Mel Tolkin: Conductor of a Great Comedy Orchestra

A brief shout out today to the great comedy writer Mel Tolkin (Shmuel Tolchinsky, 1913-2007). Born in a Jewish shtetl in the Ukraine, Tolkin moved to Montreal with his family when he was 13. Although he trained to be an accountant, his first show business experience was in writing songs and sketches and playing piano for local cabaret shows and revues. He played glockenspiel in Canadian army bands during World War Two.

After the war, he moved to New York and teamed up with Lucille Kallen as a comedy writer. They worked for Max Liebman at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos, and this led to them being hired to be the sole writing staff of TV’s Admiral Broadway Revue starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca in 1949. This morphed into Your Show of Shows (1950-54) and Caesar’s Hour (1954-57), of course, of which Tolkin was the Head Writer, managing a staff of lunatics that included Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart, Neil Simon and his brother Danny, Selma Diamond, a very young Woody Allen, and cast member Howard Morris. As you know if you’ve seen My Favorite Year, Laughter on the 23rd Floor. The Dick Van Dyke Show or 30 Rock, while the job sounds fun and glamorous, the Head Writer on a TV comedy show is actually a kind of thankless undertaking which mostly involves wrangling a bunch of pranking, child-like, irresponsible brats. That’s how the sausage gets made. You have to be the killjoy, and the disciplined one, and it probably wasn’t a bad thing that Tolkin had studied accounting when it came time to be the guy who buckled down. But of course, in the end, there was the added compensation of several Emmys.

After the work for Caesar, unlike almost all of the guys he managed, Tolkin stuck with TV writing, never aiming for anything so ambitious as a stage play or screenplay, although his former staff members who went on to outshine him were and are always adamant that his name be included among theirs as distinguished alumni. They plainly adored and respected him. Tolkin later wrote for numerous other TV shows, including The Danny Kaye Show, as well as numerous Bob Hope specials in the late 1960s and early ’70s. His most notable work in the ’70s was as a story editor and writer on All in the Family from 1975 through 1979, and two episodes of Archie Bunker’s Place in 1980.

In 1979, with Larry Rhine, he co-created the sitcom Joe’s World, starring character actor Ramon Bieri as a struggling house painter with five kids (one of whom was played by Christopher Knight a.k.a. Peter from The Brady Bunch). The show only lasted one season. His only credit after that was an episode of the Tony Randall sitcom Love, Sidney (1982). As he lived for three and a half decades after this, this was a long retirement indeed.

Mel’s son Michael Tolkin wrote the novel and screenplay The Player, which was made into Robert Altman’s 1992 film.

To learn more more about the variety arts, including TV variety like “Your Show of Shows” please read  No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.