When you live to be 101 years of age, it's hard for anyone say that you haven't lived a good life, and you'd be laughed out of just about any room if you tried to say as much about Norman Lear. While perhaps best known for his work in comedy, specifically as the creator and/or executive producer of such classic sitcoms like All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, and Good Times, Lear had a hand in more than a few cult projects over the years as well, and while their fanbases might not have the same level of mainstream popularity, they're still fondly remembered within certain circles. Here at Q, we decided to honor the late, great Mr. Lear by taking a look at some of the music-related efforts in his back catalog, some of which are more widely recalled than others.
1. He was directly responsible for This Is Spinal Tap getting made.
It's a story that's been told often, most frequently by director Rob Reiner, but Lear was the head of Embassy Pictures at the time Reiner came in with his pitch for the film, which had already been soundly rejected by many other studios. After Reiner made his pitch and left the office, Lear reportedly turned to the executives in the room and demanded the answer to a simple question: "Who's going to tell him he can't do it?" Apparently, when the question is being posed by Norman Lear, the answer is "no one." As Christopher Guest told Flavorwire in 2014, "If it hadn’t been for Norman Lear, there would have never been a movie, because he was the only one who said, ‘Just go and do this,’ and he trusted Rob."
2. He co-produced the short-lived TV series A Year at the Top, starring Paul Shaffer and Greg Evigan.
If you don't remember it, don't worry, you're not alone: it premiered in August 1977 and barely made it into September before being canceled. That it failed despite the fact that Lear was riding high on the success of those aforementioned classic sitcoms at the time... Well, that's crazy enough, but what's even crazier is that Lear co-produced the series, which revolved around a pop-rock duo (played by Shaffer and Evigan) who sell their soul to the son of the devil in order to secure success, with Don Kirschner. So much for "The Man with the Golden Ear." Still, you have to give them credit for their optimism: they were so sure it was going to be a hit that they had a soundtrack album ready to roll. Too bad the series was canceled before anyone really had a chance to hear it: the tunes were pretty catchy!
3. He created Fernwood 2 Night, the faux talk show which gave us one of the most surreal TV music moments of all time.
To set the stage, Fernwood 2 Night was a talk show parody, one which was hosted by Bart Gimble (Martin Mull) alongside his sidekick/announcer Jerry Hubbard. Since it was a spin-off of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and was set in the same city - Fernwood, Ohio - the show generally featured guests who were created out of whole cloth, but on occasion they'd figure out a way to bring an actual celebrity into the proceedings...like, say, having Tom Waits' tour van break down on the way to a concert in Toledo. Waits performs "The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)" with the show's laugh track reacting to every off-kilter lyric, after which he strolls over to do a similarly eccentric interview, one which ends with him bumming twenty bucks. Truly, this is must-see TV.
4. He executive-produced Square Pegs, a TV touchstone of the new wave era.
Given how much it spoke to the teenage viewers of the 1980s, it should come as no surprise that this was another series that failed to last more than a single season, but during its short lifespan, Square Pegs brought a considerable amount of new wave music into prime time, starting with its theme song, performed by the Waitresses, who can also be seen in the pilot episode performing their signature hit, "I Know What Boys Like." In addition, there's a later episode where Muffy, played by Jami Gertz, has Devo play her bat mitzvah. Also guesting in that episode: Richard Blade, the legendary KROQ DJ. John Densmore of the Doors pops up in a few episodes, too, playing - what else - a drummer, while the series' final episode features a performance by rockabilly band Jimmy and the Mustangs. On top of that, you can hear plenty of other '80s tunes playing and seeing countless band posters on the various characters' walls. And you thought it was only famous for being Sarah Jessica Parker's first big TV series...
5. He executive-produced the 2007 acclaimed documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song.
If you've read Lear's memoir, Even This I Get to Experience, then you know that he was a man who knew and loved his history, and he was also very much someone who believed that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. As such, it should come as no surprise that he went out of his way to stand behind documentaries that had something from which people could learn, and God knows they could learn a lot from the work of singer-songwriter and political activist Pete Seeger. As Rafer Guzman of Newsday wrote, "Pete Seeger: The Power of Song could have been called Pete Seeger: The First Punk." Clearly, he was a guy who was right up Lear's philosophical alley.