Sunday, February 19, 2017

Meet Treva Silverman

CNN (when it's not being the enemy of the people) is airing an excellent new documentary series on the history of Comedy.  This week's episode focuses on women -- comedians, actresses, and writers.   One of the writers they feature (all too briefly) is Treva Silverman.  Five years ago I wrote a post introducing you to Treva and I thought now would be a good time to re-post it.  If you watch the show (and I recommend that you do) you'll have a better appreciation for how much of a contribution this super-talented lady has made to comedy and television.
A lot is being made of this being the year of women comedy writers. All the WHITNEY/CHELSEA crude girl sitcoms were created by women. So by inference it's easy to get the impression that TV's ladies of laughter studied their craft at frat houses.

Not so. There have been many women writers who travel exclusively on the high road. One in particular is 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).

Here's just a sample. In that last episode mentioned Rhoda loses 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.


VP81955 said...

Any update on Treva's "Scandal"? Sounds fascinating.

Oh, and the lady in my avatar knew the power of the F-word (and a few others) -- it comes in handy when confronted with a producer who wants "extra benefits" (hint, hint) but has to be used judiciously. Despite her "profane angel" reputation, Carole Lombard only used such language in environments that either warranted it or accepted a woman saying such words. Apparently, this was the rare writing room that didn't.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Too bad she wasn't around to write for RHODA.
Rhoda was one of my favorite all time characters. While some may have had a crush on Mary Richards, or any other sitcom characters... My first TV crush was on Rhoda. She was self-deprecating, funny, pretty and the one that kept Mary from going insane.

Jeff Alexander, Stuart, Florida said...

Mister Levine:
I am very glad that you've repeated your post about Treva Silverman which I recall reading the first time you posted. I'm also happy to note that Treva and I are Facebook friends and we have chatted every once in a while in a posting.
However, with all due respect, I do take issue with one stance you made where you mentioned that "Treva was one of the first women TV comedy writers."
I'm not sure that is technically correct because Madelyn Davis ("I Love Lucy"), Selma Diamond ("Texaco Star Theatre"), Lucille Kallen ("Your Show of Shows"), Irma Kalish ("Family Affair"), Louella MacFarlane ("Dennis the Menace," "Hazel"), Peggy Elliott ("Hey, Landlord"), Lois Peyser ("My Three Sons"), to name a few, were all toiling in television before Treva, who absolutely is one of the most influential voices for sitcoms. I'm sure I've even overlooked a few.
It may be more accurate to say that Treva was one of the first women TV comedy writers to work solo (but even Louella MacFarlane has her beat on that score, since many of her "Hazel" scripts are credited to just her).
I am a little surprised at myself for not catching that the first time you posted. I hope you see my point and thanks again for bringing deserved attention to Treva!

dan o'shannon said...

let's not forget ruth brooks flippen (that girl) and the one who started it all, gertrude berg. she created a radio show that became a tv series. she wrote, like, a thousand scripts, as well as starring in her show, "the rise of the goldbergs" (later shortened to "the goldbergs" -- a groundbreaking show so criminally forgotten that abc thought nothing of giving that title to a current series.)

By Ken Levine said...

There's a marvelous documentary on Gertrude Berg that came out about a year ago. She was a remarkable woman, and you're right Dan, she deserves way more recognition than she's received. She wrote, produced, and starred in her own show. Imagine Lena Dunham but really funny.

VP81955 said...

"Imagine Lena Dunham but really funny." The mind reels at the vision of Gertrude Berg yelling "Yoo-hoo, Mrs. Blum!" from her window...but with apparently nothing on. (I didn't say it would be a pleasant vision.)

D. McEwan said...

I got to meet Treva just a year ago at a reading of one of Ken's plays, and a sweeter, warmer, less pretentious woman can not be imagined. She is kind and accommodating, and I'm proud now to number her among my friends, and VERY proud that she was kind enough to write a highly flattering blurb for the new novel I have coming out shortly. The woman is as wonderful as the writer.

Charles H. Bryan said...

In a nice bit of serendipity, I just finished reading Jennifer Armstrong's MARY AND LOU AND RHODE AND TED, which opens with Treva Silverman's pre-MTM life. She does indeed seem like a remarkable woman, who also had the strength to walk away for a while and enjoy life.

(And it was an additional kick to see you mentioned, in a great story about you and David Isaacs attending the taping of "Chuckles Bites the Dust".)

Anonymous said...

Lucille Kallen
Selma Diamond
Madelyn Pugh

Episode30 said...

Also Helen August, Shirley Gordon, Pauline Townsend, Barbara Avedon and Peg Lynch.

Unknown said...

I just bought a "signed" script of "The Lou and Edie Story." I know it's a reprinted signature but I just admire Treva's work so much. Wish I could sit with her and hear her stories

Patty Block, Marketing Consultant, Writer/Blogger, and Kitty Cat Sitter said...

Me too. Treva is brilliant.