"The only safe thing is to take a chance." - Mike Nichols


Neely: This segues nicely into the unusual series you created. “Get a Life” is hard to categorize and is truly what anyone would refer to as “out of the box.” Tell me what it was about and what you were aiming for.
David: 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 TV show or film I could get my hands on and by the time 1973 came around, I’d seen everything. I definitely fell into that Outliers theory of just absorbing 10,000 hours of comedy - probably more like 30,000. I was an old man comedy-wise. I just lived and breathed comedy and then Python came along with that calm opening line "And now for something completely different." I was so there. Python is a show that takes everything you know about comedy and fucks with it. You have to already understand a lot about comedy to get everything they’re on about. That really fascinated me. It had an enormous amount of Dadaism – surreal elements that are accepted in the UK but harder to do over here because you start losing a lot of the audience. In Britain (actually almost everywhere but here) they're comfortable with smaller audiences. Now, to an extent, we are too, with cable, and the large loss of network viewership but in those days, no. So Python hit me in a huge way because I had always used comedy to twist the world to make it livable to me and Python twisted the twist. It really messed with my head which was already weird and dark to begin with.

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. If 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.” There 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 style at all. It’s lonely, you miss your girlfriend and it’s weird towns. Sometimes you're packed into comedy condos with other comedians and wake up next to Bobcat Goldthwait... not really the first thing you want to see in the mornings. (the visual has Neely laughing). It was good to bring in some money but it wasn’t a lifestyle that I coveted. My standup was also very dark, 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: 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 "This 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.

 

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?

 

David: We had always been under pressure to do a movie. From early in the show people were saying “Oh there should be a movie.” And the only reason didn’t do it sooner is that, as I was running the show, there was no time for me to go off and write with the others and do a movie. We had to wait. And actually, the multi-room thing made it possible. There was finally going to be time when enough of us, the ones we called the key writers of the show – Al Jean, Mike Reis, myself and Jim Brooks and Matt Groening and Mike Scully, and then the great writers Jon Schwartzwelder, John Veening and I think that was all. As a side note, Jon Schwartzwelder wrote more episodes than anyone else and some of my favorite, the most brilliant episodes are Jon Schwartzwelder. And the same thing with John Veening. Just brilliant brilliant episodes. So it was a matter of when we finally got the show to a place where it was running smoothly enough where that group that I just described could get together for what we planned would be two years. It was really just a matter of our availability versus the show and the ability to keep the quality of the show up while we did the movie. We figured it was going to take about two years because the way Jim Brooks works when he really hunkers down on something is just… there’s nothing like it. He just works it and works it and demands perfection at the top top top level of everything, for however long that takes. And instead of two years, of course it took four years (both laugh) because that’s Jim’s process. It was fantastic to get to work with him in that capacity. It was super intense and sometimes very difficult but you wouldn’t trade it for the world. It was fascinating to be part of it. So it was really just a matter of our availability that made the movie happen. And yet, I’m sure there’s going to be another one. It’s a matter again of our availability and everybody being able to sit down and do it again.

 

