Neely: Let's go back to some of your earlier shows. the first credit I found was for "Three's company." How did that come about?
David: That was a big break through for me. It took me four years to break into the business. It wasn't that I was improving as a writer during that time either. t was really a matter of four years of trying to get the right combination of access. Sneaking into producers’ houses or suddenly popping up in the back seats of their cars was not getting the results I hoped for. Actually, it was during
that four years that I became a standup. It was easier to earn money as a standup than it was to get a script read.
It's actually a funny story, not funny ha ha but funny strange, as to how I finally broke in. My cousin Eddie Solomon knew a guy who did the computer programming for the Twentieth Century Fox accounting department – which, of course, is the white-hot center of show business. (Neely chuckles knowingly). But he knew an actual living breathing comedy writer named George Tricker. George,
who could not be a nicer, more talented wonderful guy, read my early stuff and recognized something in it. He became a mentor to me as I was writing my first spec scripts.
worked on a show called “The Ropers” which was a spin-off of “Three’s Company,” so to get their attention, I wrote a spec “Ropers.” The guy running “The Ropers” read it and didn’t like it, but somehow it got into the hands of the guy above him, Bernie West. Bernie West was one of the creators of the American version of “Three’s Company,” along with Mickey Ross and Don Nicholl. Don had passed a come into pitch to “Three’s Company.” I pitched for two or three years, not knowing that I was pitching at what I would call the masturbatory level of the business. In other words, I was pitching to very very lovely people who didn't have the power to buy a story from me. I later asked, I probably even asked at the time , because they got like 70 pitches a year, “How many pitches have you actually bought?" And the answer was zero. Any time you met with them you were just jerking off. (laughing)
I was a very shy non pushy guy – I thought that asking someone every 6 months if they had had a chance to read my script was being obnoxious - but I knew that I had to move up from these story editors Shelley Zellman and Ellen Guylass who were these talented, nice, encouraging women comedy writers who eventually became my very good friends. I needed to pitch at
the producer level which was Martin Rips and Joseph Stravinsky. And when I finally got to pitch at that level, they instantly bought a story from me. I got to write the script as a freelance. After I handed in the script, I drove straight to the Sequoia National Forest to depressurize. I checked in on a pay phone ( back then that was your only choice) and my agent said “You’re on staff at ' Three’s Company.’” But I really didn’t want to be on staff. I was aiming for “Cheers.” I was certainly happy to have gotten my first assignment; it was huge and I loved the people on "Three's Company" but the style of that show wasn’t exactly my cup of tea – I much preferred the MTM-style character-driven comedy. But my agent packaged the show and suddenly I was on staff. I really wasn’t in a position to turn it down, having 17 children and all. It actually turned out to be quite fortuitous because the stuff I learned there has served me endlessly through my career.
The characters on “Three’s Company” could not say anything clever; they were not smart characters so the humor was not verbal. The comedy almost completely rose from the structure - classic French farce - which is deceivingly difficult to write. It appears easy but it’s actually very difficult to structure one of those things properly so that all the laughs start to organically roll on top of each other. And one of the reasons they were happy to have me was that they had trouble finding writers who had the discipline to do that.
So not only was I very lucky to get that job but also to get that training because it really forced you to think pure structure. When I got to write more character-oriented comedy, I was already a bit ahead of the game because I'd already learned how to do a lot of underlying structure.You’ve trained that muscle.
Neely: I do remember a conversation we had at one point where you mentioned that even though you ended up learning so much on “Three’s Company,” you were quite upset that your agent had essentially sold you down the river because you were hoping for a freelance (and maybe a pickup) on "Cheers."
David: Yes, that’s right. I had written that “Ropers” script specifically because George Trick had an "in” with that group. But my pride and joy was a spec “Taxi” that I had written and because it was character comedy it was turned down all over town. Lots and lots of agents read it but didn't understand it. Character-based humor is just not as obvious. Eventually though, it got into the hands of the wonderful Ken Levine and David Isaacs. David’s at USC now isn’t he?
