"When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers." - Oscar Wilde


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.

He 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 way but Mickey and Bernie were still there and Bernie loved my script, leading the way for me to 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 Tricker 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. (http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/)

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- oriented show, the kind of show I grew up worshipping, and that was “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 Yasbeck on “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. But this was when he was still womanizing and suddenly there was a female doctor and Hawkeye tries to pick up on her but he can’t really deal with her in the same way because she’s an equal or maybe even a bit better than an equal. She knows some things that he doesn’t and that ruins it for him.

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.

Neely: Really??

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."

 

 

David Mirkin – A Writer I Love

 

It doesn’t take much to love David Mirkin. Just look at his credits and you’ll realize that you’ve loved him for years on “Three’s Company,” “Newhart,” and “The Simpsons,” as well as his own iconic series “Get a Life,” to name just a few. David is also a popular director in both features and television, making him more than a triple threat.

 

I was lucky enough to have David lecture to a class I taught called “The Entertainment Industry Seminar” and he was a major hit because his practical advice was encased in the humorous delivery that is his trademark.

 

Conversation with a Writer I Love:

 

Neely: David, I’m so glad you agreed to talk to me.

 

For a while there, we kept bumping into one another – like at the TEDX conference. Have you been to any of the others?

 

David: I have not. Savannah used to go those, but once they got really big and really crowded, it became less of an interest of ours. I still watch the videos online which is about the easiest way to do that.

 

Neely: I think TED is a very interesting concept – sort of like an “after school special” for grown-ups, but I always end up with a headache.

 

David: That one where we saw each other was really kind of Ted-Light. It wasn’t quite the quality of the ones that are now crazily expensive. It didn’t use to be that expensive and crowded. As I said, a lot of them end up online so you can get the best of them. People who are big networking fans enjoy it but when the numbers grew to such a large extent, it was less appealing. I don’t run in the direction of large crowds of people very often.

 

Neely: Before TED, and I guess it was an anticipatory headache, we had been to a Renaissance Weekend…

 

David: …Ohmy god.

 

Neely: ..precisely. By the third day my head was just throbbing and all I wanted to do was go home… take a bottle of aspirin and just go home. The other thing, of course, was that the TEDX we went to a USC cost us $50. The full price for TED is like $7,500.

 

David: That’s right. It just went through the roof. It used to be just a couple of thousand and then it doubled and tripled. They also have started to have it on video, even if you paid for the conference. People love it, but it’s not my kind of thing. I find my technology on my various feeds from the internet and watch the videos as they become available.

 

Neely: I do have a friend who is often an invited speaker and I’m wondering if you know her - Emily Levine. I really love her and her take on things. Emily has a background much like yours in that she started in comedy, both stand-up and writing.

 

David: I don’t know her but I’ve probably run into her at some point.

 

Neely: Let’s start in the present. I noticed that you have several feature projects in development. Can you talk about any of them?

 

David: I can’t talk too much about them for various reasons, but I am very excited about the Richard Branson biopic “Losing My Virginity.” It’s a great combination of an action film, because there are a lot of the balloon and boat crashes mixed in with a really fascinating story about how to make a billion dollars without being a big jerk (both laugh).

 

Neely: How really cool. How did you get attached to that?

 

David: In some ways it’s the flip side of the “Social Network” where there was a lot of intrigue an dirty tricks involved in that startup. Richard started his magazine when he was 15 or 16, and I’ve talked to people he was in business with at that age and through his early career and he’s still friendly with all of them. So he’s been able to move forward, be very successful and still have people speak well of him. I think it’s a good flip side to the “Social Network” that you can also make a billion dollars without screwing everyone.

 

Neely: How did you get attached to that film?

 

David: The producers sent me a copy of his book Losing My Viriginity: How I Survived, Had Fun and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way. I read it and really liked it and had a very interesting, cool, visual kinetic take on it. I then met with Richard and we really hit it off; he really loved the take too. And we went from there.

 

Neely: I notice on a lot of the other features you have in development right now that you’re also going to direct them Are you going to direct this one?

 

David: Yeah. I’m attached as a writer/director on this.

 

Neely: Would you say that your present focus is more on directing or are you still firmly planted in the writing world?

 

David: Everything always come from writing. If there’s a great script that I haven’t written and I have take on it as a director, I always consider that. But it really starts with the writing and the writing has to move me or be something I can rewrite and put into a voice I’m comfortable with. It all starts there, but then, in the early part of my career, it was the same thing. When you have a vision of something and even if you haven’t written it or if you’ve just rewritten it or added to it a bit, you then want to protect what that is. So really, directing is just a means of protecting the writing.

 

Neely: You come by that naturally and you have great predecessors in terms of that feeling, Billy Wilder, foremost among them.

 

David: That’s right. It all started back then and those are the heroes. It’s so funny having a hero, pretty much since childhood, be Woody Allen and yet he’s still getting Academy Award nominations. That’s certainly a great career.

 

Neely: Well that’s an excellent segue because I think I would be completely remiss if we didn’t start our conversation with “The Simpsons.” Your comparison of Woody Allen as a childhood idol who’s still active certainly resonates. My son, who’s an adult now, grew up with “The Simpsons.” It may not be the same as Woody Allen but it’s something that has crossed many generations.

 

David: It has. And you know, it’s a similar thing. You’re talking about somebody who influenced me when I was still in high school or maybe right before, where I was just blown away by his writing.

 

Going back a bit. The first writing that really blew me away when I was a child was “The Dick Van Dyke Show” as a series. I recognized that as something smarter than anything else on television at the time. And it’s held up in (television) history as something that was absolutely brilliant. Suddenly something incredibly smart was speaking to me and that led to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” which was another thing that blew me away. And that was Jim Brooks, with Alan Burns at that time, just doing this amazing series. And following Jim’s career as he went on to “Taxi,” which was another series I studied very seriously when I was trying to learn to write. And obviously then “The Simpsons.” The whole reason “The Simpsons” exist and has the freedom that it does is thanks to Jim Brooks.

 

Neely: When did you start on the show and how long have you been associated with it?

