Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My thoughts on Sam Simon

You really learn about a guy when he’s in a foxhole with you. When the bullets are flying does he have your back?

In 1985 David Isaacs and I created a series for Mary Tyler Moore. For reasons I won’t go into here, it was a nightmare. We knew Sam Simon from our time on CHEERS. He graciously agreed to join the staff and help on this Mary project. As things went from bad to worse to the brink of thermonuclear war, Sam stood by us. Most of the other writers bolted. Not Sam. He steadfastly hung in there with us. Honestly, we could not have done it without Sam. For that and that alone I have always loved Sam Simon. He could do no wrong in my book.

Others did not feel that way. Again -- total honesty -- Sam could rub people the wrong way.  And he'd be the first to admit that. Social skills were not his strong suit. He had this knack, especially during rewrite nights, of pissing people off. But it was never intentional. And Sam was always apologetic and surprised the next day when it was brought to his attention.

He was always the smartest and funniest person in the room (which he had to be considering his interactions with people).

Part of the problem, I think, is that things came very easily for Sam. They always did. He was blessed with extraordinary talent – in numerous areas. He dabbled with cartooning and sold a comic strip to King Syndicate. That’s impossible. He wrote a spec script for TAXI and they bought it. That’s beyond impossible. He was hired on TAXI and rose quickly to become quite possibly the youngest showrunner in history. In his spare time he wrote a screenplay – that got made. As another sidelight he became an accomplished sitcom director.

He was the true voice of THE SIMPSONS (and he helped designed several characters). There is no joy in Springfield tonight.

So I could see where it might have been difficult to process that the rest of us couldn’t keep up. Such is the price of brilliance and being oblivious.

Sam was certainly uh… colorful. For reasons known only to him, he went through a period where he walked around with his chin tucked into his shoulder. He managed boxers. There was a night when commentator Larry Merchant chewed him out live on HBO for celebrating too loud after his boxer had won. (That was surreal.)  He was a regular contributor to Howard Stern’s show. He created a series for George Carlin. There was a 60 MINUTES profile on him. He played high-stakes poker. He played football at Stanford.

And his love of animals and their protection was genuine and deep rooted.

I worked with Sam on seven series and pilots. He attended family seders, special occasions, and he spoke at my SITCOM ROOM seminar (telling students that sitcoms were dead – thanks for that). He had a wicked sense of humor, even during his recent suffering. A few months ago, when PBS aired the Roger Ebert documentary he was tweeting “get to the cancer already.”

I will miss his humor, friendship, tweets, and (most of all) his loyalty. Sam Simon was a remarkable person. I am blessed that he was in my life. We are all blessed that his contributions to humanity will continue for years and maybe generations to come. I still can’t believe he managed prize fighters.


Oat Willie said...

I'll always remember him from a Simpsons caricature as a scraggly wizened Howard Hughes type with long fingernails. Private jab?

Sherry Stern said...

I'm very curious what comic strip he sold to King Features.

Dan Ball said...

This was a great tribute, Ken. It makes me appreciate Sam more, despite the foibles and not knowing as much about him as other personalities in the sitcom-writing business.

But managing prize fighters? How do people do that with their time? These little lucrative side businesses/careers that you only find out about when they die.

CarolMR said...

Sam Simon was quoted as saying:

"The truth is, I have more money than I'm interested in spending," said Simon. "Everyone in my family is taken care of. And I enjoy this."

Even his ex-wife Jennifer Tilley is taken care of for life because of him. He was a good man.

John said...

Some nice stories and insights. Thanks for sharing.

The work he's done to help animals and his fellow man speaks volumes.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Wonderful piece Ken. There are many folks in Hollywood who are serenaded with faux accomplishments when they pass (even while they are alive). Sam Simon by all accounts seemed to rise all ships around him whenever he could (excluding those ships who were pouching whales).

Norm Gunzenhauser said...

My writing partner and I met Sam only once. We had a pitch meeting with him at Warner. We didn't know what he looked like and mistook his assistant for him. With good reason! His assistant greeted us wearing a Polo shirt and slacks; Sam came out to greet us in shorts waaay too short, sneakers, and tube socks waaay too high. It would've been perfect for Spy magazine. "Who's The Boss, Who's The Assistant"? Anyway, I wish I had known him better. Wish he liked our pitch better too!

tavm said...

Nice tribute. I just found out another legendary TV comedy writer-Jenna McMahon who co-created "The Facts of Life" with Dick Clair as well as wrote for "The Carol Burnett Show" and "Soap" during the last season with him-also recently died. She was in her late '80s.

