Friday, January 11, 2008

Bill Idelson

Writer/actor Bill Idelson passed away last week. He was 88. His acting credits are as recent as WILL & GRACE and as far back as network radio. (He once was a regular on a radio series playing a character named “Skeezix”.) Maybe his most famous role was playing Sally Rogers boyfriend on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Talk about being ahead of your time. He was the consummate nerd in 1962.

I knew him as a comedy writer. In the 60s and 70s he was on the A-list. (THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE ODD COUPLE, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, GET SMART, GOMER PYLE, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, LOVE AMERICAN STYLE, even that laugh riot TWILIGHT ZONE.) He won two Writers Guild Awards (one for GET SMART and the other for ANDY GRIFFITH). He did an episode of MASH for us that was a sheer delight (meaning: we didn’t have to change any of it!).

But Bill’s real contribution was as a teacher. For years he held a comedy writing class in his house – BILL IDELSON’S WRITING WORKSHOP, For Writers who want to be professionals. Many of today’s top comedy scribes were mentored by Bill. And if you were in his class you could always call him, bounce ideas off him, seek advice, which he always freely and lovingly gave. More than anything else, Bill was a great cheerleader. So supportive of young writers. He didn’t just teach, he inspired.

In his own words, his philosophy:

Pointing out that an idea has been done is off limits. If you say it’s been done, everything stops dead, but if you stick with it, it will probably turn out to be something totally different. And it shows it was good to go on the air. The main thing is to keep a positive attitude. If you start turning things off before they are developed, you’re going to put everybody in a frightened mood, and they are going to get very negative.

I don’t know about you but that’s the kind of guy I want teaching me a creative skill.

He wrote a book WRITING FOR DOUGH. It's well worth checking out.

I bet on the picket lines next week there will be a lot of great Bill Idelson stories. I’m only sorry he won’t be there with us, telling them himself.

19 comments:

Jeff Greenstein said...

Bill was a lovely man. His daughter Ellen, also a comedy writer, wrote the episode of Will & Grace in which he appeared (alongside Ellen's mom, if I'm not mistaken).

Sadly, Ellen too passed away a few years ago. Wonderful, sweet woman.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

I loved Mr. Idelson's book, though I had to get over the mercenary title. It took me a few chapters to accept that this was written by a writer worth listening to. It is also one of the most timeless books on tv sitcom writing I know.

Bitter Animator said...

Interesting philosophy on things that have been done before. Am I remembering correctly in thinking that one of the things that Cheers and MASH had was a refusal to do stories that had been done before?

Anonymous said...

Attitude is everything, and the, "It's been done," line is hereby forever retired after it was last used, quite perfectly, by George Burns...

Anonymous said...

I was surprised to see that Mr. Idelson wrote only 2 episodes of MASH...."The Korean Surgeon" (one of my favorites) and "Tea and Empathy". When I heard of his passing I immediately thought of MASH....I guess those 2 episodes really made an impression on me.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Idelson.

Diogo said...

syHe wrote one of my favourite episodes of "The Odd Couple", "The princess", where Oscar falls in love with royalty.

Brian Scully said...

My rule for table behavior by writers is this: You don't point out a problem unless you are also providing the fix. Period. No exceptions. The last thing a sitcom table needs is a critic.

Diogo said...

Or an anal retentive that wants to go back and check for grammar mistakes.

olucy said...

Herman Glimpsher! Oh...sad. Once you mentioned the Dick Van Dyke Show, I recognized the face.

Thank you, Ken, for paying tribute to people who we have lost track of but who were very important to our television enjoyment over the years. Writing about someone's passing isn't the most pleasant of pasttimes, I'm sure, but there are so many people who work behind the scenes of whom the average viewer isn't aware until you point out their contributions. I appreciate your deep respect for their work, and I enjoy reading about them.

Anonymous said...

Is recognizing a problem at the table without an immediate fix never worthwhile in and of itself? Can it never be a two-step process. Recognizing the problem... And then fixing it? Also, the more times you ignore the anal-retentive stuff like grammar, the more likely it is that the bad grammar, etc., becomes the new norm & the bar lowers. Not to imply there isn't a point where you can go overboard wasting too much time.

Ben K. said...

I'm really sorry to hear that. I took Bill's workshop a few years ago, and it seemed like a real labor of love for him. And while I liked some aspects of his teaching style more than others, I really appreciated the fact that he charged so little for the sessions. (I think it was something like $15.) As a result, he drew a great group of young aspiring writers and improv comedians who probably couldn't have afforded it otherwise.

