Wednesday, December 16, 2015

What sitcoms do I wish I had written for?

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post because I wrote too much.

Mel Agar asks:

You've been blessed to write for some of the greatest television shows in history. Is there a show -- either from the past or a contemporary series -- that you wish you'd written for?

There are a bunch. Some are from the ‘50s so I’d be really old now if I had. Still…

THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW – To this day one of the most brilliantly written sitcoms of all-time thanks to the genius of Nat Hiken. How many comedy shows hold up sixty years later? When I showed an episode last year to my USC class they howled. When Millennials think an old black-and-white show starring a middle-aged bald man is a riot you know you’re on to something. To get on that staff you had to have chops. Neil Simon wrote for THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW.

YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS  or the later similar CAESAR'S HOUR– These were live variety shows starring Sid Caesar that put together the Mt. Rushmore of writing staffs. Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon – and those were just the names you know about. Everyone on that staff was a hall-of-famer.


THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW – If I had to pick only one it would be this show. That’s why it was so much fun earlier this year actually writing a spec DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. This series was so far superior to any other sitcom at the time (the early to mid ‘60s) that it was like Babe Ruth in his prime playing in a beer league.

THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS SHOW – This would be the only other variety show I would have liked to have written. The political humor and satire of the show was far ahead of its time. Among the staff writers was Steve Martin. I actually inquired about getting a job on that show. I was 17 at the time and had never written anything nor knew the first thing about how you do it, but that didn’t stop me from applying. For reasons I still can’t fathom, they hired someone else. A cool footnote: Years later when we won one of our WGA Awards the presenter was Tommy Smothers. It’s nice getting an award from someone who rejected you,

THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW – For my money the gold standard of character-driven comedy. When David Isaacs and I started out, that was our ultimate goal. We learned how to write sitcoms by studying THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. We wrote a spec MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW (which got us our assignment with THE JEFFERSONS – the two shows are so much alike). And one of the writers of MTM really liked our spec and was trying to get us in to do a freelance assignment. But another freelancer turned in a script that apparently was so awful that the producers decided not to take chances on any other newcomers that season.


THE BOB NEWHART SHOW – From MTM (Camelot for writers), and like THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW but edgier, more subversive, and at times, funnier. The tone was set by gifted showrunners Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. Never got to do a BOB NEWHART SHOW, but Tom & Jay moved down the hall to create and run THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. We did get a freelance assignment on that series, which led to our first staff writing gig.

ALL IN THE FAMILY – We sort of came close. We did get to pitch story ideas to the producers, but they didn’t buy any.

TAXI – From James Brooks and many of the same writers of THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, this was such a smart and funny show. And talk about a great writing staff: James Brooks, Stan Daniels, Ed. Weinberger, The Charles Brothers, Barry Kemp, Sam Simon, Ken Estin, David Lloyd, and freelance scripts by Earl Pomerantz. The final year of TAXI we were invited to write an episode, but it was also the first year of CHEERS and David and I had our hands full trying to get that series off the ground. We also wrote five CHEERS episodes that season so there wasn’t a lot of spare time.

So there you have it, but I sure don't feel cheated.   The shows I was fortunate enough to work on were extraordinary. I do feel incredibly blessed and felt so at the time. To have even written one episode from CHEERS, MASH, FRASIER, or THE SIMPSONS is amazing. We wrote multiple episodes of each (40 CHEERS). You can’t believe the sense of pride there is in knowing that something you wrote decades ago is still being shown and still making people laugh. And I’m not 90.

36 comments:

Mike Barer said...

I forget that you didn't write for Taxi. Night Court was another show from that era that I enjoyed.

MItchell Hundred said...

Have you heard of Laughter on the 23rd Floor? It's a Neil Simon play from the 90s about his experiences working as a writer on Sid Caesar's show. They use pseudonyms for all the people, of course. Perhaps not as funny as his earlier work, but the affection for his old colleagues shines through.

JED said...

Earl Pomerantz should be on your list of Taxi writers. He wrote nine episodes. That's almost 8% of the 114 episodes.

gottacook said...

There's a good, fairly recent book on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (and its history and aftermath) called Dangerously Funny, by David Bianculli.

I should point out that The Smothers Brothers Show wasn't the variety hour but an earlier black-and-white sitcom in which one brother (Tommy) is an incompetent angel. Yes, I'm old enough to have seen both during their network runs. My parents had bought a color TV - I mean, they'd made their first payment on it - for Super Bowl One, so I was able to see the Comedy Hour in color.

Peter said...

I wish they'd ask you and David to write for The Simpsons again. That show went down the toilet circa 2000 and has only got worse. It's a miracle the movie was actually good.

I tune in occasionally in the hope there might be a gem but apart from a few mild laughs most of the time I come away cringing at how awful and dumbed down it's become.

LouOCNY said...

