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Freshman Year At The Dick Van Dyke School Of Writing

03/21/2013 07:51 am ET | Updated May 21, 2013

When I started writing situation comedies for television, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" had just finished its run. It was too late to have a shot to write for the gold standard, but the right time to work with practically everyone who had been associated with the show as they moved on to new projects.

Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, co-creators and producers of "Dick Van Dyke," had created "That Girl" for Marlo Thomas. Jerry Paris, who played next-door neighbor Jerry on DVD, as well as directing many episodes, was now directing "Hey, Landlord," created by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson, writers for "Dick Van Dyke." Garry was my first mentor, and it was he who introduced me to my writing partner, Ed Scharlach, also fresh out of college.

Ed and I were "the kids" among writing teams who were, on average, 10 years older, and we spent our 20s being discovered by a series of some of the best talents in our strange but wonderful business. In our freshman year, we worked non-stop, producing 12 half-hour scripts in the "classroom" at the Desilu-Cahuenga lot, which is now part of Paramount. Just to walk on the same sets as Lucy! I wondered if I was using the same bathroom as she had -- a privilege denied to Ed.

Garry had educated us on the basics: don't worry about the camera. Just say "Fade In" at the beginning and "Fade Out" at the end. Still, Ed and I, both English majors, would spend hours arguing over the punctuation of set descriptions, when we really both knew that "FADE IN (double space) ANNE MARIE'S APARTMENT was all that was needed. We never remembered who had written what line in a script, but we always knew who had left a participle dangling. And we agonized over the titles of our episodes, which the audience would never see. Most were very bad puns.

"That Girl" was shot like a movie, with one camera taking many angles of the same scene, then moving on to another, which was not always in sequence. We were welcomed onto the set, but we were bystanders -- and often bored bystanders with the time it took to reset after every shot.

"Hey Landlord" was another matter. "Dick Van Dyke" had been shot with three cameras, each taking a different angle as the story played out in sequence before a live audience, and Garry and Jerry (known as "the boys" as opposed to Ed and I, "the kids"), along with Jerry Paris, preferred this technique. There was a high school atmosphere around the set, with Will Hutchins and Sandy Barron, the stars, joining in. Jerry was a madman as a director, creating impossible sequences to film live, with slamming doors requiring perfect timing and block comedy scenes out of the Marx Brothers. I loved taking a date to the tapings and being introduced. It kind of gave me an edge with the hotshot young lawyers I was dating -- and it also proved that I wasn't dreaming.

The most memorable moment that first year was being summoned for a meeting with "God" -- Carl Reiner, who had created "Dick Van Dyke," and who also played the TV star Alan Brady, and was responsible, along with Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard, for so much that was going on at the Desilu lot, including "Make Room For Daddy" and "Gomer Pyle." The "Dick Van Dyke School of Writing" was, in essence, the Carl Reiner School of Writing. He often looked at scripts and writers dreaded the notation "RR", which stood for "rotten riting" on their scripts. Carl's first principle of TV comedy was the "Hey, May."

"There's this guy," he said:

He's had a long day at work, and he's come home to a nice dinner cooked by his wife. Now she's in the kitchen washing up, and he's gone into the living room and turned on the TV. He doesn't know what to watch, so changes channels a couple of times, then stops. And then he hollers out, 'Hey May, you gotta come in here and watch this!' You have to grab them in the first two minutes.

Other writers, not of the "Dick Van Dyke" School, called this "the teaser," but it will be forever "Hey, May" to Ed and me. By the end of our first season, we intuitively knew how long the teaser and each of two acts and the tag should be. But we always sweated the Hey May -- particularly for "That Girl." Persky and Denoff had set up the premise that every teaser/heymay had to end with the words, "that girl." After five seasons, we had gone through so many convolutions to arrive at those two words that we were all jumping the shark. But that was "Happy Days" -- another show from the "Dick Van Dyke School of Comedy."

There was a lag between writing and air date. It was months before our first show was on television, an episode of "That Girl" we titled "I'll Be Suing You" (some of our other puns were a lot worse). Ed's mother and stepfather gave us a party to watch the show. This was not your ordinary party: Harry Crane was a legend among comedy writers. He had not only created "The Honeymooners" for Jackie Gleason, but also wrote Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin's nightclub acts. He was known for his one-liners. The guest list included Persky and Denoff, Marlo and her parents, Danny and RoseMarie,and Garry and Jerry. Also there were Harry and Ed's mother, Lillian's, friends, including Sid Caesar -- on a pedestal along with Carl Reiner, his sidekick on "Your Show of Shows," as well as Milton Berle, who was smoking the biggest, wettest cigar I had ever seen, which he placed, smoldering, on the arm of a white couch as the show commenced.

I don't remember anything else about that night, as I sat there, mesmerized, watching the cigar slowly eat its way into the sofa. But Ed had a clearer head: above my desk is the frame on the screen he shot with an instamatic: our first credit, "Written by Peggy Elliott and Ed Scharlach."

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

Bill Persky: My Life Is a Situation Comedy