Written By Summer 2012 : Page 20
WRittEn by neely SWAnSon poRtRaitS by tom keller Paying it Forward The Cosby Show changed the way we saw and wrote family television. T raditional television family comedy originated with Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and The Brady Bunch, to name but a few sitcoms. Since those pioneers, we’ve come a long way, into far edgier families—think Roseanne, Home Improvement, Malcolm in the Middle, Modern Family, and The Middle . Could Beaver survive adoption by the Pritchett clan? How did we get from there to here? By the 1980s, networks and crit-ics and audiences were in agreement: The sitcom, if not pro-nounced dead, had been put on life-support. But an unlikely hero came to the rescue. Bridging the chasm separating Leave It to Beaver and Roseanne was The Cosby Show . Monologist, multiple Emmy-winning actor, comedian, educator (with a Doctor of Education degree from the Uni-versity of Massachusetts), best-selling author, and writer— the list of accomplishments goes on and on for Bill Cosby. To this list we can also add mentor . At a transformative moment in television history, Cosby influenced a diverse group of writers, most of whom went on to mentor others. The Cosby Show became a zenith in comedy production. Through his idiosyncratic humor in that show, Cosby impacted more than the writers—he educated the au-dience. We are all better for having met the Huxtables. Neither white nor black, not brown, the Huxtables made us colorblind, at least for a while. Elliot Schoenman, a master showrunner who wrote for the first season in 1984, explains this POV. According to Schoen-man, at that time there were three schools of modern comedy: the Norman Lear School, as personified by All in the Family and Maude ; the MTM School, represented by The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show ; and the Garry Marshall School, exemplified by Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley . With The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby introduced a new genre by going out-side the traditional sitcom structure of “set-up, joke, set-up, joke,” basing the Huxtable lifestyle on Cosby’s own family background, told naturalistically, conversationally, without a punchline. A co-creator of his eponymous series with Michael Leeson and Ed Weinberger, Cosby ruled the airwaves with the No. 1–rated show for much of its run from 1984 through 1992. That he would have input into the show that bore his name 20 • WG A W Written By SUMMER 20 12 is not surprising; that he would become a mentor to many of the writers on his show, and an indelible influence on the others, is something that his viewers and fans don’t know. But during their tenure on The Cosby Show, most of his writers, if asked, might have said, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” All survived to thrive another day. Before Cosby “Everything he was talking about in those days was so reso-nant,” Marcy Carsey remembers: “Men, women, husbands, wives, parents, children. The taking back of the household by the parents from the children.” In 1983, the nascent production studio formed by Carsey and Tom Werner was looking for new material. The Carsey-Werner goal was to discover what wasn’t on the air but should be. Ever since her development executive days at ABC, Carsey had been checking the temperature of the water regarding Cosby’s willingness to jump back into weekly television. Soon after she and Werner produced their first show, a short-lived series starring Madeline Kahn titled Oh, Madeline, Cosby’s agents at William Morris (Norman Brokow and Larry Auer-bach) mentioned to Carsey that Camille Cosby had indicated to her husband that it might be a good idea for him to settle down a bit more into a daily routine. Carsey proposed. Cosby agreed. Werner and Carsey hoped to take the es-sence of his road show concert act and translate the mate-rial into a television show. Finding a writing staff, however, was the first hurdle; in particular, finding writers willing to be New York–based who would work in offices housed in a claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment complex in an out-of-the-way Hasidic neighborhood. For the initial eight episodes, Carsey and Werner hired Earl Pomerantz, a writer known for his Emmy-nominated work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show . Earl’s imagination was in sync with Cosby’s sensibilities. Pomerantz explains that, “Comedically, [ The Cosby Show ] was the closest to anything I would have cre-ated myself. It wasn’t joke-structure comedy. His was just obser-vational—the way families were, the way parents relate to their children, the way children relate to each other, the way children try to take advantage, the way parents try to be firm but caring.”
