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Norman Lear and the complex legacy of “Good Times”

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If the personal is political, Norman Lear found a way to make the political funny.

Writer and producer of some of the most enduring and influential TV comedies of the 20th century – from “All in the Family” to “Maude” to “Sanford and Son,” among others. dead Tuesday. He was 101 years old.

Lear’s sitcoms in the 1970s reflected the social changes of the period, and his shows understood that the resulting tension and friction could be clever and deliberate, as well as a source of comedy.

There will be many venerable pieces written about his career and contributions. But recognizing his achievements also means recognizing an inconvenient aspect of his legacy.

There are countless basic cable channels offering a lineup of old programming, and Lear’s work stands out. Last year, one of those cable channels posted a post on social media promoting “Good Times.” Originally airing from 1974 to 1979, it was “the fourth consecutive hit sitcom created by Norman Lear.”

It’s frustrating to see Eric Monte constantly disappear from the books. Monte co-created the series with actor Mike Evans and based “Good Times” on his own childhood growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green. In the series, the Evans family’s struggles were portrayed under no exaggeration, but with grace, humor and humanity. The sitcom centering on a black family was a rarity and, thanks to reruns, would remain an enduring pop culture force for decades to come.

A reporter in 2006 los angeles times I caught up with Monte. At the height of his career, he was “among a group of young African-American writers and directors who led to an explosion in Black culture. He wrote and helped create some of the most popular and groundbreaking films and TV shows of the 1970s. He started with an episode of ‘All in the Family’, went on to co-create ‘Good Times’ and wrote the 1975 film ‘Cooley High’; This film inspired the 1976 hit TV series ‘What’s Happening!!'”

That’s an impressive resume. Monte felt rightfully unrecognized, financially or otherwise for that matter.

According to the LA Times, “In 1977, ABC filed a lawsuit accusing CBS, producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin and others of stealing their ideas for ‘Good Times,’ ‘The Jeffersons’ (an ‘All in the Family’ spinoff). and ‘What’s Going On!’ He says he eventually got a $1 million deal and a small percentage of what was left of “Good Times,” but opportunities to pitch new scripts dried up along with his money. “He lost his car, the four-bedroom home he shared with his two daughters, and almost all the trappings of his successful life.”

Monte was one of the few — if not the only — Black writers on “Have a Good Day,” and he didn’t stay there long. He was disappointed as he felt the pacing of the series relied too heavily on stereotypes and the emphasis was on Jimmy Walker’s breakout character, JJ Evans; himself, in Monte’s view, was often reduced to “huddling and joking”.

He wasn’t the only one to voice his concerns to Lear about the “Good Day” piece. The show’s stars, Esther Rolle and John Amos, also backed out. This is revealed in the 2016 PBS documentary “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You,” in which Lear looks back on his career.

“It was alien to the needs of a show that had to be done every week,” he says of the tensions on the set of “Good Times” and the cast’s desire to discuss the show’s portrayal of Black people in more depth.

Delays cost money. Unlike the flexibility that broadcasting would later provide, broadcast television was and still continues to operate on a tight schedule.

“So I sat everyone down and said, ‘These are the decisions I have to make,'” Lear says. “But we couldn’t handle the actors’ constant discomfort with the script.”

The documentary also includes an old interview clip of Rolle, who died in 1998. “I insist that you can do comedy without being a buffoon.”

He said in a radio interview that his co-star Amos was written off the series in 1976 “because I had become a ‘subversive element’.” report after the years. “My job was, either give up on this nonsense or let’s fight,” he says in the PBS documentary.

Does this mean you can’t admire Lear’s achievements and his impact on the world of television? Of course not. But this complicates history in ways we should not be reluctant to reckon with.

When “Good Times” premiered, it was groundbreaking for a sitcom to center on a black family. Lear helped make this happen. This has value and is important.

Equally important is the experience of Black people working on this series and their opinions on its portrayals.

Nina Metz is a Tribune critic

nmetz@chicagotribune.com



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