 

David: I’ve been there over 20 years. The first time I worked with Jim Brooks, “The Simpsons” were on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” as those little minute interstitials and I was asked to be a guest writer on her show. It was a big thrill for me that Jim Brooks liked my work on “Newhart” and asked me to come over and write a couple of sketches for that show. So I met Jim at that point and really enjoyed working with him. Then when “The Simpsons” was starting up as a half hour, I was asked to join it then, but by then I had my own project in development, the show that became “Get a Life.” So I actually didn’t come on to “The Simpsons” until the end of 1992. So it’s just about 20 years now.

 

Neely: I’ve also noticed that so many of the writers have started with “The Simpsons,” gone off to other things and then returned, oftentimes repeating that cycle several times. How does that work?

 

David: When I was asked to take over “The Simpsons” in 1992 and become the showrunner, I had to pretty much rebuild the entire staff from the ground up because it’s such a difficult show and there’s no hiatus like there is on other television shows – every other television show has about a three month hiatus where you can rest up. “The Simpsons,as opposed to having a hiatus, because it takes 9 months to do one episode, literally six months of the year we’re working on two seasons simultaneously. Right now we’re still finishing up shows that are airing this season while we’re busy writing next season. We’re always about a year back. So the same time we’re working on this season, we’re also working on the Halloween show for next season, things like that. So people burn out very seriously. When I came in, I started something new. I had wanted to keep George Meyer, who I had worked with on “The Edge,” my sketch show. I was a fan of his. So we worked out a thing where George could come in two or three days a week so he wouldn’t be as burned out. I did the same thing with Al Jean and Mike Reis, I worked it out so they could come in a day a week. And that was all just something I had. I had worked with Al and Mike on “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show” where I was doing a day a week. It’s something that’s been around in the business a while. David Lloyd was like that on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” where I don’t think he was there all the time.

 

Neely: Phoef Sutton talked about how he did that on “Cheers” as well (even going so far as to negotiate his own contracts in the third person).

 

David: I had been one day a week on “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show,I was one day a week at the beginning of “Larry Sanders.” I managed to do this consulting things where you help with the rewrites and give outside advice. And so I started doing that on “The Simpsons” to keep people around who we liked. Then when I stopped running the show, I never left, I’ve never left “The Simpsons” in the 20 years, I became one of the people who was doing one or two days and I could go off and direct a movies and work on other series and still, because each show takes nine months from start to finish, I could still have input on every episode of every season.

 

Neely: That also answers the question I was going to ask next, which was how many times have your recycled onto the show? You’ve never cycled off.

 

David: Never cycled off. There have been some people who have completely left and then come back. Actually, Al and Mike went off and had a deal with Disney. I think they were completely gone during that time, but I almost can’t remember. There might have been a short period where they were gone, but then the did return. But I, myself, never took such a chance. I made sure to be there consistently. I was always able to work it out even if I had to go off to direct a movie for three months and really be gone for three months, that’s still only three months out of the nine month process. I still had the opportunity to come back and contribute.

 

Neely: Well also, clearly, one thing that works on that particular show is that you may be working nine months in advance, but it seems that just prior to putting it on the air you’re tweaking to get something in there that is very current.

 

David: It’s quite entertaining how many people we kill by referencing them (Neely laughs) and then they’re dead right before the show goes on and we have to rush and change the reference. So, yeah, things in the world do change in the nine months and the lucky thing is that “The Simpsons” have 16 mouth shapes so it’s very easy to change what they say (Neely laughs again and again). We continue the rewrite process up to about 2 weeks before it hits the air. Sometimes it’s tighter than that. Sometimes we’ve done things in less than a week in advance. An idea will hit us or a new reference will hit us and we can put something in the show, a small little thing, very quickly. And we keep that up so that even though it may have generated an early idea nine months ago, by the time it’s on the air it still feels like it’s referencing what’s going on in the moment.

 

Neely: I’m not sure there’s anyone in the world, well, maybe America, who hasn’t seen at least one episode of “The Simpsons.” Do you have a favorite character? Parents always say (falsetto voice) “Oh I love all my children equally.” Well no. they don’t.

 

David: As a writer, there’s almost nobody more fun to write for than Homer because he’s such a fascinating combination of things. He’s so just naturally funny and for a negative-thinking person like me, he’s an incredibly positive, resilient idiot and that’s exciting. And he’s not always an idiot. He may have trouble figuring out how to open up a door, how to operate a door, but at the same time he can name all the justices of the Supreme Court and have great detils about each one. So he’s incredibly varied in terms of what I call flexible reality. Homer also has flexible intelligence that goes way up and way down depending on his mood, depending on the situation, depending on the body of knowledge that he’s interacting with. So it’s really fun to write someone who’s changing all the time, is that resilient to everything. He actually is quite posititve no matter how many times he gets knocked down. He’s instantly enthusiastic about a new subject – dangerously enthusiastic about a new subject. Even after all this time he’s still surprising to write for which is why he’s my favorite character.

 

Neely: What about a favorite (several) episode – written by you or by others?

 

David: Now those are the children and you love ‘em all and which ones you like the most change as time goes on. The episode that I wrote about “Deep Space Homer” holds a special place for me. First of all because it was a difficult birth; it was controversial at that time. There was some concern that it seemed like a big idea to send Homer into space. I never saw it that way. Coming from an engineering background and literally an aerospace background, it wasn’t really far from the truth at all. Just because there was that kind of discussion and that kind of resisistence made it more exciting to me. I thrive when there’s that kind of resistance. My greatest successes have come in the face of reisistence. I usually think I’m on to something good if an idea’s upsetting. I have to admit that there were some writers who were nervous about it, they weren’t really ones that made me nervous. I mean the writers loved it and supported it from the beginning – George Meyer and Conan O’Brien and Mike and Al, and then because there was some discussion about whether this was a proper thing to do, Jim Brooks, who was incredibly busy the first year I was running the show and he was not around. He was working on a film and he took the time to read my script and he loved it. So that was a major thing that came in, no question about it it. That was part of the excitement aobut it – it had some controversy to it and it also had my favorite guest starts of all time – James Taylor, who’s this dear friend of mine and it turned out to be a terrific use of him and he was hilarious in it; and Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, who was one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met did the show. And then it became one of the most popular shows that we ever did and it also became a favorite show of NASA who uses it in their training. Astronaut Ed Liu liked it so much that he asked me to send him a copy of it up in space. So it was before we had any DVDs of “The Simpsons,” so I burned a DVD at home and then it got sent up in one of those Russian supply ships and then Ed sent me back a picture of that DVD floating in the cabin in front of Earth in the background. So there were a lot of things associated with that episode that make it very very special to me. I was thrilled with how well received it was. I really was.

