In an excerpt from his new autobiography, “Even This I Get To Experience,” Norman Lear — who at one point in the late 1970s had seven of the top ten shows on American television — writes about CBS conducting focus groups to gauge reaction to the pilot of “All In The Family.”
The host explained that they were going to be shown a thirty-minute situation comedy and the network was interested in their reaction to it. At each chair there was a large dial at the end of a cable. They were to hold that dial while watching the show and twist it to the right when they thought something funny or were otherwise enjoying a moment. If they didn’t think something was funny, if it offended them or simply bored them, they were to twist their dial to the left. Two big clocklike instruments hung high on the wall over the TV set to register the degree of the likes and dislikes of the group as they twisted their dials.
Those of us monitoring the focus group sat behind them, looking into a one-way glass wall. We saw and heard everything, and it revealed a good deal of what I knew instinctively about human nature. The group howled with laughter, rising up in their chairs and falling forward with each belly laugh. But wait! Despite the sound and the body language, they were dialing left, claiming to dislike much of what they were seeing, and they were really unhappy with it. But really!
“Who wants to be seen as having no problem with words such as spic, kike, spade, and the like spewing from a bigot’s mouth?”
While I can’t say I could have predicted this behavior, unlike my friends at CBS I understood and was elated by the audience’s reaction. Who, sitting among a group of strangers, with that dial in his or her lap, is going to tell the world that they approve of Archie’s hostility and rudeness? And who wants to be seen as having no problem with words such as spic, kike, spade, and the like spewing from a bigot’s mouth? So our focus group might even have winced as they laughed, but laugh they did, and dialed left. Comedy with something serious on its mind works as a kind of intravenous to the mind and spirit. After he winces and laughs, what the individual makes of the material depends on that individual, but he has been reached.