Saturday, December 13, 2014

A COSBY writer weighs in

I received this great note in the comments section from Carmen Finestra, who was a writer on THE COSBY SHOW.  This is in response to my article about Bill Cosby being viewed as a mentor to his writing staff.   I personally was never in the COSBY writing room.  My opinions were based on discussions with writers who were and an article in the WGA's magazine.   But in the interest of fairness, I want to re-post this comment so it gets the same space as my original post.  

And by the way, today's post is only discussing Cosby in terms of the writing process.  All of his other newsworthy behavior is for another piece. 

Thanks very much, Carmen.   You have the floor.

I'm glad the writing conditions of THE COSBY SHOW have come up, because I was a writer/Producer on the show for five-and-a-half seasons, and I want to correct some of what you wrote, Ken.

I enjoy your blog, but feel compelled to respond today.

The writer you spoke to somehow gave the impression Cosby would blow smoke in our faces when giving notes, or just to possibly mess with us, and I can say that is NOT true. Yes, Cosby smoked cigars often, and if smoke somehow drifted in our faces (I don't ever remember one incident of that happening to me), it would have been because of a wind change and accidental.

Secondly, Cosby DID NOT make a habit of using funny voices at table readings to mock the script. If, as happens sometimes at a reading, some general silliness broke out, e.g., somebody mangled a line (and even they laughed at their mistake) someone might have fun with that. Or Bill might do a funny voice when kidding that person. But he was just as willing to be made fun of by the cast when he made a mistake. Remember, we had kids in the show, so silliness can happen sometimes.

I have to give a little history on why scripts were written on Wednesdays through Sundays on the show. In the first couple of seasons, scripts were prepared well in advance (with a couple of drafts and a table polish). The problem was Bill Cosby has such a fertile mind, and it's always working, he would often have a different take on a script once he heard it, and throw it in a different direction.... usually, I might add, in a far better direction. So, the writers would face a big rewrite, but the story was better.

The writers, by the third season, decided that instead of pitching stories a month out, they would meet closer to the actual reading to clear a story and write the script, knowing chances were better that Bill wouldn't change his mind on the story. Thus we began writing Wednesday for a Monday reading. These scripts were closer to first draft shape, and we didn't expect them to be home runs. However, the story would usually remain the same. So, we would work on that draft, with great notes from Cosby, incidentally, and whip it into shape for the Thursday taping. Obviously, this required long hours, but it was satisfying, when viewing the end product.

Bill had total creative control of the show, and one advantage was NO network interference.

One of the great pleasures creatively for me was sitting with Cosby three mornings a week discussing story and comedic ideas for the show. It was like your own 2-hour Bill Cosby comedy concert, because he could riff on something off the top of his head for 15 minutes and have you bust a gut laughing. His mind is like Jazz, constantly moving in all directions, and I think what enabled myself and the other writers on staff to succeed is that Bill understood we got it, i.e., what he was looking for.

The atmosphere on the show, as far as the crew was concerned, was very good. It was a completely integrated crew from top to bottom, and had a very nice family atmosphere. Cosby went out of his way to make sure African-American technicians, etc., were hired, and black and white crew worked well together.

If anyone's Mom showed up, Cosby treated her like the Queen of England, and lavished attention and love on her. My Mom, an Italian immigrant with little education, spoke about the day she met Cosby for the rest of her life. I never forgot it, either.

Yes,writing the Cosby Show required very long hours, but almost every writer who came out of it, got a huge boost in their career. I was able, with Cosby Writer Matt Williams, and David McFadzean, to help create HOME IMPROVEMENT, which was also a hit.

I know everyone wants to jump on Bill Cosby now, but I thought he was a good boss. He was demanding, but isn't every creator of a show who wants it to be good? Ask Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld.

Again, many thanks to Carmen Finestra.


Terrence Moss said...

Thanks for positing this Ken. For many reasons.

Dan Ball said...


Scooter Schechtman said...

Very articulate, almost like a court deposition.3

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Fair enough. Makes me wish all that other stuff was just a bad dream...

Mike said...

Well, I guess there's even some people that would say Adolf Hitler was a "good boss." A little demanding, wrecked a few people's lives, but he got results, so let's forgive and forget!

