Sunday, August 19, 2007

Treva Silverman

From time to time I like to introduce you to writers you might not know but should. So today, meet Treva Silverman.

Her comedy comes from character – keenly observing the behavior and absurdity of real people and real situations. Her laughs are hard earned because they derive from humanity not the easier route – cynicism. I’ve always believed that “only the truth is funny” and Treva’s built a nice career doing just that.

You probably have seen her name on many episodes of the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. Without making her sound like Jackie Robinson, Treva was one of the first women TV comedy writers and really did pave the way for others to follow. As with Jackie, she did it with talent, poise, and the ability to steal home.

Treva’s career began in New York. While playing and singing at piano bars at night, she wrote songs and 13 off-Broadway children’s musicals. That led to writing sketches for musical revues at the prestigious “Upstairs at the Downstairs”. Other revues employed as many as twenty sketch writers. “Upstairs” had one – Treva.

Carol Burnett caught her show one night and hired her to write for her first variety series, THE ENTERTAINERS. She was the only woman on staff. Knowing how writing rooms can be a bit raucous, Treva set out to prove she was one of the boys by dropping a few F-bombs the first day. One of the writers took her aside and said, “Please don’t swear. It makes us so uncomfortable.”

MADEMOISELLE magazine included her in an article about women on the rise in professions traditionally held by men. All that did was put extra pressure on her. It’s hard enough to succeed under the best of conditions but she felt if “If I fail I bring down all womanhood”.

Treva moved to LA to write for THE MONKEES, THAT GIRL, and GET SMART. So far all womanhood was safe. And then in 1969 Jim Brooks (who she first met when she was playing at a piano bar) called and said he and Allan Burns were creating a show for Mary Tyler Moore. Would she like to be involved? As a writer not a pianist.

She stayed with the show for five years, wrote 16 episodes, won two Emmys, and was one of its major creative forces. Allan Burns credits her with being the “voice of Rhoda” (although in person Treva could not be more different from the brassy Rhoda character) and Valerie Harper called her the “Feminist conscience of the show.” The guys, to their credit, never fought her…although the feminist attitudes did have to be pointed out to them.

Treva thought THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW was the easiest and hardest job she ever had. Easiest because the show was so real. Hardest because the show was so real.

One thing she loved was that on the show she could write digressions. It wasn’t just story, story, story. Compare that to today’s sitcoms where there have to be B stories and C stories, and forty two scenes in a twenty minute show.

Needing a ditzy character to be the opposite of Rhoda, she created Georgette after seeing Georgia Engels in the Milos Foreman film, TAKING OFF. It was originally supposed to be just a couple of lines for one episode only but Georgia was so funny everyone decided she should be a series regular.

Of the many episodes for MTM that Treva wrote, some of my favorites were “Lou & Edie Story” (Lou’s wife decides to separate), “Better Late…that’s a pun…than never” (Mary gets suspended when she writes a joke obit and the guy promptly dies), “Cover Boy” (introducing Jack Cassidy as Ted’s brother), and “Rhoda the beautiful” (where Rhoda enters a beauty contest).

Tomorrow I will feature some of Treva’s work, but here’s just a sample. In that episode Rhoda lost twenty pounds but doesn't seem to be happy about it. When Mary wonders why she says, “Because I can never say again ‘gee, I’d look great if I lost twenty pounds’.”

After season five Treva left the show to live in Europe for several years. She came back to write pilots, movies, and was collaborating with Michael Bennett (CHORUS LINE, DREAMGIRLS) on a Broadway musical called SCANDAL. With a score by Jimmy Webb, and starring Swoozie Kurtz, Treat Williams, Victor Garber, Priscilla Lopez, and Rob Morrow it was slated for production. But unfortunately, Bennett died and the project never came to fruition. To this day Treva feels it’s the best thing she’s ever written.

Michael Douglas called her to fix ROMANCING THE STONE. Test audiences hated the Kathleen Turner character -- they thought she was too cold. Plus, they only had the budget to reshoot the first scene – where Kathleen is home alone, gets a call from her sister, and has to go save her. Treva had the solution. Give her a cat. Let her talk baby talk to the cat. Just that one bit of behavior completely won over the audience. And the rest is box office success and disappointing sequel (that I helped rewrite) history.

Recently, Treva has rewritten SCANDAL as a play. A NY Times article called it “purportedly brilliant and unproduced”. Since then there has been a flurry of interest and hopefully we’ll finally get to see it soon.

I hope Treva Silverman serves as an inspiration to young writers, not because she’s a woman or that she broke barriers, but because of her work.


blogward said...

I'll watch out for her stuff. Off topic, but apropos of Jane Seymour:

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this will make you feel better or worse, Ken, about life/the taste of the American public/me, but I am one of the rare people who liked "Jewel of the Nile" better than "Romancing the Stone."

My friends and I still quote, "I have (feeble cough) consumption."

"You were going to marry me with consumption?"

"I didn't want to spoil things."

For some reason, we thought it was very funny.

It was particularly funny while watching "Moulin Rouge." (My husband and I once again knew we were meant for each other when, after evry kiss in "Moulin Rogue" we both squirmed uncomfortably as we pondered how contagious Nicole Kidman was.)

Anonymous said...

I hope Treva Silverman serves as an inspiration to young writers, not because she’s a woman or that she broke barriers, but because of her work.

