Saturday, November 09, 2013

A writer you should know: Susan Harris

As part of the USC Comedy Festival, this evening I have the honor of moderating a panel saluting the work of Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions. Panelists will include Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, Susan Harris, Jay Sandrich, Mitch Hurwitz, and Betty White. I can’t believe I get to be on the same stage with a woman who is a comedy national treasure. And Betty White.

You rarely see much mention of writer Susan Harris these days. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s she was Chuck Lorre, Greg Daniels, Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan all rolled into one. And maybe add Tina Fey. These are the sitcoms she created: SOAP, BENSON, IT TAKES TWO, THE GOLDEN GIRLS, EMPTY NEST, NURSES, GOOD & EVIL, THE GOLDEN PALACE, and THE SECRET LIVES OF MEN.

Many were huge hits. Some were groundbreaking. SOAP introduced the first gay character as a regular cast member (played by Billy Crystal). And GOLDEN GIRLS was a show about women in their 60’s or older. Can you imagine someone pitching that to a major broadcast network now? Today an older woman is considered 35.

But when GOLDEN GIRLS premiered in 1985 on NBC it was an immediate breakout hit. Again, to compare then and now – it probably had three times the viewers every week that THE BIG BANG THEORY has (and BBT is the current top rated comedy). Twice GOLDEN GIRLS won the Emmy for Best Comedy and even more remarkable – all of its stars (Bea Arthur, Betty White, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan) won individual Emmys.

And today the show continues to enjoy a tremendous following in syndication. I don’t think you can turn on the TV at night without finding GOLDEN GIRLS on at least one channel.

The show holds up nicely, remains extremely funny, and the creative voice was Susan Harris’. When idiots say that women don’t write big jokes, Susan Harris wrote BIG JOKES. Lots of them. Along with heart and depth. Prior to creating series of her own she wrote the classic abortion episode of MAUDE.

She’s won Emmys and numerous other awards, and in 2011 was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame (something even Babe Ruth can’t get into).

Tonight I’ll try not to gush too blatantly and be too much of a fanboy. I don’t know if tickets are still available but here’s the info.

36 comments:

John Levenstein said...

I worked on Secret Lives of Men. It was my favorite multi-cam to write scripts for. Susan was smart, funny, and down-to-earth. I hope she's secretly writing a book.

Johnny Walker said...

Oh man, I LOVED The Golden Girls. If you ever needed a show to prove it's not the synopsis, it's the execution, that's it. I defy anyone not to laugh during its best moments.

I'd love to attend this. Although we get plenty of cool things to do here in London, it's events like this that I wish we had.

And yes, there's still tickets available. What's more; it appears to be FREE. You lucky pups. Especially you, Ken.

Johnny Walker said...

Damn, just been reading up on SOAP. I vaguely remember it from being a kid. Oddly enough I think the one thing I remember is how everyone was dissatisfied with the ending... Which, according to Wikipedia, was actually an abrupt cancellation by ABC.

When you read about how amazing the show was, with such a stellar cast, it's heartbreaking to hear that they only had one more season to go before Harris finished her initially planned story...

Has she ever revealed what her plans were for the fifth season, I wonder?

It's possibly also worth noting that she wrote, or co-wrote, every single episode across four years! Wow. (She later suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome -- and still does? I hope the two weren't related.)

Hamid said...

Loved Benson as a kid! Wonderful show.

David Schwartz said...

One of the things that M*A*S*H and Soap had in common was that both shows could have extremely poignant, touching moments and be utterly hilarious during the same episode. The depth of feeling that she was able to instill into the characters was an amazing accomplishment. Susan Harris is indeed a comedy genius and Soap is one of my all-time favorite shows. She rightly deserves every bit of notice and appreciation she gets.

canda said...

Can we buy a video of the evening?

Mister Charlie said...

I loved Soap when it aired and own 3 seasons of the dvds (the show -was- pretty bad the last season). I also loved and only saw once an Enpty Nest that had the doc taking various boys into his office over the course of the episode and it turned out they were all the same boy, growing up and it was very effecive and affective. I would love to seee that episode again. Please let her know she has many non-writing fans out here, please!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I only recently saw the MAUDE abortion episode for the first time, and thought it was brilliant. What is very, very sad is that it would still be ground-breaking if it were broadcast today: on modern TV, abortion might as well not exist. (Even the teen on MOM with an alcoholic mom and grandma, a boyfriend who struggles to reach the intelligence of a pot plant, and no father to speak of doesn't even consider it. It's maddening.)

So please congratulate her specifically on that episode on my behalf. It really was beautifully written.

wg

Anonymous said...

I love, love Golden Girls. I went to a photographer's house and she had Golden Girls on the TV. She said, "It's my husband's favorite show." And my 20-year-old son watches it. I loved Soap also! When Bert snapped his fingers and thought that made him invisible. God that was funny. Julie, Burlington, Iowa

AlaskaRay said...

That's strange. I've heard that Bab Ruth also had lots of hits... but no Emmys. That must be it.

Angie said...

