09 February 2012
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” – E.B. White
Neely: When last we spoke, you were talking about your first writing job. Did anybody help you get that first job? Anybody at “Newhart” propel you there?
Janet: Miriam Trogdon, who’s an incredible talent and a dear friend, had gone to work on “All is Forgiven” and showed them my “Newhart” script. They had me write a freelance episode and liked it enough to put me on staff.
Neely: Who were some of the other writers on “Newhart” when you started there?
Janet: Barton Dean, an amazing writer, Dan Wilcox was the showrunner who’s now very much involved with the WGA and everyone should be thanking him, Gary Jacobs, who later went on to create “Empty Nest” was partnered with Arnie Kogen. Arnie had written for variety shows and for Mad Magazine. In the “Mad Men” writers’ office there’s a framed color portrait of its spoof in Mad Magazine – “Sad Men.”
Neely: I love those. I have framed copies of the ones “Mad” did on “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Public.”
Janet: Arnie Kogen wrote the “Sad Men” one. You may also know Arnie as Jay Kogen’s father (Jay is a prolific comedy writer who’s worked on “The Simpsons,” “Frasier” and “Malcolm in the Middle” among many others.) Doug Wyman was there and David Mirkin. Do you know David?
Neely: I know David. He talked to the class I taught at USC. He’s an incredible talent and hilarious. He started as a stand-up.
Janet: One of the funniest guys I’ve ever met. Doug and David eventually took over the show and they were responsible for writing that historic final episode.
Janet: Every single person on that show was talented and kind. So you can see why I would just think show business was great. And then there was Bob Newhart himself. He couldn’t have been a more decent guy.
So I had this really interesting initiation into this business. (laughing loudly) I got tricked, I tell you! (more laughing) I got tricked thinking that everything was great. I have nothing but fond memories of that place and it wasn’t always easy, believe me, but everyone’s intentions were incredibly decent.
Neely: So this is sounding like a stroll down memory lane, probably because I’m leading you in that direction, but… how about some highs and lows on your next several jobs.
Janet: Well, a definite low was when they didn’t pick up my contract at “Cheers,” because not picking up your contract is the same as being fired. I was young and scared, as there’s no predicting the future when you’re fired. It’s one of those moments we talked about, where you think that kind of pain won’t ever change. I didn’t realize that that happens all the time. So that was definitely a low. But not long after, I got hired on “The Cosby Show” and they moved me to New York and paid for me to live there and write this lovely uplifting show.
Then after being on “The Cosby Show” for a month, in a bit of irony, I got nominated for an Emmy for writing an episode of “Cheers” – the Frasier/Lilith episode that I had written the season before. So that was a bizarre sort of high. I was twenty-six, in a brand new city, well taken care of and I got this award nomination; it was very exciting. I ended up working at “Cosby” for a couple of years.
Neely: What prompted you to leave?
Janet: That particular show, and this is not unheard of in the world of sitcoms, had a tendency to drain their writers. There was a burn-out factor; they worked seven days a week, often very late into the night. Scripts were being thrown out right and left, often with little regard for the content. At the time, I was in my 20s, had very little interest in money, but valued my time enormously. I didn’t want to spend those years in a writers’ room seven days a week. To me that wasn’t living. It was also draining me emotionally, as there were times when I just thought the show could have been better (some of that was the arrogance of youth) and I actually felt terrible taking so much money if we weren’t delivering an excellent product every week.
I took a little time off, thought about all the dreams and things I always wanted to do. I was still very young and had money in the bank. So… and this is pretty embarrassing… I wanted to work with dolphins. So I volunteered at the Coney Island Aquarium. I cut up a lot of fish, but I got to work with dolphins and beluga whales and I helped out with the show. It was really kind of cool. I did it for about 6 months. Then, oddly, I got a call to go on another show. And at the same time, I got a call to go back to “Cheers.” They asked me to come back to work on “Cheers,” which is an interesting sort of, what do you call that?
Janet: Yeah. It certainly took some of the pain of being fired away. It was nice to be asked back. I had the choice of “Cheers” or “Major Dad,” which was a new show. I really liked the pilot and I had always admired Earl Pomerantz’s work. Earl was the first showrunner on “The Cosby Show” and was a television legend (“Bob Newhart Show,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Taxi”). So although “Cheers” was the place where all the awards were showing up, I felt going to “Major Dad” would be a better choice for me. Again, I’ve always had a tendency to try to take care of myself.
Neely: You do have good protective instincts.
Janet: Once I know what I’m dealing with. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got, as we’ve discussed, until you’re in the situation.
