Tuesday, November 12, 2013

My night with Witt/Thomas/Harris, Mitch Hurwitz, and Betty White

The Witt/Thomas/Harris salute last Saturday night at USC as part of their Comedy Festival was a big success. It was great fun to moderate it. I told the audience it was like interviewing Mt. Rushmore. The only disappointment (and it was a big one) was that Susan Harris was too ill to attend. But Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, director Jay Sandrich, Mitch Hurwitz, and the incomparable Betty White provided a lively evening of insight, anecdotes, and laughs.

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.


Dan Ball said...

A while back, we caught SOAP on Me-TV and my wife had never seen it, so I described it as an ancestor to ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT. Sounds like that was a spot-on comparison.

Trevor said...

Thanks for the recap Ken.

I was very sorry to hear that Susan Harris wasn't able to attend -- if for no other reason than she'd be able to get some more love for her genius work.

I'm happy to hear that Soap was given its due. It seems to be somewhat forgotten these days and, at events like these, almost completely overshadowed by Golden Girls. I love the ladies from Miami but I think Soap really is Harris' greatest achievement.

BTW, Aaron Berman is in the final stages of editing his book "Soap! The Sitcom that Broke all the Rules." From the snippets he's posted, it looks fantastic. He has a blog about the project and a page on Facebook.

chuckcd said...

Betty White IS amazing.
I watch Hot In Cleveland and I cannot believe she is still that sharp.

Michael said...

Ken, Betty White's example brings to mind something from another field you're involved in. Mel Allen used to say that he learned--actually, from Ralph Edwards, better known for his unctuousness on "This Is Your Life"--to broadcast as though he were talking to one person. The Vin says of working alone on Dodger broadcasts that if you're buying a car, do you want the salesman to talk to another salesman or to you. A lot of younger performers could learn a lot from the legends.

Hamid said...

Betty White is a global treasure. She's one of those people who automatically makes a show or movie better just by being in it. And I love that, at 91, she's still going and does stuff like Comedy Central Roasts. Long may she continue!

Hamid said...

And regarding SOAP, still one of the best TV theme tunes:


Howard Hoffman said...

Amazing experience, Ken.

Betty's target TV audience is how I always did my radio shows. I always aimed it to the one or two people in the car or the high school/college student at home.

...Even though there may have been a dozen or more actually listening.

VincentS said...

Sorry to hear about Susan Harris not attending. I heard she has been ill for a while now which is why she, unfortunately, doesn't write so much anymore. And, actually Ken, Estelle Getty (b. 1923) was the second youngest Golden Girl - which is still ironic. Rue McClanahan (b. 1934) was the youngest.

Stephen Robinson said...

I'm both not prepared for and in complete denial of the fact that Betty White might someday not be with us. I adore her.

I'm Gen X (born in 1974) and I watched SOAP in repeats (learning to play the theme song on the violin as a kid) and THE GOLDEN GIRLS/EMPTY NEST every Saturday night.

ChicagoJohn said...

Betty White does a spot for "memorable" TV back here in Chicago (although I'm sure the same spot airs nationwide). Out of all of the bits that stars come back to do, hers is flat out the best.
I'd argue that its because we all know she's really, really smart.

Anthony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anthony said...

"What did them in was sponsors dropping out because of all the outcry." I'm surprised by that. I was in junior high at the time, so maybe I was naive to the world, but I had just assumed by season 4, people had caught on that the world wasn't coming to an end because Soap was on the air. By 1981, the show seemed so safe and uncontroversial... the plots by that point were more fantastical and less sexy or what have you... I thought they were losing viewers (buy going over the top) rather than sponsors. Although I found it funny until the very end and still do. I certainly take the word of Susan Harris's collaborators, but I'm surprised the Puritanism continued when so many other shows were covering the same ground by then.

(Edited to remove spoilers for anyone currently watching on DVD. Really, if you've never seen Soap, you're missing something brilliant.)

(Edited again after seeing evidence on Wikipedia that Vlassic specifically, and ad agencies in general were part of the problem. I'm floored. I'm not going to eat another pickle from that Groucho-poser stork... revenge plus thirty years!)

BigTed said...

They might not air "Golden Girls" now, but the spin-off "Empty Nest" -- about young adults living with an aging parent -- was like EVERY new sitcom today.

Tim W. said...

Just a quick note. I used to watch Golden Girls, when it was on, and I was in my late teens and early 20s. Yes, I was a straight, male teenage boy who watched the Golden Girls. I don't care how old the characters are on a show, as long as it's funny and well written.

Trevor said...

@Anthony The ratings had dropped so I think that did play a role in the cancellation. If it was still a hit but had no sponsors, I think they could have justified keeping it on the air because it drew viewers to the network.

Vlassic Pickles was the only sponsor they had left until the end. All the rest had bailed. Harris has said that their pickles are the only ones they eat in her house.

Trevor said...

@VincentS A bad cold prevented her from attending.

Tom Quigley said...

What an incredible evening that must have been, Ken! Wish I could have attended.

My understanding is that Marcy Carsey (of Carsey-Werner fame) gives Susan Harris credit for giving her her break in the business and teaching her how to run a production company -- and we all know how that turned out.

I have a bit of a family connection/vested interest in GOLDEN GIRLS: my cousin Cindy Fee is the singer whose voice you hear singing the theme on every episode.

RCP said...

