Thursday, May 02, 2013

These are the two guys we wanted to be














When my partner, David Isaacs and I were starting out, writing spec scripts and trying to break in, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW was on every afternoon. We’d watch it religiously, both for inspiration and laughs. Unlike most shows today, the writing credits of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW were at the end.

We considered ourselves such students of the show that we tried to guess who wrote each episode. We felt we could differentiate the individual subtle styles of the primary writers. Freelance writers would throw us off. We’d mistake Bill Idelson’s shows for someone else’s, but for the most part the scripts were written by either Carl Reiner, Bill Persky & Sam Denoff, and Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson.

If it was an episode from one of the first few seasons you couldn’t lose betting on Carl Reiner. How he wrote so many episodes (they did 39 a season back then) and was still alive in 1965 must less today is remarkable. But in the middle and later years of the show two teams shared the heavy lifting along with Carl.. Both teams were terrific. Persky & Denoff’s “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” is one of the great single episodes of comedy of all-time.

But our favorite team was Marshall & Belson. Their episodes just seemed a touch edgier, sharper, and funnier. It was often hard to distinguish between Reiner and Persky & Denoff, but we could almost always identify a Marshall & Belson script.

So our goal was not to just become comedy writers, we wanted to be “Marshall & Belson.” We wanted our scripts to have that extra dash of sparkle that stood out. We wanted young writers to be able to identify our scripts the way we were able to pick out theirs.

I think that goal served us well. It pushed us to set higher standards for ourselves. With so much competition it's easy to feel you've won just by breaking in.  And that is quite an accomplishment.  But ultimately it's not enough.  What can you do to stay in the game? 

If you’re a young writer toiling on those specs, I really recommend adopting our mind set. Whether it’s Dan Harmon, Tina Fey, Aaron Sorkin, Vince Gilligan, the Charles Brothers, Larry David – whoever you admire – strive to be that good. You never know. Someday someone might want to be you.

21 comments:

Mike Barer said...

Well done, I had a crush on Mary Tyler Moore as the show went into syndication and was on daily TV.

Birdie said...

So why did Garry Marshall ultimately become synonymous with such crap? Your average person today just sees him as a hack/punchline and would be surprised to learn that he actually is inherently quite talented (this, The Odd Couple). Do you ever feel weird telling people he was one of your role models?

Jeremy Watkins said...

I may get blasted for this, but I really liked the first five or six seasons of Married... with Children. Many of the episodes were written by the show's creators, Michael Moye & Ron Leavitt, and the writing team of Marcy Vosburgh & Sandy Sprung. Man, those shows were funny.

I think Vosburgh & Sprung left after season five, and either Moye or Leavitt left shortly after that. The shows started going downhill in season seven. There were still some great episodes, but they were few and far between.

B.B. Callow said...

Thirty-nine episodes a year is rather mind-boggling – especially since the quality of the episodes remained consistently high.

I always loved when Dick Van Dike would do little vignettes of really hilarious physical comedy. The episode where he’s accidently hypnotized and becomes drunk whenever he hears a bell. Taking Laura to the hospital when she gives birth to Ritchie - staying fully dressed under his pajamas and insuring her suitcase and his hat were positioned for optimal access. The talking car routine he creates for the Alan Brady Show. Really memorable stuff. I can’t think of a recent comedy show that utilizes an actor’s gift for physical comedy. Perhaps it’s a dying art.

And he’d have only a few days at most to perfect it, correct?

Ken, how would the writers have scripted these physical moments? Would they simply suggest a few details and let Dick run with it? Or would they be as specific as possible? Love to see what one of those scripts actually looked like.

Ken said...

Mission accomplished. While working through all 11 seasons of Cheers and Frasier, I began to start looking for and guessing the Levine & Isaacs episodes.

Ken said...

(And that was before I started reading your blog.)

Scooter Schechtman said...

I've never been able to reconcile Persky & Denoff's brilliant "Dick Van Dyke Show with the stupefyingly dimwitted "That Girl". I guess if Van Dyke's show had started in '66 it would have been like "That Girl" but at least we'd get to see MTM's legs in full colored minis.

LouOCNY said...

You can do the same with Barney Miller - you can tell the difference between a Tony Sheehan episode and Rheinhold Weege. Weege's shows are a touch more 'out there', which he would develop further on NIGHT COURT. Sheehan's are a touch more 'real', more orientated to the squad's personalities as a story factor.

Daniel Fischer said...

Very inspirational and refreshing. It's always great hearing from accomplished writers about their younger years struggling to "break in." It shows how it's not peaches and cream for anyone no matter how successful they may end up.

Larry said...

Ken, rest assured plenty of writing teams aspired to be the next Levine and Isaacs.

As to physical comedy on The Dick Van Dyke Show, I've never seen a script, but I did read something from Garry Marshall. He and his partner had written a stage direction like "Rob puts on his belt in a funny way." Carl Reiner told them the guy who lets people in at the gate could write that--if they want to be comedy writers, they've got to explain what's funny about how he puts on his belt.

GC said...

It always moves me to read your "writers post" though i have 0 % chance to break in as a sitcom writer. They do not create sitcoms around here. networks motto " Why bother to create sitcoms shows while we can buy american sitcoms shows for less money ?". I don't share this thought. Can you imagine if they apply that to everything...

So you wanted to be Marshall & Belson, well, for natural reason, i want to be the guy who wrote my favorite sitcom episode. I already told you that episode is "Diane's perfect date". Because if i would have to write just one sitcom episode, i'd love to write "Diane's perfect date". And to write this episode, i have to be the guy who wrote it or guys who wrote it. But nobody can't be the great David Lloyd. No, certainly not me.

Mike in Seattle said...

Too cool for school, here are a couple of photos of TDVDS set:

bedroom

living room

Ed in Cleveland said...

Ken, do I recall an interview with Carl Reiner, in which he said that he wrote the first 39 episodes all by himself...before the show ever aired?

Mark said...

Hi Ken:

I have been a long time fan of Phil Rosenthal. As well, while all of the writers on "Raymond" were great. I find the episodes written by Jeremy Stevens of particular high quality.
Thanks for this post.

mdv1959 said...

Coast to Coast "Big Mouth" is available for free on HULU.

Definitely one of the best half hours in the history of television.

Roger R. said...

I wanted to be Nat Hiken and Jay Tarses.

Johnny Walker said...

Very nice post!

cadavra said...

I revisited "Coast to Coast Big Mouth" after not having seen it for many years, and was flabbergasted to hear how many lines from the second act had worked their way into my normal speech patterns since I first saw it in my teens. That may be the finest 10 or so minutes of comedy in TV history.

Ted said...

I own a book in which it is claimed that Carl Reiner "fronted" several Van Dyke scripts under his own name that were actually written by blacklisted writers. If I ever run into the brilliant Mr. Reiner, I will for sure ask if if that claim is true.

cadavra said...

At least one blacklisted writer worked under an assumed name: Frank Tarloff wrote three episodes as "David Adler."

Deb said...

Thanks for the inspiration!

I used to work for you!

I still have my blue justice coffee mug, but the blue justice has come off in the dishwasher.

Deb

http://debtheconquerer.wordpress.com/