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 a long time. It took me four years to break into the business and I didn’t really improve… it wasn’t that I wasn’t improving as a writer at the time, it was really a matter of four years of trying to get the right combination of access. And it was in that four years that I became a standup because it was easier to earn money as a standup than it was to break into the business. If you really want to hear how I broke it, my cousin Eddie Soloman knew a guy who did the computer programming for Twentieth Century Fox accounting department, which is about as far away from the heart of show business (Neely chuckles knowingly) you can get. And he knew an actual living breathing comedy writer named George Tricker who could not be a nicer, more talented wonderful guy who read my early stuff and recognized something in it and he became a mentor to me as I blossomed as a writer. He got a job on a show called “The Ropers” which was a spin-off of “Three’s Company,” and to get their attention, I wrote a spec “Ropers.” The guy running “The Ropers” read it and didn’t like it, but then 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 Nichol, Don had passed a way but Mickey and Bernie were still there and Bernie loved my script and that let me come into pitch to “Three’s Company.” I pitched for two or three years, because I was pitching at what I would call the masterbatory level of the business. In other words, I was pitching to very very lovely people but they could never 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 actually got sold?” And the answer was zero. Any time you met with them you were just jerking off. (laughing) I was a very shy guy and I sort of had the pressure to move up from these story editors who, again, were lovely people and eventually became my very good friends, move up to the producer level which was Martin Rips and Joseph Stravinsky, and they finally bought a story from me when I finally got to pitch at that level. And then I wrote the script as a freelance. After I handed in the script, I was up in the Sequoia National Forest to depressurize and I checked 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 there but it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea 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, so that’s how I got on staff. It turned out to be fortuitous because the stuff I learned there has served me endlessly through my career. I’ve said this before but the characters on “Three’s Company” could not say anything clever; they were not smart characters so the humor was not verbal. The humor was almost completely in the structure of the piece in a classic French farce structure which is deceivingly difficult. It looks easy but it’s actually very difficult to structure one of those things properly so that all the laughs start to 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 knew how to do that – who had the discipline to really sit down and do that. So I was very lucky to get that job and get that training because it really forced you to think pure structure. And then when you write more character oriented comedy underlying that is an enormous amount of structure that you have already learned how to do. 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 enormous amounts on “Three’s Company,” you were quite upset that your agent had essentially sold you down the river because you were waiting for “Cheers.”

 

David: Yes, that’s right. I had written that “Ropers” script specifically because George Trick had the “in” with those people. 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 didn’t understand it. What happened, though, is that it eventually got into the hands of Ken Levine and David Isaacs. David’s at USC now isn’t he?

 

Neely: Yes he is He’s a lynch pin to their television comedy writing program. And Ken writes one of the best blogs out there.

 

David: And they were so sweet. They read my script and they liked it and they were on “Cheers.” Now “Cheers” was the second lowest rated show on that first season. I knew it was pure genius and I wanted desperately to be on that show. And they said that they would give me one of the back nine episodes if they got picked up for a back nine. So I was waiting on 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 keep in mind that I’m a very shy person who doesn’t like to bother people, and I hadn’t heard anything, so 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. That’s when I got very disappointed and I realized that my agent, and I understood that to my agent “Three’s Company” was a top show, often number or three in the ratings, sometimes number one, and the agent couldn’t see why I would want to go on the last rated show on television. He thought I was crazy; he didn’t see a difference in quality, literally. My agents didn’t perceive that, they were just looking a the check that was coming in and they nixed that for me. Because of that I left that agent and found the agent that I have to this day, Robb Rothman, who’s just the most amazing guy and he was completely instrumental into getting me into the kind of show that I wanted, which was an MTM character oriented show, the kind of show I grew up worshipping and that was the “Newhart” Vermont show. That was thanks to Robb who had a relationship with Dan Wilcox. And Dan Wilcox was incredibly kind in giving me the kind of benefit of a doubt and had me write a “Newhart” script even though I was coming off of a show that was very very different and quite frankly not… even though “Three’s Company” is very difficult 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. And again, the cast couldn’t have been sweeter. John Ritter was one of the most lovely people I ever met and I stayed in contact with him throughout the resto of his life. He was just a lovely guy and I worked with his last wife on “Get a Life” 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 there were all these positive things. And again, and that was part of it. I think I wrote 7 episodes and once you did about 4 of them it became rather repeticive, not easier, but repetitive and you really wanted to move on. And I was so lucky that Dan Wilcox took that chance on me. And I got to write an episode and this was when comedy was dead, it was BC, as they said – “Before Cosby” – and comedy was at terrible low at this point. “Cheers” was still at the bottom of the ratings because Thursday night had not taken off yet and so when I was writing a script for “Newhart,” I was in competition with about 7 other writers who were writing scripts for that one staff position. And I did a similar thing 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: And then I checked on the 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 and again thanks to Dan Wilcox. And as Janet Leahy, who as you know is an incredibly magical sweet, deep person, she was mirrored on that show by all the other writers. I just loved that group of writers. I’ve been lucky everywhere. The people on “Three’s Company” were great. Bernie West was an incredibly sweet man; Mickey Ross was a bit officious and imperious but it was much more an act than anything that was real. He was actually very sweet and a great teacher. He was the one who really taught you the structure 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 farce more than anything. “Three’s Company” was their dream job. So it was really funny and it really came out of passion for these guys who were in their 50s or 60s at this point. And Marty Ripp was the producer and Shelly Zelman and Ellen Geilus were the story editors and they could not have been sweeter to me. They were so welcoming and nice on “Three’s Company.” It’s always intimidating when it’s your first job and they were nice people. 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, a brilliantly funny guy, was so sweet and welcoming; and Barton Dean was just a lovely guy; and Miriam Trogden and Arnie Kogen; and obviously Dan, hiring me to begin with; and I don’t want to forget Doug Wyman.. It was a very blessed situation. As a matter of fact, we still have lunch together, that writing staff, periodically. That’s how nice and solid that group is.

