When the invitation went out from the Writers Guild of America, It seemed too good to be true. Norman Lear, Carl Reiner, James L. Books, Steven Bochco, and more, all on the same panel?
And yet last night at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills, to celebrate the organization's 101 Best Written TV Series members poll, they all arrived, joining fellow TV writer-creators Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life), Ron Moore (Battlestar Galactica), Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), Gail Parent (first season writer for The Carol Burnett Show) Steve Levitan (Modern Family) and moderator Merrill Markoe (first season writing supervisor of Late Night With David Letterman) for what could be the most star-studded TV writer panel in the history of the medium.
As WGA Vice President Howard Rodman said at the end, "If there is a funnier or more articulate conversation happening L.A. tonight — there isn't."
All of the writers on the panel were from shows on the newly-announced 101 best-written series list, including Lear's All in the Family at No. 4, Mad Men at No. 7 and Breaking Bad at No. 13. Bochco (NYPD Blue, L.A. Law, Hill Street Blues) and Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons, Taxi, all in the top 20) each created three shows on the list. (The top three were The Sopranos, Seinfeld and The Twilight Zone — see full list below.)
Reiner and Lear started out by chatting about the early days of TV, as Reiner recalled acting in the show The Fashion Story in 1948 ("It was a terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible show," he said). He talked about working on Your Show of Shows, where, he said, in the writers room, Neil Simon had some of the best jokes, but "he had the voice of a turtle," so Reiner would have to stand up and yell "Neil's got it."
He recalled later being offered sitcoms, all of which were terrible. "My wife, in her infinite wisdom, said, 'Why can't you write one?'" Reiner said that he was walking up the 96th Street ramp in New York City when he came up with an idea that would eventually become The Dick Van Dyke Show. "I said, 'Reiner, what piece of ground do you stand on that no on else stands on?'" So he created a show based on his experiences on Your Show of Shows.
Reiner played the main role in the first pilot version, called Head of the Family, and wrote 13 scripts, but the networks weren't biting. Producer Sheldon Leonard wanted to pursue it further, but Reiner was worried they'd fail. At the panel, Reiner did an impression of Leonard giving his response: "You won't fail, Carl, because we'll get a better actor to play you."
Lear talked about how his take on the social messages in All in the Family changed. At first, he thought, "We're not sending messages — we're trying to be funny." But he eventually became ok with the statement he was making by having the show discuss politics and race, which other shows just didn't do. "We have a point of view, so I guess that is a message."
When Brooks and Bochco came to the stage to join the panel, the latter talked about how Hill Street Blues decided to go against the anti-cop sentiment of the 70s. "We fought very hard to portray them as complicated people doing a very complicated job," he says. "It worked, and because it worked, people said, 'We're going to do this with hospitals and we're going to do this with lawyers.'"
Brooks discussed how The Mary Tyler Moore Show originally had Mary divorced, but there were three main things that he was told didn't work on TV: divorce, men with moustaches and Jews. So they told him she couldn't be divorced. "It turned out it was a blessing they did that," he said.
Holzman said My So-Called Life came out of an idea writers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick had when they worked on the late-70s show Family, which had a teen daughter named Buddy (played by Kristy McNichol). They'd pitch ideas and were told "Buddy wouldn't do that." "They wanted to do a teenage girl that would do all the things Buddy wouldn't do," Holzman said, and they offered her the job of writing the pilot. "This was smart casting. They realized this would unleash something in me."
Many of the writers talked about their fights with executives. Bochco recalled his successful push to get nudity and other adult content on NYPD Blue. "I thought that would be a big game-changer for adult content in primetime TV, and it wasn't," he said. "I don't know fi I could get that on a broadcast network today."
Weiner recalled some of the best parts of the oft-told story of Mad Men's birth. "The hated everything about it," he said of networks that rejected it, including the smoking, and fact that that it was a period piece, which doesn't sell abroad. "Someone told me that the hero was not good at his job.
"TV executives said, 'We love this but what do you really want to do. I don't know if you've seen TV — we don't do this."
Moore said that on Battlestar, he was allowed to talk about religion and other hot-button issues, in allegorical form. "The network never said anything about it," he recalled, as there's the perception that "if it's science fiction, it doesn't count."
Some panelists had good things to say about execs, including producer Grant Tinker, of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and CBS' Bob Wood, who cleared out a bunch of high-rated but old-fashioned shows to help clear the way for Mary Tyler Moore and All in the Family.
Gilligan recalled one of the best pitches he had for Breaking Bad was with TNT, where the execs were really into the pilot story, and kept saying "and then what happened," before he got to the end, and they gave him an immediate "no" — which in TV, he said, is a very close second to a yes. "They said, 'We'd be fired if we bought it,'" he recalls. "Hats off to those guys — I'd do business with them any day."