 

Neely: That’s an incredible story and it opens something up that is a deviations but it’s something I didn’t know about you. And that’s your engineering and aerospace background. Can you elaborate on that?

 

David: As I always say, I started off like most comedy writers as an electronics engineer. (Neely chortles) That was the background of my family. My father was a computer engineer in the 50s and into the 60s, although he died in 1962. It wasn’t a very good career choice being around those very first computers. So I’m a tech head, a tech geek and tech freak and I love that, I always did growing up. And I love filmmaking at the same time but I loved the technical aspect of it. I was studying that as much as I was studying the artistic aspect of it. But in my family, it was really a belief that, yeah, you want to be a filmmaker, you want to be a writer, but that’s just dreaming. You could never possibly do something that would make you that happy. You have to be realistic and becoming an electronics engineer was a realistic way to go. So I went to Drexel University which was a really wonderful university for engineering. Luckily they had this work/study program. You went to school for six months and then you worked for six months. I got to work at a place called the Aeronautics Federal Experiental Center (AFEC) and it was working with digital radar systems. I used to go up and fly through thunderstorms to find out why planes crashed in thunderstorms.

 

Neely: (Neely explodes with laughter) You’re kidding!

 

David: Nah. I used to do that. But anyway, being an engineer and finding out what it was like, I got to find out first hand while I was in school just how much I hated. I enjoyed designing something once, but I didn’t like repeating the process. Once you design one circuit and one piece of equipment, it’s really just minimal variations to create anything – a television, a stereo system, a ham radio… It became repetitive to me and I got over it very quickly. And by the way, I would also say that this is a cycle that has repeated itself even in television where I don’t like to continually repeat things. That’s the great thing about “The Simpsons,” because you try to keep it different. Every week is something different. It can be a horror show or a romantic comedy, it could be a science fiction; it can be a murder mystery. We do every single for so we keep it alive and try to keep it fresh that way. And that really stimulates my brain in the proper way. I could very easily funk out if I am doing the same thing repetitively. So knowing that I disliked it while I was in school, I was able to quickly come and continue in school out here at Loyola and try my hand at film because making no money doing something I loved I learned very early was going to be better than making a good living doing something not fulfilling. So that’s how that background happened.

 

Neely: Going back to “The Simpsons,” how many showrunners have you had on the show?

 

David: It’s hard to… It started out with Jim Brooks running it with Sam Simon in the beginning; then Al and Mike and then it was me, I was the first solo showrunner I guess, and then there was a team after me, then Mike Scully and then Al Jean again, this time by himself. And that’s where we are now.

 

Neely: How is the room run?

 

David: When I was running the show, it was one room. On shows that I’ve done, I have a tendency to control most things where I sort of have to be in the room pretty much for every moment. If we’re working on a specific joke and then I have to leave the room, they can keep working on that joke and maybe one after it. All the time it’s very pleasant and I’ll come back in the room and they’ll have something brilliant and so funny and I wasn’t part of its creation, it really makes me laugh – like you get to be an audience for a second. But if I’m gone any longer than that, they’ll instantly, and it’s just the nature of writers, they’ll start to take it in another direction that I didn’t want it to go. And I’m not saying that my direction is better than theirs or vice versa, it’s just that when you run the show, that’s the thing you get. You get to choose every direction it’s going to go. So now, I think from about the time of Phil Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who were the team after me, at some point in time it broke into two rooms and Mike Scully kept the two rooms. So now there’s multiple rooms working simultaneously and that’s a little bit different. But when I was running it, it was just the one room with me and if I had to go direct the actors, all the writing would stop; if I had to go edit the episodes, all the writing would stop. The reason that was difficult, was that meant that if it was just one room going, there were a couple of nights a week you would go to 2 a.m. and that’s kind of true of every great show – it generally goes to the wee hours of the morning. And, again, because there’s no time off on “The Simpsons,” that would create burn out. So having the two rooms makes it so that those wee hour things don’t happen so often and it’s a much more reasonable time schedule. But when I was there, we were just all in a room and going beat by beat. I could tell you even more specifically how many days you spent on story, and how many days they’d spend writing the script and then how many days rewriting the script and then there would be another rewrite at the animatic and then another rewrite at the color. It’s a long process but would give you some really amazing results.

 

Neely: You also wrote the screenplay for “The Simpsons Movie,” as well as a couple of the songs. Who came up with the idea of doing the movie and are there plans for another?

 

When the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.” – Oscar Wilde

 

Neely: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:David: That was a big break through for me. It took a long time. It took me four years to break into the business. I and I didn’t really improve… it wasn’t that I wasn’t improving as a writer at theduring that time either. , iIt 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 iduringn that four years that I became a standup. because iIt 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. If you really want to hear how I broke it, mMy cousin Eddie SolomanSolomon 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). And But he knew an actual living breathing comedy writer named George Tricker. George, who could not be a nicer, more talented wonderful guy, who read my early stuff and recognized something in it. and hHe became a mentor to me as I was writing my first spec scripts.