Neely: Yes he is He’s a lynch pin in their television comedy writing program.
Ken writes one of the best blogs out there.
David: Fantastic guys. They were then on "Cheers" and read my script and they liked it. At that time, “Cheers” was the second lowest rated show on TV. It was the first season and I knew it was pure genius.
I wanted desperately to be on that show. They told me they would give me one of the back nine episodes if they got picked up. So I was waiting for that to come through. I asked my agent, the one who packaged “Three’s Company,”“If I go on ‘Three’s Company,’ will this mess up the ‘Cheers’ thing?” “No, absolutely not. We’ll still pursue the ‘Cheers’ thing.”
I was on “Three’s Company” for a while, and, as I said before, I didn't like to
bother people, but I hadn’t heard anything from the folks at "Cheers" for about 6 months. I eventually called David and Ken and asked what was happening because I knew they had been picked up. They said that my agent made it clear that it wasn’t going to happen with me. I was very disappointed. To my agent “Three’s Company” was a top show, often number two or three in the ratings, sometimes number one, and he couldn’t see why I would want to go on the lowest rated comedy on television. He thought I was crazy; he didn’t see a difference in quality, literally. I left that agent because of that and found the agent that I have to this day, Robb Rothman. Robb's the most amazing guy and he was completely instrumental in getting me onto the kind of show that I wanted. He loved my “Taxi” script and got me onto an MTM character “Newhart” the one in Vermont. Robb had a relationship with the Executive Producer Dan Wilcox, and Dan very graciously decided to give me the benefit of a doubt and had me write a “Newhart” script. I say benefit of the doubt because I was coming off “Three’s Company" and even though it was a very difficult show to write, it was looked down upon by the character comedy shows.
Neely: What I find interesting, especially after having heard you talk about how it really taught you the discipline of farce, it also shows how difficult farce is to recognize on the page.
David: It is, it’s very difficult. People don’t realize how hard it is to do it well. And “Three’s Company” actually did it very well. With the help of a cast that couldn't have been sweeter. John Ritter was one of the most talented and nicest people I ever met and I stayed in contact with him throughout the rest of his life. I also worked with his wife Amy Yasbeckon “Get a Life." Don Knotts – also super nice – was a comedy god. I was in awe of him. There were all these positive things about being on "Three's Company" - my first job and it was terrific money. I think I wrote 7 episodes but once you did about 4 of them it became rather repetitive, not easier unfortunately, just repetitive and you really wanted to move on. There’s that repetitive thing again.
I was so lucky that Dan Wilcox took that chance on me, letting me write an episode of “Newhart." This was when comedy was dead, it was BC, "Before Cosby.” Comedy was at terrible low at this point. Networks believed that people weren’t interested in laughing anymore which was ridiculous. People will want to laugh for, at least, another 3 years. And then, never again.
Neely: It probably won’t be over most of the comedy pilots I’ve read this year.
David: Anyway, “Cheers” was still at the bottom of the ratings. When I was writing that script for “Newhart,” I was in competition with about 7 other writers who were writing scripts for one staff position on that show. True to form, when I finished the script, I went off to Yosemite…
Neely: …that’s actually synergistic because it’s exactly what Janet Leahy always did under the same circumstances.
David: I always run into her there and watch her answer her phone and get all the jobs from the producers who won’t return my calls. Seriously, Janet Leahy, who is an incredibly magical person,
was deservedly mentored on “Newhart” by all the other writers – except me. I was very jealous that she was so much prettier than I was. Anyway, again, I checked on a pay phone, and it was the same exact thing , I was miraculously, instantly on staff at “Newhart.” That was truly one of the big highs of my life, again thanks to Dan Wilcox and Robb Rothman. I just loved that group of writers.
