Television producer/writer Norman Lear’s shows such as “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons” and “One Day at a Time not only made generations of TV viewers laugh but also made us think about the social climate in the country. But outside show business, Lear is known as a dedicated advocate for free speech and equality. In 1981, he briefly left television to found People for the American Way, a nonprofit that promotes freedom of thought, public education and election and immigration reform.
Now 86, Lear’s latest venture is BornAgainAmerican.org, which continues to register youths to vote, volunteer and/or talk back to their public officials. A key part of the site is a video for “Born Again American,” a song written by Keith Carradine and performed by 16 diverse Americans in front of 14 U.S. landmarks.
And Lear’s company Concord Music Group will release a new documentary and album titled “Playing for Change: Peace Through” this month in Starbucks locations. The DVD and CD feature musicians throughout the world singing a rendition of Ben E. King’s "Stand by Me."
What have you noticed about this generation of young people?
I’ve noticed that they elected the first African-American president. They remind me of dry grass that is just about to catch fire.
What inspired you to create Born Again American?
It goes back to a time in 1979, when we had six shows on television. I replaced myself because I wanted to do a series of PSAs and write a screenplay about religion. I saw danger in the proliferation of TV evangelicals in politics and religion.
I took the TV spots to church leaders, and they endorsed it and encouraged me to make more of them. That was the beginning of People of the American Way. I had no intention of starting an organization. It was just spontaneous combustion.
So, I was telling this story during at talk late last year in Washington, D.C., and I said that was a “born again as an American” moment for me. That got a great reaction from people — just the expression.
Is using the phrase “born again” irony or an attempt to redefine that phrase?
No, neither. I understand it has a religious context, and that’s perfectly fine. Religion doesn’t belong to the professionals and those at the extremes. An awful lot of people call themselves religious and/or spiritual. We all own the flag, all who read the Bible own it. And the “what’s it all about, Alfie?” discussion belongs to all of us.
On the site, you can sign a pledge agreeing to “recommit to the principles” of the Declaration of Independence. Why the Declaration? Which of its principles have been forgotten?
It represents the essence of what we take pride in being as Americans. I think most Americans are aware that we haven’t delivered on the principal that all men are created equal.
We’re slowly and incrementally are getting there. But everybody doesn’t get an equal opportunity to vote. There are disenfranchised Americans for unreasonable reasons. There is still somewhat of a glass ceiling. We are not free of racism totally. Gays and lesbians are not recognized as equal Americans. So we have a way to go toward fulfilling those promises.
How did Keith Carradine get involved?
I was telling Keith about my speech in Washington at a New Year’s Eve Party. Three weeks later, he called me and said he had a song called “I’m a Born Again American.”
I took it to music producer T-Bone Burnett, who laid down the track. Then a young, terrific director and song engineer Brett Miller went around the country and found the people in the video. He called veterans’ groups and other people. He knew what to do on the phone and on the Internet.
They are all singing their own stories, by the way. The guy who is singing about coming back home from the desert with a wife and children to feed is indeed a marine who lived that. The young woman who sings about her brother working in the same factory for the same money as their grandfather, that’s her true story.
What do you hope will result from the site?
I hope everybody’s going to come over to our house every weekend.
What kind of traffic has it attracted?
We just topped 6 million hits — and just under 300,000 people have signed the pledge to get involved. That’s a delight for us. We have registered well over 4 million to vote, largely young people.
It’s really happening now. People are pledging to be informed and involved going forward. They’re saying they understand they are their country’s keeping. They will be active citizens — not just on election day.
What do you watch on TV these days? Do you think TV shows make enough social and political commentary?
Well, you can’t get more social commentary than my friends at “South Park.” That’s loaded — they’ve got a lot on their minds. “Family Guy” gets there. And certainly the dramatic shows — this is the golden age of TV drama.
What’s different is you have to scour television for it. You can’t find it on three stations. I mean, what station was “The Wire” on? That show was very special. The great thing about having so many channels is that something like “The Wire” can exist for a few years with a smaller audience.
Are you doing more work in television?
We are. We’re doing a show called “Everyone Hurts.” It’s about a family dynasty — father and his four sons in wrestling in 1979.
Sounds interesting. Have you cast it?
No, we haven’t finished the script yet. We’re doing it with HBO, should they be inclined to make it.