 

He got worked on a show called “The Ropers” which was a spin-off of “Three’s Company,” and so to get their attention, I wrote a spec “Ropers.” The guy running “The Ropers” read it and didn’t like it, but then somehow it got into the hands of the guy above him, Bernie West., and 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 way but Mickey and Bernie were still there and Bernie loved my script, leading the way for me to and that let me come into pitch to “Three’s Company.” I pitched for two or three years, because not knowing that I was pitching at what I would call the masterbatorymasturbatory level of the business. In other words, I was pitching to very very lovely people but they could neverwho 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, so I asked “How many pitches have you actually got soldbought?” 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 - and but I knew that I hadI sort of had the pressure to move up from these story editors Shelley Zellman and Ellen Guylass who, again, were these talented, nice, encouraging women comedy writers who eventually became my very good friends. I needed to pitch at , move up to the producer level which was Martin Rips and Joseph Stravinsky. And when I finally got to pitch at that level, they instantly , and they finally bought a story from me. when I finally got to pitch at that level. And then I got to write wrote the script as a freelance. After I handed in the script, I was drove straight up in to the Sequoia National Forest to depressurize. and I checked in on a pay phone ( because, of course, back then that was your only choice) , and my agent said “You’re on staff at Three’s Company.’”

 

And I said, “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” there but the style of that showit wasn’t exactly my cup of tea – I much preferred the MTM-style character-driven comedy. as a style of show. But my agent packaged the show, so they wanted me 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.

 

I’ve said this before but tThe 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. based on a French farce structure. And one of the reasons they were happy to have me was that they had trouble finding writers who had the discipline knew how to do that. – who had the discipline to really sit down and do that. So not only I was I very lucky to get that job and but also to get that training because it really forced you to think pure structure. And then wWhen 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. underlying that is an enormous amount of structure that you have already learned how to do. You’ve trained that muscle.

 

Neely:Neely: I do remember a conversation we had at one point where you mentioned that even though you ended up learning enormous amountsso much on “Three’s Company,” you were quite upset that your agent had essentially sold you down the river because you were waiting hoping for a freelance (and maybe a pickup) on “Cheers.”

 

David:David: Yes, that’s right. I had written that “Ropers” script specifically because George Tricker had the an “in” with those peoplethat 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 and but didn’t understand it. Character-based humor is just not as obvious. EWhat happened, though, is that it eventually though, it got into the hands of the wonderful Ken Levine and David Isaacs. David’s at USC now isn’t he?

 

Neely:Neely: Yes he is He’s a lynch pin to in their television comedy writing program. And Ken writes one of the best blogs out there. (http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/)

 

David:David: Fantastic guys. And they were so sweetThey were then on “Cheers and . They read my script and they liked it. and they were on “Cheers.” Now At that time, “Cheers” was the second lowest rated show on TV. It was the on that first season and. I knew it was pure genius. and I wanted desperately to be on that show. And tThey said told methat they would give me one of the back nine episodes if they got picked up. So I was waiting on for that to come through. that and 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.” So

 

I was on “Three’s Company” for a while, and, as I said before, I didn’t like to keep in mind that I’m a very shy person who doesn’t like to bother people, and but I hadn’t heard anything from the folks at “Cheers” for about 6 months. , so II 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. That’s when I got was very disappointed. T and I realized that my agent, and I understood that to my agent “Three’s Company” was a top show, often number two or three in the ratings, sometimes number one, and the agenthe 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.

 

Because of that I left that agent because of that and found the agent that I have to this day, Robb Rothman. Robb’s, who’s just the most amazing guy and he was completely instrumental into getting me onto the kind of show that I wanted. He loved my “Taxi” script and got me onto , which was an MTM character- oriented show, the kind of show I grew up worshipping worshipping, and that was the “Newhart,the one in Vermont show. That was thanks to Robb who had a relationship with the Executive Producer Dan Wilcox, and. And Dan very graciously Wilcox decided to give was incredibly kind in giving me the kind of benefit of a doubt and had me write a “Newhart” script. I say benefit of the doubt because even though I was coming off of a show that was very very different and quite frankly not… even though “Three’s Company” and even though it was isa very difficult show to write, it was looked down upon by the character comedy shows.

 

Neely: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: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 And again, the cast that couldn’t have been sweeter. John Ritter was one of the most lovelymost talented and nicest people I ever met and I stayed in contact with him throughout the restorest of his life. He was just a lovely guy and I also worked with his last wife Amy Yasbeck on “Get a Life. Don Knotts – also super nice – was a comedy god. I was in awe of him. so it was a great experience ultimately. It was a weird thing being on that show because I felt so lucky because it was so hard to get on staff and it was such a blessed position and the money was so enormous right from the beginning. So tThere were all these positive things about being on “Three’s Company” – my first job and it was terrific money. . And again, and that was part of it. I think I wrote 7 episodes and but once you did about 4 of them it became rather repeticiverepetitive, not easier unfortunately, but just repetitive and you really wanted to move on. There’s that repetitive thing again.

 

And I was so lucky that Dan Wilcox took that chance on me, letting me . And I got to write an episode of “Newhart. and tThis was when comedy was dead, it was BC, as they said – “Before Cosby.– and cComedy 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. because Thursday night had not taken off yet and so wWhen I was writing that script for “Newhart,” I was in competition with about 7 other writers who were writing scripts for that one staff position on that show. And I did a similar thingTrue to form, when I finished the script, I went off to Yosemite…

 

Neely:Neely: …that’s actually synergistic because it’s exactly what Janet Leahy always did under the same circumstances.

 

David: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 as you know is an incredibly magical person, she was deservedly mirrored mentored on “Newhart” by all the other writers – except me. I was very jealous that she was so much prettier than I was. Anyway, And thenagain, I checked on the 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. And asI 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 sweet nice man; Mickey Ross was a bit officious and imperious but it was much more an act than anything. He was actually very sweet and a great teacher, . He was the one who really taught you how to structure farce. and those were the guys, it’s amazing, Mickey and Bernie and Don Nichols, those were the guys who wrote my most 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. So it was really funny and iIt really came out of a true place of passion for these guys who were in their 50s or 60s at this point. Everyone was And so welcoming and nice on that show, especially Ellen and Shelley.

 

It’s always intimidating when it’s your first job butand 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, , was so sweet and welcoming;and Barton Dean, was just a lovely guy; and 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, that writing staff, periodically and I still find it incredibly easy to stick them with the check.

 

Neely:Neely: How was “Newhart” structured?

