Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sam Denoff & Sherwood Schwartz

Sam Denoff
I always wanted to be Sam Denoff. And Sherwood Schwartz (for different reasons). We lost them both last week.  This is the first chance I've had to write about them but I couldn't let their passings go without comment.   And deep appreciation. 

1975 was when I quit my radio job (okay, I was fired, but I was offered another radio job and didn’t take it) and moved back to Los Angeles to seriously pursue a career in TV comedy writing. I worked at a dead-end job during the day and at night furiously wrote spec scripts with my partner, David Isaacs.

One Sunday – and this will tell you how very long ago it was – I walked into a bookstore. (Note: there used to be retail establishments that carried books you could buy. You could browse the shelves, stand around and skim through a portion of one, and then if you decided to purchase it, you would approach a live person, hand him money or a credit card, and then get to take the book home that day. Wacky, huh?)

At the time, I devoured all books on comedy writing. (There were also no blogs back then.) In one a full script was included. This served as an example of the perfect teleplay. It was “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I bought that book and must’ve read that script a hundred times. I was in awe. It was a major inspiration to me. And the gold standard. Someday I wanted to write a script – just one – that was that good. So good it was in a book!

That script was written by Sam Denoff & Bill Persky.

Sam became one of my idols. I followed his career. And he shaped mine. Sometimes it seemed he was writing directly to me. I wanted to be a comedy writer – he wrote on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW about a comedy writer. I also wanted to be a funny radio disc jockey. He co-created GOOD MORNING WORLD about a funny morning disc jockey team. I desperately wanted a girlfriend. He co-created THAT GIRL. If I may paraphrase the Roberta Flack hit, he was “Killing Me Softly With His Jokes”.

I only got to meet him one time and it was a somewhat surreal experience. I was invited to be on a nationally syndicated radio show to discuss comedy. Turns out the broadcast emanated not from a radio station or a recording studio but some dude’s backyard in the Valley. I sat around a pool chatting on the air with the host, Sam Denoff, and crazy-person, Marty Ingels. On the one hand it was great to be thought of as a peer of one of my comedy writing heroes, on the other I was also a peer of a total nut.

After the broadcast, Sam and I spoke for awhile. He couldn’t have been nicer. I’m always interested in the creative process, especially in teams. Sam told me he and his partner always wrote head-to-head, never just splitting up scenes and going off separately. That’s the way David and I work too. We must be doing something right if the great Persky & Denoff wrote that way.  I told him of the book and he was delighted that his work was used as a tool to help teach young writers.

A few years later FRASIER put out a book of selected scripts including one of ours. You can imagine the significance of that to me. When as a young struggling writer I used to dream of that and saw it as a great “I have arrived” moment. Now I view it as a great “Pay it forward” opportunity. Thanks for everything, Sam Denoff.

Sherwood Schwartz
In an industry that believes when you turn 30 you automatically lose the ability to make people laugh, Sherwood Schwartz proved that being funny is ageless. I got to know him a little in his later years. His granddaughter was dating my son for awhile. Well into his 90’s and Sherwood was sharp and funny and insightful as could be. I once got the chance to drive him home after a family brunch and it was a treat just to hear him to riff on the topics of the day. I’d say the man forgot more about comedy than most people ever knew but Sherwood never forgot anything.

He’s much maligned of course because the two hit shows he created – GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH – were hardly sophisticated fare. But I’m here to tell you, to create a monster hit television program that made such a big impact and remains on the air today is damn near impossible. It’s a once-in-a-billion chance. And this man created TWO. I envy his success and what a kind-hearted person he was. A lot of the fortune he made off those shows have gone to worthy charities. I so wish he had owned the Dodgers.

But because GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH were not considered high art, the industry never took him seriously. Explain to me why Mark Burnett creates mindless reality shows and is a considered a genius while Sherwood Schwartz created beloved long-enduring sitcoms and Hollywood looked down its nose at him. I dare say more kids benefited from lessons learned on THE BRADY BUNCH than from CELEBRITY APPRENTICE.

Sherwood was also a good sport. The 1995 BRADY BUNCH MOVIE directed by Betty Thomas was hilarious. But it was also poked a lot of fun at the TV series. A more thin-skinned creator would have nixed that script in a minute. But not Sherwood. He thought it was funny like everyone else. You don’t get the Midas Touch by accident. THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE was a boxoffice hit. Sherwood Schwartz knew what worked.

