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 from the audience, it's not very big. In other words, that edgy joke cut out a large part of the audience. I
f you’re looking for pure success and big numbers, you don’t just write that kind of comedy. You can sprinkle in those kinds of lines but if you do an entire show with that tone, your audience will be limited - but, and this is important, much more passionate. Anyway, that's kind of where my head goes and the limited audience of that way of writing is something that took me a while to realize because I always laughed so hard myself at that Ted Knight line that I never heard how few others were laughing at it. You’re just not going to get the entire audience with a joke like that. Python always had a small super-passionate cult following. It really, really blew me away and that’s the direction English TV was going. And that's the way I naturally thought too. I had a deal with MTM to make a pilot for them after I left “Newhart.” T here was a British show that was, in a way, the child of “Monty Python” called “The Young Ones." It was about 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. That really 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 thought could translate very well over here playing the same role. I had the great Jackie Earl Haley playing another 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 to be in a show that would just star him. So I went on and did the pilot with those surreal elements where the main characters are literally violently trying to kill each other during most of the episode.
It, of course, tested “through the floor.” The kind of questions they ask in research
testing would never let a show like that get on the air (Neely laughs, of course). Terrible terrible shows that no one would watch get on because there’s nothing offensive in them. A show where Robert Mitchum played a homeless man who lived in an orphanage run by nuns tested great. “Do you dislike the poor homeless man?” “No!” “Do you dislike the God-chosen nuns?” “No!” “Do you dislike the poor sweet orphans?” “No!” So that pilot got incredibly high testing numbers but then no one with a functioning brain would ever actually watch such a thing. That’s why testing is so hilariously bizarre. The fact is, research clearly shows that research doesn't work. Though I will say that movie testing actually can and does work because you're watching people watching your movie in the exact same situation as in the real marketplace and then you can recut your film to make it work better and better. Woody Allen would screen his films many times. Monty Python's "Holy Grail" had around 30 test screenings. The secret is to use the info you obtain wisely but that's a whole other subject.
Anyway, by then Chris and I had become friends and Chris wanted to do his own show and he asked 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. I said we couldn't do Dennis the Menace because they wouldn't give us the rights to it, especially from that kind of dark point of view where Dennis the Menace had been a failure to launch, an adult living at home. They would never let us present such a borderline psychotic, loser future for one of America's most beloved characters. But there was no reason it had to be Dennis the Menace. He would 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, he had his best friend who’s married and has kids and is tied down while he's still free, living with his parents, still living like a kid. And that became “Get a Life.” I had done “The Young Ones” pilot at Fox and still had a very good relationship with them, so we sold the idea to them even though they were a bit worried and reluctant. Chris, Adam Resnick and I wrote the pilot. And once we got it on the air, we pretty quickly "evolved" it into a show about a borderline psychotic guy who had a somewhat tenuous grip on reality. And that fit perfectly with a show that had a tenuous grip on reality or as I like to call it - a flexible reality.
Neely: I’m amazed that it got a second season but 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 because it was one of the very first shows to have popular music in it.
Neely: That’s a licensing nightmare.
David: It’s taken forever. It's the reason it was never syndicated. REM does the theme song, it’s their fantastic song "Stand" and just that one song alone, when we were doing the show, cost $40,000 a week. Re-clearing the music for syndication was just too expensive. There were big hit songs in many episodes. I remember I was editing a film in 2000 and I happened to turn on the TV and saw "Get a Life" on, I think, the USA network. And Sony had changed all the music - including the theme song - with very disturbing and bland generic stuff. It totally changed the feel of the show so I had Robb (my agent) call and ask them to please not do that and they took it off. We had a tribute evening at the Paley Museum and played 2 episodes and even 2 of them had the wrong music. They had accidentally sent over the wrong tapes. Rhino, which was a great independent company, was able to put out 8 episodes, but because of the music issues, I had to choose very carefully which episodes we could do. I would never allow the show to come out without all the original music. It was expensive to put out, but the DVDs did very well. And now, finally, the numbers seem to work and the good folks at Shout Factory will be able to release the entire series with all the original music - now that everyone who ever loved the show is either dead or dying.
