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The Best TV Writer Panel Ever?

Carl Reiner as Alan Brady in The Dick Van Dyke Show
Carl Reiner as Alan Brady in The Dick Van Dyke Show

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."

Hill Street Blues
Hill Street Blues

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."

Mad Men
Mad Men

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."

Up next: The 101 best-written TV series of all time

 

The 101 best-written TV series of all-time, as voted by WGA members:

1

The Sopranos

HBO

Created by David Chase

2

Seinfeld

NBC

Created by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld

3

The Twilight Zone (1959)

CBS

Season One writers: Charles Beaumont, Richard Matheson, Robert Presnell, Jr., Rod Serling

4

All in the Family

CBS

Developed for Television by Norman Lear, Based on Till Death Do Us Part, Created by Johnny Speight

5

M*A*S*H

CBS

Developed for Television by Larry Gelbart

6

The Mary Tyler Moore Show

CBS

Created by James L. Brooks and Allan Burns

7

Mad Men

AMC

Created by Matthew Weiner

8

Cheers

NBC

Created by Glen Charles & Les Charles and James Burrows

9

The Wire

HBO

Created by David Simon

10

The West Wing

NBC

Created by Aaron Sorkin

11

The Simpsons

FOX

Created by Matt Groening, Developed by James L. Brooks and Matt Groening and Sam Simon

12

I Love Lucy

CBS

"Pilot," Written by Jess Oppenheimer & Madelyn Pugh & Bob Carroll, Jr.

13

Breaking Bad

AMC

Created by Vince Gilligan

14

The Dick Van Dyke Show

CBS

Created by Carl Reiner

15

Hill Street Blues

NBC

Created by Michael Kozoll and Steven Bochco

16

Arrested Development

FOX

Created by Mitchell Hurwitz

17

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

COMEDY CENTRAL

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

18

Six Feet Under

HBO

Created by Alan Ball

19

Taxi

ABC

Created by James L. Brooks and Stan Daniels and David Davis and Ed Weinberger

20

The Larry Sanders Show

HBO

Created by Garry Shandling & Dennis Klein

21

30 Rock

NBC

Created by Tina Fey

22

Friday Night Lights

NBC

Developed for Television by Peter Berg, Inspired by the Book by H.G. Bissinger

23

Frasier

NBC

Created by David Angell & Peter Casey & David Lee, Based on the Character "Frasier Crane" Created by Glen Charles & Les Charles

24

Friends

NBC

Created by Marta Kauffman & David Crane

25

Saturday Night Live

NBC

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

26

The X-Files

FOX

Created by Chris Carter

27

Lost

ABC

Created by Jeffrey Lieber and J.J. Abrams & Damon Lindelof

28

ER

NBC

Created Michael Crichton

29

The Cosby Show

NBC

Created by Ed Weinberger & Michael Leeson and William Cosby, Jr., Ed. D.

30

Curb Your Enthusiasm

HBO

Created by Larry David

31

The Honeymooners

CBS

Season One writers: Herbert Finn, Marvin Marx, A.J. Russell, Leonard Stern, Walter Stone, Sydney Zelinka

32

Deadwood

HBO

Created by David Milch

33

Star Trek

NBC

Created by Gene Roddenberry

34

Modern Family

ABC

Created by Steven Levitan & Christopher Lloyd

35

Twin Peaks

ABC

"Pilot," Written by Mark Frost & David Lynch

36

NYPD Blue

ABC

Created by David Milch & Steven Bochco

37

The Carol Burnett Show

CBS

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

38

Battlestar Galactica (2005)

SYFY

Developed by Ronald D. Moore, Based on the Series Battlestar Galactica Created by Glen A. Larson

39

Sex & the City

HBO

Created by Darren Star, Based on the Book by Candace Bushnell

40

Game of Thrones

HBO

Created by David Benioff & D. B. Weiss, Based on A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

41

The Bob Newhart Show *TIE

CBS

Created by David Davis and Lorenzo Music

Your Show of Shows *TIE

NBC

Season One: Written by Mel Tolkin, Lucille Kallen, Max Liebman

43

Downton Abbey *TIE

PBS

Created by Julian Fellowes

Law & Order *TIE

NBC

Created by Dick Wolf

thirtysomething *TIE

ABC

Created by Marshall Herskovitz & Edward Zwick

46

Homicide: Life on the Street *TIE

NBC

Created by Paul Attanasio, Based on the Book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon

St. Elsewhere *TIE

CBS

Created by Joshua Brand & John Falsey, Developed by Mark Tinker / John Masius

48

Homeland

SHOWTIME

Developed by Howard Gordon & Alex Gansa, Based on the Original Israeli Series Prisoners of War by Gideon Raff