Sam Denoff was 83. Sherwood Schwartz was 94. I will miss them both.  But I take comfort in knowing their laughs will go on forever.

42 comments:

Steve Schnier said...

Well put. A fine tribute to two comedic artists. They will be missed.

Sean Kernan said...

I just have to say how right you are about Sherwood Schwartz and your comparison with Mark Burnett. The Brady Bunch was a positive influence on millions of kids while Survivor continues to portray societies worst traits. Thanks for writing this.

ajm said...

Sam Denoff also co-wrote another signature episode of DICK VAN DYKE: "That's My Boy??"

Mac said...

Very nice tributes. I'd be infinitely more proud of The Brady Bunch than Celebrity Apprentice. To create a hugely populist show without resorting to the sensationalized garbage of reality TV is a much greater achievement.

Chicodee said...

Sam Denoff must have been brilliant given his contributions to one of the great TV sitcoms of all time. And nice words of appreciation of SS's contributions as well. They will be missed.

LinGin said...

I love your blog for a lot of things but it's tributes like these that make it special. Thanks, Ken.

The scene in "Coast-to-Coast Bigmouth" where Alan Brady is talking to his hairpieces is one of the funniest scenes in TV scripted comedy.

Bryan L said...

I've never seen a single episode of anything produced by Mark Burnett, and never will. I've seen EVERY episode of Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch. I don't know about anybody else, but I know who had the greater impact on me.

David said...

Lovely, Ken. Thanks.

BookSTORES also had real live people working there, who had often READ the books and could make recommendations based on your conversation, not just by "People who bought this book also bought..."

emily said...

What is that thing perched on Mark Burnett's head?

W.A.R.I.L. said...

Nice tributes, very heartfelt and I agree, no apology necessary for creating iconic shows like Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch.

However, what is this thing you speak of..."BOOK"?

John said...

Schwartz also helped make Bob Hope Bob Hope (when he was the funny Bob Hope) and extended Red Skelton's TV career by about 15 years, so even if you disdain Gilligan and the Bradys, his overall contribution to TV (and radio) comedy is far more than that.

Roger Owen Green said...

Loved Schwartz who also wrote or co-wrote the T shows' themes.

Michael said...

One of the best lines ever on "The Brady Bunch" came from an idol of Ken's and mine. Vin Scully once met Florence Henderson and said, "Miss Henderson, I have six kids, and we never solve ANYTHING in 28 minutes." A nice reminder that TV is not real life, even when "geniuses" like Mark Burnett try to make us believe it is. My mother always said "The Brady Bunch" was more realistic than people gave it credit for because it was about fairly nice people in a fairly normal world. Think about it.

As for Persky and Denoff, they also did Dick Van Dyke's short-lived but brilliant variety show, I believe.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if we are the last generation that will cherish the great old sitcoms, because they are no longer being repeated on easily accessible TV channels. In the old days you could come home from school and watch Gilligan, the Bradys, Dick Van Dyke, the Honeymooners, the Odd Couple, etc. Now that these shows are all on DVD, no networks seem to be showing them any more, and new generations won't be discovering them.

Mary Stella said...

Who cares if "someone" decided Gilligan's Island and Brady Bunch weren't "high art".

They entertained. That's more important.

Great tributes, Ken. Thanks to you, I have greater appreciation for these men.

Barbara C. said...

Actually, in the Chicago area we have two channels (Me, and Me Too) that show old sitcoms like the Brady Bunch and old 3 Stooges shorts. And a lot of people are rediscovering these shows via Netflix. My five-year-old loves The Cosby Show, which is so much better than the crap on Disney.

I have a great memory of being in a bookstore when my oldest was about 2 1/2 (she's now almost 9) singing the Brady Bunch theme at the top of her lungs. LOL

Mike Doran said...

You do have to admit that Gilligan's Island was always an implausible series - never realistic in the slightest.

Not long ago,I caught a rerun of the most totally implausible Gilligan's show they ever did.

Strother Martin played a contestant on a game show who got sent to "a completely deserted desert island" (Gilligan's, but who knew) to see if he could - what's the word I'm looking for here - you know, survive.

Well, there you are. How unrealistic can you get?
Of course, this was back around 1966. Nobody would buy a story like that today.

Would they?

Kirk said...

Wasn't "Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth" the first time we got to see what Alan Brady actually looked like? Up to that point, we only see the back of his head (though, if you recognize Carl Reiner's voice, you can easily guess what he looked like).