Sorry, I got off track. You know the belief that "Get a Life" got low ratings is a misconception. One of the reasons “Get a Life” was picked up for a second season was 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 - especially for Fox back then. I may be wrong but I think the numbers it got
would make it a top ten show today. Of course almost any show would be a top ten show because there were just so many more people watching network television back then. I took out an ad in Variety because we got great reviews everywhere, it was beloved by many critics like Tom Shales and it was also the highest rated Fox comedy of the season. So they could almost not not pick it up - though they definitely tried.
I just interviewed Peter Chernin who was a big hero in this story; 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. Most of the things I do will put people in two camps – people who love it and people who absolutely hate it. "Get a Life" was designed to make very nasty fun of all mediocre sitcoms. The ones where people have to tell each other they love each other every 3 minutes. It was very sarcastic about the form and pointed out how stupid, insincere, pandering and formulaic it had become. A series that points this out can be quite threatening to people who do this for a living.
There was a lot of executive hostility toward that show. They did not understand the surreal aspect of it and didn't like the sarcastic tone of it. They would literally shut the show down when presented with a script, the script of a story that they had approved. When they actually saw the script and how subversive, dark and sarcastic it was they would shut us down on the Monday after the table read. But we’d stand fast – I’d refuse to change anything that compromised our vision because the show was the show. Chris Elliot was great at standing shoulder to shoulder with me on that position. Usually by Wednesday the executives would relent and begrudgingly let us do the episode. But, of course, by then I’d already missed two days of rehearsal. I was directing most of the episodes. We’d have to really rush and get it done. That happened quite a few times.
I thrive under those conditions, really finding my energy there, but I wouldn’t say I was thrilled about it. You get the perception that people are constantly screaming at you and telling you your things are not good and that can be a bit depressing. You have to fight against that and hold on to your beliefs. It’s not the most pleasant thing. It’s much better when everyone is telling you you’re fantastic and your stuff is great. (Neely laughing) “Get a Life” was not that most of the time; periodically it was and there were certainly fans who were extremely supportive, but some folks at the network were fairly brutal to it. But ultimately we got the audience I was hoping for and they are super dedicated and passionate to this day and will hopefully shell out the thousand bucks for the box set. That's a fair price, right?
Neely: You mentioned at one point that you started a standup career because you were trying to be a writer, that 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 to different shows that would repeatedly get cancelled before they could pickup one of my episodes and I was pitching to very nice but powerless people at “Three’s Company.”
There was and still is this thing at the Comedy Store and the Improv on Monday nights where you put your name in a hat or your name on a list to get up on stage. I was very very lucky that the first time I ever went on stage at the Improv, I did well. Had I not done well, I never would have set foot on that stage again because I was very shy and easily crushed. I was extremely lucky the audience was so supportive. It was just my mother, of course, but fortunately she only heckled me for the first 5 minutes or so. And then, the first time I tried out at the Comedy Store, I became a regular and that, fairly quickly, got me work. Once you were a regular there, you got booked around the country. Mostly as a male prostitute but that's not what I told my family.
One of my first paid gigs, I opened for Louis Nye. It’s weird in a way, but I did the entire cast line-up of the Steve Allen Show. I opened for the very sweet and funny Louis Nye on the road as a standup; then on “Three’s Company” I wrote for the amazing Don Knotts; then on “Newhart” I wrote for the hilarious Tom Poston. And then on “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” the first job I took after “Newhart,” I wrote for Steve Allen who guested on that show. Steve Allen was very proud of the fact that he wrote so many songs - like 7000 or something - and that he wrote them so fast. I found that kind of hilarious, never a discussion of whether the songs were even listenable, just lots of them, super-quick. Anyway I wrote him the line - "Here's a song I wrote while I was playing the last one." Maybe a tad snarky but Steve had a great sense of humor and loved it.
Anyway, I didn't like the traveling part of a stand-up career. Being on the road is difficult enough. I have traveled with rock bands that had huge amounts of money and that can still be a grind, but to not have any money, traveling on the road is not a comfortable life
Neely: (laughing) Ewww!