I love The Golden Girls and have that on DVD. Sorry to say that the only one of her other shows I've heard of is Golden Palace, the one season spin-off to The Golden Girls.

Paul Duca said...

Don't forget her episode of LOVE AMERICAN STYLE that was a prototype of THE GOLDEN GIRLS. Three middle aged women and an older, dottier one fight the battle for women's lib by robbing a jewelry store.

Mike said...

According to the BBC documentary Funny Guys, abortion is one topic of which American society has become less tolerant. Rated as a 50:50 issue, networks won't risk alienating their audience.
Also mentioned, Soap's gay character was heavily stereotyped to be accepted. I assume that, as each minority is more accepted over time, its stereotyping will lessen. But based on the ninety second clip in the documentary, Modern Family stereotypes heavily.
Presciently, David Isaacs discussed The Middle, while Ken mentioned racial separation in audiences. Instant Mom/Trophy Wife?

Anonymous said...

And "Hail to the Chief." Patty Duke, Ted Bessell, Dick Shawn, Herschel Bernardi, John Vernon, Quinn Cummings, Glynn Turman, Pat Hingle, Bubba Gilliam, Murray Hamilton.

Jennifer said...

I've read that Harris wasn't too involved with THE GOLDEN GIRLS after season one, preferring to give her attention to other projects and to her chronic fatigue syndrome.

A good example of the strange way TV can work: the original pilot for EMPTY NEST can be seen as a season two episode of GOLDEN GIRLS, starring Rita Moreno. By the time EMPTY NEST actually arrived as a series, it had been almost entirely reconfigured, retaining only the wacky neighbor and the set. Moreno and the rest of the original cast had been dumped and the series reconfigured as a vehicle for Richard Mulligan, from Harris's SOAP.

Trevor said...

Soap is my favorite show and Susan Harris is a genius. I'd love to be in that audience tonight. Break a leg Ken!

@Johnny Walker, That story about Soap only going to be five seasons has grown in popularity over the years and I don't think its necessarily true. I've interviewed a couple people connected to Soap and have watched/read other interviews and nobody has ever mentioned it.

Harris wrote an extensive bible for the show that outlined the family's history and each family member's storylines. In some cases, it covered five seasons worth of stories but I don't think there was any plan to necessarily end the show after five seasons. If it had still been a success, I'm sure they would have gone on.

I believe her chronic fatigue syndrome was connected to her work on Soap which is why I think she pulled back her involvement in season four (the weakest season). In The Golden Girls, there was an episode in which Dorothy suffered from it.

The show was cancelled after the fourth season was completed and Jay Johnson (Chuck & Bob) once told me that he was scheduled to do costume fittings for season five when they got the news.

Though the controversy around the show had died down, the religious right was still campaigning against the show and going after sponsors. By the fourth season, only Valasic Pickles remained as an advertiser. Harris says that's the only brand they eat in their house.

Though the unresolved storylines are still upsetting, I have a hard time faulting ABC for the cancellation. They really supported the show for a long time when others would have dropped it.

Harris had said that, if they had known the show was going to end when it did, they never would have ended it that way (contrary to another urban legend).

Steve McLean said...

One of the amazing things Susan did with 'Soap' is to write great story lines for so many characters (many on screen at the same time in group scenes that were wonderfully directed too). Cheers, M*A*S*H and Barney Miller had 10 or 11 main characters. SOAP had 17! Susan Harris is a national treasure.

cadavra said...

I had the maddest crush on Susan Harris, and SOAP was one of the best comedies ever. A shame her CFS cut her career short. And also a shame I can't attend tonight.

One correction: SOAP was actually the third sitcom to have a regular gay character, though it was the first to make it to Season Two. Its predecessors were THE CORNER BAR (1972) and THE HOT L BALTIMORE (1975).

Adele said...

Of course the creator of Golden Girls would have the most incredible hair. It's always worthwhile to remember how unlikely that show was, because it just feels like good TV when you watch it back yet a show about retired women in their 60s certainly wasn't and isn't a typical sitcom.

Parrish said...

I like "The Golden Girls" but don't love it. The dialogue has a tendency to be a little too jokey for me. Too heavily weighted toward zingers and one-liners. There are times when it would not have been inappropriate to have had a drummer off camera, playing rim shots. The show's serious moments are sometimes heavy-handed and unsubtle and don't always completely evade the cheats that kind of sitcom episode tends to employ, such as the big speech that causes someone to do a complete 180 in attitude or opinion. At its best, the show could be very funny and very good. Lord knows there was rarely a sitcom blessed with such a gifted cast.

Cap'n Bob said...

I don't know of her because I haven't watched any of those shows. My wife and mother are big fans of The Golden Girls, however.

Cap'n Bob said...

Oh, and I thought the first show to have a continuing gay character was The Liberace Show.

Dale said...

I have heard a large Christian movement cried loudly and had it yanked off the air. If anyone can confirm this ai would be grateful.

I loved it. Many years later I purchased the DVDs. It held up very well.

Anonymous said...

