive political and social issues to the family hour. Lear’s other shows struck a similarly confrontational chord, explicitly discussing race, class, abortion and a host of other controversial topics. Lear’s analysis of network politics is astute and amusingly cynical, and his sketches of such legendary figures as Milton Berle are unsparing in their honesty. It’s not all showbiz; Lear writes movingly of his service in World War II, his difficult upbringing and subsequent troubled marriages, and his commitment to liberal causes, evidenced by his founding of the advocacy organization People for the American Way and his purchase of an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. That he makes these subjects as engrossing and entertaining as his Hollywood reminiscences speaks to Lear’s mastery of storytelling and humor. A big-hearted, richly detailed chronicle of comedy, commitment and a long life lived fully.”

When is it available?

You can get to experience this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain branch.

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