The best parts, however, were the writers room stories. Levitan talked about how he and his fellow Wings writers were writing an episode about how a character wouldn't fly without his blankie. During dinner they watched the famous episode of Seinfeld called "The Contest." "We all wanted to kill ourselves because TV had changed, we felt. We were all radio writers."
Bochco remembered how David Milch was pitching an idea and gesticulating wildly in the Hill Street Blues writers room. All of a sudden a ladder appeared outside the office window and a window washer got to the top of it. Without skipping a beat, Bochco said, "David drops his pants, pulls down his underpants and smacks his ass up against the window."
Reiner recalled how, after the first season of Dick Van Dyke, one network exec came into his office, put his feet on a coffee table, said he had a list of things that could make the show funnier, and read them. As Reiner put it, "He said, 'Don't you think that's funny?' I said, 'You know what's funny?'...I took one of his shoes and I threw it out the window."
The 101 best-written TV series of all-time, as voted by WGA members:
Created by David Chase
Created by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld
The Twilight Zone (1959)
Season One writers: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Robert Presnell, Jr., Rod Serling
All in the Family
Developed for Television by Norman Lear, Based on Till Death Do Us Part, Created by Johnny Speight
Developed for Television by Larry Gelbart
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns
Created by Matthew Weiner
Created by Glen Charles & Les Charles and James Burrows
Created by David Simon
The West Wing
Created by Aaron Sorkin
Created by Matt Groening, Developed by James L. Brooks and Matt Groening and Sam Simon
I Love Lucy
"Pilot," Written by Jess Oppenheimer & Madelyn Pugh & Bob Carroll, Jr.
Created by Vince Gilligan
The Dick Van Dyke Show
Created by Carl Reiner
Hill Street Blues
Created by Michael Kozoll and Steven Bochco
Created by Mitchell Hurwitz
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Created by Madeleine Smithberg, Lizz Winstead; Season One - Head Writer: Chris Kreski; Writers: Jim Earl, Daniel J. Goor, Charles Grandy, J.R. Havlan, Tom Johnson, Kent Jones, Paul Mercurio, Guy Nicolucci, Steve Rosenfield, Jon Stewart
Six Feet Under
Created by Alan Ball
Created by James L. Brooks and Stan Daniels and David Davis and Ed Weinberger
The Larry Sanders Show
Created by Garry Shandling & Dennis Klein
Created by Tina Fey
Friday Night Lights
Developed for Television by Peter Berg, Inspired by the Book by H.G. Bissinger
Created by David Angell & Peter Casey & David Lee, Based on the Character "Frasier Crane" Created by Glen Charles & Les Charles
Created by Marta Kauffman & David Crane
Saturday Night Live
Season One: Writing Supervised by Walter Kempley, Harry Shearer; Written by: Ann Beatts, Chevy Chase, Tom Davis, Al Franken, Rosie Michaels, Garrett Morris, Michael O'Donoghue, Herb Sargent, Tom Schiller, Alan Zweibel
Created by Chris Carter
Created by Jeffrey Lieber and J.J. Abrams & Damon Lindelof
Created Michael Crichton
The Cosby Show
Created by Ed Weinberger & Michael Leeson and William Cosby, Jr., Ed. D.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
Created by Larry David
Season One writers: Herbert Finn, Marvin Marx, A.J. Russell, Leonard Stern, Walter Stone, Sydney Zelinka
Created by David Milch
Created by Gene Roddenberry
Created by Steven Levitan & Christopher Lloyd
"Pilot," Written by Mark Frost & David Lynch
Created by David Milch & Steven Bochco
The Carol Burnett Show
Season One: Written by Bill Angelos, Stan Burns, Don Hinkley, Buz Kohan, Mike Marmer, Gail Parent, Kenny Solms, Saul Turtletaub; Writing Supervised by Arnie Rosen
Battlestar Galactica (2005)
Developed by Ronald D. Moore, Based on the Series Battlestar Galactica Created by Glen A. Larson
Sex & the City
Created by Darren Star, Based on the Book by Candace Bushnell
Game of Thrones
Created by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, Based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin
The Bob Newhart Show *TIE
Created by David Davis and Lorenzo Music
Your Show of Shows *TIE
Season One: Written by Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Max Liebman
Downton Abbey *TIE
Created by Julian Fellowes
Law & Order *TIE
Created by Dick Wolf
Created by Marshall Herskovitz & Edward Zwick
Homicide: Life on the Street *TIE
Created by Paul Attanasio, Based on the Book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon
St. Elsewhere *TIE
Created by Joshua Brand & John Falsey, Developed by Mark Tinker / John Masius
Developed by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa, Based on the Original Israeli Series Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Created by Joss Whedon
