Norman Lear’s TV Shows Inspired the Hip-Hop Generation, But It Wasn’t Always “Good Times” (Audio)

As television royalty goes, there are few whose pedigrees compare to that of Norman Lear. Quite literally a living piece of Americana, Lear is the 93-year-old creative zeitgeist whom we have to thank for All in the Family, Diff’rent Strokes, Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Sanford & Son. But that’s not all. He is also an outspoken activist, political advocate, Academy Award winner, acclaimed journalist, and much more to millions of people around the world. And now he can add guest of “The Combat Jack Show” to his ever-growing list of accomplishments, and while perhaps not the most obvious guest of the Hip-Hop-centric program, his contributions to American popular culture as well as his life experiences make him one of the most important personalities to have been interviewed by Combat Jack. One would be very hard-pressed to find an MC, DJ, Hip-Hop Head, B-Boy, B-Girl, Graff artist, or even an American whose own life or the lives of their parents weren’t somehow affected by the revolutionary concepts that aired on the shows Lear produced.


good times

The episode begins with Jack sharing the details of how he and Lear first crossed professional paths, which involved Lear’s being an honorary guest of New York University, who asked Jack to interview him on behalf of the school, and thus the episode was born (also involved in the interview is Dan Charnas, author of The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop). Jack goes on to set the tone for much of the episode, an examination of Lear’s bold and unprecedented documentation of race relations in America for a mainstream audience through his television shows. For current audiences, or those too young to have lived through the Civil Rights Era and the decade immediately following, the characters and plot lines of Lear’s shows may not seem controversial, but as Jack explains, during his time, Lear was a trailblazer. During the hey day of his television career, Lear was one of the few with the audacity to touch on things like interracial relationships, African-American family life, Black affluence, racism, and sex. And, as the two begin to unpack, much of the social and political turmoil at the time of Lear’s dominance in the ’70s and ’80s have not changed all that much in 2015. Also covered at long length are the commonalities between the work Lear was doing in the ’70s and ’80s and the work Hip-Hop was doing at the same time – elevating the issues of Black and Brown men, women, and children into mainstream consciousness at a clip that took the world by storm.


the kiss

“[Lear] has had a tremendous effect on Hip-Hop culture,” Jack says. “Norman revolutionized the medium of television because he forced Hollywood and American audiences to deal with real issues such as racism, poverty, child abuse…so many issues television had never really dealt with before.” In many ways, Charnas and Jack argue, Hip-Hop is much the same, and the trajectories of Lear’s career and the growth of the music overlap. As Charnas points out, A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” is a direct reference to Fred Sanford, one of the title characters in “Sanford & Son,” which is only one example of Lear’s work influencing the minds of the youths who would go on to forge Hip-Hop’s earliest paths. Around the 8:15 mark, Charnas goes on to say “it goes beyond the lyrical references. For me, the kinds of frank and sometimes humorously frank conversations we have about race and class and ethnicity in Hip-Hop were not really present in American culture…in any other place except Norman Lear productions.” Further along in the interview, the topic of Hip-Hop returns as the focal point, by way of George Jefferson. At 42:43, Jack says “when you look at Hip-Hop, we have the do it yourself, self-made millionaire who is not afraid to slam the doors in the face of the White man…we had never seen a character like that on television before.” Also referenced (at the 52:41 mark) is the shared characteristic of being anti-censorship, and that both Hip-Hop and Lear’s shows have championed the airing of messages that often go unheard.



The first question formally posed to Lear (around the 12:00 mark) references his childhood and that, as a White man, he didn’t experience the kinds of racially tinged obstacles Black Americans did. “What was it about Black people that inspired your work?,” Jack asks. “My father was sent to prison when I was 9 years old,” Lear begins. “We had made a little…radio set together…and I picked up a signal one day while he was away…I heard a voice once…a vicious anti-Semitic, anti-Negro (that was the word at the time) bad guy. It scared the hell out of me…I learned there were people who disliked me because I was born to Jewish parents. I think that gave me a sensitivity.” Nearly 20 minutes later, at the 34:20 mark, the conversation turns to Good Times, which Charnas says was one of Black America’s first examples of TV made for them. Charnas asks Lear “what was it about Good Times that made you feel qualified to write about Black people?” Lear mentions that his Whiteness came into play during the production of the show’s writing, which was exacerbated by the fact that the two lead actors – John Amos and Esther Rolle – were “pains in the ass.” Lear says “I began to realize a few shows in that these were the first Black parents, Black citizens, Black family leaders on television. By the way, we had 40 million people watching the show. So, the responsibility on Esther Rolle and John Amos to represent the Black Family in America for the very first time…had to be enormous. I had some sense of that.” He continues with some very personal reflection, stating that he was well aware that he wasn’t born into a Black family and that he ceded the handling of certain issues to the cast, who made the show “authentically them.” “But though I am a White dude,” Lear told them, “I’m a husband, a father, I was a boy, I was a son, I was a nephew…I played the roles we all play.”

Listen to the entire conversation – which is more than 60 minutes of heartfelt appreciation, personal reflection, cross-generational admiration (Lear calls Empire a “wonderful” show), touching anecdotes (the Black Panthers visited Lear), and laughs – to hear a true American hero share the wisdom and perspective that only he can give. Salute to Norman Lear!


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