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Bunker Mentality

Remember when you had only five channels, but somehow there was plenty to watch? Those were the days....

Author WILLA PASKIN Photography EVERETT COLLECTION

IF YOU THINK TINA FEY and Judd Apatow — amusing as they are — represent the cutting edge of comedy, it may be time for a refresher in the work of Norman Lear.

The man responsible for the most provocative television that ever aired turns 87 this year. Lear, the writer, producer and creator of such groundbreaking sitcoms as All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son altered the national conversation in the 1970s and ’80s, exploring race, class and gender with verve and humor — lots of humor. Containing some 50 hours of programming (a fraction of his total output), the 19-disc Norman Lear Collection, out this month, makes the case that Lear’s work remains, some three decades on, more fearless — and hilarious — than any current program this side of South Park (of which Lear is, naturally, a die-hard fan).

Even today it’s hard to imagine how All in the Family, starring Carroll O’Connor as bigoted loading dock foreman Archie Bunker, made it to air, especially back in 1971, when televised eruptions of racism, sexism, antiSemitism and pretty much every other -ism you can name were unheard of. (In fact, ABC taped two pilots and rejected both before CBS signed on to make a third, a trilogy of sorts that is among the collection’s stand-out features.) “Most shows today aren’t dealing with these kind of issues through comedy,” Lear says. “But I can’t imagine that if All in the Family came on the air tomorrow, with that company of actors, that it wouldn’t score.”

He has a point — that is, if the show could even make it past the network suits, who have only become more timid in the ensuing years, leaving edgier stuff to cable. And All in the Family wasn’t the only show in the Lear canon to punch the nation’s hot buttons. Good Times was set among the struggling residents of a Chicago housing project, and Lear created The Jeffersons, about a black couple who were “movin’ on up,” in part to counter criticism of Good Times. Meanwhile, the lead character of Maude, played by Bea Arthur, underwent an abortion two months before Roe v. Wade made the procedure legal nationwide.

Even Lear’s satirical soap opera Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman proved controversial, prompting many stations to air it only after 11 p.m. (The first seasons of all four series, along with Family, Sanford and Son and One Day at a Time, are included in the box set.)

These days, Lear, who has devoted much of his time to political activism in recent years, is developing a drama for HBO, Everybody Hurts — set in the ’70s, Lear’s wheelhouse decade — about a father-son wrestling dynasty. As for his pioneering work from that era, he’s just gratified that it’s finally getting a second look. “The characters are undeniable, and they’re funny,” he says. “People should really watch those shows.”

An added benefit? “Laughter adds time to one’s life,” Lear says. Take two sitcoms and call him in the morning.

ALSO THIS MONTH

What else to watch on the go in June

Pilot Season
Nobody plays fatuous, self-involved brats like comedienne Sarah Silverman. The princess of provocation costars in this hilarious, little-seen 2004 mockumentary series, which sends up Hollywood culture. Streaming on www.mydamnchannel.com

Wonderful Town
An architect arrives in a tsunami-devastated Thai resort town and falls for an innkeeper. Though they scarcely mention the horrific event that brought them together, it haunts every perfectly crafted frame. Out on DVD from Kino

Loot
An absorbing documentary following a mellow used car salesman on his quest to help two WWII vets recover a trove of booty they stole during the war offers a fascinating, emotionally charged look at treasure hunting. On HBO2 in June

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