D. McEwan said...

Grammar is less important when writing dialogue than writing prose. A character must speak as the character would. Frasier Crane's (Kelsey) grammar must be impeccable, and he must point out when others have split their infinitives, but if you corrected the grammar of any character ever played by Slim Pickens, he wouldn't have been able to speak at all.

And obviously there is value in saying, "We have a problem here with Bill's motavation for opening the door. Any ideas how to fix that?" If you think of identifying a problem point before you have a fix for it as simply criticizing, you're being too sensitive. Leave it at the door.

As for "It's been done before", I'm of two minds. Using "It's been done before" to close a door on an idea may well prevent you from finding a very fresh take on it that will lead somewhere new. On the other hand:

Two persons share an apartment. A local election is happening. Person A begins publically supporting and working for a candidate person B finds odious. Person B responds by working personally for Candidate B. Only when Person B utterly, publically comitted to Candidate B, does Person B find that Candidate B is a complete loon. Embaressment ensues.

CAVEMEN recently did this plot. Watching it (NOTHING else was on!) I could only think WILL & GRACE did this story better. Then, a week or two later, I saw a FRASIER repeat with this storyline. FRASIER handled it best of course, but still, someone somewhere needed to say, "It's been done - to death."

Brian Scully said...

Trust me, as someone who has been working at sitcom tables for 20 years, ANYONE can point out a problem... the kid who gets our lunch can point out a problem, as can the guy delivering the mail. Writers, REAL writers, get paid to fix problems, to craft better jokes, to make stories better. I've worked with a lot of writers who spent most of their table time pointing out things that were wrong with scripts without ever having a fresh pitch or idea... and you've seen them too... they do most of their writing in Starbucks now.

On a separate note, I also think that Bill Idelson was a hell of a writer and big part of TV comedy for a long time. I wish there was a way to honor some of these senior writers who contributed so much to TV, but BEFORE they pass away... so they could read how some of us feel about them.

Ken Levine said...

Brian,

One of the features of this blog is to honor some of those great writers who contributed so much and are still with us. I'll be doing more in the future.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

In addition to all those other great credits, Idelson wrote the Christmas episode in the second season of Happy Days (the one where Fonzie is going to be alone for Christmas until Richie invites him over). Idelson's script, and the finished episode, were so good that for several years thereafter Happy Days didn't even bother to do a new Christmas episode: they'd just haul out Idelson's episode and shoot a new introduction with Fonzie "flashing back" to the events of two or three years ago.

jbryant said...

brian: I've never worked on a sitcom, but surely you'd rather have a problem pointed out than NOT, right? Even if the "pointer" doesn't have a solution immediately worked out? Of course, if the problem isn't TRULY a problem, but just some lame writer's misguided effort to "contribute," then yeah, call 'em on it. But if I were in that room, and I thought I'd found a real problem, would you really want me to sit there biting my lip about it just because I hadn't worked out a solution yet?

Maybe I've just read too much into your comment though. Your credits suggest you know what you're talking about, and you've won an Emmy, which is more than I've won (to the tune of one). :)

Bob Sassone said...

Nice post Ken. Glad to see people like this aren't forgotten.

Janice Maiorana said...

Bill was the best. He was the greatest writing teacher and I am so lucky to have been taught by him. I loved his sense of humor and the relationship I forged with him. I am also grateful to have known his daughter, Ellen. She once told me to “embrace failure” and if I did, I would succeed in her father's class. That was the best advice I ever received.

Bill really enjoyed working for Ken while writing an episode of MASH. He once told me that the stars of the show wanted to re-write some of his lines, but Ken wouldn't allow that to happen. He appreciated Ken’s support.

One of the things I loved about his class were the unique projects he assigned. He would send us off to write with a small chunk of material to expand on. When we would return to class, it was common that no one would nail the task. He would laugh and then escort us into the TV room. He would then take great pride in showing us an episode of The Odd Couple that he wrote. As we watched, it became clear that we were watching our assignment. When it was over he would say...”Now that's how it's done. Go home and do it again”. It was a great exercise in embracing failure.

He was always tough in a positive way. And I appreciate everything I learned from him.

Maya in Michigan said...

I'm in my 40s but was introduced to Bill Idelson through the brilliant radio show Vic and Sade (when he was "Billy" Idelson). He did excellent voice work, contributing to the uproarious, surreal playlets. My parents listened to the show religiously in the 1930s and '40s and played tapes for my brothers and me when we were growing up.