As the daughter of Honeymooners writer Herbert Finn, Author Paula Finn grew up in the culture, surrounded by the brilliance and wit of her father and his colleagues. A former college English teacher and TV documentary researcher, she’s the author of ten gift books including When Love Isn’t Easy and Make This Your Day.
“Sitcom Writers Talk Shop” features Q&A’s with such writers as Carl Reiner (Creator, The Dick Van Dyke Show), Norman Lear (All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons, Good Times), James L. Brooks, (Co-creator, Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, The Simpsons), Matt Williams (Creator, Roseanne), Al Jean (Longtime showrunner, The Simpsons), and Phil Rosenthal (Creator, Everybody Loves Raymond). Topics include the influence of drugs, tricks for getting inspired, defining comedy, backstories of iconic series and episodes, demystifying the creative process, the realities of writers’ rooms, and coping with fear (Norman Lear calls it “shit in the head”).
Some of the Q&A’s include relevant “Behind the Scenes” sidebar information from additional writers and answers to such questions as, “Was there real beer on the Cheers stage? How did Bill Cosby infuriate Danny Kaye? Which writer passed out mid-joke?”
The book’s forewords are by Ed Asner and Carol Kane. It’s endorsed by several celebrities including Jay Leno, Paula Poundstone, and Valerie Harper.
Paula chatted with us about growing up in Hollywood, the perks of having a comedy-writing father, and her process in writing the book.
What were some advantages of having a dad who’s a comedy writer?
My dad’s sense of humor made everything more fun. And one of the best perks was being invited to the closed sets of my favorite TV shows to watch them being filmed. My dad had connections everywhere. One time I wrote for tickets to the 1960’s music show, Shindig. They sent back a postcard saying the waiting list was two years. My dad called the producer and got me four tickets for the next week’s show.
What are some of your most memorable brushes with celebrity?
Aside from chatting with my favorite sitcom stars at their shows, I knew Jerry Mathers in college. He gave me rides home in his Porsche when my car wasn’t running. I was in classes with Lucy Arnaz when I briefly attended a private Catholic school. Jay North went to my orthodontist. Steve Allen and Walt Disney went to my church. And a highlight of my teen years was visiting Sonny and Cher’s home in Encino: they invited me in and treated me like an old friend.
Is “Sitcom Writers Talk Shop” your first writing effort?
I was always a writer. In high school I was writing a celebrity interview column for my local paper. After college I wrote magazine articles for several years, and then got into writing inspirational gift books and uplifting prose for a variety of gift products. I’m currently building a social media presence with my inspirational quotes (Gifts of Prose). Writing “Sitcom Writers Talk Shop” wasn’t a stretch, as I’d done nonfiction articles based on interviews for years.
How’d you decide to write “Sitcom Writers Talk Shop”?
I’d originally thought of doing a memoir on what it’s like growing up with a funny father. I started by asking some of my dad’s colleagues for their recollections of him. Writers like Larry Gelbart and Sherwood Schwartz shared some great memories —but they also told me entertaining anecdotes about their own careers. I realized that a book incorporating a variety of perspectives and stories from many different writers would have a broader appeal. I was also interested in learning how the business had changed since the 1950’s, when my dad first started.
What was your process in writing it?
I researched writers and creators of the shows I wanted to highlight and came up with questions (way too many—I ended up with 1300 pages of single-spaced typed transcripts)!
I transcribed the interviews immediately after I finished them. The actual writing was the most fun part but deciding on a format for the material took several months of trial and error. My publisher and I went back and forth on that before essentially compromising with what you see.
What’s something you learned about your favorite shows that surprised you?
I was surprised when Jay Kogen told me that when The Simpsons writers do pop culture parodies such as Twilight Zone episodes, they write them entirely from memory— they don’t need to re-watch the episodes to do detailed take-offs. And I was surprised by how much luck was involved in the creation of Taxi— Jim Brooks remembers that they were visiting a cab company in NY and at the 11thhour, if they hadn’t heard one cabbie say one specific thing — they never would have had the character of Alex Reiger.
In talking with so many legendary writers, what surprised you most about them personally?
The stress they go through to produce. Norman Lear spent the early years of his career weeping and throwing up over deadlines! And many of them lack confidence in their ability to ever write funny again.
How have sitcoms changed through the years?
Obviously, the content has changed dramatically. The early shows’ stories were simple, and the subject matter was childish. Characters didn’t cope with serious problems or illness. The scope of what the writers could cover was much more limited, and the episodes had little or nothing to do with real life. As writer Joel Rapp says of Gilligan’s Island, “You could make up any kind of nonsense for that show!”
The language was clean. Gender roles were different: in early sitcoms, the husband earned the money and the wife/mother was content in the kitchen. With few exceptions, children were raised by their two parents. They were better behaved and didn’t disrespect their elders. Contrast that to Bart Simpson!
Most early shows had only one plot per episode, whereas episodes of shows like M*A*S*H, Seinfeld, and Curb Your Enthusiasm had multiple storylines. M*A*S*H producer John Rappaport even wrote one with seven stories. [“No Sweat,” S9E11]
Racial and sexual diversity was almost absent compared to now. I think TV jokes today are more mean-spirited, and characters are more obnoxious.
I’m sure the writers had a wealth of anecdotes to share. What were some of your favorites?
Seinfeld writer Bill Masters told a hilarious story about pitching to Larry David when Larry had the stomach flu. He calls it “the vomiting story.” Interestingly, Larry used that as the idea for the episode “The Shoes,” in which Jerry and George are pitching to the head of NBC, and the guy has food poisoning. And Taxiwriter Ken Estin related some cruel pranks that Andy Kaufman played on people.
What’s next for you?
I’m getting back to my journalism roots and writing articles on humor-related topics.
And I’m always involved in the inspirational writing. I currently manage three online stores selling gift items that incorporate my motivational quotes. My most recent licensing agreement is with Affirmations Publishing House for an insight pack of 56 affirmation cards titled “Be Good to Yourself.”
Follow Paula Finn on Twitter @talkingcomedy