Sunday, October 15, 2006

Jerry Belson 1938-2006

When David and I were starting out, writing spec scripts, we watched the DICK VAN DYKE SHOW every afternoon. We played a little game called “guess the writer”. The writing credit always came at the end. Easiest to predict was scripts written by Garry Marshall & Jerry Belson. They were always funnier, sharper, better. And they were our inspiration. Our career goal was to be the next Marshall & Belson, to have our scripts be considered that cut above.

Jerry passed away last week. He was 68. He always said that on his gravestone it was going to read, “I did it their way”. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Jerry was truly an original. His work was always a little daring, verrrry dark, his comic voice was always strong. Satisfying the mainstream was not his goal. He’d pitch a joke and Garry would say, “Jerry, only four people will get that,” to which Jerry would say, “More than enough.”

I worked with Jerry on CHEERS. He was an uncredited punch-up man, coming in one day a week. Invariably we would put in eight Belson jokes, five would go because the actors couldn’t deliver them as funny as Jerry did, and the three that remained were the three biggest laughs of the show.

Jerry never spoke. He whined. And he was such a presence that pretty soon everyone around him whined too. I was once in a rewrite session on the TRACEY ULLMAN SHOW and there was Jim Brooks, Sam Simon, Ken Estin, and Heide Perlman all whining along with Jerry. It sounded like dueling Jewish mothers.

Jerry once pitched a joke on CHEERS and when the Charles Brothers politely rejected it, he said, “But it got a big laugh on THE ODD COUPLE.” A perplexed Glen Charles asked why he would pitch it here if they used the same joke on THE ODD COUPLE? Jerry’s whiney reply: “Hey, what went before is good, too.”

After one table reading, Shelley Long was upset about the script and came up to the writers room to discuss it. She stated her objections for about five minutes and Jerry just got up and headed for the door, crossing right in front of her. Shelley was stunned. She stopped in mid-sentence and asked where he was going? Jerry said, “Honey, this ain’t in my deal” and walked out. Hardly behavior from a guy who did it “their way”.

Jerry wrote a great movie in the early 70’s called SMILE about a local beauty contest. It was the GUFFMAN of its day. If you get a chance Netflix it. The movie was adapted for a Broadway musical, and as I mentioned in an earlier post, his PLAYBILL bio read, “SMILE fulfills a lifelong dream for Mr. Belson – to be paid twice for the same script.” Jerry was not known for his sentimentality.

Garry Marshall tells the story of how he finally married his wife, Jo Ann, 30 years ago. She had given him an ultimatum: “Marry me or I'm flying to Europe.” As he waited with her at the airport, she repeated the demand.

"What do you want? Should I take off or stay?" she said.

Belson quickly whined: "Can you take off and circle?"

When I won my first Writer’s Guild Award the first person I thanked was Jerry Belson. He was my friend, my colleague, one of my mentors, and in a world of extremely funny people he was one of the funniest.

So many great Jerry Belson stories. His tales of growing up in comedy mecca, El Centro, bragging about writing for Chilly Willy, but my personal favorite is that when my son was born he sent a gift along with a very touching hand written card that said, “Dear Matthew, always remember I was funnier than your father.”

He was.


Jill said...

I'm trying to pinpoint why a story about someone I've never even heard of made me so happy.

Anonymous said...

sorry for your loss.
after reading this post i understood why i read your blog every day: in the tv world there are people, like screen writers, that are more interesting, inspiring and humane than most of the actors that get to be center stage. thank you for this perspective.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Jerry Belson is the immortality he bestowed upon a young actress named Mara Finerty. She will be forever listed on the credits of SMILE as "Maggot Girl". She was one of the contestants in the beauty pageant, and her talent presentation was a dramatic reading of a poem with the lines "Rotting maggots of DEATH/Crawling out over the battlefield of WAR"

Grubber said...

What Gabe said, 'fuff said.