Paying It Forward
The Cosby Show changed the way we saw and wrote family television
Traditional television family comedy originated with Leave It to Beaver, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and The Brady Bunch, to name but a few sitcoms.Since those pioneers, we’ve come a long way, into far edgier families—think Roseanne, Home Improvement, Malcolm in the Middle, Modern Family, and The Middle.
Could Beaver survive adoption by the Pritchett clan? How did we get from there to here? By the 1980s, networks and critics and audiences were in agreement: The sitcom, if not pronounced dead, had been put on life-support. But an unlikely hero came to the rescue. Bridging the chasm separating Leave It to Beaver and Roseanne was The Cosby Show.
Monologist, multiple Emmy-winning actor, comedian, educator (with a Doctor of Education degree from the University of Massachusetts), best-selling author, and writer— the list of accomplishments goes on and on for Bill Cosby.
To this list we can also add mentor.
At a transformative moment in television history, Cosby influenced a diverse group of writers, most of whom went on to mentor others. The Cosby Show became a zenith in comedy production. Through his idiosyncratic humor in that show, Cosby impacted more than the writers—he educated the audience.We are all better for having met the Huxtables.
Neither white nor black, not brown, the Huxtables made us colorblind, at least for a while.
Elliot Schoenman, a master show runner who wrote for the first season in 1984, explains this POV. According to Schoenman, at that time there were three schools of modern comedy: the Norman Lear School, as personified by All in the Family and Maude; the MTM School, represented by The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show; and the Garry Marshall School, exemplified by Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. With The Cosby Show, Bill Cosby introduced a new genre by going outside the traditional sitcom structure of “set-up, joke, set-up, joke,” basing the Huxtable lifestyle on Cosby’s own family background, told naturalistically, conversationally, without a punchline.
A co-creator of his eponymous series with Michael Leeson and Ed Weinberger, Cosby ruled the airwaves with the No.1–rated show for much of its run from 1984 through 1992.That he would have input into the show that bore his name is not surprising; that he would become a mentor to many of the writers on his show, and an indelible influence on the others, is something that his viewers and fans don’t know.
But during their tenure on The Cosby Show, most of his writers, if asked, might have said, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” All survived to thrive another day.
“Everything he was talking about in those days was so resonant,” Marcy Carsey remembers: “Men, women, husbands, wives, parents, children. The taking back of the household by the parents from the children.”
In 1983, the nascent production studio formed by Carsey and Tom Werner was looking for new material. The Carsey- Werner goal was to discover what wasn’t on the air but should be. Ever since her development executive days at ABC, Carsey had been checking the temperature of the water regarding Cosby’s willingness to jump back into weekly television. Soon after she and Werner produced their first show, a short-lived series starring Madeline Kahn titled Oh, Madeline, Cosby’s agents at William Morris (Norman Brokow and Larry Auerbach) mentioned to Carsey that Camille Cosby had indicated to her husband that it might be a good idea for him to settle down a bit more into a daily routine. Carsey proposed.
Cosby agreed. Werner and Carsey hoped to take the essence of his road show concert act and translate the material into a television show. Finding a writing staff, however, was the first hurdle; in particular, finding writers willing to be New York–based who would work in offices housed in a claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment complex in an out-of the- way Hasidic neighborhood.
For the initial eight episodes, Carsey and Werner hired Earl Pomerantz, a writer known for his Emmy-nominated work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Earl’s imagination was in sync with Cosby’s sensibilities. Pomerantz explains that, “Comedically, [The Cosby Show] was the closest to anything I would have created myself. It wasn’t joke-structure comedy. His was just observational— the way families were, the way parents relate to their children, the way children relate to each other, the way children try to take advantage, the way parents try to be firm but caring.