 

Neely: How was “Newhart” structured?

 

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. Dan Wilcox had come from “M.A.S.H.” There’s actually a separate “M.A.S.H.” story. The very first spec script I ever wrote was a “M.A.S.H.” episode. I was doing a school project that involved Jan Jordan as an actress; she was married to the showrunner of “M.A.S.H.” at that point (Bert Metcalf who had been a casting director). So I knew I had that in and I loved “M.A.S.H.” and I had an idea. I asked Jan to ask Bert 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 he later became a big feminist, later in the episode before anyone in the world became a feminist and he became one. But this was when he was still womanizing and suddenly there was a doctor and the tries to pick up on the doctor and he can’t really deal with her in the same way because she’s an equal and that ruins it for him. And 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 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 it’s the same story where Hawkeye has a hard time and all his foibles in that area. And they got the script and read it and said, “Thanks very much.” I was very young at the time and it would have been extraordinary. They were letting me kind of hang around, and again, Ken and David and Bert Metcalf very kindly were letting me hang around and watch the filming and go on location. But they didn’t take the script too seriously. And then Alan Alda wrote an episode where a female doctor comes to “M.A.S.H, played by Mariette Hartley, and the way they got around the reality problem was by making her Swedish. I was then taking any kind of job to get close to things, and I volunteered at the Television Academy and I ran the video tape machine in the writer’s room for the comedy episodes for the Emmy that year. So I had 5 video tapes that I put in front of these writer, and Alan’s was first because it was alphabetical, and so I played that episode and Alan won the Emmy for that episode. The thing I have to make very clear is that I never feel that it was stolen. It’s the same thing – ideas kind of float around and it was not taken from me. Sometimes everyone has the same ideas and the execution is everything. So I really believe that it came from a completely separate place in the organization and the main thing that I got from it was great encouragement because I knew I was thinking along very good and positive lines. When you’re wondering whether you have what it takes to be a writer, that was actually a sense of encouragement that I had come up with an idea that would eventually win an Emmy. That was a very positive situation. But it’s interesting the way that all works.

 

Neely: Well one thing I really want to talk about that Janet had mentioned, but 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 I was going to mention that to you. It miigth be something you might want to go and change, but I think in the article on Janet that you give the credit in the last episode as Doug Wyman and myself…

 

Neely: … Yikes! It should be Dan…

 

David: It actually should be neither. (chuckling). It’s that we were gone. Let me preface it by saying I got on “Newhart” and it was a fantastic staff and I even encouraged Dan to give Janet a script because she was so talented and fantastic and I just loved everybody there (and still love everybody from there). I was there for about a year and a half or so and then Dan left and they were without a showrunner and for whatever strange reason it just worked out that they asked me to be the showrunner with Doug Wyman. So I went from being a supervising story editor, or whatever my title was at the time, jumped right to executive producer/showrunner. That was 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 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 limitations of that. I was very cinematic and into special effects and different styles of storytelling¸ different genres, so I very sadly came to the realization that I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life. My dream, dream, dream dream job which was kind of a “Mary Tyler Moore Show” with Bob Newhart, I could only do that for four years. And so I left with Doug Wyman in 1988 and new people came on. But that idea for that last 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. It may have been Bob Benson, you’ll have to see. But it was an idea about a dream. I did show up for the last episode to watch because I knew that Susan Pleshette was going to be there.. It was a sustained laugh. I had the second largest laugh from one of my episodes. We remade “War of the Worlds” where the idiots in town were watching the movie and they thought it was real. And then the aliens show up and it turns out to be Larry, Darryl and Darryl. That created such a laugh thatwent on for 2 minutes. But the Suzanne Pleshette laugh was huge. But dream sequences had been floating around. The fact that “Dallas” had had a dream sequence…

