Welcome to the 240th episode of TV’s Top 5, The Hollywood Reporter’s TV podcast.
Every week, hosts Lesley Goldberg (West Coast TV editor) and Daniel Fienberg (chief TV critic) break down the latest TV news with context from the business and critical sides, welcome showrunners, executives and other guests, and provide a critical guide of what to watch (or skip, as the case may be).
This week, TV’s Top 5 celebrates its five-year anniversary with an interview with our first guest ever — One Day at a Time co-creator Mike Royce — who joins us for the fifth time for a wide-ranging conversation about the state of the industry in 2018 and how much things have changed since then. The interview was conducted Tuesday, we called Royce back for another segment following the passing of television icon Norman Lear.
Other topics discussed in this episode include the SAG vote and Headlines, as well as Dan’s Critic’s Corner reviews of Netflix’s My Life With the Walter Boys and Hulu’s Culprits, among others.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our interview with Royce about working with Lear. Listen to the full conversation as well as the conversation about the industry’s changes over the past five years in this week’s TV’s Top 5.
We’re so sorry for your loss. May his memory be a blessing.
Royce: May his memory be a blessing. He’s the rare person who is pretty much guaranteed it’s going to be. He’s created memories for so many people. He’s changed the life of everybody in the country; he changed my life personally. America is a different place because of him. And certainly, television charted an entirely new path led by him.
When was the last time you saw and/or spoke with him?
Royce: In person would have been before the strike. Gloria and I were at his house, and we recorded some stuff for an awards show. I started to wonder about his health during the strike because he wasn’t coming out. I figured there would be at least a day that he would want to — I’m sure he wanted to participate even for a few minutes on the picket line. He had a birthday in July, and we had a big celebration at the CBS Television City gate, and he Zoomed in. I thought, “If he’s having to do that for this, maybe he’s a little bit on the decline.” That was the last time I talked to him in person.
As a comedy showrunner, how much credit does Norman deserve for all the ground that he broke decades ago?
Royce: The word “woke” has become a hilarious parody of itself. The greatest example is when somebody’s like, “TV’s just woke now, not like Norman Lear stuff.” You mean the most super woke TV? That’s what Norman was making. He was making society aware of so much that either you didn’t know about, or you were talking about it but never saw on television. Talk about a vanguard of artwork. Everybody looked at television, up until Norman hit it, as safe: Don’t ruffle anybody’s feathers. … Norman was ahead of all the tech guys — he got in there, and he broke things, and he made television a completely different place with situation comedy, which is mind-boggling when you think about it. All the things he covered in the first season of All in the Family — everything would be considered a “very special episode” these days because of the weight of the topics that they tackled.
What do you think the state of television would look like today had we all not been fortunate enough to have Norman Lear’s creations?
Royce: Maybe television would have been some place for just super sanitized product. And I say that word purposely. If he didn’t come on and prove that you can get ratings talking about uncomfortable topics, who knows where it would have gone? He shattered molds so entirely that everybody has followed in his wake all the way up to today. If Gloria and I had walked into people’s offices pitching a show about a Cuban-American family with a single mom and were going to do an episode about immigration and an arc about someone coming out, they would have smiled and said, “Thank you,” and we never would have heard from them again. But the moment you go in and say, “I’m here with Norman, and we’re doing a Norman Lear show,” they’re like, “We get everything you’re doing. We want what he did.” Everybody knows what you’re talking about. He set this entire standard for a genre that we can all draft off of.
In your mind, what is Norman’s legacy?
Royce: The power of art to communicate something is a real thing. We’re in a different world now where TV isn’t the only form of mass communication. But you can see on the internet, TikTok, anything that becomes a mass communication form, it has an effect. People form opinions and change their lives because of information. They’re learning. Norman understood that. The use of comedy to send a message is all him. I’m not saying he’s the first one to do it, but he crystallized it for television. Norman both got laughs and used that as a force for good. He was unparalleled in making entertainment that was sending a message. No one else did it like him. Nobody.
We’ve been talking so much about Lear’s topicality and boundary-breaking these past few days, but I’m glad you mentioned the humor. If these shows weren’t hilarious then and now, we wouldn’t be talking about them at all. Could you talk a bit about Lear’s humor as the source of much of that affection?
Royce: If you look at All in the Family, it’s not that it’s not dated — it is, obviously — but it still is really hilarious. The clips you see of the Sammy Davis Jr. episode are getting gigantic laughs that are happening while you’re seeing something take place. That hadn’t been on television before. … Norman understood getting all kinds of messages out there. You can’t necessarily force people to understand them the way you understand them, but he never stopped until the very end. Anything that was an issue in society, he wanted to talk about it.
Before you started working with Norman, did you have a defining and/or maybe favorite show of his?
Royce: All in the Family. It was like nothing you’d ever seen before. In the beginning, I was too young to understand why it was groundbreaking. But there’s no other shows like this except the other shows that this guy does. We got such a flood of Norman Lear shows that you got used to it — like this is just the way television is now.
For much more from Royce, including his thoughts on the future of the television industry, listen to the full interview, above.