I’ve been lucky most everywhere with the quality of people I’ve gotten to work with. The people on “Three’s Company” were great. Bernie West was an incredibly nice man; Mickey Ross was a bit officious and imperious but it was much more an act than anything. He was
a great teacher, the one who really taught you how to structure farce. Mickey and Bernie and Don Nichols, those were the guys who wrote my favorite episodes of “All in the Family.” They were the most brilliant writers on “All in the Family” but they loved writing very silly farce more than anything. “Three’s Company” was their dream job. It really came out of a true place of passion for these guys who were in their 50s or 60s at this point. Everyone was so welcoming and nice on that show, especially Ellen and Shelley.
It’s always intimidating when it’s your first job but they were really encouraging. And then it was intimidating and a big deal to get on an MTM show. And all those writers that Janet Leahy told you about – Gary Jacobs, Barton Dean, Miriam Trogdon, and
Arnie Kogen, Doug Wyman ; and obviously Dan, hiring me to begin with. It was a very blessed situation. They were all so talented and extremely funny and, just as important, gracious and welcoming and nice. As a matter of fact, we all still have lunch together periodically and I still find it incredibly easy to stick them with the check.
Neely: How was “Newhart” structured?
David: I think a lot of that structure was the same way that “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” was structured; passed down so to speak. It was also the way that “M.A.S.H.” was structured because
Dan Wilcox had come from “M.A.S.H.” I've actually got a separate “M.A.S.H.” story which I’m sure will help us all understand the true meaning of the universe.
The very first spec script I ever wrote when I was still in college was a “M.A.S.H.” episode. I was doing a school project that involved Jan Jorden as an actress who waswas married to Burt Metcalfe, the showrunner of “M.A.S.H.” at that point (Burt
had originally been a casting director for the show). Knowing I had an in, I came up with an idea for "M.A.S.H." I asked Jan to get it to Burt. I thought it would be interesting if a female doctor came to “M.A.S.H.” and Hawkeye could not deal with a female as an equal. This was in the womanizing period of “M.A.S.H.” before Hawkeye became a big feminist in later episodes - somehow before anyone else in the world had become a feminist.
The producers came back and said, “That’s an interesting idea, but our shows are very accurate and there were no female doctors in Korea.” So I said okay and I wrote the spec script where a nurse comes and she has the same background as Charles, meaning she’s a blue blood from Harvard as well. So even though she’s one of the nurses, she has an education that just blows everyone away and is as smart as anyone there. It's basically the same story where Hawkeye has a hard time and all his underlying prejudices against women come out. They got the script and read it and said, “Thanks very much, but no.”
I was very young at the time and it was still extraordinary just to interact with people on a fantastic television show. Burt Metcalfe very kindly let me hang around and watch some filming and go on location. That’s where I first met Ken and David in fact. And then later Alan Alda wrote an episode where a very attractive female doctor, played by Mariette Hartley, comes to “M.A.S.H.
” and upstages him in the operating room and he can’t handle it.The way they got around the reality problem was by making her a Swedish doctor. I was then taking any kind of job to stay close to things, and I volunteered as a student at the Television Academy. I ran the video tape machine in the writers’ room to screen the comedy episodes for the Emmy that year. I had 5 video tapes that I played for these writers, and Alan's female doctor episode was first because it was alphabetical, And Alan ended up winning the Emmy.
What I have to make very clear is that I never felt that the idea was in any way stolen. It makes the point that ideas kind of float around in the cosmos. You realize as a showrunner that sometimes multiple people come up with the same ideas near simultaneously and that execution is everything. I really believe that Alan's script came from a completely separate place and he was never at all aware of my idea or script. In fact, any time I even tried to say “Hi” to him on the set, I was instantly wrestled to the ground by his 5 massive bodyguards. No one rolls with a bigger posse than Alda. The main thing that I took away from that experience was great encouragement because I knew I was thinking along very good and positive lines. When you’re agonizing whether you have what it takes to be a professional television writer, and I was, that was actually a huge sense of encouragement because I had come up with an idea that would eventually win an Emmy. It was ultimately a very positive experience. But you know, now that I hear myself tell the story, I think I’ll call my lawyer tomorrow. I’m clearly owed millions.