Pomerantz, given the task of forming the initial writing staff, became the first to experience and attempt to adjust to Cosby’s original pitching style. Cosby would indicate what kind of story he was interested in doing, then it would be up to Pomerantz to find the framework that could ultimately become that episode. Sometimes, Cosby would arrive after the weekend and announce that he had a new idea for the current episode. “Suddenly, I’ve got no time left and I’ve got to change [the script],” Pomerantz says. “Not because he was the boss, but because his new idea was better. There was no way I could say we can’t do that, that we don’t have enough time to fix it, because it was simply better.”
Pomerantz and all his successors had to be linear and shape Cosby’s riffing into a context that other writers could follow. The show runner became Nelson Riddle to Cosby’s Frank Sinatra. The success or failure of a Cosby writer was the learning curve involved in putting that jazz to paper.
This thought was echoed by Matt Williams, whose first TV writing job was on The Cosby Show and who went on to create Carsey-Werner’s next hit, Roseanne. He describes Cosby’s pitching style: “Bill is a jazz musician, so his mind works in babalusbshabangshabong [scat singing]. He starts riffing, following the notes. And he might be in the middle of a solo and hit a note and go, ‘Whoa! Let’s try over here, guys.’”
Pomerantz became a mentor to the team of Korby Siamis and Caryl Miller, Los Angeles writers who had also agreed to a short-term contract in order to work with Pomerantz. He led a very small staff, including John Marcus, through the development process. Siamis realized that, “Cosby was actually a writer. He was more comfortable with his own words. Trying to get what was in his mind into your mind and have it come out of your pen and on to the paper was probably as frustrating for him as well as the other writers.”
The difficulty of interpreting the music was one reason that Pomerantz decided not to renew his contract. “He [Cosby] wasn’t talking in a straight line,”
Pomerantz explains. “He was doing jazz talking. I’m in a straight line; I’m logic. I’m all the people who build comedy structurally from a logical foundation. And he wasn’t logical, so it didn’t always go in my ear.” Pomerantz left after his eight-episode commitment, primarily due to exhaustion and the unworkable distance from his family in Los Angeles. “I was only getting one chance at everything. There were no plot outlines for a first draft and second draft. It was this and read it on Monday. I felt under too much pressure to be perfect.”
Siamis carried the lessons she learned on The Cosby Show to other shows on which she worked, from Murphy Brown to her current gig on The Middle.“Even to this day,” she says, “when we’re kind of hitting our heads on a dead end, when we’re breaking a story on The Middle, we’ll stop and say, ‘What would really happen?’ And that’s always the way out of a story dead-end.”
Despite the difficulty of capturing Cosby’s voice and then structuring Stories he could identify with personally, writers on every year of the series related that Cosby was never punitive about the changes he wanted. As Siamis and others have noted, it was never that you had written a bad script; it was just that he’d changed his mind.
Pomerantz took something very important with him from Cosby. “My writing changed,” he said. “My writing required itself to be truthful. It confirmed that there are things other than jokes that can get very big laughs. With that kind of reinforcement and that kind of fuel behind me, I was able to proceed to other shows with the same intention.”
With the sudden and unexpected departure of Pomerantz, their show runner, and with only a two-week hiatus between episodes, and no backup scripts, Carsey and Werner were up that proverbial creek without a compass. Carsey’s choice as a replacement was Elliot Schoenman. But Schoenman had just begun an overall deal at Paramount and was unavailable.Carsey called Paramount and stated her case explicitly: “Look, we’re holding up your night. If we go down, the [network] house of cards on Thursday is just going to come down with us. I need Elliot, and I need him tomorrow.”
The Cosby Show, distributed by Viacom (which also owned CBS and MTM) and already a Top 10 program, led off NBC’s Thursday night schedule, followed by Cheers (CBS Studios), Family Ties (CBS Studios), Night Court, and Hill Street Blues (MTM).
Two days after Carsey’s phone call, Schoenman found himself on a plane to New York.
