Monday, November 22, 2021

The brilliance of Susan Harris

You rarely see much mention of writer Susan Harris these days. But in the ‘70s and ‘80s she was Chuck Lorre, Greg Daniels, Chris Lloyd and Steve Levitan all rolled into one. And maybe add Tina Fey. These are the sitcoms she created: SOAP, BENSON, IT TAKES TWO, THE GOLDEN GIRLS, EMPTY NEST, NURSES, GOOD & EVIL, THE GOLDEN PALACE, and THE SECRET LIVES OF MEN.

Many were huge hits. Some were groundbreaking. SOAP introduced the first gay character as a regular cast member (played by Billy Crystal). And GOLDEN GIRLS was a show about women in their 60’s or older. Can you imagine someone pitching that to a major broadcast network now? Today an older woman is considered 35.

But when GOLDEN GIRLS premiered in 1985 on NBC it was an immediate breakout hit. Twice GOLDEN GIRLS won the Emmy for Best Comedy and even more remarkable – all of its stars (Bea Arthur, Betty White, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan) won individual Emmys.

And today the show continues to enjoy a tremendous following in syndication. I don’t think you can turn on the TV at night without finding GOLDEN GIRLS on at least one channel. And I don't know one young person who doesn't love THE GOLDEN GIRLS. 

The show holds up nicely, remains extremely funny, and the creative voice was Susan Harris’. When idiots say that women don’t write big jokes, Susan Harris wrote BIG JOKES. Lots of them. Along with heart and depth. Prior to creating series of her own she wrote the classic abortion episode of MAUDE.

She’s won Emmys and numerous other awards, and in 2011 was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame (something even Babe Ruth can’t get into). 

I never worked with her, but we were at the same agency (does that count?).  I always wanted to though, she's one of my comedy writing idols. 

32 comments :

Brian Phillips said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Here's a nice interview/oral history of Harris' shows from 2018. It originally ran in Entertainment Weekly three years ago, but since EW has had ownership changes (it's not even weekly anymore), it's on Yahoo now.

https://www.yahoo.com/now/golden-girls-creator-susan-harris-220029206.html

Paul Gottlieb said...

Wonderful post! While I enjoy almost all your stuff, I think pieces like this, where you pay tribute to one of the giants in your industry, and give us all a history lesson at the same time, are my favorites.

RockGolf said...

I'd love to see a follow-up on Linda Bloodworth. Designing Women, etc. I just watched a season 4 MASH episode she wrote, so chances are you did get to work with her.

Sung said...

Interesting tidbit: Rue McClanahan was 51 when Golden Girls began in 1985. Nicole Kidman is 54 now.

Can't quite imagine her playing one of the GGs...!

Lemuel said...

Interesting that Empty Nest featured Dinah Manoff, who was Lee Grant's daughter.

VincentS said...

THANK YOU, KEN. I'm a big Susan Harris fan. She's one of my writing idols too. If I'm not mistaken, she wrote the entire first season of SOAP all by herself!

whynot said...

Not all of Nicole Kidman is 54.

whynot said...

And now we're stuck with Chuck Lorre, the lowest of the low common denominators. Two and a Half Men is about as low as you can sink and yet it was on for years. Sad really.

Also it's pretty obvious how the quality of the Golden Girls went downhill severely once Ms. Harris wasn't involved and Marc Cherry took over. Wit and charm were replaced with bvitchiness and sarcasml=.

Ted. said...

Re "Golden Girls": The rest of the cast members were in their early 60s when the show began. (Bea Arthur was 63, and her character was in her early 50s; Betty White was 63 playing 55; and Estelle Getty was 62 playing 79.) It's hard to imagine people that age being considered "old" today. Compare them to the reworked second season of "B Positive," set mostly in a retirement home, played by actors like Linda Lavin and Hector Elizondo(both 84).

Lemuel said...

Sung: The entire surviving cast of MOM could play The Golden Girls (ever seen Allison Janney with her wig off?).

Mike Bloodworth said...

I loved "The Golden Girls" when it was first run. "Soap" not so much. I haven't watched either one in syndication.

Ms. Harris was prolific, but not all of her creations were good. The above mentioned "...Secret Lives..." only lasted 13 episodes. I don't think I ever watched it.

Ken, maybe you could trick Susan Harris into being on your podcast. I'm sure you would discuss the hits. But I would be much more interested in what she thinks of her less successful shows and what she thinks went wrong with them.

M.B.

brian t said...

A bit of trivia: Susan's son Sam Harris is quite famous in his own right as a neuroscientist (was at Grad school with Mayim Bialik), author (Letter to a Christian Nation, Free Will), and podcaster (Making Sense).

Chuck said...

I did not know Harris wrote that Maude episode. That is shum wild shtuff. I was just a kid, but I loved Soap.

J.W. Booth said...

M. Bloodworth,

How do you know it wasn't any good if you never saw it?

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

I remember all the hype about "Soap" before it premiered in 1977, and how worked up so many were about the adult content. One ABC affiliate delayed the show an hour so that it ran just before the late local news. Another station took out a newspaper ad listing the programs its competitors were airing opposite "Soap" (only three other networks--including PBS--in those days), emphasizing that viewers had the choice of watching or not.

"Soap" had its funny moments, but I soon lost interest in it, and didn't watch beyond the first season.

Mark said...

Susan Harris has an amazing track record. And you could always tell a Witt/Thomas/Harris show even without looking at the credits - they had a certain look/feel to them, and were always well-produced and consistent. Even the ones that didn’t last long - like “It Takes Two” with Richard Crenna and Patty Duke - were good.

Leighton said...

Interesting "GG" trivia. The famous kitchen set was actually recycled from "It Takes Two."

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

You're right. The font on the production credits and the light intro and outro music on "Soap" and "The Golden Girls" were unmistakable.