Neely: Clearly. And what’s your opinion on entitlement?
Well one thing I really want to talk about was something Janet had mentioned. I understand that you and Dan Wilcox came up with the iconic last episode of “Newhart,” the dream sequence.
David: I’m glad that you brought that up because it could be something you might want to change. I think in the article on Janet you gave the credit in the last episode as Doug Wyman and myself…
Neely: … Yikes! It should be Dan…
David: ...it actually should be neither (chuckling) because
we were long gone by then. But since it’s now been clearly stated on the Internet that it was me, I’ll see if I can get some money for that idea as well…
Neely: …and again there’s that entitlement?
David: I had been on “Newhart” for about a year and a half or so and then Dan Wilcox left, leaving them without a showrunner. For whatever strange reason it just worked out that they asked me to be the showrunner with Doug Wyman. I mean it’s not really that strange. I knew they were looking for someone, so I started wearing very tight, revealing clothes and made lots of intense eye contact with all the MTM executives.
Neely: You know, as visually appealing as that is, I have seen you in person.
David: I went from being a supervising story editor, or whatever my title was at the time, and jumped right to executive producer/showrunner. That was simultaneously very very exciting and intimidating. At the time I was at “Newhart,” I felt this was where I belonged. I’d finally come to a place in my life where everything I’d ever wanted had come together. I never felt I had fit anywhere properly until I landed there. And soon afterwards, I was running the show. It was as near perfect as anything ever gets in life. Bob Newhart could not be nicer or more fun to work with. The entire cast was an incredibly talented dream. The crew was wonderful, I received an Emmy nomination for writing but then this horrible thing happened. I was there for about four years and I realized that I had kind of “done” the multi-camera sitcom. I had done every aspect of the multi-camera sitcom and I was chafing at its limitations.
I’d always been a big film freak, into cool camera movement, special effects and different styles of storytelling¸ different genres, so I very sadly came to the realization that I couldn’t do a normal sitcom for the rest of my life where your characters simply congregate around an office desk or living room sofa. Here I had my dream, dream, dream dream job which was kind of a “Mary Tyler Moore Show” with Bob Newhart, and I realized, to my horror, that I could only do that for four years. The repetition problem was repeating itself! And so I left in 1988 and so did all or most of the staff and new people came on. But that idea for that final show had been floating around for a long time. It actually came from Bob’s wife Ginny.
David: Yeah. I can’t remember who was showrunning it at the end, but they did it and wrote it. But it was an idea about a dream. I did show up for that last taping because I knew that Suzanne Pleshette was going to be there. It was a very sustained laugh.
We had the second largest laugh in the series when we remade “War of the Worlds” where the idiots in town had just been watching the 1953 movie and they thought that was real. And then the aliens show up and it turns out to be Larry, Darryl and Darryl. That laugh went on for 2 minutes. But the Suzanne Pleshette laugh was even bigger; it was huge. It was a time when “it was all just a dream” surprises had been floating around. “Dallas” had an entire dream season a couple of years earlier.
Neely: Oh yeah. Season nullification.
David: I had a much darker way that I would have gone to end the “Newhart” show. The last episode would have had the cast of the first series checking into the hotel (Neely is already laughing) and they had been looking for Bob, the psychiatrist, for all these years because he had skipped town and disappeared (more laughing). And they had finally tracked him down to this town in Vermont. Of course he sees them and he’s hiding the whole time. Then right at the last minute when they think they’ve got him cornered, he runs out on everybody and he’s gone again. And then if he ever wants, he can do a 3rd series.
Neely: I really like that.
David: It would have really upset everyone, Bob Newhart running out on multiple marriages - but sadly, that’s the kind of thing that makes me smile.
Neely: Well let's leave the MTM part of your career and when we take up again, we should start with the history of your signature creation - "Get a Life." To Be Continued.
And remember, if you have comments of questions, submit them through "Ask the Writers."