Schoenman had been reared in the “Norman Lear School of Comedy” and mentored by Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf, veterans of I Love Lucy. To Schoenman, working for them was attending a graduate school in comedy. He once asked Weiskopf, “How can I ever repay you for all you’re teaching me?”
Replied Weiskopf: “Pass it on.”
That became Schoenman’s attitude on each subsequent assignment. True to his promise, once he’d arrived, Schoenman mentored Carmen Finestra and Matt Williams. (Finestra, Elliot Schoenman’s former roommate and first hire for The Cosby Show, and Williams, a playwright discovered by Jay Sandrich, met that first Cosby season and would later go on to create Home Improvement.)
Always behind, Schoenman, Finestra, and John Marcus (the sole remaining writer from the initial order) sequestered themselves in a hotel room over weekends to pump out the script for the Monday table read. This system would continue into the second year, adding Matt Williams to the mix.
Cosby liked to work spontaneously, and often the first time he would even see a script was at the Monday table read.
Schoenman says, “At least half the time Bill would have ma Jor problems with it, and Jay Sandrich [the director] would ask, ‘Why didn’t you talk to him about it?’ And we’d say, ‘We did.’” So off they went to rewrite the script, often for all night. There would be a run-through on Tuesday, another clean up, and then on Wednesday they would meet again with Cosby to discuss the next week’s story. This process felt endless to the writers. “It was a seven-day week,” Schoenman recalls, “well over a hundred hours a week. Absolutely nonstop. But out of that chaos came a lot of really interesting stuff, because there was no time to rewrite. Bill was amazing on his feet.”
Working on The Cosby Show was like riding a bronco—you just tried to stay on board. As far as Schoenman was concerned, the craziness worked in your favor, keeping everyone from going “ordinary.” Smiling, he recounts one memorable incident: “We worked as late as possible and I was pitching a joke and passed out. It was maybe two in the morning, and I just keeled over. So the driver took me home and one of the secretaries got me to my apartment and into bed. I woke up the next morning and pulled myself together and came in. I don’t remember who asked me how I was, but I said, ‘I’m okay.’ Then he urgently asked, ‘Do you remember the joke?’”
Schoenman, too, left the show under circumstances and for reasons similar to Pomerantz’s. But his guidance allowed John Marcus, a very junior writer, to step into the showrunner position once Schoenman was gone.
Gary Kott, a former Madison Avenue ad executive who joined the staff in the second season, expressed what those who came before and those who followed soon understood: “All conversations begin and end with Bill. This was his show.It was his vision; it was his mind. And so it wasn’t so much learning the show; it was trying to get inside that mind of his—trying to figure out what he’s thinking. And that’s not easy because, first of all, he’s just an amazingly talented guy with a bizarre mind. Bill is a very improvisational man.”
Finestra was fortunate to have learned from several mentors besides Schoenman. Pat Nardo and Charlotte Brown, writers who also exerted a great influence on Kott, expanded Finestra’s thoughts on male-female relationships, an education he carried with him to The Cosby Show and after. But as far as Finestra was concerned, mentoring was watching and learning from the thought process of writers in the room, discovering how they approached character and story situations, understanding how not to accept the easy fix.
Finestra says, “How they took ideas and connected them to the character’s needs, wants, and goals helped me see writing as a living form that required actors to act in motivated situations in a real way. Jokes were the last thing they thought of. They realized that the best humor was that which came from organic situations and not from lines that could be lifted from a page and told by a late-night TV host.”
More Face Times
Finestra and Marcus hired Ehrich van Lowe. He bridged the holdovers from the original writing staff—Finestra, Marcus, Kott—and the staff that followed, led by Bernie Kukoff. Moving up to co-producer under Bernie Kukoff, Van Lowe often led the writers’ room when Kukoff was engaged with Cosby.