Neely: You had two stints on “The Cosby Show,” which is sort of like lightning striking twice because “Cheers” also asked you back for second helpings, but we’ll get to that in a minute. I’d like to talk about your early mentors.
Tell me what you learned from each of them.
Janet: From Barton Dean I learned story structure and the importance of a well-crafted story. He is a master at constructing smart stories and ahead of the audience. And he can craft both a line of dialogue and a joke from character like you couldn’t believe.
Miriam Trogdon has elegance to her comedy and a way of thinking far more deeply than other people. And she always seems to find that other obscure and hilarious angle that you weren’t thinking of. She also can find a detail no one else sees and blows it way up for us to examine and laugh at. Amazing.
Bill Cosby taught me when telling the story, tell the truth first and add the comedy later. If you’re a comedy writer, sometimes your instincts will be to go right for an obvious joke, but the nuances of reality are so much funnier. And Bill always emphasized hitting universals people could relate to.
And Earl? Earl Pomerantz always finds the truth first, but then the twists and turns that go through his mind after he finds the truth are outrageous! It’s always a lucky morning when I get to have breakfast with Earl. Something else he talks about when he writes a script is he’ll take a pass through it for each character, making sure they have something interesting to play and contribute to the story and the comedy. I always think of a script like an orchestration where you have different instruments. Although he didn’t use that analogy, he thought in those terms so that everyone’s part had every bit of color that you could bring to it.
Neely: So how did the second gig on “The Cosby Show” come about and how did you end up running the show at such an incredibly young age?
Janet: (laughing) The answer is that I don’t know. I don’t know. Bill had let go of some of the people who had been running his show and he wanted a clean slate with a new staff. He’d always been an admirer of my work, at least that’s what he seemed to indicate. Carsey-Werner called my agent and asked if I’d like to come back. I was willing to do it 3 days a week because some of my time would be mine alone and they were willing to go for it for a year. I was very young and had a lot of chutzpah to ask that.
Then the following year I got a call from Bill (which I had never received before) to come over and talk about running the show for the last season. And that was great. I was able to make some positive changes: I convinced Bill not to throw out scripts, but involved him earlier in the process so that he had a buy-in and it cut our work in half. We still had a late night or two, and only the extremely rare weekend. I also hired a very positive and talented staff. If you’re going to be in one of those rooms, you want to have fun!
Neely: So how do you top that? Where did you go from there?
Janet: I topped that with having a baby. Turns out it was harder than any television job anywhere, as you well know.
Neely: Oh yeah!
Janet: But no one tells you that.
I was getting a lot of nice offers to run shows, but I kept looking at my son Alex, and then would turn them down. And then the calls stopped and nobody wanted to work with me because I’d been out of the business over a year. That was scary. There’s one of those lows we were talking about.
Neely: Nobody’s every going to hire you again syndrome.
Janet: And I lost my health insurance. The point system wasn’t then what it is now with the Writer’s Guild. It didn’t matter how much I’d contributed from all those jobs, and it didn’t take long for me to use up those points. That affected me the rest of my career. It was very scary to have a child and feel unprotected.
Neely: As we continue down memory lane, I notice that you had several stints with major producers like Carsey Werner on Cosby, “Roseanne” and “Grace Under Fire” as well as a couple of Diane English shows. With the advent of vertical integration, all of the mini-majors have disappeared and with them the Marcy Carseys and Diane Englishes.
Janet: That’s very sad. But things are changing all the time. With the new media, it’s a matter of time before all of that is figured out. And then once someone finds a magic formula, everyone will be copying it, including the majors, and then it will seem like it was always that way. And the mediums are changing so fast, there’s probably a new platform out since we started this interview.
Neely: Probably so, but I still mourn the other voice – the non-major studio control and sometimes striking originality that occurred with the independents. And, whatever the platform, the majors will find a way to own it and again, the independent voice will be muted.
Back more on point (if I even have one), both “Roseanne” and “Grace Under Fire” had very problematic female stars, as proactive, in their own ways, as James Spader was on “Boston Legal.” Did you feel any of the heat, and if so, how did you deal with it?
Janet: Yes and no. I had gone back to consulting on those shows because I had another baby, my son David. But I did have a window into it and felt it very strongly when I was there. On “Grace Under Fire,” the pressure that I felt in the writers’ room was a result of the stress. I think of being in an unstable environment, you don’t know what’s going to happen with the star of the show from one day to the next. And if your job is dependent on that and your family is depending on you, that’s pretty nasty stuff. Does that make sense?
Neely: Yes, perfect sense.