 

Neely: Oh yeah. That dream sequence was contemporaneous to the one on “Newhart.” It can’t be coincidental.

 

David: Being the dark-minded bastard that I am, I had a much darker way that I would have gone. 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 then right at the last minute when they think they’ve got him cornered, he runs out on everybody and he’s gone again.

 

Neely: I really like that.

 

David: It would have upset everyone, but that’s the kind of thing that makes me smile.Part III

 

 

 

 

Neely:Neely: This segues nicely into segues nicely intothethe unusual 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 me what it was about and what you were aiming for.

 

David: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 TV show or filmthing in the world I could get my hands on and so that by the time 1973 came around, I’d seen everything. I had definitely fell into that Outliers theory of just absorbing 10,000 hours of comedy - probably more like 30,000. 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 comedy and then Python came along with that calm opening line “And now for something completely different.. I was so there. and Python is a show for someone who’s already a giant comedy writer because itthat takes everything you know about comedy and then fucks with twists it. You have to already understand a lot about comedy to get everything they’re on about. That really fascinated me. and It had an enormous amount of Dadaism – surreal elements that area accepted in the UKed over there but ; it’s harder to do over here because as soon as you do that you start losing a lot of the audiencepeople. In Britain (actually almost everywhere but here)There they’re comfortable with smaller audiences. Now, to an extent, we are too, with cable, and the large loss of network viewership but in those days, no. So Python hit me in a huge way and because I had always used comedy to twist the world to make it livable to me and Python twisted the twist. It really messed with my head which was already weird and dark to begin with.

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 from the audience, it’son the track is not very big. In other words, that edgy joke cut out a large part of the audience. So iIf 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, But Tthat’s kind of where my head goes and the limited audience of that way of writing isit’s something that took me awhile to realize because I always laughed so hard myself at that Ted Knight line that I never heard how few others were laughing at itI 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 super-passionate cult following. Ibut it really, really blew me away and that’s where the direction English TV was going. And that’s the way I naturally thought too.

 

So I had a deal with MTM to make a pilot for them after I left “Newhart.and tThere was a British show that was, in a way, the child of “Monty Python” called “The Young Ones.,and iIt 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. And tThat 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, a. 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 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, 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 with those surreal elements where the main characters are literally violently trying to kill each other duringthrough most of the episode.

 

It, of course, tested “through the floor.” The kind of questions that they ask in research and 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 onby because there’s nothing offensive in them. A show where Robert Mitchum played a homeless man who lived in a nunnery orphanage run by nunsconvent with orphans 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 brainon earth 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 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 thats a whole other subject.A

 

ny way,AnywayBy then Chris and I had become friends and Chris wanted to do his own show and he askedwanted 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 weI didn’t that he couldn’tn’t do Dennis the Menace because they won’t wouldn’t give us the rights to it, especially in from that kind of dark point of view where Dennis the Menace had been kind of 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 Americas 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, it becamehe had his best friend who’s married and has kids and is tied down and the other guywhile he’s is still free, living with his parents, still llivingliving 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 soldI and sold it 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. and that’s how “Get a Life” was born.

 

Neely:Neely: I’m amazed that it got a second season and 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: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 very first shows to havehat had popular music in it.

 

Neely:Neely: That’s a licensing nightmare.

 

David:David: It’s taken forever. ItThat’s the reason it was never syndicated. REM does the theme song, it’s their fantastic song “BandStand” and just that one song alone, when we were doing the show, cost $40,000 a week. When that stuff had to be reclearedReclearing the music for syndication, it was justould have been too expensive. There were big hit songs in manyevery 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 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 3 episodes and even 2 of them had the wrong music. They had accidently 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.