Mirroring what the others experienced, Van Lowe found Cosby to be very hands-on. The writers would sit with Cosby and the ideas would come through him. Unlike those writers who preceded him, Van Lowe had significant alone-time with Cosby on the phone and in-person. “Mostly we talked about the show, characters, why we did things the way we did,” Van Lowe says, “what he thought was missing. I did not understand how to write comedy until I worked on The Cosby Show. His piece of advice was, ‘Don’t write jokes; write humor.’ It took me a while to figure that out. Listen to his records and listen to him speak—it’s all humor. He doesn’t tell jokes. And so that was a great influence on me as a writer because it allowed me to use humor in all my work, no matter the genre.”
Another hire as the series matured was Lore Kimbrough.She’d been a telephone installer for PacBell before joining management and supervising other technicians. While at PacBell, she joined writer groups and began writing specs.Kimbrough was hired onto the staff of The Cosby Show with no previous professional writing experience. She acknowledges, “I learned everything I know about writing on television from starting on The Cosby Show.”
Carmen Finestra, Gary Kott, and John Marcus were, in Kimbrough’s words, overworked, writing the show seven days a week, without spare time to help a baby writer. She bonded with Van Lowe, the other minority writer. (After Van Lowe left the series to create shows of his own, he often hired her.)
It was not until Kimbrough’s second year on the series that she actually participated in the writers’ room. Even then, Kimbrough realized her experience was unique. “The first season, I had a lot of direct contact with Bill because I was new. The room at that time pretty much was Carmen, Gary, and John, so I was pretty much on my own the first season, and I used to spend quite a bit of time in Bill’s dressing room talking to him about life, about the show, various things—whatever came up.I had a lot of exposure to him; not so much show exposure, but just exposure to him as a human being.”
Kimbrough elaborates further: “Bill sort of took me under his wing because I was a black female. From what I understand, the reason that I was even looked at for the show was because Bill said, ‘We have to have a black female this season.No ifs, ands, or buts.’ This is second-hand information that I got from my agent. I was kind of left on my own. There were a lot of things I learned about writing that could only have come from Cosby. You create a real situation and then you mine it for as much humor and comedy as you can. But it has to be real.”
She continues, “I was born on The Cosby Show, so to speak.It was my very first writing experience. It was my very first paid writing job. It was my very first time being in a studio, so I couldn’t even begin to say the things that I took away from that show. I took everything away from it. Everything good that happened to me in my life after that, I credit that show.”
For its final season, Adriana Trigiani joined The Cosby Show. Trigiani’s first writing job had been on A Different World. Also created by Bill Cosby, A Different World was run in a much more traditional manner, so the learning curve when she joined The Cosby Show was as steep as it had been for everyone who came before. Helping her adjust was Janet Leahy who, as Trigiani remembers, “was organized and funny and she had the calmest temperament of a boss I had ever known before or since. Janet had the comedy and the heart, which went a long way with Mr. Cosby. She also pulled us In to pitch our thoughts and ideas directly to him as the season progressed.” It was Leahy who guided her through pitch meetings and story rewrites with Cosby.
Watching Cosby in action had a major influence on her and she reiterated thoughts previously expressed by others.“Mr. Cosby’s hand was strong and steady on the show at all times. Mr. Cosby was the show. It was named for him, created by him, and celebrated the aspects of life he cherished. He had his imprimatur on everything—from every line in the script to the sweaters he wore, to the color of the paint used on the set. We were to use proper grammar in the scripts.No contractions. The parents were in charge in the Huxtable home. Respect the parents. Comedy without humiliation or degradation. No cheap laughs.
“Most important,” Trigiani says¸ “he let me know straight away that scripts were literature. He said that you should be able to pick up a script in a hundred years and it should be written as well as any good book.”
To Trigiani, Cosby’s world view was staggering. “He had an innate sense of responsibility about how to honor nationality, race, and religion on his show that was inclusive and respectful to all without being mealy or wishy-washy. The power of the medium of television cannot be measured. I learned from Mr. Cosby that you must honor the privilege of writing for a worldwide audience. The audience deserves our best. Maybe that’s why Mr. Cosby was diligent about the details. He knew the audience would notice. Mr. Cosby respected the audience, and that made all the difference.”