Janet: It manifested itself in the writers’ room in terms of occasional inappropriate jokes, inappropriate behavior. It was generally a really fun and hysterically funny room. Please don’t get me wrong. Again, some of the most talented, funniest, kindest people I’ve ever met were in that room But at other times – and mind you, I’ve worked in a lot of rooms – the humor would get uglier, raunchier and actually violent in its description, more so than I’d ever seen.
Neely: Certainly, but everyone has their own way of dealing with toxic environments and function… it’s the comedy room equivalent of throwing darts at a picture of your boss.
Janet: Yes, yes. But when you think about it, that’s really hostile.
Neely: You have to find a way to unload that hostility so you can go forward.
Janet: It was different at “Roseanne.” Roseanne contributed greatly to the show, but it also meant that a huge amount of work would get tossed out by her, really good work, and the room found itself starting over and over again. This was enormously frustrating. But somehow it was much “healthier.” Eric Gilliland and then Dan Palladino, had an ability to run with the absurdity of it all in a much lighter way and it trained people to roll with the punches and find another answer. That is not a bad lesson to learn.
I took a lot of that spirit with me at “Boston Legal” because there were occasions when it would get absurd there as well, and you’d have to sit back and laugh at the circumstances, take a moment to accept the new situation and move forward..
Neely: You also can’t discount big difference between Brett Butler and Roseanne. Brett was an addict and Roseanne was not.
Janet: I didn’t know Brett Butler was an addict. I was told she had some emotional problems and there were things that seemed to indicate that. I tended not to ask those questions.
Neely: There was definitely an instability there.
Janet: Enormous instability and it shut down the show.
Neely: I noticed that until “Gilmore Girls,” all of your shows were multi-camera sitcoms. Were all of those rooms run similarly? Pitching jokes…
Janet: Yes… and rewrites and traditions with the run-throughs. The difference would come in who the showrunner was. If they tended toward high anxiety, that would be transferred into the room; if they were relaxed and casual the room reflected that.
Neely: “Gilmore Girls” is such a cult favorite and had so many of my favorite writers. What was that writers’ room like?
Janet: I loved that writers’ room. Sheila Lawrence was there, Jane Espenson, John Stevens and Scott Kaufer. It was very small, very small. Sometimes there were only four of us in the room, sometimes five, and it made me realize how enormous some sitcom writers’ rooms were. Some of that is required, as there are certain people you want in that room who have almost a supernatural gift for coming up with jokes out of nowhere.
When you’re in that kind of room, it’s magical to see how a person can synthesize two or three concepts from desperately different arenas, harness them, twist the words around, find a rhythm to them (comedy is all about rhythm) and come up with a solid joke in a lightning flash. It’s staggering, if you think about it.
But if you find yourself with less money, and if you hire the right writers, you’re going to be fine. There are great writers who you can count on for both story and comedy. In fact, a smaller group sometimes can be better, as there are so many different kinds of writers and some thrive better in that size of a room Also, the small number of voices allows for time between pitches to think about story.
What “The Gilmore Girls” had in common with some of the best shows I’d worked on was there was absolutely no tolerance for fools. You had to be on your game. I’d always come in there with a bag of ideas. The joke on that show was that I’d say, “I’ve got to use the restroom.” And they thought I actually had ideas written somewhere in a bag in the restroom because I’d always come back with “Oh here’s a great one.”(laughing). So they’d say, “Janet, we need an idea. Go to the bathroom.”
Neely: One of the writers on that show is one of my favorite playwrights – Justin Tanner. I’ve noticed that many successful TV writers have dabbled in playwrighting, either before, during or after their TV careers. You are no different. Have any of your plays been produced?
Janet: No. I wrote a really good one act that seemed to get me a lot of work. In fact it got me work on “Gilmore Girls.” It was called “A Play Sponsored by Life Management.”
Neely: Oh! Well that’s what I gave to David Kelley to read.
Janet: Yeah. It was just about life and our futile attempts to control it.
Neely: Yep, that got my attention.
Janet: Looking back, it was a bit of a turning point because I started writing from a different place. That’s when I started writing poetry too. It was also a really difficult time for me and my family. I guess lows in our lives can result in interesting things.
Neely: They can if you tap into that energy.
Janet: Yeah. Sort of write it out.
Neely: You just go with it and see where it takes you.
Janet: It’s also about acceptance, whereas comedy writing is a lot of batting away of negativity. Sometimes you just have to let it in and look at it. And I guess that is what it was. I don’t know.
Neely: Let’s break here because I’d like to learn more about the here and now of Janet Leahy – what you’re working on, teaching, watching, writing… Also, I want an update on the Berlin and London Trips and what advice you were able to give about the Americanization of their television. So… To Be Continued!