Sounds like a great evening with a great group. Susan Harris deserves every accolade. She can be spotted, by the way, as an occasional background extra on "The Golden Girls" (look for that mane of hair). It's interesting to see how the characters evolved from those early episodes: Bea's and Estelle's characters were pretty much set, but both Rue and Betty were originally rather prim and proper and not nearly as funny as they became once the writers started making them racier and (in Rose's case) dumber, or more naïve. Great writers, great characters, great actors indeed.

I also loved "Soap" - but missed most of it during its initial run because we had one television in the house and nobody else was interested in shows like "Soap" or "Maude" for that matter. I'd see it when I could at a friend's house - yes, I was raised by Philistines.

Speaking of Betty and crossword puzzles: my Dad is a big fan of crossword puzzles and is also sharp as a tack (he'll be 90 in April.) Maybe a good hobby to pick up.

McAlvie said...

Am I the only one who thinks it hysterically funny that they wanted "new" faces for the cast of Golden Girls?

Great shows the whole way around. I've always thought that the networks and/or writers gave their audience more credit for intelligence than they do today. Of course, very few shows today will become classics.

Janice said...

A Friday Question:

I just watched one of my favorite Frasier episodes, "Dinner Party", in which the entire episode is shot in real time. I always enjoy these types of episodes because I feel like I'm right there in the room. Are they easier to write? And if so, why don't we see more episodes like this on television?

tb said...

The John Wooden of comedy, that's perfect

tb said...

The John Wooden of comedy, that's perfect

sanford said...

Wish they would have put that event on you tube

cjdahl60 said...

Ken - this is off-topic and you may have seen this, but if not this may provide some material for a future post. You've referred to dumb network suggestions before, but I found this on Digg.com (sorry I don't know how to make the url clickable in comments):

Here's Precisely How Dumb TV Executives Are:

Network Notes is a twitter account which collects things said by actual execs, and they'd be mortifying if they didn't explain so much about the state of entertainment today. Here’s the link:


D. McEwan said...

"In casting GOLDEN GIRLS, NBC originally wanted all new faces."

How do you cast "New faces" to play old ladies? That would be The Newborn Girls. ("We want actresses in their 60s who are really, really good but no one's ever heard of them before." Good luck with that.)

One of the first things Dick Whittington taught me when I started in radio, back when I was still in high school, was "You're talking one-on-one to a single person, that person driving to work, listening in his car."

At 9AM every day we switched from music and comedy to an hour-long interview. (Half of my job was filling that slot with a hopefully-interesting guest each day, as it was always only one guest, except for like when I had on Steve & Edie, my very first day.) Reason? Because by 9PM, our drive-time listeners were at work and not listening any longer, and what audience we still had was housewives who have gotten the kids off to school and hubby off to work (Well, it was 40 years ago), and were ready to sit down, have a cup of coffee and listen to some talk.

We also reran all comedy pieces twice, once in the 7-8 AM hour and again in the 8-9AM hour, as we figured work drives were between half an hour and one hour (So many years before I regularly had four-hour daily round-trip commutes), so we had nearly 90% listener turnover in those two hours. Mind you, it was always either new at 7 AM, then repeated at 8 AM the next day, or else new at 8AM then 7 AM the next day, so that peoeple could listen to two hours of us without hearing the same hour twice in a row. (The exception was our weekly Friday news round-up piece Clean Thoughts on a Dirty Wall, which did always run twice each Friday.)

We had Betty White on the show once, the only time I've worked with her. It was shortly before she was added to The Mary Tyler Moore Show. We forget now what a total shift of image Sue Ann Nivens was for Betty, who proir to that was the sweet, innocent, far more like her Rose character. Part of what made Sue Ann Nivens work so well was the shock factor of hearing Betty White talk and behave like that.

So we had Betty record swearing for us. We put: "This is Betty White. Oh Hell. Damn. God damn it to Hell! Thank you," on a casette and had Betty swearing for us ever after. Once Sue Ann Nivens hit TV, that gag became dated.

She is a marvel.

Pat Reeder said...

Betty White's comment about communicating with one person is also what I tell young people who ask for advice about breaking into radio: you're not addressing a crowd, you're talking across the kitchen table or the car to one listener. So don't shout in his or her ear.

I love "The Golden Girls" and catch reruns of it on cable to this day. But I never cared for "Soap." It's being rerun now on Antenna TV, and I still find it more frantic than funny, and never got what all the hoopla was about. Strangely enough, that's exactly how I felt about "Arrested Development," another show I think is wildly overpraised. Now that I know AD is just an update of "Soap," it all suddenly makes sense.

BTW, Ken, I bought your new book and am really enjoying it, particularly the not-so-veiled dig at "Girls" (speaking of overpraised, unfunny shows). Read most of it on a flight back to Dallas from Charlotte Sunday. Only about 10 percent to go. But I warn you: if it all turns out to have been a dream, I'm going to be royally pissed.

Tommy said...

Was looking at 1980-81 ratings information in some industry magazines at the library. Apparently SOAP was getting its butt kicked, ratings-wise, by THE FACTS OF LIFE on NBC.

Johnny Walker said...

Get post. Great comments. Thanks so much so much for sharing all that, Ken. Can't believe it was a free event!

Blanche Davidian said...

If "Soap" was the first serialized sitcom, I guess that makes "Mary Hartman Mary Hartman" chopped liver?