The Colbert Report *TIE
Season One writers: Stephen Colbert, Rich Dahm, Eric Drysdale, Peter Gwinn, Jay Katsir, Laura Krafft, Allison Silverman
The Good Wife *TIE
Created by Robert King & Michelle King
The Office (UK) *TIE
Created by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant
Created by Joshua Brand & John Falsey
The Wonder Years
Created by Neal Marlens & Carol Black
Created by Steven Bochco & Terry Louise Fisher
Created by Joan Ganz Cooney
Created by Richard Levinson & William Link
Fawlty Towers *TIE
Written by John Cleese & Connie Booth
The Rockford Files *TIE
Created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell
Freaks and Geeks *TIE
Created by Paul Feig
Created by Glenn Gordon Caron
Written by William Blinn, M. Charles Cohen, Ernest Kinoy, James Lee; Based on the Book by Alex Haley
Everybody Loves Raymond *TIE
Created by Philip Rosenthal
South Park *TIE
Created by Matt Stone & Trey Parker
Season One writers: Edna Anhalt, Edmund Beloin, Harold Jack Bloom, Marc Brandel, George Bruce, James P. Cavanagh, Whitfiled Cook, Helen Doss, Scott Fitzgerald, Devery Freeman, Frank D. Gilroy, Helen Howe, Speed Lamkin, Ernest Lehman, Herbert Little, Jr., Don Mankiewicz, Elick Moll, Paul Monash, Dean Reisner, Norman Retchin, Selma Robinson, William Sackheim, Rod Serling, Leonard Spigelgass, Leslie Stevens, Brandon Thomas, David Victor, Charles M. Warren, Hagar Wilde, Cornell Woolrich
Developed for Television by James Manos, Jr., Based on the Novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay
The Office (US) *TIE
Created by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, Developed by Greg Daniels, Based on the BBC Series The Office
My So-Called Life
Created by Winnie Holzman
The Golden Girls
Created by Susan Harris
The Andy Griffith Show
Episode 1, "The New Housekeeper," Written by Jack Elinson and Charles Stewart
Created by Joel Surnow & Robert Cochran
Created by Matt Williams, Based on a Character Created by Roseanne Barr
The Shield *TIE
Created by Shawn Ryan
Created by David Shore
Murphy Brown *TIE
Created by Diane English
Barney Miller *TIE
Created by Danny Arnold & Theodore J. Flicker
I, Claudius *TIE
Written by Rupert Graves and Jack Pulman
The Odd Couple
Episode 1, "The Fight of the Felix," Written by Peggy Elliott & Ed Scharlach
Alfred Hitchcock Presents *TIE
Season One writers - Gwen Bagni, Samuel Blas, Robert Blees, Ray Bradbury, Richard Carr, James Cavanagh, Eustace Cockrell, Francis Cockrell, Marian Cockrell, John Collier, Robert C. Dennis, Mel Dinelli, Stanley Ellin, Fred Freiberger, Irwin Gielgud, Gina Kaus, Terence Maples, Richard Pedicini, Louis Pollock, Joseph Ruscoll, A.J. Russell, Stirling Silliphant, Andrew Solt, Harold Swanton, Victor Wolfson, Cornell Woolrich
Monty Python's Flying Circus *TIE
Conceived and Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Neil Innes, Terry Jones, Michael Palin
Star Trek: The Next Generation *TIE
Created by Gene Roddenberry
Upstairs, Downstairs *TIE
Created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins
"Pilot," Written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry
The Defenders *TIE
Created by Reginald Rose
Episode 1, "Matt Gets It," Written by Charles Marquis Warren & John Meston
Developed for Television by Graham Yost, Based on the Short Story "Fire in the Hole" by Elmore Leonard
Sgt. Bilko (The Phil Silvers Show) *TIE
Created by Nat Hiken
Band of Brothers
Written by Erik Bork, E. Max Frye, Tom Hanks, Erik Jendresen, Bruce C. McKenna, John Orloff, Graham Yost; Based on the Book by Stephan E. Ambrose
Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In
Season One: Written by Chris Beard, Phil Hahn, John Hanrahan, Coslough Johnson, Paul Keyes, Marc London, Allan Manings, David Panich, Hugh Wedlock, Digby Wolfe
Premiere Episode: Written by George Markstein and David Tomblin
Absolutely Fabulous (UK) *TIE
Episode 1, "Fashion," Written by Jennifer Saunders, Based on an Original Idea by Jennifer Saunders & Dawn French
The Muppet Show *TIE
Season One: Written by Jack Burns, Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl, Marc London
Created by Terence Winter, Based on the Book Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson
Will & Grace
Created by David Kohan & Max Mutchnick
Created by Gary David Goldberg
Lonesome Dove *TIE
Teleplay by Bill Wittliff, Based on the Novel Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Created by Susan Harris
The Fugitive *TIE
Episode 1, "Where the Action Is," Written by Harry Kronman
Late Night with David Letterman *TIE
Season One: Writing Supervised by Merrill Markoe, Writers: Andy Breckman, Tom Gammill, David Letterman, Richard Morris, Gerard Mulligan, Max Pross, Karl Tiedemann, Steve Winer
Season One: Written and Directed by Louis C.K.
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