You will learn more about creativity, comedy and storytelling in one hour with Norman Lear than you’ll learn … anywhere. Thanks to a convergence of very very fortunate events, I spent a little over a year with Norman, working with him, having lunch with him, watching him make television. This was one of the happiest and best experiences in my creative life and, to this day, his approach forms much of the basis of how I think about creativity.
Here are just some of the lessons I learned from Norman Lear!
WHAT IS THE AUDIENCE SEEING?
A fair number of the things I learned from Norman are variations on this theme. He has an uncanny ability to listen to a pitch or read a script and immediately visualize it as the audience would see it.
Writers tend to live in their heads. Audiences see things in two dimensions (three in theatre, but you still have that proscenium most of the time). Norman is able to envision what’s in the forefront, what’s in the background, who’s doing what in which staging. He is able to identify the places where you’d assumed the audience knew something — when they didn’t have a clue.
KNOW WHAT THE AUDIENCE KNOWS, THEN GIVE THEM THE INFORMATION THEY NEED TO GET TO THE NEXT STEP.
Along the same lines, when you’re seeing what the audience is seeing, you’re thinking about what they already know. If they’re coming in cold, you’re thinking “Have they seen a preview, a tag line, a poster? Where are they coming from? How are they watching? What do they expect?”
What is the first thing your audience sees? What are you telling them? What do they need to know to get to the next step?
Great storytelling is an unbreakable chain of events.
If you’re a business trying to tell your story, you’re thinking about where the consumer is seeing you. What environment are you in? Where are they? What do they need / expect.
Take your time! Unsure, unsteady people won’t stick around and they certainly won’t get what you’re trying to do. That doesn’t mean you need to oversimplify.
IF I’M FEELING IT, YOU’RE FEELING IT.
Norman has enormous cultural antennae. He feels the room, the audience, the culture. He commands a room not by force, but because he can take it all in. You want to be part of this guy, because he contains Whitman’s proverbial “multitudes.”
Reading a script or pitching a story, Norman knows that if he was feeling strong emotions — one way or another — the audience will feel them too. (Including — and I heard this from him more than once — boredom!)
Before he became one of the most successful producers in the history of television, Norman made a very funny comedy called “Cold Turkey” about a town in the Midwest that tries to give up cigarettes. (You could do a remake today of the same town trying to kick social media.)
He spent three months in the Midwest making the movie. When he returned, he told TV execs “The country is ready for an openly political, funny, satirical show on TV… I’ve talked to them! They’re feeling what we’re feeling!”
And then he made All In The Family.
That said, the year I worked with him, Norman was feeling that the country was ready for a show about spirituality in our lives. Okay, so the antennae weren’t 100% foolproof. It happens.
The corollary to this:
IF YOU’RE HAVING AN IDEA, 100 OTHER PEOPLE ARE HAVING IT, TOO.
One of my jobs for Norman was coming up with new ideas for shows. Sometimes I’d walk in and say “I have a really great idea,” he’d listen and then counsel, “If you’re having that idea, 100 other people are, too. How do you make it uniquely yours? How can you do it in a way NO ONE ELSE could do it?”
Your first instinct, your stab in the dark, might be very good. But you need to take it further to get ahead of the 100 other people.
“WHAT DOES THE PIECE WANT TO BE” AND “THE ROPES ARE UP.”
At a certain point in writing, you realize that the piece is beginning to define itself. It “wants to be” something. Your job from then on in is to make it the best piece it can be, on its own terms. Defy this law at your own risk. The piece will always have its way.
The same applies to finding your mission and your story as a business. I’ve been in many organizations where they “thought” they were in one business, but when they really thought about what they were doing, there was a disconnect between the reality of the business and the story they wanted to believe. You have to figure out which way you’re going … the piece wants to be what the piece wants to be.
We are all inclined to overthink and tinker. Nothing destroys a performance or a good story more than people who don’t understand that, at one point, “The Ropes Are Up.” The ship is sailing, and your role is just to sail the boat.
SOMETIMES, YOUR JOB IS TO JUST LISTEN.
I was young when I worked with Norman, and SOOOO eager to please. We’d have meetings and I’d come super-prepared. Norman would start talking and I’d interrupt to give him an idea I’d already worked on, or to demonstrate that I was right there, thinking along with him.
One day, a colleague confided to me: Norman loves you. But sometimes, he wishes you’d just shut up.
After that, I was a lot quieter. And I learned more. Thanks, Colleague.
I’ll update this list from time to time… but all of the things I learned from Norman are alive in my head and apply very much to how we tell our stories and do business.