Between 1966 and 1976, I wrote over 150 television situation comedy and variety episodes, mostly with my partner, Ed Scharlach. I am often asked which show was my favorite, and it's not easy to answer. Every episode was a joy, because I was earning a living doing my favorite thing in the world: I had written spoofs of radio shows in grade school, and was the only kid in high school who looked forward to essay questions -- I could bluff my way through anything on paper.
In the professional world, there was no bluffing: Ed and I were expected to deliver the real goods and there were hours of agony staring at a blank page. But, like, childbirth, those memories have faded, while first teeth and toddling steps vividly remain.
My first love and first series was That Girl. We began together, and some of myself went into both Ann Marie and Donald Hollinger's first steps. Everyone thought I wrote Marlo Thomas' lines and Ed wrote those for Ted Besell, but we were equally inside both characters' heads. Today, we look back fondly on the complicated ways we solved the problem of ending each 'teaser' introduction to an episode with the words "that girl," but back in the day, we mentally cursed the creators of the show, Bill Persky and Sam Denoff, for coming up with that weekly challenge.
The most fun I had on a show was Hey, Landlord, which ran for one season. Created by Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson , it was the first TV series for the team who went on to produce The Odd Couple and then create Happy Days, among other shows. While That Girl was filmed with a single camera, like a movie - out of sequence, with many stops and starts while the camera was moved -- Hey, Landlord was a three-camera show, filmed in sequence like a play in front of a live audience.
The old joke is generally true: don't sleep with the writer if you want to get ahead in show business. But in sitcoms, most producers are writers, and Garry and Jerry made their writing teams very much part of the process. There was a sense of family on Hey Landlord that was never equaled for me on any other show. I was the only girl in a family with about 11 brothers, most of whom remained my friends long afterward. I wasn't included in the daily basketball games, but I didn't mind; I think that if I actually had been any good, I would have been included, but I had taken Modern Dance in school.
Ed and I got to know Will Hutchins and Sandy Barron, the stars of the show, as well as Jerry Paris, the director, who had been part of superb Dick Van Dyke Show ensemble, playing the dentist neighbor. There was no better comedy television director than Jerry, who encouraged us to come up with outrageous 'block comedy' scenes with characters running in and out of doors, diving behind furniture, scuttling about hiding incriminating pieces of evidence, or any other craziness that seemed impossible to shoot live. Ed and I sat in the bleachers watching it all somehow work. It was a show about young, single people as well, but while Ann Marie could be wacky, Chuck and Woody could be crazy and even what passed for raunchy on TV in those days.
But the show I loved writing the most, was Love, American Style. For every other show, I was writing for characters created out of someone else's head. Sure, we could create the occasional guest-star role, and we had been told to make every role, no matter how small, a real person. "Think of the actor who's playing that delivery boy," I can hear Billy Persky, the co-creator or That Girl, say: "This is a big break for him -- it's the biggest role he's had so far. Give him something to work with."
But with Love, American Style, every character was our very own; every situation came out of our heads. Each segment of the hour the show ran each week was a one-act play created entirely by us. Added to the attraction was the fact that we could say and do things that were taboo on every other TV show in the early '70s. Arnold Margolin, co-creator of the show with Jim Parker, told me recently that the creative side of the network wanted the show to be more daring, while the censors kept their red pencils ready. There was a full-time position on the show just to run interference.
We must have put both sides through the hoops with one episode we wrote: "Love and The Hand-Maiden". A young guy was dating a centerfold model. As their relationship developed, he discovered that she had no problem with shedding her clothes, but she always kept her hands covered -- with artful poses in magazines, and with gloves in real life. He became obsessed with seeing her hands and came up with one ruse after another to get her to take off her gloves. We had a ball writing it, with one double-entendre after another.
I guess it's all tame by today's standards, but I still think some things are better left to the imagination. Let's hear it for the red, white and blue!