Phillip B said...

I'd love to see more scripts in print.

They may be perfect for e-books!

D. McEwan said...

I am a huge admirere of Sam Denoff. As for Schwatz, admittedly, I have yet to see an episode of The Brady Bunch, but then, that leaves me unable to criticize it. And while I could ot be called a fan of Gilligan's Island, I did always find it amiable fun, and with four really good comedy performers having a ball, and the other three not getting in the way of the comedy.

Earlier this year, a book titled Creatures of the Night That We Loved So Well: The TV Horror Hosts of Southern California was published (and is now in its second printing), and it reprints an entire TV script of mine (and not with the admonition: "Do not write like this."), so I do know that particular bit of pride personally. In this case, the book produces scans of every page of my actual original pages, so the kids today see what a "typewriter" turned out. (Typewriters were mechanical devices with computer keyboards atttached to a thing which aimed metal stamps of individual letters at an ink-soaked ribbon, which then stamped the letters onto a piece of paper. Woe to a page with typos. (And so, the book preserves my typos, type-overs, and hand-corrections. God the Stone Age was hard to write during.) Don't get me started on "White-Out" and "Carbon Paper."

Mark Burnett, or as I always refer to him, Palin's Pimp, is not a writer at all, so he's not really a fair comparison to a writer-producer. Burnett is, well, like I said, a pimp.

And Schwartz didn't have to deal with Bob Denver deciding in season 2that he was why people tuned in, and decidng to run things himself. My guess is that Florence Henderson did not keep a posted checklist of whom she wanteded to fire once she'd disposed of Schwartz. However, Natalie Schaeffer did once call me an "Asshat."

WV: "reessess": "recess" as spelled by someone who spent too much time in one and not enough back in the classroom.

Frank Paradise said...

Well said Ken!

D. McEwan said...

Oops. Didn't proof my first paragraph.

Mark Burnett said...

Well excuse me!

Please Don't Eat me said...

Got lucky enough to meet the whole Schwartz writing family when Sherwood came to the picket line at Radford during the strike. The irony was, of course, there's a parking lot where the lagoon once stood for Gilligan's Island.

Never met Sam Denoff, I think I would've like him.

RJ Battles said...

Hi, I have a quick question for Friday:

I read that Kirstie Alley was the only living Cheers main cast member to not appear on Frasier and that it was because of her belief in Scientology. Do you know if that's really true?

Thanks, RJ Battles

Johnny Walker said...

Lovely post, but isn't that "Marty Ingels", not "Marty Ingalls"?

D. McEwan said...

First show I ever saw Marty Ingals on was Denoff's Good Morning, World, which I liked, partly because I was a fan and friend of Lohman & Barkley, and I felt like it was based on them. As I remember, Goldie Hawn, pre-Laugh-In was a regular on it.

Sherri said...

Hey, Gilligan's Island may not be high art, but it was my first introduction to Shakespeare! (Remember the musical version of Hamlet the castaways did?)

cshel said...

Another great tribute post, Ken! : )

Joey H said...

Great post!

Paul Duca said...

Thank goodness Matt didn't fall in love with Sherwood's granddaughter...there would have been such n a pall over the wedding.

Michael said...

Kirk, it wasn't the first time. I think it was during the third season or so that Reiner finally showed his face. But it may have been the first time they showed Alan without his hair! "There must be some needy bald people!"

Anonymous said...

The first time I remember seeing Mary Ingels, was the tv show, "I'm Dickens, He's Fenster". It ran in the 62/63 season (I was 7 at the time). I loved the show. When we went on vacation that summer, my dad bought me a Dickens/Fenster coloring book. Wish I still had it, lol.

Pam aka SisterZip

D. McEwan said...

Aaaarrrgh!!! I hate when I'm fallible. I'm Dickens He's Finster was the first time I saw Marty Ingall's.Thank you, Anonymous. I was mixing up that with Good Morning World, and mixing up Ingalls with Ronny Schell. What is wrong with me? Oh yes, nearly 50 years fogging my memory.

cadavra said...

I audiotaped "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" on its summer rerun and played it back constantly. I saw the episode again decades later when I bought the DVD and was stunned by how many of Reiner's lines had found their way into my everyday speech.