Leahy encouraged her to create her own voice working within the parameters of The Cosby Show [see sidebar]. “That,” Trigiani says of Leahy, “is a real talent in a show runner—pulling the best out of each writer. Janet was spectacular at that. She made each of us feel integral to the process. Everything I have done since has been in the glow of that experience. It was the best job I ever had.I poached everything from Janet Leahy and tried to do as well as she had. But I know I didn’t come close.”
Years later, as they developed Home Improvement, Williams and Finestra set out to create a show that the whole family could watch together. As Finestra explained, “Like The Cosby Show, we wanted people to feel they were watching believable situations that could occur in a family and a marriage. Matt Williams used to say that we should find a moment of truth and shine a light on it.”
Williams believes that an early turning point for him as a writer occurred while watching a rehearsal of a scene between Rudy and Theo, two of the children in Cosby’s television family. Cosby, also watching the scene, leaned over to Williams and whispered, “Hey, man. If you were sitting at home right now, wouldn’t you want to be a part of this family?” Williams realized that Cosby was sending a message to the home audience: “Come on in. You get to sit around the table with us. You get to sit on the couch with us. You get to be a part of this family, and this family has a lot of love.”
That was a realization Williams carried into Roseanne and Home Improvement. “To me, it was a huge epiphany that drove what I did in TV for the next 15 years. Black, white, it didn’t matter. Bill made it very clear: Families are families are families. If you’re a mom or a dad and you have a 13-year-old who’s sneaking out of the house, it doesn’t matter what color the child or the parents are. That is family behavior.
“We all worry about the same things,” Williams adds. “Bill was saying that we are human beings and we’re responsible for our kids. We are responsible as a family. He was Dr. Cosby and was very, very clear about the message he wanted to send: Work hard; do your homework; get an education; your parents know more than you.’”
But if Cosby was an influential teacher to Williams and Finestra, Elliot Schoenman was their mentor. From Schoenman, both Williams and Finestra learned the importance of taking a group of individual writers and turning them into one mind in the room; taking the focus and energy of the competing writers and making them think as one. They dwelled on structure because, if the story changed—which with Cosby it usually did—the framework would still be there even if all the dialogue had to be revised.
Was Bill Cosby tough to work for? “It was his show, and it’s my job to get it,” says Kott of those long-ago all-nighters.“It’s not his job to do it. His job was Bill Cosby, and anybody who worked for him in any capacity was just expected to get it. I don’t have one bad memory. Bill is just a great man; he’s the most talented person I ever worked with.”
Marcy Carsey puts it this way: “His job was not to mentor, so any mentoring he did was above and beyond the call of duty.”
Cosby’s influence was felt long after The Cosby Show ended in 1992. Earl Pomerantz created a series modeled after his own life, just as The Cosby Show was modeled after Cosby’s family, ultimately titling it simply Family Man. Matt Williams created Roseanne for Carsey-Werner, a series about a loving family at the other end of the economic and ethical spectrum. He, David McFadzean, and Carmen Finestra went on to create Home Improvement, a series that both writers indicated was heavily influenced by the family dynamics shown on The Cosby Show. Schoenman, who had mentored both Finestra and Williams, later ran Home Improvement for them. Ehrich van Lowe went on to create Where I Live, a series modeled after his life experiences, and hired another he’d met on The Cosby Show, Lore Kimbrough. Adriana Trigiani, after successful stints on other series (including Linc’s, which reunited her with Susan Fales-Hill from A Different World), is now a best-selling novelist.
The Cosby Show: Friendships were formed, influence was exerted, in some cases mentorships occurred. All carried on the mantra from Bill Cosby, something that indelibly affected their lives and work: “Tell the truth first. The funny will come.”
