At 92 years old, and right on time, Norman Lear, the legendary television writer and producer, jogged up the steps of Baltaire, a restaurant in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. Seth MacFarlane, a fellow sitcom creator and filmmaker, followed soon after, in more ways than one.
Lear is one of the most prolific hitmakers in TV history. For several years in the 1970s, he had seven shows on the air, including “All in the Family,” “Maude” and “The Jeffersons,” five of them among the top 10 most popular in the nation, watched by an estimated 120 million viewers a week. His memoir, “Even This I Get to Experience,” was published last year.
MacFarlane, 41, treads a similar path. He created “Family Guy,” which will begin its 14th season in the fall, and two other animated shows. As a singer, he recorded two albums of music from the American songbook. He also wrote and directed “Ted,” the highest-grossing original R-rated film of all time, lending his voice to its profane computer-generated teddy bear. “Ted 2” opened last weekend.
Over lobster salad for Lear and a blueberry muffin and coffee for MacFarlane, the pair, each known for speaking out on liberal causes, discussed changes in American television and society (for better and worse) since Lear’s heyday; the personal price of grueling schedules; and the theme songs of their most famous shows.
Q: Seth’s show “Family Guy” begins the same way “All in the Family” did: with a couple at a piano, bemoaning progress and singing about the loss of family values.
Lear: I could sue for that!
MacFarlane: You could take me for every cent I’ve got. But in the animation business, we call that “homage.” That’s what keeps us from getting sued. But our song really was a tribute. Because most people in comedy agree that “All in the Family” was the most brilliant comedy series in the history of TV.
Lear: In the ’70s.
MacFarlane: Ever. I just watched the episode where Archie writes a letter to Nixon. Edith sits down to write while Archie dictates, but she fixes her hair first, out of respect for the president. That little touch is so absent from sitcoms today. That subtlety and intelligence.
Q: You both explore society through its fools. But when Archie, or any of Norman’s bigots, said something racist or sexist, there was always another character to call him on it. The show told us what was right. It’s trickier today. On “Family Guy,” characters say horrible things, but no one corrects them. You leave it to the audience to know better. Is it passe to scold?
MacFarlane: We still get the note to have another character tell them it’s wrong. And when it’s needed, I do. But if it feels like talking down to the audience — because in 2015, they’re more tolerant, in some ways, than they were in the ’70s — I resist it.
Lear: Also, I grew up in a family that argued. Herbie Gardner talked about a family that lived at the end of their nerves and the top of their lungs. That was us. I remember my grandfather once accused my father of sleeping with my mother’s brother’s wife. There’s my mother, on her knees, begging them to stop. And they’re screaming over her head. Arguing was my life.
Q: But there’s a difference. When a “Family Guy” character makes a joke about gay sex, I laugh, as a gay guy, because I think the character is an idiot. But I’ve seen homophobes laughing too, in a different way.
MacFarlane: But that’s nothing new. A certain crowd was laughing at Archie, and another was right with him. You can’t control that.
Lear: Absolutely. Richard Nixon was on tape, authenticating what Seth just said. He thought we were making fun of a good man with Archie.
Q: But isn’t that having it both ways: skewering the stereotype and reveling in it, too?
MacFarlane: There are still men like Archie Bunker out there. There may be fewer of them, but they’re still there.
Q: So, better to air the ugly idea?
MacFarlane: I often wonder if “All in the Family” was on today, would there be the parade of blogs and think pieces we get now. “Archie used the N-word! This is outrageous! This shouldn’t be on TV!” People have gotten less tolerant because they can’t process context the way they used to.
Lear: I would agree with that.
Q: Let’s shift gears. You are both amazingly prolific. Norman’s seven shows on the air at once; Seth’s animated empire, plus “Ted.”
MacFarlane: I ain’t got the seven. There’s only one Norman Lear.
Q: But you did work so hard at one point that you were hospitalized for exhaustion.
MacFarlane: That only happened once.
Q: Where does the drive come from?
MacFarlane: Necessity. When you look at your schedule and see 900 things on it and having no choice but to accomplish those tasks.
Lear: But before that, the drive comes from an appetite for sharing and giving, and for enjoying that.
MacFarlane: I never wanted to do more than one show at a time. “Family Guy” got canceled, so I created “American Dad.” Then “Family Guy” got picked up again. Suddenly, I had two shows, which I didn’t really want.
Lear: So, why did you do it?
MacFarlane: That’s a good question. I don’t know.
Q: Nine out of 10 shrinks would point to your parents.
Lear: Well, I had a mother who, when I scored the most, didn’t have the appetite to say anything. When I called to tell her the Television Academy was starting a Hall of Fame, and the first honorees were Bill Paley, Edward R. Murrow, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Paddy Chayefsky, David Sarnoff and me, she said, “Well, if that’s what they want to do, who am I to say?”
MacFarlane: There’s your answer.
Q: It’s a funny story, but I’m sorry it happened.
MacFarlane: My family wasn’t like that. My parents worked three jobs to put me through art school because I wanted to get into animation. So, if you were going to dig deep, maybe the drive came from a desire to make it worth their while. Not screw up the opportunity they gave me. I have a hard time buying that myself, but I’m not a therapist.
Q: Can you see taking a page from Norman’s book, away from storytelling and focusing on social and political issues?
MacFarlane: I can’t see ...
Lear: Wait, I never woke up and said, “I’m going to start an organization today.” I wanted to do a film savaging the religious right the way Paddy Chayefsky savaged network television in “Network.” Then one day, I saw a televangelist ask his congregation to pray for the removal of a Supreme Court justice. I thought, ... we don’t have time for a film. So, I made a public service announcement with the support of religious leaders. It said, “If anyone, even a minister, tells you that you are a good or bad Christian based on your political beliefs, that’s not the American way.” I liked that language. That’s how we started People for the American Way.
MacFarlane: And I’m trying to take a cue from my friend here in “Ted 2.” It’s a civil rights story about Ted trying to be recognized for his personhood by the courts so he can marry and have a baby. And we handle it as realistically as we can, given that it’s a talking teddy bear. I doubt there’s another business where I could tell a story I care about that’s also fun and entertaining.
Q: And reaches so many people. Seeing the first “Ted,” I was in a theater with all these different crowds: packs of boys, couples on dates, families, even with kids who seemed a little young for the humor.
Lear: Those kids you just referred to will survive everything in “Ted” much easier than they’ll survive the people who condemn it. Because those people are no good.
MacFarlane: That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.