Grubber said...

that should be 'nuff.... :)

The Minstrel Boy said...

jerry was a true talent and a rare spirit. even in the dusty halls of kxo where he cut his teeth with his brother gordon we knew he was way more than our little place could handle. . .

he was indeed funnier than all of us.

Mike Barer said...

Excellent tribute. Well spoken.

Scott Stambler said...

the old school. underrated, passed over and sorely missed.

god bless

Dwacon said...

I read about this last week... we lost a great talent.

Anonymous said...

I'd heard stories about Jerry's having been "locked up in a room for a week" while he punched up the script for "Close Encounters" -- a credit (though not the room) corroborated by the Times obit.

I wonder how many laughs we owe to Jerry that we don't know about.

Anonymous said...

What a body of work to leave as a legacy...and so much laughter. Reading the stories here, and also one in an obit about the Odd Couple episode he wrote about (dog) Spot Moskowitz's funeral complete with dogs wearing yarmulkes. Laughter is a great legacy.

Anonymous said...

A fitting tribute to someone who earned the label of "comedy genius."

Anonymous said...

Jerry and Garry Marshall did write for "The Lucy Show", but I don't think anyone was able to make that thing (creatively) successful.

Miles said...

Very nicely put. It's a shame more is not said for the old comic writers that basically built the foundation that TV comedy rests on. People like Art Baer, who just passed away, and his late partner Ben Joelson. Or, the late partners, Stan Burns and Mike Marmer.

Maybe it will take somebody like you to really take the time to announce publicly and personally, these people made a lot of people laugh and we're all better for it.

branfordbob said...

I was somewhat familiar with Jerry Belson before I read your very well crafted tribute, but now I just want to know more!

We all have mentors and friends who set the bar high. It's nice to get to know about someone who means so much to you. Thanks for sharing.

BTW, ever considered writing a book of writers stories?


dave said...

"Smile" is truly one of the great overlooked films of the '70s. Belson's script was great, but it was the vastly underappreciated director Michael Ritchie and his masterful use of location shooting that elevated it to the level of classic. I've always thought that Spielberg copped his depiction of suburbia in "E.T." from this and Ritchie's big success, "Bad News Bears."

David in PS said...

Great tribute,Ken. Wow, I had forgotten the Shelly incident and I wa there too!!

I was always in awe of his talent. Could never believe I had the honor of working with him.

For some reason it was the post lunch groan from him and Heide that sticks in my mind. Was there ever a meal that did not cause them to emit that weltschmerz of a sound?

Anonymous said...

I Netflixed, and watched, SMILE on your suggestion. I did indeed like it. And who would have though, over 30 years ago, that one of those Young America Miss contestants would someday grow up, have lots of plastic surgery, and marry Antonio Banderas, only to have him insist that you stop going under the knife?

Pamela said...

I knew Jerry & Jo Ann very well and he was so kind and funny. He is missed by all who loved him. I really enjoyed your story about Jerry..

keith said...

He was the real-life Rob Petrie, Buddy Sorell and Sally Rogers.

Sooke said...

Did Jerry contribute to the Cheers episode "Achilles Hill"?

It's one of my favorites, particularly when John Hill comes down to the bar and discovers his daughter Valerie's suitcase sitting in the bar.

John Hill: Is this Valerie's suitcase?

Sam Malone: No, it's mine.

John: It has the initials VH on it.

Sam: It used to belong to...Van Halen.

John (opens the suitcase,and finds a negligee inside)

Sam: OK, the secret's out - I'm a transvestite.

John: Sam, you are not a transvestite...

Sam: Hey, those are fighting words.

John:..or a size 4.

Sam: Guy can dream,can't he?


Scottmc said...

I thought of this post when the musical version of MR. SATURDAY NIGHT opened the other day. The show’s Book was written by Billy Crystal and the film’s screenwriters. I’ve always loved that line about being paid twice for the same work.

Pamela said...

Yes - Jerry really was! Jerry was my ex-husbands best friend. He was also the best man in our wedding. I knew Jerry for 20yrs, and my ex for 40+.