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Norman Lear, sitcom innovator, laments their eclipse

If you think there's nothing funny on broadcast television anymore, you're not alone. Archie Bunker, Fred Sanford, Maude Findlay and George Jefferson - or at least, the guy who invented them - all agree: The sitcom is dead.

If you think there's nothing funny on broadcast television anymore, you're not alone. Archie Bunker, Fred Sanford, Maude Findlay and George Jefferson - or at least, the guy who invented them - all agree: The sitcom is dead.

"Appointment TV doesn't exist in my life anymore," admits Norman Lear, who doesn't watch broadcast sitcoms anymore even though he practically invented the modern form with shows like All in the Family, Sanford & Son and Maude. When Lear wants a laugh, he turns to cable to watch cartoons like South Park or Jon Stewart's satirical newscasts.

He likes HBO shows The Sopranos and the recently departed Deadwood. "We're in the Golden Age of television drama," Lear insists. But situation comedy, not so much. He's not even sure a show like All in the Family, with its hardball racial and political humor, would get on the air these days.

"I don't know why there's no topical humor in sitcoms now," Lear says. "I don't understand why a family facing all the topical problems an American family faces these days - the economy, crime, drugs - can't be the vehicle for a comedic approach.

"Maybe it's that there are too many taboos, that you'd hear from the network bosses too much."

Not that Lear didn't hear from them a lot in the 1970s, even when his sitcoms dominated the network schedules to critical and popular acclaim.

All in the Family, where cantankerous reactionary Archie Bunker wrangled with his knee-jerk liberal son-in-law Mike Stivic (a.k.a. Meathead), and Maude, in which previously unmentionable topics like alcoholism, menopause and abortion surfaced with a frequency and candor that was startling, had Lear butting heads with network officials on a daily basis.

But Lear says the most serious disputes were not the fights with censors over whether the loudmouth Maude could call somebody an SOB (quaint though it may sound today, a real example from 1974), but conceptual battles with the network suits.

"When All in the Family first went on the air in the early 1970s, CBS didn't want me mentioning Watergate or Richard Nixon," he recalls. "Not for political reasons, but for commercial reasons. They said if we did that, the show would have no afterlife - 'no downstream,' was what they called it - in syndication. In two or three or 10 or 12 years, they said, nobody would understand or care about Watergate or Nixon. I didn't agree."

With All in the Family reruns still on the air 36 years later, and Maude's first season just issued on DVD, Lear has been proven right. But he regards it as a victorious battle in a lost war. By the mid-1970s, Lear was being defeated in those arguments because shows no longer got enough airtime to prove him right.

The Powers That Be, a cynical 1992 comedy about an idiotic congressman and his social-climbing wife that would be a perfect fit for a cable network today, lasted only 22 episodes.

That's more than for Hot L Baltimore, a racy 1975 Lear sitcom (the residents of the seedy hotel of the title included a gay couple and a hooker, both television firsts), which lasted 13 episodes.

a.k.a. Pablo, a 1984 attempt at Latino family comedy that beat George Lopez by two decades, got just six episodes to prove itself; 704 Hauser, a 1994 political and racial role reversal of All in the Family (black family, liberal civil-rights-era dad, conservative son), just five.

All of them, Lear concedes, had low ratings. But so did All in the Family when it launched in 1971. "All in the Family didn't make it in the ratings until it went into reruns that first summer," he remembers. "CBS gave it a whole season to find its audience. That doesn't happen anymore.

"When TV started out, the networks gave you a minimum order of one season with a new show - that was 39 episodes in those days; there were no reruns except in the summer. Then a season dropped to 22 episodes. Then the standard order dropped to 13, and now it's six.

"That's all you get, six weeks, tops. Maybe not that much. A show drops a rating point from one week to the next and they want to cancel you then and there . . .

"The name of the game in corporate America is higher profits this quarter than last. And you can see it more clearly in television than anywhere else. It's crazy. It doesn't make any sense."