Saturday, February 04, 2012
Meet Treva Silverman
A lot is being made of this being the year of women comedy writers. All the WHITNEY/CHELSEA crude girl sitcoms were created by women. So by inference it's easy to get the impression that TV's ladies of laughter studied their craft at frat houses.
Not so. There have been many women writers who travel exclusively on the high road. One in particular is Treva Silverman.
Her comedy comes from character – keenly observing the behavior and absurdity of real people and real situations. Her laughs are hard earned because they derive from humanity not the easier route – cynicism. I’ve always believed that “only the truth is funny” and Treva’s built a nice career doing just that.
You probably have seen her name on many episodes of the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Without making her sound like Jackie Robinson, Treva was one of the first women TV comedy writers and really did pave the way for others to follow. As with Jackie, she did it with talent, poise, and the ability to steal home.
Treva’s career began in New York. While playing and singing at piano bars at night, she wrote songs and 13 off-Broadway children’s musicals. That led to writing sketches for musical revues at the prestigious “Upstairs at the Downstairs”. Other revues employed as many as twenty sketch writers. “Upstairs” had one – Treva.
Carol Burnett caught her show one night and hired her to write for her first variety series, THE ENTERTAINERS. She was the only woman on staff. Knowing how writing rooms can be a bit raucous, Treva set out to prove she was one of the boys by dropping a few F-bombs the first day. One of the writers took her aside and said, “Please don’t swear. It makes us so uncomfortable.”
MADEMOISELLE magazine included her in an article about women on the rise in professions traditionally held by men. All that did was put extra pressure on her. It’s hard enough to succeed under the best of conditions, but she felt if “If I fail I bring down all womanhood”.
Treva moved to LA to write for THE MONKEES, THAT GIRL, and GET SMART. So far all womanhood was safe. And then in 1969 Jim Brooks (who she first met when she was playing at a piano bar) called and said he and Allan Burns were creating a show for Mary Tyler Moore. Would she like to be involved? As a writer not a pianist.
She stayed with the show for five years, wrote 16 episodes, won two Emmys, and was one of its major creative forces. Allan Burns credits her with being the “voice of Rhoda” (although in person Treva could not be more different from the brassy Rhoda character) and Valerie Harper called her the “Feminist conscience of the show.” The guys, to their credit, never fought her…although the feminist attitudes did have to be pointed out to them.
Treva thought THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was the easiest and hardest job she ever had. Easiest because the show was so real. Hardest because the show was so real.
One thing she loved was that on the show she could write digressions. It wasn’t just story, story, story. Compare that to today’s sitcoms where there have to be B stories and C stories, and forty two scenes in a twenty minute show.
Needing a ditzy character to be the opposite of Rhoda, she created Georgette after seeing Georgia Engels in the Milos Foreman film, TAKING OFF. It was originally supposed to be just a couple of lines for one episode only, but Georgia was so funny everyone decided she should be a series regular.
Of the many episodes for MTM that Treva wrote, some of my favorites were “Lou & Edie Story” (Lou’s wife decides to separate), “Better Late…that’s a pun…than never” (Mary gets suspended when she writes a joke obit and the guy promptly dies), “Cover Boy” (introducing Jack Cassidy as Ted’s brother), and “Rhoda the beautiful” (where Rhoda enters a beauty contest).
Tomorrow I will feature some of Treva’s work, but here’s just a sample. In that episode Rhoda lost twenty pounds but doesn't seem to be happy about it. When Mary wonders why she says, “Because I can never say again ‘gee, I’d look great if I lost twenty pounds’.”
After season five Treva left the show to live in Europe for several years. She came back to write pilots, movies, and was collaborating with Michael Bennett (CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS) on a Broadway musical called SCANDAL. With a score by Jimmy Webb, and starring Swoozie Kurtz, Treat Williams, Victor Garber, Priscilla Lopez, and Rob Morrow it was slated for production. But unfortunately, Bennett died and the project never came to fruition. To this day Treva feels it’s the best thing she’s ever written.
Michael Douglas called her to fix ROMANCING THE STONE. Test audiences hated the Kathleen Turner character -- they thought she was too cold. Plus, they only had the budget to reshoot the first scene – where Kathleen is home alone, gets a call from her sister, and has to go save her. Treva had the solution. Give her a cat. Let her talk baby talk to the cat. Just that one bit of behavior completely won over the audience. And the rest is box office success and disappointing sequel (that I helped rewrite) history.
Recently, Treva has rewritten SCANDAL as a play. A NY Times article called it “purportedly brilliant and unproduced”. Since then there has been a flurry of interest and hopefully we’ll finally get to see it soon.
I hope Treva Silverman serves as an inspiration to young writers, not because she’s a woman or that she broke barriers, but because of her work.