David: Not exactly "Tonight Show" material, right? And there was no real cable programming yet. It was a lot of death. Death is a huge theme
for me. It went fine, but it wasn’t anything that was going to be more than what it was. Though performing helped me really understand what actors need from a script as well as from a director. 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 a lot of those guys - Richard Lewis, Garry Shandling, of course. When I left “Newhart,” the only show I wanted to work on was the "It's Garry Shandling's Show" because it was surreal and breaking the rules and the form of the sitcom. Garry had been a fan of my work on “Newhart”
Shandling worshipped Bob Newhart. Garry and I really hit it off as friends. I hadn’t known him as a stand-up because we weren't in the same league. He was also an electronics engineer and a ham radio operator, so we had the nerd background in common and both grew up fighting off the same women. He became a wonderful dear friend of mine and I worked on his next show, "Larry Sanders," with him, as well. In fact, he asked me to help create “Larry Sanders” with him but I was busy finishing "Get a Life" and starting my sketch show "The Edge" so I couldn't. I did work as a writer/consultant on the first season and it was an amazing pleasure. There was a great set of writers on that show as well.
Neely: This has sort of wandered delightfully off point, but did you have any mentors on the road or anyone who gave you particularly trenchant advice?
David: One day Pat Paulsen, from the Smothers Brothers show (note: and many fake presidential campaigns) 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 and supportive. Another just lovely lovely menschy guy.
Neely: Which present day stand-ups do you like?
David: The standups that I absolutely loved have already moved on. Zach Gallifianakis, 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 her forever. I’ve watched her grow up because she hung around Garry's Sunday basketball game - she's the best athlete of anyone there, no kidding and she blossomed into an absolutely brilliant stand-up. She’s a lovely person too. She did me the favor of appearing in "Heartbreakers" as well. Those are two big favorites. Also one of my dearest, closest friends - Kevin Nealon. One of the best comedians ever. I love what Louis C.K. is doing in both his stand-up and his series.
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 a spiritual father. 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. I almost had no contact with him for like the whole first year I was doing the show. He gave me complete freedom the whole time I was there. The second year was great because he had more time so he would come to most of the table reads. The first year I’d maybe get a couple of phone calls from him, but the second year, 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 so great about it. I wasn’t forced to use anything but he always came up with brilliant stuff so we’d just jump on it like a dog on a bone. It was just fantastic to hear these fabulous ideas. 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's so brilliant.
Jim Brooks was one of those who taught me how to write through "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "Taxi." Carl Reiner of “the Dick Van Dyke Show" also taught me how to write because I watched that show endlessly growing up. “Monty Python” was a big mentor to me because I learned from all of those guys. I even got to work briefly with Graham Chapman on a half hour we were going to do together. The brilliant Eric Idle, who’s a dear friend of mine has graciously done “The Simpsons” four times for us. George Tricker was obviously that true first mentor because he was the first professional comedy writer to look at my stuff and to say "T his is good.” To have someone who was a real professional say that was a major, major thing.
Neely: What was the best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
David: Always cut bodies into at least 7 pieces before dumping them into the sea.
I'm not sure it's a question of advice. I think it really always just came down to watching people and shows that I really respected and liked and trying to get as much information as possible as to how they did it; how they ran the room; how they broke stories. I'd try to take the best of all those things and integrate them into my own technique. I’ve taken techniques from the way they did things at “The Mary Tyler Moore Show," techniques from “M.A.S.H." and I’ve read every interview and book I could find on Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Mike Nichols and on and on. I lived in cinema book stores growing up and watched TV shows and films over and over and over. (Getting excited, ladies?) Just heaping it all 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 films and then take the things I liked and try and incorporate them into my own directing. For awhile I would insist on directing naked - like I heard Hitchcock did. But recently I found out he only directed naked when he was in his late 80s and might not have actually been aware that he was naked. I should also say, you learn something new from every actor you direct, too - especially if it's an amazing actor. It's like being a sponge. You never want to stop learning and finding new techniques that you like. Basically I believe, if you ever stop learning you're dead - and if you're not dead, you should be immediately killed.