 

David:David: It was really the same thing. 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.” There’s 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; she was married to Burt Metcalfe, the showrunner of “M.A.S.H.” at that point (Burt Metcalf who had originally been a casting director for the show). So I knewKnowing I had that an in, and I loved “M.A.S.H.” and I had came up with an idea for “M.A.S.H.”. I asked Jan to ask get it to Burt. Metcalf about my idea because 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.” and before Hawkeyehe later became a big feminist in later episodes – somehow later in the episobefore anyone else in the world had become a feminist. and But this was when he was still womanizing and suddenly there was a female doctor and the Hawkeye tries to pick up on her and but he can’t really deal with her in the same way because she’s an equal or maybe even a bit better than an equal. She knows some things that he doesn’t and that ruins it for him.

 

The producersAnd they 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 then 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. and iIt’s basically the same story where Hawkeye has a hard time and all his underlying prejudices against women in that areacome out. And Tthey got the script and read it and said, “Thanks very much, but no.”

 

I was very young at the time and it would have beenwas still extraordinary just to interact with people on a fantastic television show. Burt Metcalfe very kindly were lettinglet 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. played by Mariette Hartley, and tThe way they got around the reality problem was by making her a Swedish doctor. I was then taking any kind of job to get stay close to things, and I volunteered as a student at the Television Academy. and I ran the video tape machine in the writers’ room to screen the comedy episodes for the Emmy that year. So I had 5 video tapes that I put played forin front of these writers, and Alan’s female doctor episode was first because it was alphabetical. , and so I played that episode andAnd Alan ended up winning won the Emmy. for that episode.

 

The thingWhat I have to make very clear is that I never felt that the idea was in any way stolen. It makes the point that It’s the same thing – 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. So I really believe that it 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. in the organization andtThe main thing that I took away from it 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 that 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:Neely: Clearly. And what’s your opinion on entitlement?

 

Well one thing I really want to talk about that was something Janet had mentioned., but I understand that you and Dan Wilcox came up with the iconic last episode of “Newhart,” the dream sequence..

 

David:David: I’m glad that you brought that up because it miigthcould be something you might want to change., but I think in the article on Janet that you gaive the credit in the last episode as Doug Wyman and myself…

 

Neely:Neely: … Yikes! It should be Dan…

 

David:David: Iit actually should be neither. (chuckling) because . It’s that 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:. Let me preface it by saying I got on “Newhart” and iI was had been on “Newhart” for about a year and a half or so and then Dan Wilcox left, leaving them and they were without a showrunner. and fFor 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:So 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., simultaneously. 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. and 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 the its limitations. of that.

 

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 Mmy 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.

 

Neely:Neely: Really??

 

David: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 the that last episode tapingto watch 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 created such a laugh thatwentwent on for 2 minutes. But the Suzanne Pleshette laugh was even bigger; it was huge. But 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:Neely: Oh yeah. Season nullification.

 

David:David: Being the dark-minded bastard that I am, 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. and tThen 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:Neely: I really like that.

 

David: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.

 

 

 

 

Neely: This segues nicely into segues nicely intothe series you created that was quite unusual. “Get a Life” is hard to categorize and is truly what anyone would refer to as “out of the box.” Tell us what it was about and what you were aiming for.

 

David: Along with Jim Brooks and Woody Allen, I became a giant Anglophile particularly because of Monty Python. As a comedy writer who’d studied comedy from the time I was a kid. I watched every comedy thing in the world so that by the time 1973 came around, I’d seen everything. I was an old man comedy-wise. I knew everything about comedy that there was because I’d seen everything multiple multiple multiple times. I just lived and breathed it and then Python came along and Python is a show for someone who’s already a giant comedy writer because it takes everything you know about comedy and then twists it. You have to already understand a lot about comedy to get everything they’re on about. That really fascinated me and had an enormous amount of Dadaism – surreal elements that area accepted over there; it’s harder over here because as soon as you do that you start losing a lot of people. There they’re comfortable with smaller audiences. Now we are too, with cable, but in those days, no. So Python hit me in a huge way and I had always had a stranger sense of humor. One of my problems is illustrated by “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” Ted Knight had a joke where he’s introducing Georgette, and he would say, “This is my first wife Georgette.” I thought that was so dark and so funny; it made me laugh so loud. But then if you listen, the laugh on the track is not very big. In other words, that cut out a large part of the audience. So if you’re looking for pure success and big numbers, you don’t just write that kind of comedy. That’s kind of where my head goes and it’s something I sort of had to learn. You’re just not going to get the entire audience with a joke like that. That’s the way Python is. Actually Python always had a small cult following but it really blew me away and that’s where English TV was going. So I had a deal with MTM to make a pilot for them after I left “Newhart” and there was a show that was, in a way, the child of “Monty Python” called “The Young Ones,” and it was three or four college kids living together and was very surreal and free form. The furniture talked, there were multiple dimensions; they could be brutally injured at times and then miraculously heal like a cartoon character would. And that interested me so I had MTM buy the rights to remake “The Young Ones” in America. I brought over Nigel Planer, who was a big star over there and I though could translate over here playing the same role. And I wanted Chris Elliot to play another part in the pilot. I’d been a big fan of Chris’s from Letterman. We met and really hit it off, we had great chemistry and I adored him but I couldn’t talk him into being in the show where he would have been one of trio. I think he had it in his head, and actually someone was interested in him for a show that would just star him. So I went on and did the pilot; a pilot that has those surreal elements where the main characters are literally trying to kill each other through most of the episode. It tested “through the floor.” The kind of questions that they ask in research and testing would never let a show like that get on (Neely laughs, of course). Terrible terrible shows that no one would watch get by because there’s nothing offensive in them. A show where Robert Mitchum played a homeless man who lived in a nunnery with orphans tested great. “Do you dislike the homeless man?” “No!” “Do you dislike the nuns?” “No!” “Do you dislike the orphans?” “No!” So that pilot got incredibly high testing numbers but then no one on earth would actually watch such a thing. That’s why testing is so bizarre. Any way, Chris and I had become friends and Chris wanted to do his own show and he wanted me to do it with him. He said that he wanted to do Dennis the Menace grown up, still living at home. Literally, Dennis the Menace. And I said that he couldn’t do Dennis the Menace because they won’t give us the rights to it, especially in that kind of dark point of view where Dennis the Menace had been kind of a failure to launch, an adult living at home. But there was no reason it had to be Dennis the Menace, just be kind of a guy who’s never moved out of the house and still has a paper route, just like Dennis the Menace, and instead of the old Mr. Wilson neighbor, it became his best friend who’s married and has kids and is tied down and the other guy is still free, living with his parents, still lliving like a kid. And that became “Get a Life.” I had done “The Young Ones” pilot at Fox and still had a good relationship with them and sold it to them and that’s how “Get a Life” was born.