49

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

WB

Created by Joss Whedon

50

The Colbert Report *TIE

COMEDY CENTRAL

Season One writers: Stephen Colbert, Rich Dahm, Eric Drysdale, Peter Gwinn, Jay Katsir, Laura Krafft, Allison Silverman

The Good Wife *TIE

CBS

Created by Robert King & Michelle King

The Office (UK) *TIE

BBC

Created by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant

53

Northern Exposure

CBS

Created by Joshua Brand & John Falsey

54

The Wonder Years

ABC

Created by Neal Marlens & Carol Black

55

L.A. Law

NBC

Created by Steven Bochco & Terry Louise Fisher

56

Sesame Street

PBS

Created by Joan Ganz Cooney

57

Columbo

NBC

Created by Richard Levinson & William Link

58

Fawlty Towers *TIE

BBC

Written by John Cleese & Connie Booth

The Rockford Files *TIE

NBC

Created by Roy Huggins and Stephen J. Cannell

60

Freaks and Geeks *TIE

NBC

Created by Paul Feig

Moonlighting *TIE

ABC

Created by Glenn Gordon Caron

62

Roots

ABC

Written by William Blinn, M. Charles Cohen, Ernest Kinoy, James Lee; Based on the Book by Alex Haley

63

Everybody Loves Raymond *TIE

CBS

Created by Philip Rosenthal

South Park *TIE

COMEDY CENTRAL

Created by Matt Stone & Trey Parker

65

Playhouse 90

CBS

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

66

Dexter *TIE

SHOWTIME

Developed for Television by James Manos, Jr., Based on the Novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

The Office (US) *TIE

NBC

Created by Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant, Developed by Greg Daniels, Based on the BBC Series The Office

68

My So-Called Life

ABC

Created by Winnie Holzman

69

The Golden Girls

NBC

Created by Susan Harris

70

The Andy Griffith Show

CBS

Episode 1, "The New Housekeeper," Written by Jack Elinson and Charles Stewart

71

24 *TIE

FOX

Created by Joel Surnow & Robert Cochran

Roseanne *TIE

ABC

Created by Matt Williams, Based on a Character Created by Roseanne Barr

The Shield *TIE

FX

Created by Shawn Ryan

74

House *TIE

FOX

Created by David Shore

Murphy Brown *TIE

CBS

Created by Diane English

76

Barney Miller *TIE

ABC

Created by Danny Arnold & Theodore J. Flicker

I, Claudius *TIE

PBS

Written by Rupert Graves and Jack Pulman

78

The Odd Couple

ABC

Episode 1, "The Fight of the Felix," Written by Peggy Elliott & Ed Scharlach

79

Alfred Hitchcock Presents *TIE

CBS

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

BBC

Conceived and Written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Neil Innes, Terry Jones, Michael Palin

Star Trek: The Next Generation *TIE

SYN

Created by Gene Roddenberry

Upstairs, Downstairs *TIE

PBS

Created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins

83

Get Smart

NBC

"Pilot," Written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry

84

The Defenders *TIE

CBS

Created by Reginald Rose

Gunsmoke *TIE

CBS

Episode 1, "Matt Gets It," Written by Charles Marquis Warren & John Meston

86

Justified *TIE

FX

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

CBS

Created by Nat Hiken

88

Band of Brothers

HBO

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

89

Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In

NBC

Season One: Written by Chris Beard, Phil Hahn, John Hanrahan, Coslough Johnson, Paul Keyes, Marc London, Allan Manings, David Panich, Hugh Wedlock, Digby Wolfe

90

The Prisoner

CBS

Premiere Episode: Written by George Markstein and David Tomblin

91

Absolutely Fabulous (UK) *TIE

BBC

Episode 1, "Fashion," Written by Jennifer Saunders, Based on an Original Idea by Jennifer Saunders & Dawn French

The Muppet Show *TIE

SYN

Season One: Written by Jack Burns, Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl, Marc London

93

Boardwalk Empire

HBO

Created by Terence Winter, Based on the Book Boardwalk Empire by Nelson Johnson

94

Will & Grace

NBC

Created by David Kohan & Max Mutchnick

95

Family Ties

NBC

Created by Gary David Goldberg

96

Lonesome Dove *TIE

CBS

Teleplay by Bill Wittliff, Based on the Novel Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Soap *TIE

ABC

Created by Susan Harris

98

The Fugitive *TIE

ABC

Episode 1, "Where the Action Is," Written by Harry Kronman

Late Night with David Letterman *TIE

CBS

Season One: Writing Supervised by Merrill Markoe, Writers: Andy Breckman, Tom Gammill, David Letterman, Richard Morris, Gerard Mulligan, Max Pross, Karl Tiedemann, Steve Winer

Louie *TIE

FX

Season One: Written and Directed by Louis C.K.

101

Oz

HBO

Created by Tom Fontana

Follow me on Twitter at @zpincusroth, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.


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