Neely: Do you think that you have mentored other people?
David: I hope I have. One of the big blessings that I've had in my life is that very early, I became a showrunner so I was able to hire people and help start their careers. That’s the best mentoring you can do - give talented people some real opportunities. I'll always be grateful to Bernie West for starting me out on “Three’s Company,” and then to Martin and Joseph for buying the story that I pitched over there, and also Shelly Zelman and Ellen Guylas who were story editors and took me under their wing.
I gave Charlie Kaufman his first job on “Get a Life," and then his second on “The Edge.” I instantly knew what a brilliant writer he was and a lovely guy too. I gave Jennifer Crittenden her first job on “The Simpsons." I believe she was our first woman on staff. That was her beginning. It’s always really thrilling to do that.
I've been part of the mentor program at Loyola Marymount. If anyone has any questions they're always free to contact me and talk about it. I speak there whenever they ask. I loved speaking at your class too. I love speaking at colleges or festivals. Many times I'll stand in the middle of a busy street and lecture until the police come. I've taught many a cellmate basic two act structure. You love to try and help young writers in any way you can. To me it’s simple. If I get a script that’s great, then I go all out to try and get that person working. But great scripts are rare. At best, about 1 good one for every 100 I read.
Neely: Any advice that you give out about writing or making it in the business?
David: If there was one lesson I got out of those four years that it took me to get on staff, it was persistence. During those four years,
I didn’t really learn anything new, I just suddenly had access. I finally got a chance to write my first paid script on “Three’s Company” and I was instantly on staff. It was really showing me that it was clearly just s matter of access, it wasn’t a matter of my talent or even my knowledge. So the lesson is in the persistence, in not quitting during those four years. When the door finally opens, you really have to be ready but, if you are, it can pay off quite well. 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. I also say if you can do anything else and be happy - do it. This business is tough and not always fair. But, if like the rest of us, you have absolutely no other choice - welcome fellow damaged souls!
Neely: Let me add, that you need to keep writing and writing new material because you always have to be ready to show what you have. If you suddenly have access and have too little to show, then that door will shut and it will be even harder to crack it open the next time.
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 with my first job on “Three’s Company,” I was very happy, but “Newhart” was pure elation. Getting my first Emmy nomination for writing on that show was pretty surreal. It was the last thing I expected because that show had never gotten an Emmy nomination for writing. It was the first, for me and for the show so it was really surprising. And it was for the first script that I ever wrote as a showrunner which meant that it was the first script I had full control over, so it boosted my confidence to keep trying different things.
I think also the first time working with Jim Brooks, that was definitely a high for me. It was also a super high point to get to work with the incredible James Taylor, who also taught me a lot about writing and interpretation. First directing him on a Simpsons episode I wrote and then writing and directing a couple of music videos with him. I absolutely love the man and am in awe of him. Comedy saved my life growing up but his music definitely did as well.
And in the same way, getting to direct and work with Paul McCartney on “The Simpsons” was also a real high point in my life. I am one of the biggest Beatles freaks on the planet – the Beatles gave James Taylor his first record deal and George Harrison believed the spirit of the Beatles was transferred to Monty Python so many of the things I love are all one big circle. Anyway, I found myself in Paul’s home studio in England at exactly the time the Beatles were getting back together after 25 years to record two songs and I was in the same space where that was all happening. I thought I was a real pro directing him and Linda but then Paul started taking me through his studio and pointing out the harpsichord from “Because” and started playing the opening and then the chimes from “Penny Lane” and the harmonium from “We Can Work It Out.” And then he picks up the double bass from Elvis’ original band and starts performing “Be Bop a Lula” just to me and it was, seriously, all I could do to not start screaming like a 16 year old girl. Instead, I screamed like a 34 year old man. We talked for a long time about the Beatles and then he spent 20 minutes putting up the mix and played me the first new Beatles’ song in 25 years, “Free as a Bird,” standing right in front of me, conducting the entire thing. It was totally overwhelming. I woke up 27 hours later, naked in a field. Not exactly sure what happened there.
