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