Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: A Terrific New Book About a Difficult Art

Today is the official publication date of Paula Finn’s new book Sitcom Writers Talk Shop.

One is always ready for a book like this to be skimpy…it’s often the kind of book an aspiring TV writer might write, in lieu of being too busy writing TV scripts to write such a book, like those workshops about how to give workshops that workshop-givers give to people who want to put on workshops. Instead, this book is bursting at the seams with lengthy, substantive and smart interviews with the TOP sitcom writers of the past 70 years. The interviews were possible because Finn (an author and TV professional herself) seemingly had access to everybody. This, in part no doubt, because her father Herbert Finn (often in partnership with Alan Dinehart Jr) had been a top sitcom writer back in the day on such shows as Duffys’ Tavern (in his radio days), The Honeymooners, The Gale Storm Show, Gilligan’s Island, Dennis the Menace, Bob Hope specials, and The Flintstones. 

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that a lot of the old time giants Finn interviews for the book were friends and colleagues of Finn’s dad, and maybe even already knew her. And then the younger giants were willing to climb aboard when they saw what important interviews she already had in the can. But however it came about, she seems to have gotten EVERYBODY. And further, clearly steeped in the form herself, Finn asks all the right questions, often probing ones, ones writers will want to know. This isn’t a superficial book for fans, although fans may enjoy it. This is a book which aspiring comedy writers will plunder for secrets and good advice and insight. And the book contains much of all those things. She doesn’t “keep it short”, and frankly you won’t want her to. These writers have things to say. And they’re writers. So they know how to say them.

The main meat of the book contains 15 long form interviews. Some highlights: Carl Reiner tells how, as the son of a watchmaker, he counsels patience in the creative process…A great quote from Leonard Stern, who wrote for Berle and Gleason and was later show-runner on Get Smart: “If we knew they were going to be classics, we would have written them better!”…Norman Lear sounds neurotic to the point of near certifiability, talking about being so anxious about his work that he was given to weeping, vomiting, insomnia, masturbation (to get rid of excess energy, thanks for sharing, Norm!), and picking at his bald scalp, hence the hats he always wore…Several accounts of Mel Tolkin paint him as a surprisingly crude guy…James L. Brooks is adamant that he pioneered “character comedy” over “situation comedy on shows like Mary Tyler Moore, yet downplays the extent to which he reinvented the sitcom…Mary Tyler Moore writer Treva Silverman talks about how she helped create Rhoda’s voice, including the charming habit of calling Mary “Mair”…Matt Williams talks about his famous battles with Roseanne and how the show he is proudest of (despite the preferences of critics) is Home ImprovementDava Savel talks about writing the “coming out” episode of Ellen, and how the accolades and ovations she received were easily offset by the terrifying death threats…Larry Charles talked about his long, close relationship working with Larry David on Fridays, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and espouses a philosophy very much the opposite of many of the others who are interviewed (he’s much more inspired by the absurdism of The Abbott and Costello Show than “real life”).

In addition to the 15 writers in the main section, many others get shorter sections in text boxes and single question mini interviews. But by my count she interviewed over 40 writers. Other names in the mix include Sol Saks, Sherwood Schwartz, Phil Rosenthal, etc etc etc!

Some writers are more about plots, some more about jokes, some about sticking to reality, some about form. All work very hard, all describe what sounds like a very stressful work environment. (In time, I’ve come to realize TV writing, at least as it’s traditionally practiced, would not be for me, with its loud, chaotic writers rooms, the pitching of jokes, etc. Writing for me is all about solitude. A committee would paralyze me).

One of the things Finn does in the book which I loved, was talk about the importance of radio with the older writers. Radio has been too much neglected in the analysis of the evolution of film and television. It deeply influenced both, though due to its ephemeral nature it has largely been swept under the rug. But I’ve spent a lot of hours listening to radio sitcoms of the 40s and 50s, I’m here to testify that they generally sound fresh and vital and yet familiar. They ought to, they laid down the template for the TV sitcoms that followed.

I know I will be returning to Paula Finn’s valuable new book for words of wisdom in the future. Buy Sitcom Writers Talk Shop here.