Directing my first feature with brand new Oscar winner Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow, who’s just such a delight, along with Janeane Garafolo who I’d loved and worked with on “Larry Sanders.” It was like the greatest tinker toy set on the planet, having those big cranes and trying to work out cool camera moves like the ones you’ve grown up watching in the cinema. And then to actually have directors you respect come and say “I love that shot you did in ‘Romy and Michelle’.” Those are real high points.
Neely: What about some of the low points?
David: One of the hardest things that happened, and I admit it’s something of a high class problem, was that I always wanted to get a sketch show on the air. I would constantly come up with ideas for sketches (“The Simpsons” actually takes care of that for me now because almost anything you can think of we can fit into the show in a moment, a flash forward, or a flashback or dream or fantasy sequence) and I always wanted to get a live action sketch show going. Finally, after “Get a Life,” I sold one to Fox. It had the wonderful Jennifer Aniston in it, along with Wayne Knight, Tom Kenney, who’s the voice of Sponge Bob Square Pants, and Julie Brown - lots of great people. That show was an absolute dream for me. It was the opposite network experience from “Get a Life.” The network loved it and it also got solid ratings to a point where instead of giving us a back 9 order, we got a back 13 order. For the first time I experienced the feeling of having a hit that I created. It just kept building and growing.
It was so very difficult to get that perfect combination – it’s like the combination on a safe - everything has to click in place for it to come together in terms of casting, time slot, material, network support. All of that was happening. It also happened to be the time, around 1992, that Sony was falling apart financially and Sony was our studio. Originally it was New World but Sony had bought New World, and they were panicking. So some bright accountant determined that a sketch show would never earn any money in syndication, which was an insane fallacy, but they all decided to pretend it was true. So just as I was getting my back 13 order, they came to me and said, “By the way, you have to do it for this enormous budget cut.” Not a pay cut for me – my salary was unchanged, but the whole production budget 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 material a week to try and save the company money. And now, even 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 of network quality for that amount of money. But they said they had to do it and I said, if that was the case, I would have to leave. That was definitely a low point and one of the toughest decisions I ever made because I had to walk away from a sweet, talented cast I loved, great writers and a show that was my longtime dream.
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. Almost as soon as I left, I took over “The Simpsons.” Once they heard I was leaving The Edge, I was instantly offered the “The Simpsons” because the network still liked me. And of course, Jim Brooks and Rich Sakai, who has also been a great friend ofmine throughout my professional life, wanted me over on “The Simpsons” to pretty much restart it from scratch because most of the writers had left. Still it was very very sad to say goodbye to 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, where, in success, an already established budget was slashed. Now it happens often, but back then it was really an anomaly.Another thing that was annoying is that one paper erroneously reported I was fired which was completely untrue. In fact, the executives at Sony actually did everything they could to keep me there – short of not cutting my budget of course. In fact, after I left, I even went back, while still working on the Simpsons, and produced the last ‘best of” episode of “The Edge” to help them possibly get it picked up. But, as I said, none of these problems compare to the real problems going on in this world like the Kardashian divorce.
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: Twice a year, I treat myself and go to a very quiet, very exclusive Caribbean island - and hunt humans. Show Business is a comically exaggerated version of normal life. You’re constantly getting hired and effectively fired in relatively short periods of time. Very few jobs last longer than a year or two so even when you’re not getting fired, it feels like you’re getting fired. When you finish a movie, your job is suddenly over - it’s just gone. Worse – if you’re working with actors and a crew you love – you feel like you just got kicked out of heaven. Even though intellectually you tell yourself you’re not getting fired, you still always have the feeling and stress of losing your job, your friends, and your routine, which can ultimately be quite good because it stimulates the brain. But it’s not exactly ‘fun’. Change is stimulating and you have to process it like that. You have to mentally make sure to process the information properly. Meditation and stress reduction are important and that’s as much the work as the work is – dealing with the stress. Sometimes I’m more successful at it than other times. You should know I’m speaking to you from my bed which I haven’t left in 3 months.
