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Watch This: ‘Norman Lear – Just Another Version of You’

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Welcome to the second-ever Watch This, a series in which I, a self-proclaimed film dummy who wants to go from cine-denial to cinephile, talk about the movies I’m watching.

If you missed the first Watch This, you should know that I have a very short attention span – one more suited for TV shows, Vines, and yes, I’ll admit it, TikToks.

But I’m having some serious FOMO when it comes to movies. I know there are so many incredible films out there, so I’ve decided to start watching more of them, slowly but surely.

These recommendations are mainly geared toward anybody with an attention span like mine. If that’s you, I think you might also enjoy these movies that I found interesting enough to keep watching for 2+ hours.

And if you’re a film junkie, I recommend this for you, as well – if you haven’t watched it yet, that is!

The second film up for discussion is this gem from 2016 that I watched for the first time the other night:

“Norman Lear – Just Another Version of You”

Directors: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Original release: 2016

Run time: 91 minutes

Disclaimer: I feel like I’m cheating a little bit, because my aversion to films is most often toward works of fiction. But in Watch This, documentaries will be allowed because they too are cinematic art.

Spoiler alerts ahead!

Don’t sleep on Norman Lear (I did, and I regret it)

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I love all things comedy and all things television. That is why I’m so ashamed to say that until I saw this film, I didn’t know a single thing about the force of nature that is Norman Lear.

Anyone who already knows what a genius television producer this guy is can skip ahead, but this documentary opened my eyes to decades of comedy and television history that I had completely ignored.

At 98 years old, Norman Lear is still working in the industry. He has also produced some of the most iconic and critically acclaimed TV shows and films of all time, including:

All in the Family’ (1971-1979)

Starring:

  • Carroll O’Connor
  • Jean Stapleton
  • Sally Struthers
  • Rob Reiner
  • Danielle Brisebois

“Loveable bigot” Archie Bunker (O’Connor) and his son-in-law (Reiner) squabble over the important issues of the day.

This show was groundbreaking in its thoughtful and humorous portrayal of topics that weren’t a large part of comedy television before, including racism, antisemitism, infidelity, homosexuality, women’s rights, rape, religion, miscarriages, abortion, breast cancer, the Vietnam War, menopause, and impotence.

Sanford and Son

Starring:

  • Redd Foxx
  • Demond Wilson
  • LaWanda Page

This show follows a widower and junk dealer living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, and the misadventures he gets into with his frustrated son.

Like “All in the Family,” this show was also known for its edgy humor.

Maude (1972-1978)

Starring:

  • Beatrice Arthur
  • Bill Macy
  • Adrienne Barbeau
  • Conrad Bain
  • Rue McClanahan
  • Esther Rolle
  • Hermione Baddeley
  • J.Pat O’Malley
  • Marlene Warfield

Maude Findlay is an outspoken middle-aged woman who is married to her fourth husband and is adamant about expressing her liberal views. Her “domineering” personality gets her into trouble, however.

See the pattern with Norman Lear’s shows? They were progressive and groundbreaking in the television world, addressing issues and tackling topics that had never graced the screen before. And they were so wildly popular, millions of viewers across the country were laughing at subjects that used to be taboo and uncomfortable.

And Norman didn’t stop there.

Good Times (1974-1979)

Starring:

  • Esther Rolle
  • John Amos
  • Ja’net Dubois
  • Ralph Carter
  • Jimmie Walker
  • Bern Nadette Stanis
  • Johnny Brown
  • Janet Jackson
  • Ben Powers

A poor family makes the most of their lives in the Chicago housing projects.

This show was television’s first-ever African American two-parent family sitcom. Netflix greenlit an animated revival of the series in September.

The Jeffersons (1975-1985)

Starring:

  • Isabel Sanford
  • Sherman Hemsley
  • Marla Gibbs
  • Roxie Roker
  • Franklin Cover
  • Paul Benedict
  • Mike Evans
  • Berlinda Tolbert
  • Zara Cully
  • Damon Evans
  • Ned Wertimer
  • Jay Hammer
  • Danny Wells

A wealthy African-American family moves into a high-rise Manhattan apartment complex and builds close relationships with other tenants.

