Few names in comedy have made more of an impact than Norman Lear, who turns 101 years old today. Mere mention of the name alone brings to mind countless projects he’s had a hand in over the years, including All in the Family, Good Times, Maude, Sanford and Son, The Jefferson’s, One Day at a Time, and countless others too numerous to name. Long before you had the Marvel cinematic universe, there was the Norman Lear television universe. (Yes, we are obviously well aware that the Marvel universe started in the comics).
But what Lear did was bring that connectivity to the small screen. There exists a universe where all of the characters from Norman Lear’s many shows could co-exist.
It all starts with All in the Family. This was Lear’s big splash on television, when it premiered in 1971. The series - which featured the conservative Archie Bunker, who was usually at odds with their daughter and her liberal husband - was an instant success right off the bat. It featured a portrayal of characters that audiences hadn’t seen before, who were saying the sort of things you hadn’t heard on television.
Given the success of the series, this opened up the portal for the extended Norman Lear universe. What followed was seven(!!) different shows that were all inter-connected in one way or another. Back in the day, it wasn’t too uncommon for there to be what is known as a “back door pilot.” This is where a new character makes an appearance on a show, simply because the network knows they’ll be getting their own series and they want to introduce the character to the audience.
This happened multiple times during Lear’s reign in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. Most famously, there were The Jefferson’s. George Jefferson was a consistent sparring partner for Archie in the early days of the show. The success of this character lead to George and his wife, Louise, to eventually get their own show in 1975. The Jefferson’s - that saw the couple leaving the Bunker neighborhood to “move on up” to the city - was another hit for Lear, running for 10 years. Before The Jefferson’s, there was Maude.
Maude - played by Bea Arthur - first appeared on All in the Family as Edith Bunker’s cousin. This was a back door pilot that proved successful, and lead to Maude getting her own series in 1972. That show was a moderate hit for Lear, as it lasted until 1978. Much like its predecessor, the show dealt with hot button topics you weren’t seeing anywhere else on television. Maude’s maid on the show was Florida, who moved to Chicago with her family.
That became the center point of the new show, Good Times, which starred Esther Roll and John Amos. Of course, the breakout star of that show wound up being Jimmie Walker as the character of “JJ.” The show - which premiered in 1974 - further showed that Lear had staying power, as he managed to have four hit shows running simultaneously during this time.
By 1981, Florence on The Jefferson’s, played by Marla Gibbs, wound up getting her own series. The show was called Checking In. Unlike the other Lear shows of that time, it was not a success and only lasted 6 episodes. After its failure, Gibbs returned to The Jefferson's.
By 1979, change was brought to the Bunker family. Archie and Edith were spun off into a new show, Archie Bunker’s Place. Edith wound up being killed off early on, as Jean Stapleton was ready to leave the show. Bunker carried it until 1982, when finally, after 12 years, Archie Bunker was off the air.
There was one last attempt in 1982 at a new Bunker series with Gloria, which spun-off his daughter, played by Sally Struthers. The show was, sadly, not a success and was canceled after only one season. This was the final time that we’d see the Bunker family, but it wasn’t the last entry into the Lear universe.
In 1994, Lear made one final attempt at keeping the universe alive with 704 Hauser. The main link to the universe was the address, as no previous characters returned for this series. (Though John Amos did star in the new show). Instead, it followed a black family that moves into the old Bunker house in New York. The show was not well received and was off the air within 5 episodes.
Beyond the universe, Lear’s created a large body of work that will surely stand the test of time. He is a television legend for a reason. Long may he live!