I only met Denoff once; he was very nice, but alas, he allowed his very young girl friend to dominate the conversation, so I didn't learn quite as much as I'd have hoped. I did, however, walk away with a very unique collectible: I had (still have) a 16mm print of "October Eve" (the one about the nude painting of Laura), and he graciously autographed the leader!

estiv said...

The scene in "Coast-to-Coast Bigmouth" where Alan Brady is talking to his hairpieces is one of the funniest scenes in TV scripted comedy.

"There she is, boys, the gal who put you out of business." That may not be exact, but it's been over forty years and the gist of it is still burned into my brain.

Paul Duca said...

A friend told me he heard an interview with Schwartz from several years ago. He was asked what changes he might make if he were doing his shows today. He came right out and said he would make the Bradys interracial, and of the seven stranded castaways, one would be black and one Hispanic.

Mark said...

Hi Ken:

Any chance you can reveal name the name of that screenwriting book?

Thanks,
Mark

Ken Levine said...

Mark,

For the life of me I can't remember it. Otherwise I would have gladly shared the title and where, if anywhere, you can still buy it.

Ken

Lloyd J. Schwartz said...

Ken,
Thanks for the thoughts about Sam Denoff as well as your comments about my father, Sherwood Schwartz. None of the criticism of his/our shows affected him. He just wanted the people to like them and to say things about people having to learn to get along. It was interesting in all the coverage of his passing that many of the columnists, commentators and bloggers all remarked what a good guy he was. You seldom see that...and it was very true. I worked with him since 1965 and rarely did I hear anybody say anything unkind about him. He was one of the most professional and kind men in the business. Those are also lessons to be learned. You can be that way and also make a mark. See you around. Lloyd

douglas denoff said...

Ken

A beautiful tribute to dad - thank you! and I'm honored that my post is right under Lloyd's. He and I spoke last week and I send love and hugs from The Denoff's to Lloyd, Hope and their family. The 'Writers' Room' upstairs is getting crowded but fortunately we have their work to keep us smiling. I think the payoff scene in "That's My Boy" STILL holds the record for the longest laugh in sitcom history - Bud Molin, the editor, had to trim what actually happened in the Desilu studio because the audience couldn't stop laughing! "Ghost of A. Chantz" was inspired one night when dad was reading to me from the Golden Book Encyclopedia about ghosts and I said "why don't you write a show about ghosts?" And "Good Morning World" was loosely based on Dad & Persky's experience writing @ WNEW in NY for legendary DJ William B. Williams, who nicknamed Mr. Sinatra The Chairman of the Board, and who started every show with "Hello, World." And yes it was the first TV appearance of Goldie pre-Laugh-IN. That Girl continues to inspire women to this day. "The Funny Side," a very smart variety show hosted by the incomparable Gene Kelly was also the first major TV role for Cindy Williams, pre-Laverne & Shirley and on it goes. And to Mr. Burnett, you ARE the god of the genre you've created - and we should talk because I actually have a new show concept that'd be a SMASH! (showbiz is shameless, isn't it?). Anyway, Ken thanks again. You made me laugh!

douglas denoff said...

Ken

A beautiful tribute to dad - thank you! and I'm honored that my post is right under Lloyd's. He and I spoke last week and I send love and hugs from The Denoff's to Lloyd, Hope and their family. The 'Writers' Room' upstairs is getting crowded but fortunately we have their work to keep us smiling. I think the payoff scene in "That's My Boy" STILL holds the record for the longest laugh in sitcom history - Bud Molin, the editor, had to trim what actually happened in the Desilu studio because the audience couldn't stop laughing! "Ghost of A. Chantz" was inspired one night when dad was reading to me from the Golden Book Encyclopedia about ghosts and I said "why don't you write a show about ghosts?" And "Good Morning World" was loosely based on Dad & Persky's experience writing @ WNEW in NY for legendary DJ William B. Williams, who nicknamed Mr. Sinatra The Chairman of the Board, and who started every show with "Hello, World." And yes it was the first TV appearance of Goldie pre-Laugh-IN. That Girl continues to inspire women to this day. "The Funny Side," a very smart variety show hosted by the incomparable Gene Kelly was also the first major TV role for Cindy Williams, pre-Laverne & Shirley and on it goes. And to Mr. Burnett, you ARE the god of the genre you've created - and we should talk because I actually have a new show concept that'd be a SMASH! (showbiz is shameless, isn't it?). Anyway, Ken thanks again. You made me laugh!