Cosby has been uppity and hypocritical for far too long, and we'll all be glad when everyone can see the emperor is nekkid with his dong in one hand and a roofie in the other.

Matt said...

Mike, maybe you shouldn't use the word uppity?

I don't think you would use the same term for Aaron Sorkin.

Diane said...

Not that your mind wasn't made up before you even read this column, Mike. Not at all.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, why did she wait so long to come forward with this?

sanford said...

Mike I think your statement is a bit unfair. Cosby might have been a completely different person when it came to the show and a much different person in his private life. You read about serial killers or someone who has murdered some one and you hear from neighbors or people who are just aquaintences say what a nice guy the person is. As far as the rape accusations there are just too many women coming out of the woods not to believe it didn't happen.

Diane D. said...

Ken Levine talked to writers who were in the same writing room as Mr. Finestra. Fascinating how differently they perceived the experience---for one smoke was blown in his face, for the other there was just smoke in the room. This is not a minor difference, and Mr. Finestra's story certainly has the dispassionate ring of truth.

This has nothing, however, to do with a powerful man feeling he has the right to as he pleases with young powerless women.

Anonymous said...

Great testimony by someone speaking from actual experience, and also a great example of someone disagreeing in the internet and backing up his opinion with arguments, not insults.

@Mike: yes, a classic, the Hitler analogy, usually the sign of a sound argument.

Carmen Finestra said...

I feel funny commenting on my own guest post today, for which I'm honored. I wanted to reference Diane D.'s comment on how another writer from the Cosby Show could see the experience differently.

As any of us who have ever worked on a TV show know, it's grueling. You get tired, and you may see actors letting off steam as disrespect for the script, or you may not be happy that you're working on a show where the star has all the power, and creatively you answer to him or her. Some people cope better in that atmosphere than others. It's not a slam on a writer who feels differently. It's just a fact. Half-hour shows filmed before a live audience are more like plays. You see a rehearsal every day, and you constantly have to adjust. It's not a filmed drama, where you write the scene, shoot it, and move on.

You're working collaboratively all the time. People can get on each other's nerves, or certain personality styles are not ones you react well, too. Maybe you feel your voice isn't being heard, and that frustrates you. I've seen that, and more, in my career. I'm sure I've been guilty of making another writer feel that way, also. I've been fortunate to work with some good, open writers like John Markus, Matt Williams, Elliot Shoenman, Pat Nardo, Gary Kott, Charlotte Brown, David McFadzean, and many others. I've usually been lucky to work with actors who treated me with respect, even when disagreeing with me.

Finally, someone asked, "Why did she wait so long to come forward with this?" Actually, Im not a "she"; I'm a "he". CARMEN is sometimes a male name in Italian households. The reason I'm responding now is because I missed the column that Ken did on the Cosby Show writers room the first time.

Mark said...

I really appreciate Carmen's first-hand perspective and Ken's decision to feature it prominently. As I'm sure both of them know, this isn't a climate where facts that mess with the way the narrative is trending are not very welcome, but are also necessary.

I wish the world as a whole and the internet in particular could come to terms with the fact that no one is "all" anything. People are mostly multi-faceted and it's not really all that unheard of for someone to be quite admirable in some aspects and very unsettling in others.

Yes, we all have to decide which "side" carries more weight with us, but the mere existence of one side does not negate the existence of the other.

C Flavin said...

And Carmen Finestra made sure the only female writer on the staff at the time (Winifred Hervey) was able to participate and was listened to. (See her interview on the Television Academy website.)

I might have to start a Carmen Finestra fan club.

Max Clarke said...

Good to hear from somebody who was inside the room, and who isn't an anonymous source.

Funny to read how the writers changed their approach to improve their success with the stories. Another case of good employees managing their boss.

Good guest post

Anonymous said...

Wow Mike, really "uppity?" What exactly does that mean? This post was about the work atmosphere. I appreciated Carmen's opinion because I have read so many stories to the contrary. Of course, that is his opinion and I am sure there was someone else in the room with him that felt otherwise.That happens in every work situation. Has happened to me many times. I enjoyed what Carmen had to say and I am glad he had a pleasant work experience. Nothing wrong with that.
Janice B.

Geoff with a G said...

Thanks, Carmen, for the guest post. It was an interesting read.

Anonymous said...