Well, she could be an inspiration because of all those reasons put together. The whole point of all those -isms like sexism, racism, antisemitism, etc., is that they were (alas, sometimes are) used to keep people out even if they were talented. It would be nice if it were a coincidence that her first big break came from a woman (Carol Burnett), but I kinda doubt it. It would also be nice if I could say something funny about all this, but I'm no Treva Silverman.

Anonymous said...

My favorite Treva Silverman MTM was in fact the second show aired, where Mary and Rhoda feign broken marriages in order to join a social club for divorcees, and Mary is pursued by a love-struck dentist (played by Shelley Berman). It's packed with great lines that, as you say, are funny for being so human:

"Divorced joiners"

"The Better Luck Next Time Club"

"Roy and I are taking a flashlight and go out hunting for losers"

"You bit my probe!"

"The 'Where It's At' exposition to the hippie quarter"

"You have a cavity...and I'm not to tell you where"

"The Young Republicans, the Young Democrats...they were such LOSERS!"

"We got into an argument over whose car to take...his was a camper"

Anonymous said...

Hey - I loved Jewel of the Nile. My family and I still quote our favorite lines.

Thank you so much for this article about Treva Silverman. Never knew I was one of her biggest fans.

Anonymous said...

I seem to remember Treva being mentioned in Joan Rivers's ENTER TALKING as an early collaborator of hers. And they wrote some material for Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop. Or was it Topo Gigio? Am I remembering this right?

Jack Ruttan said...

Georgette is a brilliant character. Thanks for introducing me to this amazing writer.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting to see how she would update "Scandal" to make it more contemporary. From reports on the Web, the musical was about an unfulfilled woman who discovers her husband is cheating on her, so she travels to Europe, where she has a sexual awakening (including sleeping with a teenage boy) and finds herself.

A song that was apparently written for the show (although it may also have appeared in another musical, "The Children's Crusade") was recorded by Michael Feinstein and can be found on YouTube (with attached visuals that have nothing to do with the original idea):

Anonymous said...

Okay, I don't know how to make the full link come through, so if you're interested just go to YouTube and search for "Only One Life Feinstein."

Anonymous said...

Always loved Treva Silverman's stuff, don't get me wrong, but that "only the truth is funny" bromide is and always has been hogwash.

To believe so is to say Green Acres wasn't funny, or Monty Python, or Ernie Kovacs, Inspector Clouseau, the Marxes, Hope and Crosby, the Stooges and other clown princes of untruth.

Absurdity too has its place on the comedy palette, as does buffoonery and schtick. "Truth" is just one color.

Anonymous said...

Many pats on the back to Ken Levine for giving this beautiful piece to the Internet World - ALL people should be aware and love Treva Silverman - not only as a brilliant writer, but also as a super-insightful person that this writing talent comes from. This is a loving, giving person of great integrity. As a Major Fan & Friend of numerous years I was thrilled to read once again about Treva Silverman. Thank you Ken for giving us a small sample of this loving person.
-Bob Ross

Anonymous said...

i always felt they made Lou's wife excessively militant, harsh in the divorce eps.

Anonymous said...

Ken - Have you ever seen 'Paul Sand and Friends'? I've scoured high and low never found an ep of that anywhere. just always been curious to see it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the info about Ms. Silverman. I am in awe of women writers who broke through in such a male-dominated profession and time.

Rachael Narins said...

Oh my gosh, this is such a great post! I love Treva. She has always been one of the funniest people I know. Thanks so much for this!

Jim Hanley said...

A late note to paulmoshay regarding Paul Sand, in case you are still following this.

I believe the show was called 'Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers' While it was too early to have been widely taped, you might have better luck looking for it under that name.

Anonymous said...

I believe she just passed away (one day before her husband - but I can't seem to find out if they were in some type of accident) in Boca Raton, FL. At least it appears to be the same person - after all, how many Treva Silverman's in their 70's are there in the U.S.?

By Ken Levine said...

Treva (at least the writer Treva) is alive and well. Traded emails with her just today.

Anonymous said...

Now 55, I have the fondest memories of having my comedic philosophies shaped by the great sitcoms of the sixties and early seventies. But one of my favorite episodes of any of them was when Rhoda won the beauty pageant at Hemphill's Department Store. A brilliant combination of humor and pulling at one's heartstrings. It's almost forty years late, but thank you, treva, for that episode. David

Anonymous said...

I just got seasons 1 and 2 of the Mary Tyler Moore show on DVD and had noticed her as the writer on the first few episodes. I LOVE this show, and since I'm 53 now it's brought me back to a time when things could be funny without being filthy. I'm no prude, but I just remember laughing more at sitcoms of the past than I do during most of the modern ones. She is a great talent!

I did wonder one thing though - is she any kin to Sarah Silverman? I looked Reva up on Wiki, but there is barely any information there except for a link to this blog.

I'm glad I found this information about her, and thank you for the work you've put in to present it to us!

John in Kentucky

Anonymous said...

How great that I stumbled into your blog. I am watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The 6-1/2 Year Itch right now on MeTV. Wonderful writing!

Brian in Miami

KittenFuud said...

Jim Hanley, if YOU'RE still following this, a quick "Paul Sand" will bring up a Playlist now. My, how our internet has grown! 😉