Kasi Lemmons: Student of Bill
Before she was an award-winning writerdirector who rose to prominence with her film Eve’s Bayou, Lemmons was an actor.Interested in expanding her filmmaking horizons, she enrolled at the new School for Social Research in new york where she made two films. Proud of her work, she determined that the next time she auditioned for The Cosby Show, she would try to approach Cosby to watch her short films. And approach she did.
But Cosby wasn’t interested in seeing a film. He didn’t need a filmmaker. He needed a writer.
“i’m a writer,” she said.
“okay,” he replied. “Write me a scene.” She did, and after a meeting with him, he engaged her to work on a film he was producing with the two experienced writers who had already been hired, p.J. Gibson and Lee Hunkins.
At meetings at his home, Cosby helped them shape the screenplay, all while he was working on The Cosby Show. As Lemmons related, “He was great. He got us talking. He had a lot of opinions about what he thought the story was and what was funny. It was the best school you could possibly go to, to have your first writing job developing a script with bill Cosby. He was very, very accessible in the room. What better teacher of writing comedy than bill Cosby? It was film comedy, but it came from his sense overall of what’s funny. He taught me that comedy springs from real life situations and that the person always takes it very seriously, even within the comedy. And that is something that i carried with me, just that sense of what is funny; the grounded pathos that comedy comes out of.”
The film, Tight Shoes, was for Cosby to star in and, as Lemmons remembers, it was about a college professor, his wife, and their kids and, yes, was funny. Perhaps other obstacles might have derailed it, but what definitely ended the project was the Writers’ Strike of 1988. Still, the lessons learned from Cosby stayed with her even in the dramas she is known for writing.
DouBLe, DouBLe, ToiL, AnD MenTor
Janet leahy respectfully declines and accepts.
Janet leahy was unique in the Cosby Show writers’ room histories: a woman showrunner who worked during two separate tenures. Initially hired as a story editor in the third season, she worked with Marcus, Kott, Finestra, and Williams. Like everyone who came before her noted, it was a different kind of show for the era, written in a different way. Drafts were taken directly to the table read, followed by hours-long notes meetings, followed by grueling rewrites. She was impressed with how astute the writers were at interpreting Cosby’s improv stories.
But this rewrite process, based on the table read, ultimately provoked her decision to leave the series during its fourth season. “at the table readings, Cosby would do funny voices when he thought something wasn’t good,” Leahy recalls. “now, his intentions—and it’s important to understand this—were probably not bad. He was probably just putting on funny voices because he didn’t know what the writers’ intentions were. But i felt somewhat disrespected. I’m just saying that, on the record. I didn’t feel that way when i returned, but those first few seasons, my emotional state led me to believe this was disrespectful. I felt it was an unhealthy environment.I’m very high on respect. But what i learned from The Cosby Show, i learned from Mr. Cosby: tell the truth first—the funny will come.”
When Cosby heard that Leahy intended to leave, he offered a position on the staff of his next show, A Different World. But Leahy needed a break. She had spent too many hours toiling in writers’ rooms, beginning at age 22 with Newhart in 1983. On that show, Leahy encountered her first mentors, barton Dean and Miriam trogdon. Dean taught her how to structure scene and story by patiently analyzing outlines with her. He taught her how to construct beginnings, middles, and ends. From Dean, she learned how the best lines of dialogue reveal character, move a story forward, and, ideally, make us laugh. Trogdon shared methods for finding humor in the smallest of details and still maintain an appreciation for the elegance of story.
Such lessons had helped her survive Cosby, but she needed time to figure out what she needed next, and that meant something far removed From A Different World. In a stroke of genius (or insanity), Leahy took a volunteer job at the Coney island aquarium, working with the dolphins and whales. After six months of fish and grottos, Leahy decided to return to television’s shark tank.