True about Cosby bringing in more minorities into the craft unions when he did his NY-based show. Not much when he was at the NBC-owned facility in Brooklyn for 2 years (NABET seniority, etc.), but after he moved to Kaufman-Astoria the list at that IATSE shop was more open, and by that time Cosby could pick and choose from the best, plus promising newer folks.

Johnny Walker said...

Earl Pomerantz also has several first hand account of working with Cosby on his blog (listed on the right). They're worth reading, too.

Unknown said...

I appreciated your informative post. I also assume you were not involved in writing of Bill's now famous standup routine in which he riffed on how great it was to drug women for sex.

Carmen Finestra said...

The posts by Earl Pomeranz about working on the beginning of "The Cosby Show" (referenced by Johnny Walker) are in the archive of "Earl Pomeranz: Just Thinking". They are quite good, and give a great look at how the show developed.

They are from June 19, 20 and 23, 2008, under the headings "Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen B", "Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen C", and "Story of a Writer - Part Fifteen D".

They are well written, no surprise, by a gifted talent. I highly recommend them. Many of the early shows Earl wrote, like the Dead Goldfish episode, and produced,like "The Shirt Story" (script by John Markus) were classics. In the latter episode, Denise tried to make Theo a duplicate of a designer shirt. It contained one of my favorite lines from the series. When Cliff discovers that Theo bought a designer shirt, on his Dad's credit card, that cost $95, he was told to return it. As Cliff explained, "No 12-year old boy should have a $95 shirt, unless he's on stage singing with his four brothers" Obviously, a reference to Michael Jackson. The line was written in 1984.

Craig Russell said...

All of this is fascinating. I work in the media and love knowing about all the inner workings of how shows are created, written, produced, etc. The one thing I will throw in is that every TV show, Movie, Play etc have one similar element. They are all created by humans. Perfectly imperfect humans. With feelings and ego's and agendas. Plus all of these people are highly creative and as Mr. finestra has shown, articulate with their thoughts and recollections.

For starters these are thoughts and recollections from over 20 years ago. Isn't it possible in some minds eye history has dulled reality? And also magnified thoughts from highly creative imperfect people?

In laymans terms: Im sure The writers' who have had smoke blown in their face and remember Cosby as a slave drive are right. And Im sure Mr Finestra is right remembering Cosby as a great talent and boss. The difference is egos, agendas and life experience. Some people can gain from coming out with bad news about Cosby. Some also can benefit from not raking Cosby through the mud either.

Also, and im sure both Ken and Mr Finestra can attest to this, there is a big difference between an Executive Producer and a staff writer. The difference between anyone in upper management and a worker on the line is great. Management usually are out of touch with the common man. Power and money can do that. Im not saying Mr Finestra is out of touch with writers, but having a close personal relationship with Cosby might skew his recollections of treatment. Especially after he left the show.

Too be fair, Im sure everyone is telling the truth, and covering up a bit. Thats human nature. I will also say I have never heard a bad word said about working on Home Improvement, which Mr Finestra helped create. Same is to be said with Ken's experience and influence on Cheers or Frasier or Almost Perfect or MASH. Speaks alot about the staffs and the stars and the creators.

Happy Holidays.

cadavra said...

Wow, all these years I thought Carmen Finestra was a woman. Another Hollywood illusion shattered!

Angry Gamer said...

Very cool that you posted this... thanks Ken.

This is the problem with accusation and innuendo. The first person to stoop to the level of character assassination usually has a big advantage.
Also it's not how our minds work. We are predisposed to have confirmation bias when skilled manipulators push our buttons.

This post is a PRIME example. Carmen worked with Mr. Cosby for 5 and a half years... but in the comment section here there are many who would dismiss Carmen's claims of the pleasant Cosby.

Furthermore as humans we usually give people the benefit of the doubt EQUALLY. In other words ... if five people say something is black and the Pope (one person) says it's white... well as humans we tend to believe the 5 people over a highly credible opposing view. Never mind that the 5 people could have been residents of a mental institution... never mind that the Pope has a greater motive to be a truth teller than most average people. We as humans take the multiple over the one in almost every case.

But here's the thing. In professional endeavors there is a score card where people can establish that one person's opinion is more important than the multitude. I corporations it's rank. The CEO's decision is usually more determining of corporate direction than 10,000 workers.