Like I said, it was a terrible thing when I had to leave “The Edge.” That was very very sad but it turned into the most amazing job in the world – running “The Simpsons.” I got to work with all my heroes. Within that first year I was directing Michelle Pfeiffer, Meryl Streep, Albert Brooks, Mel Brooks, Anne Bankcroft. Anyone you could think of, incredible incredible people and “The Simpsons” is almost the only place where you’re going to get that kind of star coming through almost constantly. I learned so much from all of them.
So something that was a initially a curse actually became a blessing. I often put it together by saying that most of us are going through life as blursed (I need to copyright that word¸ it’s a combination of blessed and cursed). The secret is to process events correctly and to meditate and deal with the stress so you can get a positive result and won’t get overwhelmed. Because of my fortunate career, I’ve gotten to meet almost every major star in the world. And the number one thing I see, even if they’re 70 or 80 years old, they never get satiated. They’re still struggling in their careers, they’re still hustling, even at that age and it’s a blurse. It’s good and it’s bad; it keeps them young, it keeps them alive, but it doesn’t necessarily keep them back-flipping happy. You never get to “I’ve arrived. This is great.” In your own head, you really are only as good as the last thing you did. It’s not really much fun to have someone come up to you and say, “You know, forty years ago you did something incredible.” That really doesn’t give them much happiness. (Neely laughs) Because to their ears it sounds like,, “You now suck.”
Neely: What you are you watching on TV these days?
David: We just did our 500th episode party on “The Simpsons” and Matthew Weiner came. He created “Mad Men” and I told him that it was the best show on TV. Actually I first told him that as soon as the show hit the air. After the first couple of episodes aired, I saw him on the picket line during the Writers’ Strike, and told him then.. So I told him that again and this time he threw a big ball of money at me.
I also loved “In Treatment.” I thought that was absolutely brilliant. “Homeland” is great. “Louis C.K.” is doing such incredibly brilliant work. There’s a lot of good out there. I love “Enlightened;” I’ve always liked Mike White and Laura Dern too and I thought “Enlightened” is great work.
Neely: What about past favorites?
David: The show that really started me off was “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” And that still holds up extremely well. It’s a tough thing to beat. Also the old Warner Brothers theatrical cartoons - brilliant. Like I said, I love “Monty Python” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “Taxi.” Those were all original iconic shows. I love the movies of Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick. I always annoy everyone with “The Graduate” because it’s why I wanted to become a director. Woody Allen and Kubrick had a lot to do with it, but Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate” is one of the greatest combinations of incredible acting, great comedy, great drama, great cinematography, great music all put together. Jim Brooks has said it contains every form of joke there is. It’s an amazing work.
Neely: Remind me who wrote the screenplay?
David: Buck Henry… who I’ve gotten to know, I’m amazed to say. I adore him. And you can imagine how thrilled he will be that I am praising something he did 40 years ago. Buck was smart enough to do everything right on that screenplay. Calder Willingham gets a credit too but I believe Buck was the final writer. Read the brilliant novel by by Charles Webb. Then look at the screenplay and there isn’t a smarter or more brilliant adaptation ever done. Buck did it as good as it could be done with the help of Mike Nichols. Mike Nichols is amazing. He did “The Graduate” in ’67 and he directed “Spamalot” on Broadway in 2005. You just can’t get a career more varied than that or more of cool blueprint of a guy who can go into any genre and just kill it.
Neely: And don’t forget “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” the year before. I've already got my tickets for his "Death of a Salesman" starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.
David: Exactly. And he was a big fan of “Romy and Michelle.” When I met Mike and he told me how much he liked “Romy and Michelle,” I remarked, “The only reason ‘Romy and Michelle’ is any good at all is because of you. It’s all a big circle.” He smiled and then quickly tried to sue for a piece of the film. It really is so exciting when someone you really look up to says they like your work. Definitely another high point.
Neely: What films have you liked this year?
David: I thought “The Artist” was terrific and it embodied so much of what it is that we love about film. It was so funny and moving and set exactly the right tone in not taking itself too seriously and understanding exactly what it was. That’s the one that probably stands out the most for me. I thought “The Descendents” was wonderful. Alexander Payne is an incredible filmmaker. In terms of straight down the middle, “The Help” was very moving.
