Monday, August 20, 2018

Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Author Paula Finn Discusses Her Interviews with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Others

In her new book, Sitcom Writers Talk Shop, Paula Finn provides a fascinating look behind the scenes of a beloved American TV genre: the situation comedy or sitcom. Her in-depth interviews feature fifteen sitcom writers, who discuss classic comedies from the 1950s to today. Her subjects include many of the genre's heavyweights, such as Norman Lear (All in the Family), James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show), and Carl Reiner (The Dick Van Dyke Show). However, she also talks with lesser-known writers who are widely recognized by their peers for their excellent writing, creating indelible characters, and breaking barriers. A UCLA graduate with a degree in anthropology, Paula Finn is no stranger to the world of TV sitcoms--her father Herbert Finn wrote episodes of The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, Gilligan's Island, and other classic sitcoms. Recently, Ms. Finn was kind enough to let us be the interviewer and ask her some questions.

Café:  What was it like having a sitcom writer for a parent?

Author Paula Finn.
Paula Finn:  One of the best things about it was that my dad could always get me in to see my favorite TV shows filmed. These were closed sets, meaning you had to know someone at the studio, give your name to security at the gate, etc., to gain access. To say it was a thrill is an understatement. Also, the bookshelves in my dad's office were filled with TV scripts. Dennis the Menace and The Flintstones made for great summer reading. Perks he brought home from work included a personally-autographed photo of Jay North, (when Jay was my favorite!), the Flintstones cels (I didn’t keep mine, but some of them are worth thousands of dollars today!), or record albums of performers on The Garry Moore Show.

Café:  Have you ever watched a sitcom episode written by your father and realized it was based on something that happened in your family?

PF:  When I was eight I won a neighborhood beauty/talent contest. For those familiar with the San Fernando Valley, I was crowned “Miss Valleyheart Drive” for a year. My dad later wrote a Flintstones episode where Pebbles won a beauty/talent contest.

Café:  Of all the shows your father worked on, which one was your favorite? And do you have a favorite episode?

PF:  I’d say The Honeymooners. And the episode would be “The Golfer.” After telling his boss he plays golf, Ralph’s under pressure to prove it when his boss invites him to play with him. Norton tries to teach Ralph how to do it, but he doesn’t know anything more about golf than Ralph does. Just when Ralph thinks he lucked out--it turns out he didn’t. If you’re familiar with that episode, Norton’s “Hello, Ball” is a famous line from it.

Café:  Having interviewed writers from the 1950s to today, what do you see as the most significant changes in the American television sitcom?

Alan Alda in M*A*S*H.
PF:  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. Everyone knows--and many complain--about the prevalence of profanity as sitcoms have progressed. 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. Former M*A*S*H producer John Rappaport recalls writing one with seven stories. [“No Sweat,” S9E11]
      Racial and sexual diversity was almost absent compared to today. And Cheers writer Ken Estin thinks TV jokes today are more mean-spirited: “Viewers like to laugh at people being obnoxious more than they used to.”
      Writer Bill Persky (That Girl) told me he thinks sitcom humor has changed in that humanity and human behavior are less important than having two people in bed. He elaborates: “I was skipping past something, I guess it was Two and a Half Men, and the two characters were having a conversation that was kind of funny. But they had it in bed, naked. That could have been even funnier if they were doing something, you know? If they were trying to cook a meal together or if there were some other point at the time…but just them being in bed was the provocative thing, and the topic of their conversation was secondary.”
      He adds: “Someone just asked me if I thought The Dick Van Dyke Show would be as good if we were writing it today. I said you can’t separate the times from the shows…You can’t ignore the fact that pornography is available to people on their computer now, and not have somebody be involved in it. Who’s to say half the characters we all loved wouldn’t be in the bedroom watching porn!”

Café:  We're going to put you on the spot here. What three to five sitcoms do you think were most influential in the evolution of the genre?