In entertainment J. J. Abrams opinion on Star Wars story direction is more important than the ENTIRE Star Wars fanbase... ONE opinion is more important than the opinion of Millions.

With this in mind it might be good to consider the source. AND I might add RANK the value of someones unsworn testimony in the public square.
For example the first (in this round) to accuse Bill Cosby of Sexual Whatever was stated to be an actress. Ok fair enough I looked up her IMDB to find out where she worked with Cosby. Nothing showed no IMDB no Wikipedia nada. Hmmmm... Ok so here we have a legend in entertainment with IMDB credits going decades and on the other side we have a nobody. Hmmmm.

Oh but wait we have 5 other nobodys come forward too! Well there MUST be something to this right?

I think this is a silly assertion. 5 stupid people saying stupid things with unknown agendas does not a fact make. Our brains fool us sometimes into thinking reality is different. Ken has asserted that out of ALL the nobodys that pitched a story or show to him. ALL were duds and didn't spark an interest. But yet we hear multiple rumors from multiple nobodys who we WOULD NOT EVER get story ideas from. AND WHAM! we believe those rumors now! Perhaps story pitches should only be rumor and innuendo from now on right?

Why is this? Human nature I suppose but truth is not to be found in the mob methinks.

Paul Duca said...

Mike and Anonymous..."uppity" is the wrong word.

Many of the ones griping now liked Cosby because he WASN'T "uppity"...he got along and went along and didn't question the status quo too deeply (his routine with the punchline about sending the Shelby Mustang too powerful for him to handle over to George Wallace notwithstanding), achieving the success, then mega-success such folk adore.

They fell in love with him when began chiding other blacks for not keeping their pants "uppity" enough--and not fitting into his personal standard of perfection.

Now they just see him as barely one step above someone suspected of stealing cigars or selling un-taxed cigarettes.

Mike said...

Well am I ever sorry. But the only black people I have any respect for are Ted Danson & Mickey Rooney.

Thomas said...

I suffered through the Cincinnati riots of 2001 and was afraid and inconvenienced. That was another incident where a black boy got shot by the cops and then all his relatives got violent with all the white people and closed down the city. Where was this boy ten years earlier? Was he not watching the Bill Cosby show and learning all the moral lessons Cosby was preaching on the show?
I think they all knew better and had a secret wink or handshake saying that the Cosby show was just propaganda to make white people think what they wanted us to think and there's Cosby the whole time, drugging and raping women. We're sick of all this, these people acting like their gas smells like roses and then the secrets come out that they do not practice what they preach.
What happened to Cosby's son, wasn't he a gangbanger that got shot and killed? Why didn't Cosby start the lessons in his own home instead of trying to preach to America, Oh I guess Cosby didn't know no better anyhow and all that on the show was just fluff and writers writing it and his son never stood a chance.

Diane D. said...

Are you up, Ken?

ScottyB said...

As anyone with an ex knows, there are always three sides to every story: His side, her side, and the truth.

I guess which of the first two sides you believe depends on whom you hate the most. Those who really don't give a shit either way tend to go with the third side.

Bill Jones said...

I don't have any horse in the "Is Bill Cosby a good/bad guy" race. I just wanted to say it was awesome to read a post by Carmen Finestra. I was 7 when the Cosby Show first appeared, and I grew up with it, especially those first few classic seasons. And I specifically remember the name "Carmen Finestra" from the credits. So thanks for contributing to some great memories.

Norman Marcus said...

Actually, Bill's son Ennis was a grad student at Columbia, studying the be a teacher when he was murdered by a gang-banger while changing a tire off th 405 freeway.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like someone hoping this whole thing will blow over so that the residual checks will keep coming in.

Carson said...

I want to thank Ken for posting Carmen's response and Carmen for posting his personal experience while working on The Cosby Show. This really does show how different people view the same experience.

I also think this may apply to the recent Sorkin situation with the staff writer who tweeted about being sent out of the writers room. Although we only have a few tweets and not much by way of detail. She clearly posited that she was kicked out for arguing. Sorkin's response was that she was told to leave the room after arguing her point, was told they had to move on, she argued longer and wouldn't drop it and let them move on, so she was told to leave the room. Did it happened exactly that way? Maybe. Maybe its somewhere in between.

Anonymous said...

