Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I got the opportunity to read an advance copy of a book that I know will appeal to a good many of you here. It’s called Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind The Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy, and it was written by Paula Finn, a friend of this blog and the daughter of Herbert Finn, who wrote some of your favorite episodes of — among other things — The Honeymooners (and The Jackie Gleason Show), Dennis The Menace, The Flintstones, and Gilligan’s Island.
This 232-page book is Finn’s loving tribute to her father and contains reminisces from 41(!) American television comedy writers — 16 of which get full chapter interviews. They are: Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show), Leonard Stern (The Honeymooners), Norman Lear (All In The Family, Maude), Austin & Irma Kalish (My Three Sons, All In The Family), James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons), Treva Silverman (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), Ken Estin (Taxi), Matt Williams (Roseanne, Home Improvement), Dava Savel (Ellen), Larry Charles (Seinfeld), David Lee (Frasier), Phil Rosenthal (Everybody Loves Raymond), Mike Reiss (The Simpsons), Al Jean (The Simpsons), and Jay Kogen (The Simpsons). There are also lengthy boxouts featuring musings from Bill Persky on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Phil Doran on All In The Family, Charlie Hauck and Elliot Shoenman on Maude, Elliot Shoenman on The Cosby Show, Elliot Shoenman on Home Improvement, David Isaacs and Phoef Sutton on Cheers, Steve Skrovan, Bill Masters, and Peter Mehlman on Seinfeld, and Steve Skrovan on Everybody Loves Raymond.
For fans of the shows in parentheses and italics (in particular), this is a must-get, as Finn is able to provoke pointed discussions and recollections about these classics. What I appreciate even more about the interviews, however, is their interest in discussing the craft of writing for the medium, and some of the best, most insightful material here comes when folks like Reiner, Stern, and Lear are challenged to talk about their process. This line of questioning seems to stem from the author’s personal investment in honoring and understanding her father, to whom she pays great tribute in the preface, which may in fact be the highlight of the book, as she uses his words, and the words of those who worked with him, to explore his career and the great shows to which he contributed… But Herb Finn also looms large over the rest of the book too, for in the selection of certain writers to interview and shows to discuss, a subliminal thesis emerges about the importance of The Flintstones, and more concretely, The Honeymooners, in setting the template for the sitcom and inspiring many of the works that followed.
At times, this feels a little imposing (and the high number of The Simpsons chapters seems more beneficial to this assertion than necessary to a work that only has time to hit the classics). Yet the thesis doesn’t consume the interviews — or go unchallenged. In fact, after extolling the virtues of The Honeymooners and how his regard for the iconic ’50s series shaped some of his later work on Everybody Loves Raymond, Rosenthal rightly points out that The Honeymooners had its roots in radio, in vaudeville, and so forth. As a result, a richer conversation is had about the situation comedy and how this country’s greatest shows owe their DNAs to many of the works that came before, not just one or two. And, again, it’s in these broader discussions of writing, of comedy, of the craft, that Finn’s book reaches its most profound moments… and best honors her father.
Some of you may liken Sitcom Writers Talk Shop to Funny You Should Ask: Oral Histories of Classic Sitcom Storytellers, written in 2013 by another friend of this blog, Scott Lewellen. But they’re sufficiently different. Lewellen’s purview does not extend into the ’90s (with shows like Seinfeld, Raymond, or The Simpsons) and lacks the clear-cut interview structure that Finn lays out. It’s harder then, in Funny You Should Ask, to focus and drill down on some of the big picture theoreticals that come through here when legendary showrunners like Reiner and Lear discuss their most famous works. On the other hand, Lewellen’s looser structure allows for the discussion of more — and more interesting — shows (read: noble failures). In Sitcom Writers Talk Shop, you’re not going to find any questions on what Stern thinks of He & She or how Lear feels today about Apple Pie, but you’ll get a lot more words discussing the chosen hits — The Honeymooners and All In The Family, etc.
Still, their differing theses make them complementary. Lewellen’s work appears to select I Love Lucy as the ’50s show most worthy of highlighting and only gives The Honeymooners a couple of brief mentions — which is the approximate number of times I Love Lucy comes up in Finn’s discussions… I think the fact that both books with similar intentions — albeit one broader, one more personal — can select different focuses, while ignoring others, speaks to Rosenthal’s assertion that “[W]e stand on the shoulders of those who came before us” — all of them. That is, we have a rich, extensive history of fascinating, memorable situation comedy in this country, and Finn’s Sitcom Writers Talk Shop is a loving commemoration of someone who helped give us a few of our favorites. As a lover of the sitcom, I know you’ll appreciate this book as much as I did. It’s a great tribute to a wonderful medium and, who I’m sure was, a wonderful man.
Paula Finn’s Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind The Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy is available for Pre-Order as of this publication and will be released on September 15th. Check it out here or here. And visit the book’s Facebook page here.
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in Tuesday for more Friends!