When David and I were starting out, writing spec scripts, we watched the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW every afternoon. We played a little game called “guess the writer”. The writing credit always came at the end. Easiest to predict was scripts written by Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson. They were always funnier, sharper, better. And they were our inspiration. Our career goal was to be the next Marshall & Belson, to have our scripts be considered that cut above.
Jerry passed away last week. He was 68. He always said that on his gravestone it was going to read, “I did it their way”. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Jerry was truly an original. His work was always a little daring, verrrry dark, his comic voice was always strong. Satisfying the mainstream was not his goal. He’d pitch a joke and Garry would say, “Jerry, only four people will get that,” to which Jerry would say, “More than enough.”
I worked with Jerry on CHEERS. He was an uncredited punch-up man, coming in one day a week. Invariably we would put in eight Belson jokes, five would go because the actors couldn’t deliver them as funny as Jerry did, and the three that remained were the three biggest laughs of the show.
Jerry never spoke. He whined. And he was such a presence that pretty soon everyone around him whined too. I was once in a rewrite session on the TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW and there was Jim Brooks, Sam Simon, Ken Estin, and Heide Perlman all whining along with Jerry. It sounded like dueling Jewish mothers.
Jerry once pitched a joke on CHEERS and when the Charles Brothers politely rejected it, he said, “But it got a big laugh on THE ODD COUPLE.” A perplexed Glen Charles asked why he would pitch it here if they used the same joke on THE ODD COUPLE? Jerry’s whiney reply: “Hey, what went before is good, too.”
After one table reading, Shelley Long was upset about the script and came up to the writers room to discuss it. She stated her objections for about five minutes and Jerry just got up and headed for the door, crossing right in front of her. Shelley was stunned. She stopped in mid-sentence and asked where he was going? Jerry said, “Honey, this ain’t in my deal” and walked out. Hardly behavior from a guy who did it “their way”.
Jerry wrote a great movie in the early 70’s called SMILE about a local beauty contest. It was the GUFFMAN of its day. If you get a chance Netflix it. The movie was adapted for a Broadway musical, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, his PLAYBILL bio read, “SMILE fulfills a lifelong dream for Mr. Belson – to be paid twice for the same script.” Jerry was not known for his sentimentality.
Garry Marshall tells the story of how he finally married his wife, Jo Ann, 30 years ago. She had given him an ultimatum: “Marry me or I'm flying to Europe.” As he waited with her at the airport, she repeated the demand.
"What do you want? Should I take off or stay?" she said.
Belson quickly whined: "Can you take off and circle?"
When I won my first Writer’s Guild Award the first person I thanked was Jerry Belson. He was my friend, my colleague, one of my mentors, and in a world of extremely funny people he was one of the funniest.
So many great Jerry Belson stories. His tales of growing up in comedy mecca, El Centro, bragging about writing for Chilly Willy, but my personal favorite is that when my son was born he sent a gift along with a very touching hand written card that said, “Dear Matthew, always remember I was funnier than your father.”
Sunday, October 15, 2006
By Ken Levine at 4:12 PM