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.


A_Homer said...

Great post, thanks. I'm intrigued to find some of the old episodes. Is there any place other than the Archives of Television to find writers discussing their craft?

Jake Mabe said...

"Lou and Edie Story" is one of my favorite episodes of MTM. Poignant. Like "M*A*S*H," that show was so well-done, I laughed when those characters laughed, and hurt when they hurt.

I don't care what ANYBODY says, that was television, friends.

Paul Duca said...

Was Treva the inspiration for a one shot character that was on a Season 2 episode? Mary meets a new neighbor...that turns out to have lived in the building a year. It seems she worked nights in a piano bar and thus her path never crossed with Mary, Rhoda or Phyllis. She's moving out to get married, and Mary finds herself facing the prospect of Ted Baxter moving in downstairs.

Michael said...

Do you know if Treva was offered the chance to write for the Rhoda spin-off? It seems like she should have been if she was so associated with the character.

David Schwartz said...

While reading about Treva I am struck by the importance of continuing to get your work out there. No matter what you're doing, no matter how small a venue, just getting it out there and being seen by people (either as a performer or a writer) can pay off in ways you could never anticipate. Treva's beginnings writing children's musicals, performing in piano bars, etc. led to what appears to be a fulfilling career, fully showcasing her clearly extraordinary talent. Thanks for sharing about someone I had never heard of before, but who clearly deserves to be known by those of us who appreciate the history of great television writing.

Maureen said...

Ken, thank you so much for this post. I've been seeing the name Treva Silverman in credits for years and always wondered about her, first whether she was any relation to Fred and more recently Sarah. I know, it's a common last name, but I still wondered. Lately I've been watching Mary Tyler Moore reruns on FamNet and looked Treva up on IMDb, but there's nothing there. So thank you so much. Can't wait for tomorrow's post.

Bradley said...

Thank you so much for this post. When I was a kid, I remember seeing her name go by on the MTM credits and thinking that's where I want my name someday. You are right on about her remarkable abilities as a writer and it was a nice surprise to log on and read this lovely tribute to a great talent.

Kirk said...

I remember all those episodes. Nice to know who the person was behind them. A couple of moments from two of those shows stick in my mind.

In the obituary episode, Lou reprimands Mary. Mary tells Murray about it. Outraged, Murray says something like, "I'm going right in there and tell Lou he can't talk to you like that!"

Mary says something like, "No, I should be the one"

Mary goes back in Lou's office. She ends up giving, and Lou accepting, her resignation. She goes back outside and tells Murray, who replies, "Oh, Mary, you shouldn't have done that!"

The other moment is the Rhoda loses weight episode. Rhoda comes into Mary's apartment dressed in a sexy evening gown. She tells Mary and Phyllis she was, if I'm remembering this correctly, second runner-up in her department store beauty contest. Mary congratulates her, and Phyllis, so often Rhoda's adversary, even tells her how good she looks. Phyllis leaves the apartment. Rhoda then reveals to Mary that she actually WON the contest, but felt awkward talking about it in front of Phyllis. Finally, overcoming her mixed feelings and deciding to enjoy herself, Rhoda parades around the apartment wearing a crown and holding a scepter. Phyllis comes in and says, "My, you're carrying on quite a bit for someone who only came in second place!"

Great show. Never been another one like it.

MrEd said...

Don't forget Sally Rogers.

Betsy D said...

Thank you for featuring Treva. I'm a big MTM fan and recognized her name in credits. Nice to finally learn a little more about her!

Michael said...

The reference to Sally Rogers reminds me that she was based in part on Lucille Kallen, who wrote for Sid Caesar, and we can't forget the incomparable Madelyn Pugh, who wrote for I Love Lucy and did a lot of the stunts before Lucille Ball tried them.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Phyllis comes in and says, "My, you're carrying on quite a bit for someone who only came in second place!"

"I won, Cookie!"

With the plethora of cable channels, I've caught a few episodes of Rhoda and Phyllis, and the production values (I think I'm using that right-- the acting, the sets, the pacing, right down to the film) seemed really bad, kind of like some old BBC shows of the early seventies. A big gap with their parent show, MTM. I wonder if anyone else saw/remembers this?

Johnny Walker said...

Another writing hero, and nice to see a celebration of someone's work who's still with us!

Did the information on her experiences come from knowing her, Ken?

Matt Patton said...

Thanks for your great post on Ms. Silverman -- I have DVD sets of the first two seasons of the MTM show, and I find that most of my favorites were episodes she wrote. Not just funny, but SMART funny and good-hearted funny.

William Lucas Walker said...

It has been my great pleasure to finally meet Treva Silverman and begin to call her a friend, after years of having enjoyed her work and seen her name in MTM credits. In person, she surpassed all my expectations. She remains whip-smart, deeply human, a complete class act.

Treva even generously offered her assistance in editing a piece I was submitting for national publication. Unsurprisingly, her notes were splendid, precise and so on-target. My favorite on a sentence she found sullied the rest of the piece: "I raised as many eyebrows as I could manage with this sentence. Cut it, throw it out and never may it darken anyone’s door again."

She's a gem for the ages.

Bob Claster said...

And Treva is also one of the kindest, sweetest people I've ever known. Yay, Treva!

Helena said...

I've never seen THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, but thanks to these two posts about Treva Silverman I just ordered the first season on DVD. It feels like I've missed something good!

Dawna said...

Terrific posting, Ken. Thanks! Looking forward to tomorrow. As an aspiring comedy writer I saw Treva's name on so many of my fave shows and it gave me confidence and inspiration. Later I was lucky enough to meet her and I learned she is as hilarious in person as she is on the page. Can't wait to buy a ticket to her play!

BrettJ said...

Thank you very much for the informative article on the talented Ms. Silverman. MTM is my 3rd favorite comedy of all time (behind GET SMART which she also worked on and DICK VAN DYKE) so I love learning about the talents behind this series. We need more comedies with heart these days, someone needs to follow her example.