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. I guess the series was never really meant So it could never reallyto 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 outrelease the complete series.

 

Sorry, I got of track. You know the belief that “Get a Life” got low ratings is it’s 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:Neely: Now that I didn’t know.

 

David: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 then would make it a top ten show today. Of course almost any show would be a top ten show because tThere were just so many more people watching network television back then. I had to taketook out an ad in Variety because we got great reviews everywhere, it was beloved by manythe 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. 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. Get a LifeThis show 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. and of that form,It was to be very sarcastic about it the form and to pointed out how stupid, insincere, pandering and formulaic it had becomewas. A series that points this out It can be quite is threatening to people who do this for a livinging, pointing out how silly they are.

 

There was So we had a lot of executive hostility toward that show. ; tThey did not understandlike the surreal aspect of it and; they didn’t likeunderstand the sarcastic tone of it. They and they would literally shut the show down when I wouldpresented present them with a script, the script of a story that they had approved., but wWhen they actually saw the script and how subversive, dark and sarcastic it was it was and how dark it was and how sarcastic it was, they would shut it us the show down on the Monday after the table read. and thenBut 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 in on that position. Usually by Wednesday the executivesy would relent and begrudgingly let us do the episodeshow. But, of course, by then I’d already missed two days of rehearsal. and I directed was directing 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 under those conditions, you really finding your my energy there, but I wouldn’t say I was thrilledhappy 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’s a bit depressing. and yYou have to fight against that and hold on to your beliefsve. It’s not the most pleasant thing. It’s much better when everyone is telling you you’re fantastic and your stuff is good great. (Neely laughing). “Get a Life” was not that most of the time; periodically it was and there were certainly fans whothat were like thatextremely really supportive but some folks at the network werethe network was 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 a the box set. That’s a fair price, right?

 

Neely:Neely: You mentioned at one point that you started a standup career because you were trying to be a writer, that 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: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 pitchinggoing to very nice but powerless peoplethe wrong people at “Three’s Company.”

 

So, thereThere was and still is this thing at the Comedy Store and the Improv where if you wenton Monday nights and where you put your name in a hat or your name on a list, to get 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 hHad I not done very very well, I never would have set foot on that stage again because I was very shy and easily crushed. I was extremelyso 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. it went great. And then, the first time I tried out at the Comedy Store, I became a regular and that, fairly quickly, got megave me a place to 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.

 

I remember bOne of my first paid gigs, IBack then, I opened for Louis Nye. It’s a weird thingin a way, but. I did the entire Steve Allen Show cast line up. 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 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. 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, And I didn’t like the traveling part of a stand-up career. It was never my idea to be on the road. Being on the road is difficult enough. because I haved traveled with rock bands that had huge amounts of money and that can still be a grind, band 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 youre packed intoit’s comedy condos with other comedians and where you wake up next to Bobcat Goldthwaith… not really the first thing you want to see in the morninga 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,M my standup was also 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:Neely: (laughing) Ewww!

 

David: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 full of jokes 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: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:David: I have. I know a lot ofll those guys – Richard Lewis, Garry Shandling of course. When I left “Newhart,” the only show I wanted to work on was the “Its Garry Shandling’s Sshow because that was another show thatit was surreal and breaking the rules and the form of the sitcom. Garry 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 also got my first Emmy nomination as a writer on that show. Shandling was a fan of the show because; he worshipped Bob Newhart. Garry 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 standupwe weren’t in the same league. and hHe was also an electronics engineer and a ham radio operator, . Sso we had the nerd background in common and both grew up just fighting off the women. He as well as in common and a lot of other things. in common. He became a wonderful dear friend of mine and IworkedI worked on his nextother show, Larry Sanders”, with him, as well. In fact, hHe asked me to help create “Larry Sanders” with him and but I was busy finishing Get a Life and starting my sketch show “The Edge on another thing so I couldn’t. but I did work as a writer/consultant on the first seasonepisode and it was an amazing pleasure. There was a great set of writers on that show as well.

