This story about “Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music & Laughter” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Comedy/Variety/Reality/Nonfiction issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Norman Lear has been winning Emmys for more than 50 years, so it makes perfect sense that he’s back in the race this year. His first two came in 1971 for his groundbreaking series “All in the Family,” while his fifth and sixth came in 2019 and 2020 for “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” specials that included real-time reenactments of “All in the Family” episodes.
The last of those came when he was 98 years old, making him the oldest Emmy winner in history. So when Lear turned 100 in the summer of 2022, it made sense that ABC, the network that aired “Live in Front of a Studio Audience,” would embrace the ensuing tribute special “Norman Lear: 100 Years of Music & Laughter,” and it’s no surprise that Emmy voters would give it a spot among the nominees for Outstanding Variety Special (Pre-Recorded).
“I knew that I didn’t want it to be a clip reel,” Brent Miller, one of the special’s executive producers and the president of Lear’s Act III Productions, told TheWrap. “I thought that would be the easy way, to go through clips of his entire library through the years. That would be paying homage to his resume, but it wouldn’t be the celebration of a life well lived.”
Another producer, David Jammy from Done + Dusted, suggested a roundtable at which Lear could discuss his work with a small group of people who’d been influenced by him.
“We came up with Jimmy Kimmel, Octavia Spencer, Amy Poehler and Jennifer Aniston, and I guess you could call it a tool to use in the editing to layer up the evening and really tap into Norman’s story,” Miller said. “It allowed the special to have an emotional arc and not just be a celebration, but the story of his life.”
The panel was shot about three weeks before a live event celebrating Lear’s 100th birthday, and the two combined into an hour-and-a-half show of performance, conversation and testimonial. “The roundtable was, in a sense, like a safety net,” Miller said. “We shot that so we knew how we could program the evening seamlessly, knowing what we already had. We wanted to have various segments that were thematically aligned with his life, whether it was the shows or politics or philanthropy.”
Participants in the live celebration included Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross opening the show with a rendition of the “All in the Family” theme song, “Those Were the Days,” along with Rita Moreno, Tony Danza, Rob Reiner, Justina Machado and Tom Hanks, who had the key role of making a connection between Lear’s work for progressive causes and the lifelong patriotism most evident when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II and flew 52 combat missions.
“A lot of people didn’t know that he is one of our oldest living World War II combat veterans,” Miller said. “That is a huge part of his life that helped shape his future, and Tom Hanks was our first choice to tell that part of Norman’s story.”
Lear turned 101 in July and has a full slate of upcoming projects on hold because of the strikes. For the record, he will not break his own record as the oldest living Emmy winner if “100 Years of Music & Laughter” takes home the award: He may have been a producer on and thus a winner for the two “Live in Front of a Studio Audience” specials, but he was kept away from this one.
“He knew nothing about it at all,” Miller said. “He was not a part of the casting, he was not a part of the edit. He had to stay out of it, because it was for him.”