 

Neely: I’m amazed that it got a second season and that was probably due to the fact that FBC was willing to try edgy, unusual and outrageous material; at least for a while. What were some of the notes and suggestions from the network regarding the show?

 

David: I’m just in the process of putting out the boxed set of that complete series. It’s had a very difficult route but it’s getting put out because it was one of the shows that had popular music in it.

 

Neely: That’s a licensing nightmare.

 

David: It’s taken forever. That’s the reason it was never syndicated. REM does the theme song, it’s their song “Band” and just that one alone when we were doing the show, cost $40,000 a week. When that stuff had to be recleared for syndication, it would have been too expensive. There were big hit songs in every episode. Sony was interested in changing the music, doing cheap music and we didn’t want to do that because it would have changed the whole feel of the show. So it could never really be on TV and that’s what made it so difficult to put it out on DVD. We had enough money to put out 8 episodes on DVD, but finally all the numbers are in place and we can finally put out the complete series.

 

You know it’s a misconception. “Get a Life” was picked up for a second season because it was the highest rated new comedy on Fox.

 

Neely: Now that I didn’t know.

 

David: People don’t realize that it actually did quite well. I may be wrong but I think the numbers it got then would make it a top ten show today. There were so many more people watching television back then. I had to take out an ad in Variety because we got great reviews everywhere, it was beloved by the critics and it was also the highest rated Fox comedy of the season. So they could almost not not pick it up.

 

I just interviewed Peter Chernin who was a big hero; he’s the one who picked up “The Young Ones,” and he’s the one who picked up “Get a Life” and put it on the air. But there were executives under him, not all of them, but just a couple, who really hated the show and that was always the case with that show and with me. Most of the things I do will put people in two camps – people who love it and people who absolutely hate it. This show was designed to make very nasty fun of all sitcoms and of that form, to be very sarcastic about it and to point out how stupid it was. It is threatening to people who do this for a living, pointing out how silly they are. So we had a lot of hostility toward that show; they did not like the surreal aspect of it; they didn’t understand the tone of it and they literally shut the show down when I would present them with a script of a story that they had approved, but when they actually saw the script and how subversive it was and how dark it was and how sarcastic it was, they would shut it down on the Monday after the read and then we’d stand fast – I’d refuse to change anything because the show was the show. Chris Elliot was great at standing shoulder to shoulder with me in that position. Usually by Wednesday they would relent and begrudgingly let us do the show. But of course then I’d already missed two days of rehearsal and I directed most of the episodes. We’d have to really rush and get it done. That happened quite a few times. When I say that I thrive in those conditions, you really find your energy there, but I wouldn’t say I was happy about it. You get the perception that people are screaming at you and telling you your things are not good and that’s depressing and you have to fight against that and hold on to your believe. It’s not the most pleasant thing. It’s much better when everyone is telling you you’re fantastic and your stuff is good (Neely laughing). “Get a Life” was not that most of the time; periodically it was and there were certainly fans that were like that but the network was fairly brutal to it.

 

Neely: You mentioned at one point that you started a standup career because you were trying to be a writer and being a standup sort of fell in your lap. Tell me more about becoming a standup. Here you were, an engineer, and then in film school.

 

David: I was finishing film school and I was writing those spec scripts – “M.A.S.H.,” and the spec “Taxi” and then the spec “Ropers.” Those were the years where I was pitching different shows that would get cancelled before they could pickup one of my episodes. I was going to the wrong people at “Three’s Company.” So, there was this thing at the Comedy Store and the Improv where if you went Monday night and put your name in a hat or your name on a list, you got up on stage. I was very very lucky that the first time I ever went on stage at the Improv, I did very very well. And had I not done very very well, I never would have set foot on that stage again because I was very shy. I was so lucky it went great. And the first time I tried out at the Comedy Store, I became a regular and that gave me a place to work. Once you were a regular there, you got booked around the country. I remember back then, I opened for Louis Nye. It’s a weird thing. I did the entire Steve Allen Show. I opened for Louis Nye on the road as a standup; then on “Three’s Company” I wrote for Don Knotts; then on “Newhart” I wrote for Tom Poston. And then on “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show,” the first job I took after “Newhart,” I instantly wrote for Steve Allen who guested on that show. So I went right up the line of the whole Steve Allen Cast. It was so strange. And I didn’t like traveling. It was never my idea to be on the road. Being on the road is difficult enough because I traveled with rock bands that had huge amounts of money and that’s difficult enough. But to not have any money, traveling on the road is not a comfortable life style at all. It’s lonely, you miss your girlfriend and it’s weird towns. Sometimes it’s comedy condos where you wake up next to Bobcat Goldthwaith… not a good idea (the visual has Neely laughing). It was good to bring in some money but it wasn’t a lifestyle that I coveted and purposely, again, my standup was very dark and never anything that could get me on TV, especially in those days. My opening line was, “Is it just me or has everyone been coughing up blood lately?”

 

Neely: (laughing) Ewww!

 

David: It was a lot of death. Death is theme full of jokes for me. It went fine, but it wasn’t anything that was going to be more than what it was. I was writing scripts during the day and on stage at night.

 

Neely: Have you read the book I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era by Bill Knoedelseder?

