Norman Lear, CEO: ‘Putting One’s Butt On The Line’

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The groundbreaking producer understood that a business must be bold to stand out in a crowded field—just one of the leadership lessons he taught this author, who co-starred in one of his shows.

By Russ Banham

Chief Executive magazine

Editor’s Note: Russ Banham, a longtime contributor to 
Chief Executive, is a Pulitzer-nominated journalist and the author of more than 30 books, including histories of iconic companies and institutions like Airstream, Boeing, Ford, Coors and the Harvard Business School. But as a young man, he acted in several plays Off Broadway and on Broadway and co-starred in the hit summer movie “Meatballs,” alongside Bill Murray in his first film. He also, for a short while, had the chance to work on one of Norman Lear’s few sitcom flops, “Joe’s World,” where he got to observe the master storyteller up close and learned plenty about the business of being creative, with lessons for others in leadership.

I was fortunate to have worked with Norman Lear in his 1970s heyday, when five of his groundbreaking comedies — “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Sanford and Son,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons” — made up half the Top 10 ratings list. As luck would have it, “Joe’s World,” his topical sitcom about a family of union painters in Detroit, in which I co-starred as Brad Hopkins, the cocky painter dating Joe’s daughter Maggie, was canceled after 13 episodes (see photo, above)

Most of the remembrances of Norman this past week have delved into his trailblazing hits, the uncomfortable truths underlying his humor, and his lifelong political activism. Barely mentioned is his co-leadership of T.A.T. Communications, the television production company he formed with a business colleague to produce and distribute his many shows.

The business empire Norman led was bound to his personal values. He intuitively understood that a company is a creative enterprise and not a collection of people soullessly tallying financial figures or selling stuff they could care less about. It’s a useful reminder that every employee’s country of origin, age, gender, racial composition and sexuality mesh to generate innovative ideas and solutions, and that a CEO’s personal values are influential in rallying people around their vision and strategy. As poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.”

Norman also understood that a business must be bold to stand out in a crowded field. The acronym for his company, T.A.T., derived from the Yiddish phrase tuchus affen tisch, “putting one’s butt on the line.” Norman put his own butt on the line during World War II, enlisting in the U.S. Air Force and serving as a gunner and radio operator on a B-17 bomber that flew 35 bombing runs. He witnessed hundreds of bombs leaving the aircraft’s bay doors, and worried that one would land on a family gathering for dinner in their farmhouse.

After the war, Norman turned to scriptwriting comedy, appreciative of the power of laughter to heal wounded minds. Each sitcom, including “Joe’s World,” held a mirror up to the era’s social, economic and political issues — racism, abortion, drug use, divorce, poverty — making us confront the “foolishness of the human condition,” he often said.

His power to change hearts and minds was unequaled. Nearly half the country, 120 million people, tuned in to watch “All in the Family” in the 1970s at the scheduled time on Sunday. The next day, we discussed what we’d seen and experienced. By contrast, viewers of top streaming shows like “The Crown” barely crack a million viewers, most everyone watching the show at different times.

With multiple comedies on the air, Norman sat in on rehearsals and live performances of “Joe’s World” just a handful of times. His presence typically was unannounced, making the actors and directors a bit self-conscious the first time he came on the set. His humor and warmth quickly dispelled the tension, impelling us to extract whatever wisdom and guidance he could bestow. I received criticism from him just once, involving a line meant to get a laugh.

“That line is the punchline,” Norman said, quietly drawing me away from the other actors, “but you’re missing the one-two punch. Try it again.”

I did as he instructed. “Still not funny,” he said, laughing. “Okay, okay, this is the rhythm. `Duh da, duh da, duh da da da.’ Now pause, one, two, three. `Duh da.’ Try to get that into your curly-haired skull.”

When we taped the episode in front of the live audience using the old 3-camera system, one of the cameramen moved in for a closeup before my last `Duh da.’ It remains the biggest laugh I’ve ever received in my life, echoing later in tens of millions of homes.

Rest in peace, Norman.

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