Norman Lear Mines His Prolific Television Output to Create Fresh Magic

·5-min read

“There’s nothing like standing alongside a couple hundred people when they’re brought to laughter — I mean, really find something hilarious,” says six-time Emmy winner and legendary producer Norman Lear, whose beloved TV shows have earned him iconic status. “I find that as inspirational and as spiritual as anything I’ve ever seen.”

As the creative force behind such groundbreaking series as “All in the Family,” “The Jeffersons,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “One Day at a Time,” Lear has left thousands of studio audience members and millions more viewers in hysterics. Now, new generations are discovering fresh versions of these classics with relevance and modern A-list talent in ABC’s “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” series from Sony Pictures Television.

Lear, who became the oldest-ever Emmy winner at 98 and will turn 100 in July, can surely attribute his long life, in part, to laughter in all its forms. To that end, he has recently teamed with host and producer Jimmy Kimmel and Brent Miller, Lear’s own producing partner, to deliver live reenactments of still-doubled-over-funny episodes — the first two productions each adding Emmys for Outstanding Variety Special (Live) to Lear’s already trophy-loaded mantel. The latest, “Live in Front of a Studio Audience: ‘The Facts of Life’ and ‘Diff’rent Strokes,’” two ’80s-era favorites, bypassed topical echoes, focusing on evergreen emotional themes, like bullying and sibling conflict.

“We didn’t want to go as heavy with these two scripts as we did with previous years, because we were trying to get out of a pandemic and celebrate that we were in front of a live audience again,” says Miller. “We just wanted to have a good time.”

Lear wasn’t surprised the scripts held up, even after four decades. “We found ourselves laughing,” he admits of reviewing a narrowed-down selection of each series’ top episodes with Miller, Kimmel and fellow executive producer Kerry Washington.

“When we choose which episodes to restage, we do our best to pick those that represent the shows themselves,” says Kimmel. “In the end, after looking at dozens of shows, the episodes we picked were, in my opinion, the best possible choices.”

Punch lines and emotional beats further profited from reinvention by the likes of Jennifer Aniston, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Tolman, Gabrielle Union, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Jon Stewart (“Facts of Life”); and Kevin Hart, Damon Wayans, Snoop Dogg and John Lithgow (“Diff’rent Strokes”). Ann Dowd took double duty as Mrs. Garrett, who appeared in both series.

“Those performances were so wonderful, and those performers so able to generate laughter, so it wasn’t a surprise; it was a delight,” raves Lear of his latest hires.

Kimmel had already struck gold by snapping up the in-demand Hart to play the classic Arnold Jackson role in “Diff’rent Strokes,” with additional casting following his instinct for Gen X actors.

“I felt strongly that it would be a lot more fun to see Kevin Hart play Arnold than casting a child actor in that role and we just kind of went with it from there,” says Kimmel. “If an idea gets a big laugh, which that one did, it’s important not to overthink it.”

Adds Miller, “Norman did such a great job casting all those iconic characters [originally], it made it relatively easy for us to cast this round, because all of the actors that came on board knew these characters. They grew up with them and were excited to play them.”

Casting directors Marc Hirschfeld and Geralyn Flood won resounding praise for their picks, with Dowd’s near-channeling of Mrs. Garrett particularly impressing the original cast members from both shows present for the broadcast: Mindy Cohn, Lisa Whelchel, Kim Fields and Todd Bridges. “She was uniquely able to wrap herself around that character and make it hers; I was awed by it,” Lear says.

At the helm for his second “Live … ” was another multi-cam director legend, James Burrows, whose distinctive touch has defined sitcoms over five decades, from “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Laverne & Shirley,” through “Cheers,” “Frasier,” “Friends” and “Will & Grace.” The collaboration was “the treat of treats,” for Lear. “Every step of my career was side by side with every step of Jimmy Burrows’ career, but we’d never worked together until this, and it made it so special and so dreamy,” he says.

Equally rewarding was the passion demonstrated by key crew members, including production designer Stephan Olson and costume designer Keri Smith, charged with emulating the original productions’ details. “A lot of these people grew up with those shows as well, so it’s very exciting for them to build those sets and re-create them,” reveals Miller. “To see the Drummond [“Diff’rent Strokes”] household all these years later and to walk on that set … it was a ‘wow!’ reaction, like, ‘This is incredible! It looks exactly how I remembered it as a kid!’”

Kimmel’s sensibility pervades the entire production — “Every step of the way,” explains Miller. “I mean 20, 30 emails a day, sometimes back and forth as we’re hitting crunch time, and while he’s doing his [own] show four nights a week. He cares deeply about ensuring these shows are a success.”

The end result is as much a loving tribute to the lasting impact of Lear and his collaborators as it’s a nostalgic romp. “The whole reason we did this to begin with was to pay homage to those original actors and writers and creators and to celebrate them,” says Miller. “To see them show the respect for not only the shows and those characters, but the love for Norman, it’s exactly what one would hope for. It never gets old.”

Old though he may be, Lear embraces this “gift” from younger colleagues.

“If it was any different from what it was 40 years ago, the difference made it better,” he suggests. “The gift of gifts is what those glorious new people handed me in their performances. It was a wondrous experience that continues to live in me.”

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