I found it hard to accept the premise that the three (not the Mother obviously) Golden Girls were supposed to only be in their 60s, if just by how they dressed and their mind-set of being sometimes so un-hip, and a sense of already being in semi-retirement if not "out to pasture". It seemed more like a projection from the male tv execs or advertisers or such, to just see women as OLD once they aren't a certain, let's asy trophy-wife age. But if one were to cast Golden Girls from today's -- well, you'd have Hot in Cleveland obviously.

ChicagoJohn said...

I guess this is a Friday question, but I'm hoping that I'm not straying too far off. But I'm wondering if you can shed more light on another female writer that I'm in awe of:
Juanita Bartlett

I've tried to look up more info on her, but I'm having trouble finding background info on her. Yet, she created a ton of scripts for Rockford Files, and then went on to work on The Greatest American Hero, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, and produced In the Heat of the Night.

Yet, I never heard of her until I started noticing her name in the credits of Rockford Files.
Do you know anything about her, and either way, can you share some names of other writers/creators that we should know of?

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks, Trevor! Interesting reading.

I have a close friend who suffers from CFS, I wonder if Harris has ever spoken about her experiences with it explicitly? Has she recovered?

Wayne said...

Another credit-worthy Susan Harris creation. Her son, the noted secularist humanist atheist writer Sam Harris. Born in 1967.

Mike said...

The most amazing thing about Golden Girls' ratings, when looking back from a 2013 vantage point is that it got those ratings on a *Saturday night*. For years, the networks have basically abandoned Saturday night; the idea of a hit show (and not just hit in relation to its timeslot, but a genuine Top 10 show) thriving there for years is just unheard of. But this was reality as recently as 20-25 years ago.

Chris said...

The ladies on THE GOLDEN GIRLS never seemed to age normally, the three younger ones remaining perpetually in a never-clearly-defined mid-50s-early 60s age range. (It became a running gag that no one knew exactly how old Blanche was, but evidence within the show placed her in her mid-50s.) Sophia never aged out of her early 80s.

Dan Ball said...

BENSON. I've spent some good chunks of my life watching that show.

I've always thought that the Benson vs. Kraus fights were was as epic as Fred vs. Esther from SANFORD AND SON. When I was younger, that's why I watched TV, to see the clash of these titanic characters. WKRP, while a GREAT show, really should've had one of those epic match-ups. Maybe Fever vs. Mrs Carlson. Imagine the possibilities...

RCP said...

Wendy M. Grossman said...

"...on modern TV, abortion might as well not exist."

The most recent reference to abortion I can remember was on "Roseanne" - and from memory, it was mentioned as an option though I don't think the actual word was used. It was also qualified by another character saying something like (ominously): "You're not thinking of..." Roseanne: "No, but if she does it's her choice." I have the feeling Roseanne probably had to fight just to keep that line in the script.

To do "The Golden Girls" justice, buy the series or rent it from Netflix; syndicated episodes are missing some of the best scenes/lines. The ages of the characters (except Sophia) were all over the place - usually with a good 5-7 years shaved off from the reality.

Jerry Bachman said...

Funniest line in Maude abortion episode:
"He just loves my chicken."

Jennifer said...

One thing that annoys me about The Golden Girls is that there seemed to be nothing about these women or their established histories that the show's writers weren't willing to alter to suit a storyline. I know that's a problem many long-running shows face at one point or another. Frasier, after all, stated on Cheers that his father was dead. But most shows manage to work their storylines around what is already known or established about the show's cast of characters. Not on The Golden Girls. Those ladies' histories were all over the map, depending on what the writers needed them to be to suit that week's episode.

Matt said...

@Dan Ball: I don't think Johnny Fever was any real match for Mrs. Carlson. Witness the episode where she breezes into the booth and demands that Dr. Fever play Gershwin. (FEVER: On the air!?) He refuses. She leans over and and asks, ever so sweetly, "Dr. Fever, have you enjoyed working in this hemisphere?" Cut to Andy, walking down the hall with a stack of albums, and frozen into stunned silence as a Rolling Stones record ends and is replaced by lush, swirling strings and Johnny Fever's announcement, "WKRP, where the Doctor dares to be different!"

One of my favorite moments from the series

Tippecanoe Two said...

My grandmother, mother and I used to watch the GOLDEN GIRLS together when it aired. I can't think of another show that we all genuinely enjoyed together.

Since chemistry and Betty White have both come up in the past week, I wanted to know your perspective on shows like the GOLDEN GIRLS where it's common that the audience already knows what the joke is going to be (Blanche is a slut, Rose is dumb), but the show remains fresh and funny. What ingredients (writing + delivery + chemistry + ???) make a completely predictable situation so sustainably funny over many seasons?

[New-ish reader here, so pardon if this has been asked before.]

susan said...

I am late to the party, but for Soap alone Susan Harris can be considered one of the greatest of television comedy writers. If she had been born a couple of decades earlier, she could have easily worked alongside Madelyn Pugh, Jesse Oppenheimer, and Bob Carroll, Jr. on "I Love Lucy." She was that good.