 

David: I have. I know all those guys. When I left “Newhart,” the only show I wanted to work on was the Gary Shandling show because that was another show that was surreal and breaking the rules and the form of the sitcom. Gary had been a big fan of my work on “Newhart” We got Bob his first Emmy nomination. I can’t believe it that it didn’t happen until “Newhart,” and it didn’t happen until we were there on “Newhart.” And I got my first Emmy nomination as a writer on that show. Shandling was a fan of the show; he worshipped Newhart. Gary and I really hit it off as friends. I hadn’t known him as a stand-up because he was way beyond where I was as a standup and he was also an electronics engineer. So we had the nerd background in common and a lot of other things in common. He became a wonderful dear friend of mine and Iworked on his other show with him, as well. He asked me to create “Larry Sanders” with him and I was busy on another thing so I couldn’t but I did work on the first episode and it was an amazing pleasure. There was a great set of writers on that show as well.

 

Neely: This had sort of wandered delightfully off point, but did you have any mentors on the road or anyone who gave you particularly trenchant advice?

 

David: I was very moved. One day Pat Paulsen came up to me at the Comedy Store and said, “You’ll make it because you’re different.” I was moved because I was a giant Pat Paulsen fan and it was great to see him hanging out there. And Louis Nye, when I traveled with him, he was incredibly sweet to me. Another just lovely lovely menschy guy. I became friends with Kevin Nealon who I just worshipped as a stand-up and he’s still one of my very best friends of all time. We became enormously close and still are. Those are the guys that came out of that experience. I really didn’t meet Shandling until his show.

 

Neely: Which present day stand-ups do you like?

 

David: The standups that I absolutely loved have already moved on. Zach Gallifanikas, just brilliant. I saw him many years ago at the Aspen Comedy Festival and I instantly cast him in “Heartbreakers.” And Sarah Silverman I’ve known forever. I’ve watched her grow up because she hung around the writers on “The Larry Sanders Show” and blossomed into an absolutely brilliant stand-up. She’s a lovely person too. Those are two big favorites. I love Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan. I think that’s kind of it.

 

Neely: We sort of touched on this before and it might be slightly repetitive, but what about mentors in your writing career?

 

David: I always call Jim Brooks my spiritual father. To have actually gotten to work with him… it was really funny, like I said, I got to work with him very briefly on “The Tracey Ullman Show,” but when I took over “The Simpsons” I had one very quick hello meeting with him and then he was off working on his film and I almost had no contact with him for like the whole first year of the show. He gave me complete freedom on that show the whole time I was there. The second year was great because he had more time so he would come over. The first year I’d get a couple of phone calls from him, but the second year he’d come over on the read day and after the read we’d go into his office and he would pitch out ideas to add to that week’s show. And he was lovely about it. I wasn’t forced to use anything but he came up with brilliant stuff so we’d just jump on it like a dog on a bone. He’d always come up with brilliant things and it was just fantastic to see him come up with stuff and for him to help us out like that. I used to live for that hour a week where we’d go back in his office and work on some stuff together. Mostly it was just to listen to him because he was just brilliant.

 

So Jim Brooks was one of those who taught me how to write, like Carl Reiner of “the Dick Van Dyke Show: taught me how to write, I studied by watching that show. “Monty Python” was a big mentor to me because I learned from Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, who’s now a friend of mine and has done “The Simpsons” four times; George Tricker was obviously that true beginning mentor because at the very beginning he was the first professional comedy writer to look at my stuff and to say “this is good.” To have someone who was a professional to say that was a major major thing.

 

Neely: What was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?

 

David: I think it really always just came down to watching people and shows that I liked and tried to get as much information as possible as to how they did that, how they ran the room, how they broke stories, what the methods were and try to take the best of all those things and put them into my own technique. I’ve taken pieces from the way they did things at “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” pieces from “M.A.S.H.” I’ve read advice from Woody Allen. It’s like heaping it together. No one ever sat me down and said “Do this and this and this.” It was always a matter of watching and figuring it out. I’ve watched other directors directing other shows and then I would take the things that I saw them do that I liked and try and incorporate that into my own directing. It’s the same thing when I’ve read what other directors have said, I would incormporate that. It’s always like being a sponge; you never want to stop learning and getting new techiniquest that you like.

 

Neely: Do you think that you have mentored other people?

 

David: I hope I have. The main blessing that I have in my life is that I very early became a showrunner so I was able to hire people and start their careers. That’s the best mentoring you can do. Like I said, I’m always grateful to Bernie West for starting me out on “Three’s Company,” and then to Marty Ripps and Joseph for buying that story that they liked that I pitched over there, so I’m very grateful to them. And Shelly Zelmand and Ellen Dyless who were story editors there and took me under their wing. I gave Charlie Kaufman his first job on “Get a Life.” And then I gave him his second job on “The Edge.” I instantly knew what a brilliant writer he was and a lovely guy. Dan Wilcox hiring me on “Newhart” was a major thing. I gave Jennifer Crittenden her first job on “The Simpsons.” I met her when she was 23. I read a script of hers that I liked and then brought her on staff and that was her beginning. It’s always really thrilling to do that. You try to give back as much as you’ve gotten. It’s thrilling to me to discover a talent and get to nurture it and push them forward. And if anyone ever has any questions at Loyola, they’re always free to call me and talk about it. I teach there and I loved teaching your class. You love to try and help them in any way you can. To me it’s simple. If I get a script that’s great, then I’m all out to try and get that person working.

 

Neely: Any advice that you give out about writing or making it?

 

David: Going back to something I mentioned before. In the four years it took me, I wrote my first script professionally… well actually I’d had one other job before that on HBO. There was a sketch show that was done at the same time as the pilot for “Not Necessarily the News” was on. Mike Reiss and Al Jean were on that pilot and I was on a different pilot called “All Night Radio,” and our pilot didn’t go, but I got to work on staff for the first time and that was a lovely experience with HBO and that was a job that lasted a few weeks. And then I got on “Three’s Company,” and like I said, in that four years I didn’t really learn anything new, I just suddenly had the access and they read my first script on “Three’s Company” that I wrote for them and I was instantly on staff. It was really showing me that is was clearly a matter of access, it wasn’t a matter of my talent or even my knowledge. So lesson is in the persistence, in not quitting during that four years. That’s what I tell everybody. I’ve almost always found that anyone who has the ability, if they don’t give up, it will happen.

