SS: What surprised you the most in your research for this book?
KN: Nothing, really. I don’t know that I was surprised. Maybe, hmm, it’s hard to pinpoint one thing. I mean, it’s exciting when you find a new story that’s ancient history that people just don’t know about.
So it wasn’t surprising, but one thing that people loved in the book was this anecdote about Family Feud. Richard Dawson, the host of Family Feud, was famous in the ’70s and early ’80s for planting a kiss on the lips of every female contestant.
And if you dig through old letters to the editor in the late ’70s and early ’80s, you find many complaints, people complaining that Richard Dawson was spreading germs by kissing all the contestants on the lips.
SS: Yeah, that was the concern, not the [sexual harassment].
KN: In 1984, they started these herpes screenings backstage in a green room and contestants had to get a swab in the mouth, sort of like a COVID test to test them for herpes before they were cleared to be kissed on the mouth by Richard Dawson. So I found that to be hilarious. I had not heard of that before, but I found a lively debate in the letters to the editor talking about how disgusting this is. Why do they allow it? Why does it take up so much screen time? Can’t Richard Dawson stop kissing everybody?
And it’s not something that ever would have occurred to me that would have been a complaint that existed. We see those clips and we just think, well, it was the era. And here are all these people complaining and so much so that they didn’t state a health screening. So I found that funny. I guess I was surprised by that because I had not heard of it before. And it being such a weird and funny story, you would think it would be famous.
So that sort of what surprises me is when I find a story that is so good, you would think that everybody would have heard of it, but nobody has heard of it. And that is my, that’s sort of like my sweet spot. Finding those stories that are crazy, that everybody will be interested in, but that nobody knows about yet. All right.
SS: So you mentioned, I think earlier in the book, the National Board of Review, which was a censor of some sort based in New York. I don’t know what decade it was but..
KN: Mostly for movies right, silent movies and continued into the talkie era, right?
SS: Is that the same… does that have the same lineage as the National Board of Review now that names the top ten movies of the year?
KN: I don’t think it’s the same. Okay. I don’t think it’s the same but you’ll see like on certain movies, especially in the early 1930s, it’ll say with a number almost like a serial number on each movie passed by the National Board of Review. Usually in small type at the bottom of the screen will sit the Warner Brothers logo or the First National logo in the title of the movie and then way at the bottom with a little logo it’ll say passed by the National Board of Review. And I’m not sure if it was established before or after the Fatty Arbuckle scandal that was to be an assurance to theater owners, but you weren’t going to get something that was salacious, or naughty, or dirty.
You weren’t going to see a woman’s ankle. You weren’t going to see a lady smoking. Things like that. So I can’t remember when it was established, specifically. But it was during the silent era, and it was sort of, it was very similar to, if you’re familiar, in comic books, the comic code authority. After the EC comic scandal, they instated this thing, and every comic book would get this little logo approved by the comic code authority, which, again, meant there’s going to be nothing here salacious so you, as a parent, could buy it for your child without worrying. National Board of Review was similar to that, certainly similar to that.
SS: Well, I’m a film critic. It’s one of my jobs. And I talked to some of the other critics last week about the National Board of Review naming their movies for the year. I’m like, I don’t know what the National Board of Review is. I don’t know who’s in it. I don’t know how they work. I don’t know who makes the decisions for them. And I’ve never heard anybody write about it, so. And then a couple of days later, I was reading your book, and I saw the National Board of Review, so I wonder if it’s the same thing.
KN: I don’t think it is.
SS: You talk a bit about Norman Lear, and of course, he just passed. What are your reflections on Norman Lear and how his work fits in with the things you wrote about in the book?
KN: Yeah, it fits in a lot. Well, he was quite the giant. What a legacy. What a career. We were talking earlier about how sometimes an old comedian starts out as the liberal firebrand, and then later ends up more conservative, criticizing the young. Norman Lear was the opposite. He started as sort of a rudimentary comedy writer, writing for Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in TheColgate Comedy Hour, and then he became a writer, and producer on The Martha Ray Show.