Neely: I couldn’t disagree with any of those either. “The Artist” was my favorite movie of the year. I adore film…
David: It’s amazing. It just has this effect. When I see the clips from it again, it really is that good. It’s not like it was an accident.
Neely: Jean Dujardin made me go back to silent movies again and see how a great actor can be so expressive and not need his voice.
David: It is amazing. And when I think of comedy, they always talk about Chaplin but I’m a Buster Keaton guy. To me he was the epitome of silent acting; just absolutely brilliant.
Neely: What are you reading right now? Anything you would recommend?
David: I’m always reading a bunch of different things. I even read tech books. I’m one of the biggest Beatles fans, so I read books on the recording of the Beatles, the details of that and all the equipment. I have a recording studio and I like to fool around in it. I’m very interested in how they got the sounds they got. The mics, the preamps, the compressors…
Neely: Well obviously, David. Once an electronics engineer, always an electronics engineer.
David: It’s quite sad. Then there’s the Jonathan Franzen book Freedom; it’s great. There are also these two books by Daniel Suarez, one called Daemon and the other called Freedom TM. They are such ultra cool tech Sci Fi books and I hope someone makes them into a movie properly. And The Help by Kathryn Stocket was also a terrific read. I also liked Woody Allen’s last selection of essays. It was just amazing. I just read singer/songwriter Shawn Colvin’s memoir. It won’t be out until May, I think. It’s called Diamond in the Rough. It’s a lovely memoir and she did a great job. Carrie Fisher’s latest book Shockaholic has a lot of hilarious stories in it from her life.
I do read a lot on the iPad or on the Kindle. I love the Kindle because it’s light. I add up the number of extra hours I can read on the Kindle because it doesn’t weigh anything. Part of what tires you out in reading is if the book is heavy. So the lightness makes me read more. I sound very strong, don’t I? But the other thing that happens with the iPad is that I’ve started to listen to a lot of books on audible. And that can be really fascinating. Dick Van Dyke has a memoir where he goes through his life and he’s such a wonderful decent guy; it’s really great to hear that story. Diane Keaton reads her own memoir And Then Again, and I love just hearing her tell it. The funniest ‘listen’ of the last year is Tina Fey reading Bossypants. That’s just killer. And I should say that “30 Rock” is probably my favorite comedy on television. It’s the closest thing ever to a live action Simpsons. It is so difficult to do that kind of show and they do it very well.
Neely: What have you got coming up that you can tell us about?
David: I’m working on the Richard Branson feature I mentioned earlier.. I’m also very excited that we’re finally putting out the entire series of “Get a Life” on DVD. It’s been a blast working on all the extras.
And, out of a pure love for it, I shoot music videos with James Taylor. Recently, we did a little music video for Christmas of him on solo acoustic guitar playing “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Just a gorgeous version. That was the third music video we did together. We’re also filming a series of guitar lessons where James actually teaches his incredibly complex, intricate, brilliant technique. Such a joy to work on these. James really taught me how to play guitar – which is a huge stress reliever and form of meditation for me. You can see them at JamesTaylor.com.
Neely: Did you see James when he was at the Hollywood Bowl last summer?
David: Absolutely. If you see James, I’m never far behind unless he tightens his security. A recent high point for me was attending “Music Cares.” with him. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it but it’s a charity that the Grammys themselves sponsor that helps struggling musicians - helps them with drug problems, with housing, even buys instruments for them. So every year there’s a concert for “Music Cares” at the LA convention center. One year it was a tribute to James Taylor and then it was Neil Young and then it was Barbra Streisand last year and this year it was Paul McCartney. Paul and all these musicians get up on stage and play Paul McCartney songs. There was Nora Jones, Alicia Keys, Cold Play, Tony Bennett, Neil Young, Dianna Krall and James Taylor. I was sitting right between James and Paul McCartney! It was all I could do not to turn into that screaming 16 year old girl again.
Neely: This might just be too much icing on an already very rich cake.
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.