 

Neely:Neely: This had 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:David: I was very moved. One day Pat Paulsen, from the Smothers Brothers show, 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. Of course, when I didn’t actually ‘make it’ as a stand up, he showed up at my door and said he was just fucking with me. And Louis Nye., Wwhen I traveled with him, he was incredibly sweet and supportive 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:Neely: Which present day stand-ups do you like?

 

David:David: The standups that I absolutely loved have already moved on. Zach Gallifianaikias, just brilliant. I saw him many years ago at the Aspen Comedy Festival and I instantly cast him in “Heartbreakers.” And I’ve known Sarah Silverman. I’ve known her I’ve known 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 - the writers on “The Larry Sanders Show” 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. and Jim Gaffigan. I think that’s kind of it every other standup is talentless and horrible. I’m certain of it.

 

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

 

David:David: I always call Jim Brooks a 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 I was doingonof 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 to most of the table readsover. The first year I’d maybe get a couple of phone calls from him, but the second year, he’d come over on the read day.

 

and aaAfter 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 so great about it. I wasn’t forced to use anything but he always came up with brilliant, brilliant stuff so we’d just jump on it like a dog on a bone. He’d always come up with brilliant things and iIt was just fantastic to hear see him come up with stuff these fabulous ideas 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 so brilliant.

 

So Jim Brooks was one of those who taught me how to write through the Mary Tyler Moore Show and Taxi., like Carl Reiner of “the Dick Van Dyke Show” also: taught me how to write because, I watched that show endlessly growing upstudied by watching that show. “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 and Eric Idle, who’s now a dear friend of mine and has graciously done “The Simpsons” four times for us.; George Tricker was obviously that true firstbeginning mentor because at the very beginning he was the first professional comedy writer to look at my stuff and to say “Tthis is good. You are not total shit.” To have someone who was a real professional to say that was a major, major thing.

 

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

 

David: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 tried trying to get as much information as possible as to how they did thatit,; how they ran the room;, how they broke stories.;, what the methods were. I’d and try to take the best of all those things and integrateput them into my own technique. I’ve taken techniquespieces from the way they did things at “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” techniquespieces from “M.A.S.H.,and I’ve read every interview and book I could findadvice onfrom 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? JustIt’s like 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 I would take the things that I saw them do that I liked and try and incorporate themat 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, IIt’s the same thing when I’ve read what other directors have said, I would incormporateincorporate that. you learn something new from every actor you direct too – especially if it’s an amazing actor. It’s always like being a sponge.; Yyou never want to stop learning and findinggetting new techiniquesttechniques that you like. Basically I believe, if you ever stop learning youre dead and if youre not dead, you should be immediately killed.

 

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

 

David:David: I hope I have. One of the big blessingsThe main blessing that I’ve hadve in my life is that, I 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. Like I said , I’ll’m always be grateful to Bernie West for starting me out on “Three’s Company,” and then to Martiny Ripps and Joseph for buying that the story that they liked that I pitched over there,, so I’m very grateful to them. And also then Shelly Zelman and Ellen Guylas 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,.aAnd then I gave him his second job on “The Edge.” I instantly knew what a brilliant writer he was and a lovely guy too. Dan Wilcox hiring me on “Newhart” was a major thing. I gave Jennifer Crittenden her first job on “The Simpsons.” I believe she was our first woman on staff. TI 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. AndI’ve been part of the mentor program at Loyola Marymount. Iif anyone ever has any questions at Loyola, they’re always free to contactall me and talk about it. I speak there whenever they ask. I teach there and I loved speaking atteaching 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 cell mate basic two act structure. You love to try and help them young writers in any way you can. To me it’s simple. If I get a script that’s great, then I go’m 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:Neely: Any advice that you give out about writing or making it in the business?

 

David: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, 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. I finally got a chance to writesomeone to and they read my first paid script on “Three’s Company” that I wrote for them and I was instantly on staff. It was really showing me that is it was clearly just a 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 that 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.

 

And we break again because I want to talk next about the highs and lows of your career and more about what you’re doing right now. To Be Continued.

 

 

 

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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