Carney & Gleason in The Honeymooners.
PF:  As one of the first sitcoms to portray the struggles of the working class, The Honeymooners influenced such shows as The Flintstones, Family Guy, Roseanne, All in the Family, and Married…with Children. The concept of a sensible wife with a bumbling dim-witted husband inspired the dynamics between many subsequent sitcom couples. Writer Al Jean names such characters as Archie Bunker, Fred Flintstone, and Homer Simpson as descendants of Ralph Kramden.
      All in the Family revolutionized the genre with its social relevance, shocking epithets, and controversial, politically-incorrect, real-world topics. No one had ever seen or heard anything quite like it on television before.
      The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the first to star an independent woman with a career other than the traditional women’s occupations of teacher, secretary, or nurse. She was 30--and single. And it was okay. Incidentally, creators Jim Brooks and Allan Burns pitched the show with the character of Mary Richards as a recent divorcee. The networks didn’t think viewers would accept that. They suggested instead that she’d just come from a bad breakup. And they told Grant Tinker, head of the show’s production company: “Get rid of those two clowns!” (referring to Brooks and Burns).
Diane and Sam.
      Cheers is credited with being the first primetime sitcom to have a “serial plotline,” i.e., an ongoing, evolving storyline--in this case, about Diane and Sam’s relationship. According to writer Phoef Sutton: “Believe it or not, that was kind of a new idea: the idea of following a relationship from its inception and them getting together, and them breaking up. And every show has to have that now! The problem with the Sam/Diane relationship was they kept having to break them up to keep the tension alive, but then they had them get back together again to keep the tension alive. So you were always treading that fine line, because Sam and Diane having problems and trying to get through to each other and trying to seduce each other and all that--was fun. But them as a couple wasn’t really all that interesting.”
      The Simpsons ended the more than 20-year long drought of primetime animated sitcoms for grownups, paving the way for such shows as Family Guy, Beavis and Butt-Head, and South Park. Entertainment writers cite the Simpsons’ influence on such shows as Malcolm in the Middle, Arrested Development, and Scrubs. Simpsons showrunner Al Jean believes live-action shows have tended to incorporate the Simpsons pace and “cut-away” style.               
Café:   Please tell us that you're already writing a "sequel" about cop shows!

PF:  Sorry, no. But that is a great idea. Hmm…

Café:  Given your background as a writer and knowledge of the genre, have you ever considered penning a script for a sitcom?

PF:  You mean, besides the Honeymooners script I wrote when I was eight? No. And considering what I learned from talking with these writers…I can think of few things that are harder! I strongly admire anyone who can do it, especially with the pressure of a deadline.

Café:  Although it's not mentioned in your book, you've got to tell us about being a teenager invited by Sonny and Cher to watch TV at their house.

Sonny and Cher.
PF:  Their home address in Encino had been circulating around my high school. One December night when my parents were out, I called a taxi and got a ride to Sonny and Cher’s house. I rang the bell to their electric gate, and Sonny came out in his bathrobe to see who it was. He welcomed me into their home, where he and Cher were getting ready to go to a Christmas party. While Sonny was taking a shower, Cher and I watched Bewitched in their bedroom. I had brought Cher a box of homemade earrings, and Sonny gave me an autographed 45 of their latest song, “The Beat Goes On.” He also called a taxi for me to go home, and gave me $5 cab fare – which more than covered it. I can’t tell you what their house looked like inside – I was too vain to wear my glasses! I wonder how many of today’s celebrities would treat their young fans as graciously.

Café:  Thanks for the interview, Paula. We love your book. It'll be an easy pick for our Christmas buying guide for classic TV and film fans.

PF:  It’s been a pleasure. Thank you again!

Sitcom Writers Talk Shop will be published on September 15th and can be pre-ordered now. You can learn more about it on its Facebook page. You can follow Paula Finn on Twitter at @Talkingcomedy.


  1. My Christmas Wish List is getting longer. This book sounds fascinating. I know, I'll buy it for the hubby and borrow it.

    I can't imagine many celebrities being as kind as Sonny and Cher. Great story.

  2. the HONEYMOONERS might be the best of ALL TIME....IMHO!

  3. She has some great insights, especially the differences in sitcoms then and now.

    I love the Sonny and Cher story!

  4. What a fascinating interview! It must have been fun to be able to visit the sets while the shows were being produced. It is always interesting to hear the stories behind the stories. Paula’s book sounds awesome. Great post, Rick!