Thursday, July 21, 2016

Camelot revisited

There have been a couple of Camelots for TV comedy writers -- idyllic places to work. MTM in the ‘70s and Paramount in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I’m privileged to say I worked at both.

MTM was headquartered at CBS Radord in the San Fernando Valley. I got in on the tail end of that Camelot. At the time I joined MTM, they had THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, PHYLLIS, and RHODA.

What made MTM so special was its founder and president, Grant Tinker. He hired the best writers and created the best environment for them to do their thing. There was little or no interference, and he served as a buffer to networks, always taking the side of his creative team.

The day we went to our first runthrough Grant Tinker made a point of coming down to the stage, introducing himself, and welcoming us. This was unheard of. And still is. We were just two baby writers. Today studios welcome baby writers by forcing them to be paper partners so they can pay them half a normal salary.

Most of the writing offices were in a two-story building right off the main entrance. You’d walk down the hallways and see these names on the doors: Jim Brooks, Alan Burns, David Lloyd, Bob Ellison, Earl Pomerantz, Glen & Les Charles, Ed. Weinberger, Stan Daniels, Dave Davis, Lorenzo Music, Tom Patchett, Jay Tarses, Gary David Goldberg, Hugh Wilson, Michael Leeson, Charlotte Brown. It was the “We Are the World” of comedy.

Once Jim Brooks & crew moved over to Paramount that became the new Mecca. In 1982 you would walk around Paramount and see the following shows on their stages: CHEERS, TAXI, FAMILY TIES, HAPPY DAYS, LAVERNE & SHIRLEY, and MORK & MINDY. In addition to the Brooks’ staff, you had the Charles Brothers presiding over CHEERS, Gary Goldberg at the helm of FAMILY TIES, and all of the Garry Marshall shows with his stable of outstanding writers. (I still can't believe he's gone.)

And there was a lot of camaraderie between the shows. Gary Goldberg put up a basketball hoop and there were always pick up games. Filming nights were scattered so if you finished your rewrite night at a reasonable hour you would often swing by the stages of the shows that were filming. Paramount felt more like a college campus than a program mill.

Then, in the ‘90s, writing staffs would gather after filmings at the nearby Columbia Bar & Grill to compare notes and laughs.

It was a glorious time, when smart comedy was appreciated, and writers were treated with great respect. Our shows regularly got 30 million viewers a week so even without interference by the networks and studio we must’ve been doing something right.

Very few of these Camelots still exist. From what I hear, Shondaland is one. I cherish being part of two and honestly believe I became a better writer as a result. The striving for excellence mixed with support and camaraderie pushed me to always do my very best. Treating people well – what a concept! And everyone benefits from Camelot – not just the knights of the rewrite table, but the 30 million subjects as well.


Chris said...

Friday question: what is up with the numerous old water towers present in studio lots? Why were they there in the first place and why are they still around?

VP81955 said...

I'm tempted to deplu with an "Animaniacs" joke, but I'm certain the answer is technology-based.

DAS-Machina said...

They are for fire safety. Back in the day they were the tallest structures on the lot so they could generate water pressure to reach to top of any building on the lot.

Brian said...

Friday question: You've mentioned the pie fight in "Almost Famous", which, I gather, must have been a bit of a bump in the show's budget.

What were some of the better cost-cutting ideas you've had to perform or that you have heard about?

Scott O. said...

I guess it depends on your perspective. I worked at Sears in the mid-seventies/early eighties and I look back on that now as Camelot.

MacGilroy said...

Was listening to WTF this morning with Maron interviewing James Brooks. He talks specifically about the very same time period as a golden age for writers. Must have been magical.

Cat said...

Friday question: Why did Glen and Les Charles not create more shows? Wasn't it just Cheers and All is Forgiven? Did they know they had the greatest sitcom of all time and then say, "eh, we're good?"

Michael said...

Any idea why Jim Brooks & crew moved from MTM to Paramount? Was it a money decision or were there changes to the way things were being run at MTM?

Andrew said...

(Off the subject...)
Ken, I know you tend to keep your blog relatively apolitical, but surely you must write something about the s***show that is the Republican Convention. I mean, could you design a better comedy if you tried?

MikeN said...

If all these Hollywood folks are thinking about Camelot, then how did they let JFK have the false line
"Camelot to smithereens."
Surely they would have known the term was never used about JFK until way after he died.

VP81955 said...

Am trying to think of a simulator period for screenwriters during the studio era. Pre-Code Paramount, perhaps?

Speaking of Paramount, the studio reportedly is seeking to raze the RKO globe at the corner of Gower and Melrose. Anyone who loves classic Hollywood can't let this happen!

JSS said...

Friday question: Colbert bringing back his old "Colbert Report" character to "The Late Show": good or bad in the long run?

Personally, I loved seeing the character again and found it as bitingly funny and sharp as it was on the old show. I was delighted by the sketch, but almost immediately I found myself thinking that this will end up being a mistake since he has yet to build anything strong for his new show and this would be simply viewed as a desperate ploy to get back into the zeitgeist.

It was a definite (and badly needed) shot in the arm for both the show and for Colbert as a performer/host (you could just feel the joy in his performance). But I think reverting back to what he was good at in the past will only highlight what his show is lacking in the present (a clear point-of-view...sharper/funnier writing...awkward chemistry between Colbert and his bandleader Jon Batiste, etc).


Andy Rose said...

I've often wondered what it was like to work at 30 Rock in the 50s. While NBC did not produce all of their shows there, it must have been quite a thing to see programs like Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, Red Buttons, Howdy Doody, Kraft Television Theatre, Your Hit Parade, and all the big game shows... each being produced just down the hall from each other. I imagine it was a lot like CBS Television City was in the 70s, except all crammed into a Manhattan office building.

Anonymous said...

@JSS: Colbert will be gone by the end of the year. His Late Show is worse than Fallon's Tonight Show, subjectively & objectively. Jon Stewart & "Stephen Colbert" will boost his ratings, but they'll fall back where they were and he'll continue to lose viewers. It will be interesting to see who CBS replaces him with. Hope she's interesting.

I wonder how long Trevor Noah will last? His show is unwatchably bad. He's unfunny and inauthentic. Maybe they can move Colbert over there?

I wish John Oliver had taken over the Daily Show. He was great filling in for Stewart.

Anonymous said...

It's "The Studio Center". Not Radford. Used to get my hair cut there.