Duane Bonifer  |  Published December 06, 2023

Why Norman Lear’s Impact on TV Still Looms Large

Chris Goble: ‘I don’t know if you can find somebody who is much bigger than Norman Lear – someone who had a larger influence on television.’

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Few people did more to revolutionize television than the late Norman Lear, the writer-producer who died Tuesday at the age of 101.

Communication studies faculty member Chris Goble, right, meets with legendary television creator Norman Lear at t... Communication studies faculty member Chris Goble, right, meets with legendary television creator Norman Lear at the 2015 meeting of the National Association of Television Program Executives in Miami.That’s the assessment of Monmouth College media studies scholar Chris Goble, who teaches communication studies courses at the College where Lear’s work is examined.

“I don’t know if you can find somebody who is much bigger than Norman Lear – someone who had a larger influence on television,” said Goble. “He helped Americans change their mindset toward television, from being a place that showed homespun comedies in the 1950s and ’60s to a more socially conscious television in the 1970s, one that pushed the boundaries of what you could do in television. All of his shows did that, and they did it in different ways.”


Goble said that Lear’s groundbreaking All in the Family – which premiered on Jan. 12, 1971, on CBS and ran for nine seasons – set the tone and the example for how television comedies could address serious contemporary topics, and do it in a thoughtful and humorous way.

And Goble says that Lear’s work continues to speak to today’s social problems and ills.

For example, Goble shows the All in the Family episode “Sammy’s Visit” – which first aired on Feb. 19, 1972, in the show’s second season – to students in his “Mass Media and Modern Society” class as a way to study how television can address racial issues. In that episode, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. leaves his briefcase in a cab driven by Archie Bunker, the show’s prejudiced main character, and then visits the Bunker home in Queens, N.Y., to retrieve it.

“It’s an episode we use to talk about how TV can tackle big issues, such as racial issues,” said Goble. “Most of my students have never seen the episode or All in the Family before. In the episode, there are all these different racial stereotypes and slurs in the conversation, which is eye-opening for a lot of the students.”

“His shows showed what I believe a lot of families wanted to see because it reflected the reality of the time.”
– Chris Goble

In addition to race, Lear’s TV shows were among the first to address topics such as abortion, feminism, LGBT issues, antisemitism, menopause and rape.

All in the Family was the first place where anyone talked about a lot of these social issues,” said Goble. “It was the first place where you heard a toilet flush on television. It was a part of an ongoing joke on the show, but before All in the Family you never heard a toilet flush on TV and no one even acknowledged there were bathrooms on TV.”

Although Lear’s shows dealt with controversial social issues that were both current and timeless, Goble points out that many of his shows also focused on the importance and power of the family – which also underwent a transformation in the 1970s and ’80s – to resolve and overcome challenges, both personal and social.

“His shows showed what I believe a lot of families wanted to see because it reflected the reality of the time,” he said. “Yes, the families depicted on his shows were very different, and, yes, they clashed all the time. But all of that didn’t cause them to run away from each other and not be there together as a family. We could still see a family unit functioning, it was just as a different kind of family unit. … At the end of the day, he believed that the family was important.”

Goble met Lear in 2015 at the annual meeting of the National Association of Television Program Executives, where Lear was interviewed by Philip Rosenthal, the creator of the late-20th century TV comedy hit Everybody Loves Raymond.

During a recent visit to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Goble saw the famous chair where Archie sat during many All in the Family episodes.

“It was like a sojourn for me,” said Goble.

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