You have said you and David were asked to run Barney Miller - and quickly turned them down. I wonder how you would have handled those characters. I assume that this is when they got Dungan and Jeff Stein to run the show - and they did a GREAT job.

kent said...

Throw in Barney Miller and you've hit just about all of my favorites.

Stephen Marks said...

Ken's Dick Van Dyke Show spec script was funny make sure you guys go and read it

Aaron Hazouri said...

No, you're not 90, but Dick Van Dyke is and still sings and dances like a guy 20 or 30 years younger. I kind of hope he's immortal. He was on NPR a week or three ago and he sang the lyrics (!!) to the Dick Van Dyke Show theme song.

Bill Avena said...

Aaron, has he improved his Cockney accent? Fifty years later the East End still smokes from the destruction..

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The Smothers Brothers sitcom was on just a little too late for my bedtime as a child; I used to beg to be allowed to stay up to see it.

Ken left out two very significant figures from Sid Caesar's shows: the women. Caesar had two iterations of his show and each writer's room had one woman. One had Selma Diamond, better known for her work as a comic actress. The other had Lucille Kallen. Kallen, who finally has a Wikipedia page, was amazing - her page links to her New York Times obit, which is well worth reading. Besides working on the Caesar show, she wrote a series of mystery novels under the name C B Greenfield; she was a Broadway compser, lyricist, and playwright; she co-wrote a successful play with Milt Okun; somewhere along the line she won a Tony (from memory). And, of course, she and Selma Diamond, composisted, are the originals for Sally Rogers on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW (and the sole female writer in both LAUGHTER ON THE 30TH FLOOR and MY FAVORITE YEAR).

wg

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I think it would have been interesting if you had written for SEINFELD: many TV critics seem to like to credit that show for setting the standard of multiple storylines per episode (in this case, Jerry, George, Kramer, and Elaine each having their own individual plot that were intertwined), but we all know that it was M*A*S*H that pioneered it, and that you and David were an instrumental part in it.

On an unrelated note, since TAXI was brought up in this post, the CAPTCHA just asked me to select images of taxis to prove I'm not a robot.

John Hammes said...

ABC's "No Soap, Radio" was hands down the "Ernie Kovacs" of early '80s prime time television... both the series and audience deserved FAR more than five episodes.

The show's participants have always had warm regards concerning the show... then again, five episodes, there was no time for anyone to grow tired of it!

"Job Interview", Basketball Head", "Man-Eating Chair" "The Day Everyone's Name Became Al", "Deer Hunting", so many memorable sketches in this brief series purporting to be a "sitcom".

And, of course, "Yukon Dan", guess who THAT was supposed to be?

They clearly tried anything and everything in this deliberately off-kilter project: what writer could ever pass up such an opportunity?

Anonymous said...

Selma Diamond played a bailiff on Night Court the first season. Was very funny.

Pam, St. Louis

Elliot said...

An entirely predictable list, though for an obvious reason. If one is going to fantasize about past series it would have been great to have written for, who isn't going to fantasize about writing for the best? Still and all, I have to admit it would be a novelty to see a list written by someone who regrets never having had the opportunity to write for THE REAL McCOYS or THE PATTY DUKE SHOW or THAT GIRL rather than THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW or ALL IN THE FAMILY or THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.

I've always felt a little sorry for comedy writers on variety shows that featured personalities whose forte was anything but comedy. It had to be tough to craft funny lines for, say, a popular singer who may have been great with a lyric, but couldn't negotiate his way through a punchline without a blueprint.

GS in SF said...

What about WKRP in Cincinnati? Too close to the subject matter?

Rich said...

What?? Where's "My Mother The Car"????

Cap'n Bob said...

Not a bad resume, Ken. You should try writing for the Theatre. (wink-wink)

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think Woody Allen didn't write for Your Show of Shows.

Ralph C. said...

Ken, I think you mentioned the Smothers Brothers' story in your book "The Me Generation...By Me". I just finished reading that book today and enjoyed it very much.

Gary said...

How about adding a 40th episode to The Honeymooners' Classic 39?

Charles H. Bryan said...

I've read here and there that THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW was the favorite of a young Larry David. How much influence crept into SEINFELD or CURB, I do not know.

Ken, if you and David Isaacs could reboot any current show, what would it be (and what would you do differently)?

John said...

Given Ken's past mentions of his appreciation of the charms of Liz Montgomery, I actually could see him and David writing an episode of "Bewitched" .... but only if it was one from the early seasons where the story focus was on Alice Pearce and George Tobias as the Kravitzes (who really were three-camera sitcom characters living in a single-camera show).

You'd get to write for two characters with some bite to their lines, and you'd get to meet and write for Ms. Montgomery. A nice two-fer.

Mike Doran said...

Consider this a premature Friday question:

I don't know the exact timelines involved, but when you were working on M*A*S*H, did you ever cross paths with a writer named Burt Prelutsky?
For those who may not know, Mr. Prelutsky, who used to be a prolific scripter of episodic TV, has lately been one of the most rabid right-wing pundits in the press and on the net.
I just returned from his website, for which you now have to pay to get new stuff,
but enough of his archives are still there to send my acid reflux into warp drive.

