Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sam Denoff & Sherwood Schwartz

Sam Denoff
I always wanted to be Sam Denoff. And Sherwood Schwartz (for different reasons). We lost them both last week.  This is the first chance I've had to write about them but I couldn't let their passings go without comment.   And deep appreciation. 

1975 was when I quit my radio job (okay, I was fired, but I was offered another radio job and didn’t take it) and moved back to Los Angeles to seriously pursue a career in TV comedy writing. I worked at a dead-end job during the day and at night furiously wrote spec scripts with my partner, David Isaacs.

One Sunday – and this will tell you how very long ago it was – I walked into a bookstore. (Note: there used to be retail establishments that carried books you could buy. You could browse the shelves, stand around and skim through a portion of one, and then if you decided to purchase it, you would approach a live person, hand him money or a credit card, and then get to take the book home that day. Wacky, huh?)

At the time, I devoured all books on comedy writing. (There were also no blogs back then.) In one a full script was included. This served as an example of the perfect teleplay. It was “Coast to Coast Big Mouth” from THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I bought that book and must’ve read that script a hundred times. I was in awe. It was a major inspiration to me. And the gold standard. Someday I wanted to write a script – just one – that was that good. So good it was in a book!

That script was written by Sam Denoff & Bill Persky.

Sam became one of my idols. I followed his career. And he shaped mine. Sometimes it seemed he was writing directly to me. I wanted to be a comedy writer – he wrote on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW about a comedy writer. I also wanted to be a funny radio disc jockey. He co-created GOOD MORNING WORLD about a funny morning disc jockey team. I desperately wanted a girlfriend. He co-created THAT GIRL. If I may paraphrase the Roberta Flack hit, he was “Killing Me Softly With His Jokes”.

I only got to meet him one time and it was a somewhat surreal experience. I was invited to be on a nationally syndicated radio show to discuss comedy. Turns out the broadcast emanated not from a radio station or a recording studio but some dude’s backyard in the Valley. I sat around a pool chatting on the air with the host, Sam Denoff, and crazy-person, Marty Ingels. On the one hand it was great to be thought of as a peer of one of my comedy writing heroes, on the other I was also a peer of a total nut.

After the broadcast, Sam and I spoke for awhile. He couldn’t have been nicer. I’m always interested in the creative process, especially in teams. Sam told me he and his partner always wrote head-to-head, never just splitting up scenes and going off separately. That’s the way David and I work too. We must be doing something right if the great Persky & Denoff wrote that way.  I told him of the book and he was delighted that his work was used as a tool to help teach young writers.

A few years later FRASIER put out a book of selected scripts including one of ours. You can imagine the significance of that to me. When as a young struggling writer I used to dream of that and saw it as a great “I have arrived” moment. Now I view it as a great “Pay it forward” opportunity. Thanks for everything, Sam Denoff.

Sherwood Schwartz
In an industry that believes when you turn 30 you automatically lose the ability to make people laugh, Sherwood Schwartz proved that being funny is ageless. I got to know him a little in his later years. His granddaughter was dating my son for awhile. Well into his 90’s and Sherwood was sharp and funny and insightful as could be. I once got the chance to drive him home after a family brunch and it was a treat just to hear him to riff on the topics of the day. I’d say the man forgot more about comedy than most people ever knew but Sherwood never forgot anything.

He’s much maligned of course because the two hit shows he created – GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH – were hardly sophisticated fare. But I’m here to tell you, to create a monster hit television program that made such a big impact and remains on the air today is damn near impossible. It’s a once-in-a-billion chance. And this man created TWO. I envy his success and what a kind-hearted person he was. A lot of the fortune he made off those shows have gone to worthy charities. I so wish he had owned the Dodgers.

But because GILLIGAN’S ISLAND and THE BRADY BUNCH were not considered high art, the industry never took him seriously. Explain to me why Mark Burnett creates mindless reality shows and is a considered a genius while Sherwood Schwartz created beloved long-enduring sitcoms and Hollywood looked down its nose at him. I dare say more kids benefited from lessons learned on THE BRADY BUNCH than from CELEBRITY APPRENTICE.

Sherwood was also a good sport. The 1995 BRADY BUNCH MOVIE directed by Betty Thomas was hilarious. But it was also poked a lot of fun at the TV series. A more thin-skinned creator would have nixed that script in a minute. But not Sherwood. He thought it was funny like everyone else. You don’t get the Midas Touch by accident. THE BRADY BUNCH MOVIE was a boxoffice hit. Sherwood Schwartz knew what worked.

Sam Denoff was 83. Sherwood Schwartz was 94. I will miss them both.  But I take comfort in knowing their laughs will go on forever.

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