The Leopard & Its Spots

In July 1997, Cosby testified that he made private payments to Shawn Upshaw, a woman who had briefly been his lover in Las Vegas during the early 1970s. Upshaw later told Cosby that he was the father of her daughter, Autumn Jackson. Cosby denies being the father and said that he gave Upshaw a total of about $100,000 because he did not want her to publicly reveal the affair.

As of early December 2014, at least 27 women have accused Cosby of raping and/or sexually assaulting them.

On December 1, 2014, Cosby resigned from Temple University's board of trustees following pressure to do so, which included a petition with about 1,000 signatures.

Cosby's 2011 honorary Chief Petty Officer award from the United States Navy was revoked on December 4, 2014 because of the sexual assault allegations against him.

Johnny Quest said...

If Cosby had grown up in the South, he'd have spent less time telling jokes and more time washing Paula Deen's dishes. Then he wouldn't be in this mess.

Katherine @ Grass Stains said...

I really appreciate Carmen's response and Ken posting it. I, too, remember Carmen's name from Cosby and Home Improvement when I was growing up. Regardless of how I feel about Cosby's guilt or innocence in regard to the charges that are facing him today, it's interesting to hear more about the atmosphere in the writer's room and on set when his show was airing. After all, we all TYPICALLY come here for that type on insight, not judgment on current events.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Thank you Carmen for the post, and for your help in writing some of the great sitcoms in TV history.
The Cosby Show is still the best handbook for parenting I've ever seen. How the parents (and their parents) handled situations and each other is priceless.

My question for Carmen (if possible) is: How did working on an East coast sitcom differ from working on a west coast show?

Anonymous said...

Very stunned by this post.

"I know everyone wants to jump on Bill Cosby now, but I thought he was a good boss."

Who the hell cares? He could have been an absolute saint, reading to blind orphans 7 times a week, he still is a serial rapist?

I cannot fathom why someone would decide to speak out about Cosby right now and make it about how good of a boss he was, how talented etc.
Even if they don't believe all those women (those many, many women).
That's just so creepy and distasteful.

Anonymous said...

I have no doubt that the author is expressing his honest observations about Cosby. Cosby has been vetted as a successful actor and has been taken seriously in acedemia. We already know that stuff. I wonder if a beautiful female writer would be articulating the same story or experience in working with Cosby. I have my doubts. I appreciate a person's desire to tell what they have observed, but it rings rather hollow given the very serious allegations.

Not Anonymous said...

Someone said we're not here to talk about race or rape, but television. That is utter Bull. Why post this if it's not in response to black rape?
I like what the person above said, Carmen doesn't like it because TVLand ganked the Cosby show and the checks will be drying up.

Baylink said...

'Anonymous' writes -- in a comment Ken really ought to delete:
> Who the hell cares? He could have been an absolute saint, reading to blind orphans 7 times a week, he still is a serial rapist?

That question mark won't save you. And if your telepathy is really that impressive, I need you to gin me up some lottery numbers.

Alternatively, you could possibly, maybe, think about how *you* would want to be treated if you were arrested for something you didn't do... and shut the hell up.

Not Anonymous Either said...

PS Should've used a color photo, kind of passes and not in a good way. Could make the reader think there is black male bias going on here. If you don't read deeper, you wouldn't know Italian.

Children7 said...

Now that we know that allegedly Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted/raped over 25 women, the original story in which he is portrayed as a thoughtless, controlling man, with a huge ego, and the need to humiliate other people seems about right to me.

Anonymous said...

To be fair, it is doubtful that Carmen had any clue of what was going on, as most people didn't know. Thats why it was so shocking, Bill Cosby was Americas favorote dad, mine included.

He said he was only speaking of his experience as a writer, he wasn't attempting to twist or defend Cosbys character. His remarks where that of personal work experience, I don't doubt the truth of his words or his motives. How could he make an accurate statement of things he didnt witness? There were countless on that show who had no idea, there weren't looking the other way. Cosby had no accomplices, he acted alone, in private. Of course others have nothing negative to add.

I personally think Cosby is guilty as sin. Sure, no matter what others saw, he is still a serial rapist. But Carmen Finestra is a good, decent, honest and kind man.

Lisa Brewer said...

Blengele (The black Mengele, a.k.a. Cosby)is now in prison where he belongs. He was a monster.