How Norman Lear’s Legacy Continues to Inspire Change Through Scripted Storytelling – Interview with Hollywood, Health & Society Program Director Kate Folb

ATX TV Fest’s closing night event this year honors the boundary-pushing work of the legendary Norman Lear through star-studded script readings from two of his most iconic shows, Maude and Good Times. “Norman Lear's TV for the People: Script Reading and Conversation” will be held on Saturday, June 1st, at 7:00 pm at ACL Live, with individual tickets available through AXS. The event is hosted by the Hollywood, Health & Society, a program from USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center, and in advance of the presentation, I had the pleasure of speaking with the Hollywood, Health & Society’s Program Director, Kate Folb.

(Hollywood, Health & Society/CBS/ATX)

(Hollywood, Health & Society/CBS/ATX)

“It's wonderful that ATX is doing this,” Kate Folb said about the closing night event. “We just lost Norman last year. In fact, he passed away the day before our annual Sentinel Awards. The news hit the morning of our red carpet Hollywood event, where we honor writers and showrunners and networks and studios for the good work they're doing around a number of important issues.” Kate recalled that night as being bittersweet. “I feel like everybody's been able to take a breath and process the fact that we lost him. He was 101 years old, and he still had three shows in production. The guy was still working. I get to sit back and enjoy it, celebrate, and remember Norman. I was lucky enough to have known him fairly well and call him a friend as well as a mentor, so it'll be nice to do that.”

Norman Lear's body of TV work didn’t just impact pop culture; it also inspired real and lasting social change. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel-produced Live in Front of a Studio Audience specials have highlighted some of Lear’s most monumental episodes, and two have been selected for this ATX panel. For the Maude portion of the event, Pamela Adlon (Better Things) will take on Bea Arthur’s role while Constance Zimmer (Good Trouble) fills in for Rue McClanahan in a reading of the controversial episode “Maude’s Dilemma.”

“We have been wanting to do something around that Maude episode for a long time, and so has ATX,” Kate Folb revealed. “They were thinking of doing a Live in Front of a Studio Audience Jimmy Kimmel thing of that episode. We had been told that might happen this year, so they didn't want to do the reading here, but that apparently is not going to happen, so they went ahead. It's been something that we've wanted to do for a long time.”

When the two-part episode “Maude’s Dilemma” aired on November 14th and November 21st, 1972, the Supreme Court was in the middle of debating about Roe v. Wade, which passed on January 22nd, 1973. “It was groundbreaking in so many ways,” explained Kate Folb. “Norman got things right about abortion back then that we're still struggling for people to understand now, the most important being that most women who seek abortions are already parents. It's not the teenager or the college student who has plans for her life. It's usually somebody who's already a parent, and Maude was that. So that, in and of itself, was incredibly groundbreaking for that time. That's like the iconic Maude episode, the one where Maude finds herself pregnant. She's got a grown daughter, she's in her late 40s or early 50s at that time, and they have to make this decision. The title of the episode is ‘Maude’s Dilemma,’ so it's about [Maude and her husband] talking. Maude says, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ And her husband says, ‘Look, for you, for me, for the privacy of our home, and our family, and our bedroom, you're doing the right thing.’ At the staged reading, we’ll play a quote from Norman on video. Norman talks about how, because they did everything in front of a live studio audience, you could just feel the audience. They were right there with them. This was a private, personal moment between a husband and a wife, and no one else should be involved. That holds up even today.”

Paired with “Maude’s Dilemma” is the Good Times episode “The IQ Test,” which debuted on October 22nd, 1974, and explored systemic racism through examination practices. The reading will feature Dulé Hill (The Wonder Years) and Haneefah Wood (Schooled) as James and Florida, with Daniel Kyri (Chicago Fire) as Michael, who refuses to take his school’s test. “Good Times was really interesting because, at that time, there weren’t many shows about people who weren't wealthy, or at least very middle class,” Kate shared, whose role at the Hollywood, Health & Society focuses on how scripted series educate viewers on important issues. “Not only did it portray a different lifestyle than what was being portrayed on TV at that time, but it also showed how struggle and stress can affect a person's health. Why do Black men have high blood pressure? Well, they're constantly under a number of levels of pressure, not only having to work two jobs to feed their kids but also being a Black man in America at that time with the racism and all that was involved. So there were a lot of those kinds of issues that were brought to the table with Good Times, and it was something we had never seen before.”

If you’ll be in the Austin area on June 1st, tickets are still available to see “Norman Lear's TV for the People: Script Reading and Conversation,” part of ATX TV Festival’s closing night festivities. But for everyone else, rest assured that Norman Lear’s legacy of inspiring change is alive and well through the work Kate Folb and her dedicated team are doing at the Hollywood, Health & Society. While the issues Norman Lear began tackling through Maude and Good Times in the 1970s are still prevalent today, Kate is also focused on issues with a global impact. “The Norman Lear Center did a study last year looking at how many climate change-related storylines, or even just scenes, or even just a sentence or two, were reflected in a swath of current television programming,” Kate shared. “They found that it was less than 2%, so climate change is a huge topic that we're already facing, and it's barely been touched on in popular television. So now you can break climate change down into plastic pollution and water use and all kinds of things. There are so many stories to be told in that regard, so that's one that we hope to see more of. We've been working to bring more awareness around it.”

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).