And so he did a lot of conventional comedy work for 20 years. Then in 1968, he adapted the British sitcom Til Death Us Do Part as a pilot was the first time he tried to bring in politics and social commentary into his work and they did two pilots they were both rejected because the networks felt that America wasn’t ready for a satire of bigotry and racism and social issues. By the early ’70s, America had changed so much so rapidly, so quickly, that the networks decided to take a chance and have a more mature television sitcom in All in the Family, and then of course that’s followed by Maude.
Now both shows include subject matter that still to this day are hot button issues in the culture war, namely abortion in mod, and namely equal rights amendment in mod, and namely criticism of foreign policy on the family Rob Reiner, Meathead, critical of Vietnam War, active in the anti-war movement as a character, and Archie Bunker the opposite, defending the Vietnam War and all of the veterans and so forth.
So you still hear those types of culture clashes today, and that was Norman Lear’s intent was to introduce those subjects and make things controversial and have comedy talk about issues in a more meaningful way. He had seen Lenny Bruce do stand-up back in the late ’50s, and it inspired him and kind of put it in his pocket, when I have the chance, that’s the type of comedy I would like to create. And so he did.
And all of them were controversial, as big of a hit as All in the Family was, Maude was, Good Times was, The Jeffersons was, Sanford and Son was. If you look up, again, letters to the editor, there are many letters of contempt. Somebody criticized Good Times, or Jimmie “JJ” Walker for being anti-white. It’s a big, long screen saying, I’m tired of Jimmie Walker’s anti-white tirades on Good Times. And of course, people complained about the Maude abortion episode.
It was a two-parter over two weeks. Many sponsors pulled their commercials. Thirty-seven affiliates, CBS affiliates, refused to air it. Many aired disclaimers beforehand or a special message from the station manager explaining what you’re about to see or explaining why you’re not going to see it.
And so Norman Lear had this enormous effect on the culture. And here’s a testament to how much of an effect he had on the culture. In the ’70s, he had all of those huge monster hits. One thing people forget, and nobody’s going to mention in an obituary or memoriam, is that from about 1983 on ordered after Too Close to Comfort, he had like a dozen failures. He created all these sitcoms in the ’80s and ’90s that nobody remembers, that lasted a week, that lasted a month, that lasted a year and were forgotten, never went into syndication. So nobody remembers that.
All of those failures are erased from memory because of the magnitude of success that he had in the ’70s. And all those hits from the ’70s aired forever in syndication to this day. It erased the failures of the ’80s and ’90s from our memory. So that’s not a criticism. That’s just a testament to the potency of his influence. He was so influential that his successes completely wiped out the memory of his failures.
SS: Right. And the new One Day at the Time that he did a few years ago, I know he wasn’t like the showrunner, but that was an amazing show. They did a fantastic job with it.
KN: With Rita Moreno?
SS: Yes, yes, yeah. That was just the one, I know it kind of came up against COVID and that was the end of it, but that was just amazing stuff. And really like, what Lear did just really kind of put a lie to the whole “go woke, go broke thing.” And you know, anybody who says, you know, leave your politics out of entertainment, because that was just like, that stuff was so stridently political, and it just, it was popular, and it was great.
KN: So I found a letter in my research, it’s not in this book, it might be my second book, somebody writing a newspaper to complain about Will Rogers in the 1920s saying, “Why can’t he keep politics out of it?”
Well, that was all he was known for. Right, exactly. That would be like writing a letter to Rich Little and saying, why can’t you keep the impressions out of it?
SS: Yeah. I remember there was too much politics at John Lewis’s funeral. I’m like, well, he was a politician. And a lot of people said things that were in line with the things he stood for in his whole life. So anyway, thank you so much. I appreciate it. I enjoyed the book, and this was a fascinating discussion.