Some trivia: The late Andrew Gold wrote "Thank You for Being a Friend" and the version he recorded was on the charts in the spring of 1978, just as Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan were wrapping up six years of "Maude," and Susan Harris was completing the first season of "Soap."

Spike de Beauvoir said...

Thanks for this post, it would be great if you could interview her, especially about how she conceived of new shows and kept them going. Does anyone know what happened with the GG spin-off The Golden Palace, I've always been curious about it.

When the Odd Couple was rebooted again in 2015 with Matthew Perry, producer Garry Marshall gave several interviews about how no women writers were hired for the Randall-Klugman series, including Harris. From the Hollywood Reporter:

Garry Marshall: Women Writers Weren’t Allowed on the Original ‘Odd Couple’

"They weren’t allowed, they wouldn’t hire any,” Marshall recalled of the original series. “I had three of the greatest writers: Susan Silver, who went on to Mary Tyler Moore; Susan Harris [Soap, Benson, The Golden Girls], who became one of the best writers in the world; and Susan Miller, who was the head writer on Saturday Night Live, all not hired.” He stressed that the addition of female writers (on the newest version of the OC has “improved the whole show.”

“The network didn’t want them. This show has three great female writers…[and] they help balance it out,” said Marshall.

Spike de Beauvoir said...

As millions of GG fans approach retirement age, they face disillusionment about whether it will be truly fun like the show envisioned. "Where are my sequined pantsuits?" they cry. "And what about my cook/houseboy Coco?"

Kirk said...

Burt thinking he was invisible, Chuck and Bob, the possessed baby. Loved Soap.

Roger Owen Green said...

I watched SOAP, even when it veered strangely off course.
But if I'm flipping through the channels, I'll still watch GG.

I was flipping through recently and saw B POsitive. It's not great, but Linda Lavin and especially Hector Elizondo still have 'it".

memocartoonist said...

LOVED SOAP.

memocartoonist said...

"Anonymous whynot said...
Not all of Nicole Kidman is 54."

This comment is why I love the internet. :)

Brian Phillips said...

Thanks for mentioning Susan Harris! I knew that I was going to have a good time when I saw her name in the credits.

Before the Golden Girls and Soap, there was "Fay" with Lee Grant about a divorced woman in her forties starting to date again. This show became slightly infamous, because a script used the term, "stretch marks", but the show did not last a season. Lee Grant was nominated for an Emmy. The credits have been lopped off, but it is a Susan Harris script.

https://youtu.be/Y87HNuq9GYM
https://youtu.be/P6z4rXuu8YU

Barbara Fox said...

Thanks for the warm words about the very talented Ms. Harris. I was a young woman when "Golden Girls" premiered and loved it then; I'm old enough to be one of the Girls now and love it just as much. The Politically Correct Police have made it hard to see, in its entirety, the great episode where Dorothy's son Michael marries an older black woman because there's a joke where Rose and Blanche are wearing mud facials and Rose explains that it's NOT blackface. (If anyone cares, my other favorite episodes are "Mrs. George Devereaux," "Isn't it Romantic?" and "A Little Romance". It makes me sad that apart from the almost literally immortal Betty White, everyone who was a regular or recurring on that show is gone now.

In a stroke of happy irony, I just bought and am halfway through a book about the history of "Golden Girls" and enjoying it throughly. Like the others I would love it if you could get Susan Harris on your podcast. I also loved the early seasons of "Soap," all but the last season of "Benson," and "It Takes Two" (because Richard Crenna and Patty Duke - yes, please!)

Brandon in Virginia said...

I've always been a fan of Golden Girls and its spinoff Empty Nest. My fiance and I binged on GG a few months ago (Hulu) and we were surprised, not at how well it holds up, but at the jokes they got away with in the mid-80s. Lots of jokes about Blanche's promiscuity. It wasn't so bad that we clutched our pearls, we were just surprised that the writers took it there in that era.

Last week I watched a few Soap clips, and it had me cracking up. Kinda dated, but replace some of the pop culture references - Bob the dummy makes an Anita Bryant reference to openly gay Jodie - and I think it works today.

Tim G said...

Just checked out GG on Hulu. I never was a fan (more aligned with Designing Women). Love Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens on MTM and thought her timing as Rose was excellent in the GG I've seen so far on Hulu. But damn, Bea Arthur is hard to take. I don't believe a word of her line readings.

Harry Weston said...

Empty Nest was a fave, wonderful cast, especially Richard Mulligan. Susan obviously knew what she was doing. Have a look at her IMDB page - quite a variety. Who knew, she wrote an episode of Then Came Bronson!

mike schlesinger said...

Thanks for this; it's a shonda she's not better remembered today. "Soap" remains an absolute epitome of great sitcom writing and it's a shame it abruptly ended with so many cliffhangers.

Correction, though: Crystal was not the first regular openly gay character on a sitcom; he was actually the fourth. He was preceded by Vincent Schiavelli as Peter Panama on "The Corner Bar" (1972-73) and Lee Bergere and Henry Calvert as George and Gordon on "The Hot L Baltimore" (1975). "Soap" premiered in 1977.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

I was gonna say: The first couple seasons of Soap were brilliant. Richard Mulligan, Robert Mandan and Katharine Helmond were so good-- Catherine Damon had a somewhat thankless job as the straight-woman to almost everyone else-- but even they couldn't hold the show after Robert Guillaume left. "I was gonna say", cause I can't believe I forgot Chuck and Bob, maybe the best-used ventriloquist act in any sitcom. I say "maybe" because someone even older than I am is gonna yell at me about Edgar Bergen or something,

and a shout out to The Major who had some great lines and scenes

I bailed when Jessica somehow became the lover of Gregory Sierra