Dan Ball said...

Norm Gunzenhauser!

I just saw your name on NEWHART last night. I think you wrote it, actually. Everybody thought Joanna was cheating on Dick with Hal from the wine tasting club and Dick trusted her too much to believe it.

"C'mon, fellas. Clearly, Dick cannot see the crayola on the wall." (Or something like that.)

the new junior executive said...

@Oat Willie - according to the commentary track for that episode (the 138th Episode Spectacular), Sam Simon drew that himself because he was unhappy with what they originally had for him.

bob perlow said...

Nice piece Ken....
Didn't know him that well but whenever I ran into him it as always a positive....RIP Sam

Breadbaker said...

Sam was a regular on an AOL trivia forum to which I contributed. It took us all a while to realize he was "that" Sam Simon, to us he was just a player named "SSimon". That wicked humor fit right in with our folks. We mourn him.

Rashad Khan said...

Sam Simon was an extraordinary comedy writer. He and his talent will be missed.

Howard Hoffman said...

Jon Stewart gave a sweet sendoff to Sam last night as his Moment of Zen. Click here.

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting tribute. I guess when there is someone whose personality causes a person to either love or hate him, if you do not address this trait it is doing a disservice to the person. Personally I have always through that if I could not be remembered as being an amazing person I would rather be remembered as a bit of jerk than to simply be described as 'nice.' "Nice" is a throwaway, an afterthought. there is no conviction to 'nice.' At least being thought of as an a-hole stirs passion.

So even though it seems he had his share of detractors (those who hated his guts) it seems he equally had those who loved him and would do battle with him. I'd rather have that, than to simply be a 'nice' guy.

frank paradise said...

I'm in total awe of Sam's humanitarian efforts and love of animals- not to mention his fantastic comedy writing. Nice words Ken.

Denzel said...

I'd love to see that "Taxi" spec. Can you get us the opening scene, Ken?

Jim McCoulf said...

Ken, that may be the best tribute I've seen. I was lucky enough to work with Sam as a writer on the George Carlin Show, and again on one of his pilots. He was wildly creative and incredibly generous. Big heart. He made a huge difference in my life, and I know countless others. So sorry to see him go, but he's never going to stop making me laugh.

RockGolf said...

There's an apocryphal story about someone from The Simpsons who was invited back to their high school reunion, a school he clearly didn't have fond memories of.
Instead of attending, he sent in an annual earnings statement in the multi-millions with the note "this is what I make" and a picture of his wife and the note "this is who I ****". (self-censored)

Sounds like that was Sam and Jennifer.

Anonymous said...

My name is Brian McCormick Said:

"...and Mike stole my idea that Homer was too gruff, too scruffy and mean, and that chasing Bart around a table wasn't funny long-term. I told Reiss that Homer needed to be turned into the Perfect Fool."

Sorry Brian, but Sam directly contradicts you in Marc Maron's interview with him. When asked what Matt Groenig's major contributions were to the show, Sam said Matt kept on them about making Homer "less sour," less mean. He hated "mean Homer" and his constant complaining about it led to the Homer we know today.

Sam indicated that Matt was a bit of a pain in the butt to almost everyone on the staff regarding that issue, but he won, and turned out to be right.
The podcast is available on Maron's site.

chuckcd said...

Plus he was married to Jennifer Tilly and Jami Ferrell which are major accomplishments as well.

I met him once when he came into my place of business and he seemed like a very nice man.

His efforts to help animals were

Johnny Walker said...

A lovely tribute. Honest and loving. Thanks Ken.

Johnny Walker said...

Denzel, the script was produced -- although I'm sure it was rewritten. It was the one where Tony is told he can't box anymore he health reasons. A brilliant story that captured the essence of the whole show.

Simon had this advice to give to new writers:

1. Story above all else.
2. Love your characters.
3. Don't be afraid of the quiet moments.

Seems like wonderful advice to me.

mikel said...

"3. Don't be afraid of the quiet moments"

I always love that advice. Its interesting that I heard an interview with Roger Waters who said the same thing about music-another genius who was often hard to get along with. In fact wasn't the same thing said about Shelley Long? You can go a long way to understanding people if you think about why some people are hard to get along with-its called 'passion'. In case people haven't checked it out, Sam Simon's Emmy TV Legends interview is pretty hilarious, especially his stories about Garry Shandling.