I believe that Prelutsky's time on M*A*S*H was a few years before your own, but what I really wonder is how Larry Gelbart handled him?
Just wondering, is all ...

Pat Reeder said...

To Cap'n Bob:

This is just off the top of my head, but I think I recall reading an interview with Woody Allen where he said that people often say he wrote for "Show of Shows," and then someone corrects them by saying he wrote for "Caesar's Hour," but neither is correct. I believe he said he wrote for a later special or series of specials that Caesar did, but not for either of the two original series.

I can't affirm that my memory is perfectly accurate though. I'm not a robot.

Personally, I want to write for "My World And Welcome To It."

Cap'n Bob said...

Thanks, Pat Reeder.

Anonymous said...

CURB is pretty much The Honeymooners on acid with 1950's Brooklyn transformed into 21st Century LA.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

If you could get one of the writing rooms you've worked on before together again to do a new show, which would it be? Not going back in time, but the same group of writers as they have matured and grown in the years since.

(This question inspired by the recent "w/ Bob and David" which reunites most of the writers from "Mr. Show", many of whom now run their own shows. Bob Odenkirk has said the main difference was "a lot less crying" than in the old days.)

Bryan Robinson said...

Very interesting read…speaking of "Your Show of Shows," have you ever seen the movie "My Favorite Year" which is loosely based on the behind the scenes of this? Mark Linn-Baker plays the Mel Brooks role and Joseph Bologna plays King Kaiser, the Sid Caesar role. And of course Peter O'Toole playing an Errol Flynn type part.
Seems like such the Golden era of TV and a lot of fun.

thomas tucker said...

The illustration on your post reminds me of the days when TV Guide ruled supreme. They had such fantastic covers that I used to collect them, and one time thought I had died and gone to heaven when my aunt gave me her collection of hundreds of TV Guides from the late 50's to the late 60's. I wish I still had those.

fred said...

Just for viewing pleasure...
Always liked a comedian that I first saw on Ed Sullivan.
Finally decided to search starting with scraps first.
But I found his name. That's all it takes these days. A search engine and a name.
Never saw anyone who could slaughter the English language like Norm Crosby.
Here he is on the Dean Martin Show.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnX-EPaAIdU

Johnny Walker said...

I think you dodged a bullet with season five of the otherwise brilliant TAXI -- it turned a great ensemble show into single character stories. Never understood why. Plus season one of CHEERS was the best of a great show.

VP81955 said...

I was hoping Ken would've listed "Dobie Gillis," the first prime-time series I can recall watching. Wonderfully subversive for the early '60s (I'm still amazed that two decades later, Pat Robertson aired reruns on his CBN network), its fast-paced dialogue made it a sort of sitcom equivalent to "His Girl Friday." And to me, Maynard G. Krebs remains the definitive Bob Denver role. (Sorry, Gilligan fans.)

KC said...

Ken, Nat HIken proved his comedy genius based on "The Phil Silvers Show", then he took it to the next level with "Car 54, Where are You?." I had never seen the show or heard of Mr. Hiken until a few years ago, when I saw it was on MeTV and tuned in as a lark, expecting it to be another early '60s silly sitcom. Having now seen every episode I can safely say no TV comedy I've ever watched gave me more laughs per minute then "Car 54". It was a crime that NBC cancelled the show after only 2 seasons. The story goes NBC tried to put the squeeze on Mr. Hiken to give them a piece of the show in exchange for its renewal for a third season and he refused.

Also, although "The Dick Van Dyke Show" is near the top of my all-time TV comedy list, "The Andy Griffith Show" is right there, so there was at least one other brilliantly written '60s comedy. Heck, James Brooks himself wrote a couple of episodes.

Joe Stevens said...

Between the shows you wrote and the shows you wished you wrote you have most of the great sitcoms in TV history listed.

On an odd note I have a question about a classic show I 'don't get'.
As someone in his mid-forties who never saw the show when it first aired, I'm curious about what I'm missing with the Mary Tyler Moore show. I've watched it and it seems like a pleasant show and I can tell it is well written, but I don't find it funny. I enjoy Dick Van Dyke and I listen to old time radio sitcoms every night of my life which should put me in the right audience for this classic sitcom. Of course as short-hand to explain my personality, I tell people I'm a life dropout version of Sheldon Cooper so that might explain some of the missed jokes about relationships.

So what makes everyone but me laugh at Mary Tyler Moore?

Jahn Ghalt said...

So far as I know the only teenager to get paid for comedy writing was Woody Allen (at age 18 - so said the two-part documentary currently available on Netflix). Would it be fair to say it was tougher to break in as a writer by 1967 than in the early 50s? Even if not, there's no shame in being "rejected" at age 17.