Offered positions on both Cheers and a new series called Major Dad, Leahy chose the unknown. Major Dad had been developed by Earl pomerantz after he left The Cosby Show.The opportunity of working with pomerantz, a writer whose work she greatly admired from both The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Newhart, was irresistible. Pomerantz taught her even more about developing character. “With every pass at a script, he would read it from the point of view of a different character to make sure their part contributed to the story,” Leahy marvels. “Each character had to have a strong attitude, humor, and something to say.”
Major Dad proved to be an ironically prescient move that led back to Cosby.
Once More into the Breach
When pomerantz left Major Dad after a year, Leahy followed.Cosby heard she was again unemployed and asked Leahy to return to his show. With a new group in charge, Leahy was promised that work would be different for her second time around. She agreed, provided she came in as a part-time consulting producer. Despite the fact that the writers’ room process hadn’t changed greatly, there was now much more diversity among the staff, and at least she could enjoy the luxury of owning more of her personal time.
Then a sea change occurred prior to the last year of the series when another show runner, bernie Kukoff, left. Cosby invited Leahy to take over those duties. Such opportunities rarely come around, especially for women younger than 30.Cautiously, she leveraged Cosby to implement more changes, especially in the way scripts were developed. For the first time in the series, he agreed to look at outlines before the staff began writing an episode. This one change alone made her job more viable and saved the company money.
“i was very young, but he was very encouraging when i’d give him notes between shows,” Leahy says. “When you think about it, it’s very funny. Giving bill Cosby notes on his performance on his show seemed more than a little awkward, but he encouraged it. I was a shy person, and he was very kind and so respectful of my work. I appreciated that.”
the staff knew it was the show’s last season, and Leahy found that certain end oddly liberating. Learning from her past experiences in comedy rooms, she made every effort to maintain a positive atmosphere. She found solutions that wouldn’t insult or hurt a writer. She kept the process moving forward and always endeavored to be the calm in the middle of the storm. One of her staffers, Hugh o’neil, dubbed the room High Road productions—no matter the crisis, writers would always take “the high road.” Leahy admits it sounds goofy, but it worked. Because, as she points out, “i respect people. The first thing you do is respect people and you respect their talent. If they have that trust in you, then maybe they’ll listen a little bit more.”
Her motto: Serve the show, not the ego.
That last season, things improved in other ways too.Cosby consistently made an effort to give access to those who had typically lacked access. He created a mentoring program for young african-american writers and encouraged his stage manager, an african-american woman, to try directing.
But what made Leahy’s show running experience truly unique came when Cosby promoted her career. “it’s always tricky when you’re running other people’s shows: if your name gets in the press, it can create ill will for the people who created it,” she reveals. “but Cosby was different in that he was promoting my career and encouraging the press to come talk to me when i was running his show.”
Cosby made Leahy the spokesperson, standing in front of the major press organizations to discuss the upcoming season and where the show was heading. Being the final season of a groundbreaking series, it seemed extraordinary to Leahy that Cosby allowed someone else to speak on the show’s behalf.
“i am incredibly grateful to him,” she says. “bill Cosby taught me in a very short period of time what somebody else could never have taught me. He gave me more chances than anybody at a very young age. He gave me a huge amount of access to power. He gave me a chance to fail, which you don’t get in this business. I don’t think i did, but he gave me the opportunity. I have nothing but amazing amounts of respect for him and gratitude. He was very respectful of me.
“it was a full life experience,” she declares. “i was there, i practiced leaving, i practiced coming back, i practiced forgiveness, i practiced keeping an open mind, i practiced trying things from another angle.”
Leahy passed these experiences on when she mentored generations of writers during a career staffing Love & War, Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Gilmore Girls, boston Legal, and now Mad Men. Kimbrough remembers Leahy’s patience in teaching structure, story, and outline. And Leahy remembers the key lesson she learned from pomerantz on Major Dad: “Friendships gained from working on a show are vastly more important than the show itself.”
Read the full article at http://www.mydigitalpublication.com/article/Paying+It+Forward/1077890/113611/article.html.