Tuesday, November 12, 2013
My night with Witt/Thomas/Harris, Mitch Hurwitz, and Betty White
Let me just say that Betty White is AMAZING. So sharp, so funny – she’s the John Wooden of comedy. Before the show she was working on a crossword puzzle.
Among the many fun things we learned:
It was director Jay Sandrich who suggested Rue McClanahan and Betty White switch roles. Betty had played that man hungry character on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and he thought it might be more interesting to have her play against that. And it was Rue who gave “Blanche” a southern accent. The description of the "Dorothy" character was a Bea Arthur type.
In the pilot there was a gay houseboy who was slated to be a series regular. Estelle Getty was just supposed to be a guest star. But she killed during the pilot and it was clear they had to write her into the series. And there was just no room for five people in that house. The houseboy was written out.
SOAP was groundbreaking in so many way. It came about because creator/writer Susan Harris hated the standard self-contained half hour format. SOAP was the first serialized sitcom. They took on all kinds of issues and thanks to the support of then-ABC president, Fred Silverman, stayed on the air despite all the protests, letters, and affiliates who refused to air the show. Their numbers were great. What did them in was sponsors dropping out because of all the outcry.
A University of Richmond poll found that 26% found SOAP offensive, and half of those who were offended said they planned to watch it the next week.
Susan Harris wrote all or part of all 93 episodes of SOAP.
In casting GOLDEN GIRLS, NBC originally wanted all new faces. What everyone realized, however, is you get the best people possible. And those four women were a virtual all-star team.
The youngest of the four women was Estelle Getty who played Bea Arthur's mom.
Elaine Stritch was considered for the Bea Arthur role but hated the script. She later regretted that career move. Ya think?
After an exhaustive search, Robert Guillaume was cast as Benson just as the pilot of SOAP was getting underway. He joined the show so late that his first scene (a great scene in the kitchen with Katherine Helmond) was done with the script just out of camera range. And he nailed it.
Paul Witt once filled Tony Thomas’ office with goats.
During the audience Q & A I was so happy no one asked if there could be a GOLDEN GIRLS reunion?
Mitch Hurwitz talked about getting his start at W/T/H and that the multi-story arcs and large cast he assembled for ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was really just an updated version of SOAP.
And he talked about how Tony and Paul would protect writers from the network and let them do their thing. After having consulted on several W/T/H shows myself I can confirm that. Paul and Tony really did stand behind their scribes. Oh, those good old days before networks were allowed to own their shows and thus call all the shots. Those halcyon days when writers had advocates.
Betty White said the most interesting thing. This is a woman who started in television in the early ‘50s doing five hours of live local TV a day in Los Angeles. What she loves about television is that she is always playing to a small audience. Yes, 30,000,000 viewers might be watching, but in each home, in front of each set, there are probably two or three people. That’s who she’s playing too. And now with folks watching shows on their computers and other devices, that audience is more like one. I had never thought of that perspective. Leave it to a national treasure.
No major broadcast network would put on THE GOLDEN GIRLS today. All they care about is attracting young viewers. But when you see the overflow crowd of college students packed into the auditorium Saturday night all cheering for GOLDEN GIRLS you realize, 18-34 year-olds are not given enough credit. You don’t have to hold a mirror up to them for them to watch. How about great writing, great characters, great actors? They’re ageless.
Thanks to the USC Cinema Department for putting on this Comedy Festival and letting me be a part of it. And get well soon, Susan! We missed you.