 

Neely: What do you consider some of the high points of your career? What were the low points?

 

David: Getting on “Newhart” was an enormous breakthrough. Obviously the first job on “Three’s Company,” I was elated. But “Newhart” was pure elation. Getting my first Emmy nomination on that show was pretty surreal. It was the last thing I expected because that show never got Emmy nominations, so it was really surprising. That Bob got nominated and that I gto nominated was just an amazing time. I think also the first time working with Jim Brooks, that was definitely a high for me. It was a super high point to get to work with James Taylor, who also taught me how to write. He’s terrific writing musically, and that informs lots and lots of things. It informs interpretation and creativity in a unique way. And in the same way, getting to direct and work with Paul McCartney on “The Simpsons” as well was a real high point in my life. I found myself in the studio in England at exactly the time the Beatles were getting back together after 25 years to write a song and I was in the same space where that was happening. And Paul was taking me through the studio and pointing out the harpiscord from xxxx and then he starts playing the xxx and then the chimes from “Penny Lane” and the harmonium from “We Can Work It Out,” this is xxxx. And it was just me there and he was clearly entertaining and he’s turning into Beatle Paul after I directed him and Linda and that was just one of the most amazing amzing experiences. Those are all highlights. Directing my first feature with brand new Oscar winner Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow, who’s just such a delight, and Jeannine Garafolo who I’d worked with on “Larry Sanders” and getting into that tinker toy set and having those big cranes and the xxxxx and the shots that you’ve grown up with in the cinema. And then actually have directors you respect come and say “I love that shot you did in ‘Romy and Michelle’.” Those are high points.

 

Neely: What about some of the low points?

 

David: One of the hardest things that happened and it’s a high class problem, I always wanted to get a sketch show on the air because I would constantly get ideas for sketches and “The Simpsons” actually takes care of that because almost anything you can think of we can fit into the show in a moment, in a flash forward, or a flash back or dream or fantasty sequence; but I always wanted to get a live action sketch show going and I finally, after “Get a Life,” I sold one to Fox. It had Jennifer Aniston in it, Wayne Knight, Tom Kenney who’s the voice of Sponge Bob Square Pants, lots of great people – Julie Brown, and that show was an absolute dream for me. It was very difficult, the opposite of “Get a Life.” The network loved it and it got great ratings to a point where instead of giving a back 9 order, we got a back 13 order. For the first time I was having the feeling that I had a hit. And it was very very difficult to get that combination – it’s like the combination on a safe; everything has to click together for it to come together in terms of casting, in terms of time slot, in terms of material. All of that was happening. It also happened to be the time, around 1992, that Sony was falling apart financially and Sony was the company, it was originally New World and Sony had bought New World, and they were panicking and some bright accountant determined that a sketch show would never earn any money in syndication, which is a falicy, but was something they decided was true. So just as I was getting gmy back 13 order, they came to me and said, “By the way, you have to do it for this enormous pay cut.” Not just my pay cut, but the whole production was going to be cut down anywhere from a third to a half. I was already directing at twice the speed; I was directing two episodes of stuff a week to try and save the company money. And now, in success, they were coming to me and telling me that they were going to slash our budget. I explained to them that it was not possible to produce a show for that amount of money that would be network quality. But they said they had to do it and I said that I had to leave. That was definitely a low point and one of the toughest decisions I ever made because I had to walk away. What I predicted was true, you couldn’t do a show for that money and, quite frankly, you couldn’t do that kind of show without the person who had the vision for it to begin with. It very quickly ceased to be after I left. And that’s when I took over “The Simpsons.” Once they heard I was leaving the sketch show, they offered me “The Simpsons” because the network still loved me and liked the idea. And of course, Jim Brooks and Rich Takai, also a great friend of mine throughout my life, wanted me over on “The Simpsons” running their show. It was still very very sad for the dream show that I’d had in my head for such a long time. It was one of the first times, if not the first time, that it ever happened where the budget was slashed, now it happens often, but back then it was really an anomaly.

 

Neely: Well, that sort of leads into one of my questions. There’s so much rejection in the business, how do you deal with it?

 

David: Show Business is a comically exaggerated version of normal life. You’re getting hired and fired and even when you’re not getting fired, it feels like you’re getting fired. When you do a movie or any other job in the business, it’s fairly short lived. “The Simpsons” is a strange alien in that way. So no matter how good you do your job, you always lose it pretty quickly.. in a couple of years or five years or seven at the most, and more likely, much sooner than that.

 

Neely: You have directed several feature films, as well as some fabulous TV. Do you see yourself going more toward directing at this point?

 

David:

 

Neely: Let’s talk about some favorite projects that never saw the light, or only through a glass darkly.

 

David:

 

Neely: Anything you’d like to do over?

 

David:

 

Neely: What do you consider some of the high points of your career?

 

David:

 

Neely: How about some low points?

 

David:

 

Neely: Inevitably most people are fired at some juncture in their careers. Have you ever been fired and what did you do?

 

David:

 

Neely:

David:

 

Neely: Anything out there that you wish you had thought of?

 

David:

 

Neely: What do you watch on TV?

 

David:

 

Neely: What about past favorites?

 

David:

 

Neely: What films have you liked this year?

 

David:

 

Neely: What are you reading right now? Any others you would recommend?

 

David:

 

Neely: I swore I’d never get a Kindle or iPad, but when we moved temporarily to New York this winter, I didn’t want to drag along a bunch of books so I succumbed to the iPad. So what is it for you? E-reader or hard copy? What do you like about each?

 

David:

 

Neely: What have you got coming up?

 

David:.

 

Neely: I’m so happy you agreed to the conversation. I realized that I was missing David Mirkin and his sense of humor in my life. Thanks.

 

 

Quote

"Surrealism is destructive, but it destroys only what it considers to be shackles limiting our vision."

- Salvador Dali

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