This show received 14 Emmy Award nominations during its run. Just as impressive is the fact that Isabel Sanford was nominated for Best Actress seven years in a row, from 1979 to 1985.

One Day at a Time (1975-1984)

Starring:

  • Bonnie Franklin
  • Mackenzie Phillips
  • Richard Masur
  • Valerie Bertinelli
  • Pat Harrington
  • Mary Louise Wilson
  • Michael Lembeck
  • Ron Rifkin
  • Glenn Scarpelli
  • Boyd Gaines
  • Shelley Fabares
  • Nanette Fabray
  • Howard Hesseman

Divorced mother Ann Romano and her two teen daughters move from Logansport, Indiana, to Indianapolis. Dwayne Schneider, their building’s superintendent, often offers unsolicited advice to Ann, but over time becomes part of the family.

A reboot of this show premiered on Netflix in 2017 featuring a Hispanic family. Netflix cancelled the show in 2019, but the Pop network picked it up for a fourth season that premiered on March 24 of this year.

If I went on about all the shows Norman Lear had a hand in, we’d be here forever. But just to give you a sense of just how prolific Lear is, I’ll mention the other shows he helped to develop:

  • “The Deputy”
  • “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”
  • “The Dumplings”
  • “All’s Fair”
  • “All That Glitters”
  • “Fernwood 2 Night”
  • “America 2-Night”
  • “The Baxters”
  • “a.k.a. Pablo”
  • “Sunday Dinner”
  • “The Powers That Be”
  • “704 Hauser”
  • “Channel Umptee-3”
  • “The Wave”
  • “Heartsounds”
  • “The Facts of Life”
  • “The Princess Bride”

An extraordinary human being who changed comedy forever

After watching this documentary about Lear and his career, I’m convinced that his caring heart and brilliant soul is what’s kept him sharp as a tack, even at 98. I’m also convinced that he will live forever, fueled by the good energy he’s been exuding for decades.

In the interview portions of the documentary, you see why he has been so successful in comedy – he’s absolutely hilarious!

Lear made me laugh out loud when he said at the beginning of the documentary, “People think that turning 90, maybe you change. But it’s everybody else who changes. Suddenly, I’m extremely wise, and everybody’s asking me for advice. And I am sometimes applauded for walking across a room.”

He chuckled when he added, “The sound and the fact of 90 has got everybody believing I’m some kind of special intelligence. But I think about it now as wondrous, what I got to experience.”

Lear was raised in a Jewish household in Connecticut. His father, a traveling salesman, went to jail when Lear was only nine years old for selling fake bonds. The brusque character of Archie Bunker in “All in the Family” was inspired by his father.

The documentary also dives into what turned Lear into such an activist for progressive values, which is a bit more sad as a story. The same year his father went to jail, Lear heard the infamously anti-semitic Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin on the radio.

The way Coughlin spoke about the Jewish people didn’t turn Lear cold, however; it was quite the opposite. He grew up with a sense of humor that would lead him to become one of the most influential artists in Hollywood.

He strived to promote racial and gender equality throughout his career, and his calm explanations of his values from the seventies while creating shows like “The Jeffersons” are still relevant today.

“I have never been in a situation in my life – however tragic – where I didn’t see some comedy,” Lear says in old interview that’s featured in the documentary.

98-year-old Lear clearly doesn’t feel, behave, or talk like he feels any older than, say, 35. Maybe that’s what seeing the humor in life’s darkest moments does to your spirit.

“Lear is a great camera subject, a brilliant storyteller and so emotionally transparent that you might not mind if he went on for another half-hour—as long as it meant that you got to hear him talk some more, or watch him sit and think, or tear up over images of people who meant something to him,” wrote Max Zoller Seitz in a review for Roger Ebert.

It couldn’t be more true, nor could the title of the film be more perfect. Indeed, after watching, you’ll realize that Lear really is just another version of you, me, and all of us.

Watch: Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You