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December 10, 2013

Comedy Writer Treva Silverman

Writer Treva Silverman – known for classics like Room 222 and the Mary Tyler Moore Show – broke into televsion when lady scribes were virtually nonexistent. Enjoy this excerpt from her Archive of American Television interview.

  • Treva Silverman

At age 4, Treva Silverman did something amazing.

She walked into the living room, sat down at the piano and — without a lesson — began playing the pieces that her sisters had been practicing. In short order, officials at Juilliard declared her a musical prodigy. “Before I was 13, I had studied piano, music theory, harmony, ear training, the violin, voice, ballet and tap,” Silverman says.

Perhaps less surprising — considering she would go on to become a renowned comedy writer — young Treva also found she had a knack for making people laugh.

“I had 3 older sisters, and the ritual was, strange as it may seem, that when we were introduced to people, we were supposed to line up and announce our names,” she recalls. “So it would be, time after time, ‘I’m Lila.’ ‘I’m Corinne.’ ‘I’m Valerie.’ ‘I’m Treva.’

One time I got fed up with it and, at the last minute, decided I couldn’t stand it anymore. So as we lined up and started the announcement and it went, ‘I’m Lila,’ ‘I’m Corinne,’ ‘I’m Valerie,’ I said, ‘I’m hungry.’

“The place went crazy — it was my Aunt Marcy’s house — everybody kept quoting what I’d said, and that afternoon the four of us were asked over and over to repeat the performance. Of course, I had to pretend I was innocent of what had transpired, but I remember thinking in my eight-year-old mind, ‘Hmmm.... There might be something to this being funny thing.’”

Some years later, Silverman met a young James L. Brooks while playing the piano in a nightclub, and the two struck up a friendship. In 1969, when Brooks created the ABC show Room 222, he hired the quick-witted New Yorker as a writer. The following year, when he and Allan Burns began producing Mary Tyler Moore’s new comedy series, Silverman was one of his first hires.

The daughter of an attorney and a housewife, Silverman broke into television when women writers were just about nonexistent. She plied her trade (mostly) without a partner, and her scripts radiated a warmth and humanity not often seen in TV comedy.

For example, when Valerie Harper lost 20 pounds during a hiatus from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Silverman wrote a script in which Harper’s character, Rhoda Morgenstern, comes to terms with her lifelong struggle with self-image.

Silverman was interviewed by Allan Neuwirth for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television in September 2007; the following is an edited excerpt of that conversation. The entire interview may be viewed at EmmyTVLegends.org.

Q: You were a musical prodigy as a child, yet you didn’t choose music as your career.
A: Actually I did, early on. I wrote songs. My intention was to write the book, music and lyrics for musicals. I met Jonathan Tunick [Stephen Sondheim’s orchestrator] and his music was awe-inspiring. We became songwriting partners and were in the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop.

Q: Who were your early writing influences?
A: The New Yorker writers — Robert Benchley, James Thurber and Dorothy Parker — especially Benchley, so insightful and enjoying life and never putting anyone down. The characters on Fred Allen’s radio show were also a big influence. Another major one was Steve Allen. I loved how he broke the fourth wall and, instead of being up on a pedestal, he’d laugh and be silly. I grew up in a time where grownups weren’t silly. And here he was being a handsome, funny, talented, silly man.
 
Q: When did you start writing?
A: When I got out of college, I worked as a proofreader at Esquire, but by the time I got home, I had no energy to write. So I looked for a job where I could make money but also have time to write songs. I can play pretty much any song by ear, so I sent a photo and a tape and was hired as a singing pianist in Florida. It was wonderful. I worked at the restaurant part of the day, and the rest of the day I would write songs. By the time I finished, there were stacks of songs that I had written.
 
Q: You met James L. Brooks fairly early on....
A: So many things started with music. I was with my friend John Meyer, a wonderful songwriter, at this piano club on 9th Avenue in the theater district. They had a great big grand piano and a guy who would do show songs. Then he would ask if anybody felt like playing, so we’d dash for the piano.

I was playing and Johnny was playing, and everybody was gathering around singing. In the gathering was Jim Brooks, who was then a page at CBS. Our friendship started that way. 
 
Q: How did you get into television?
A: I had been asked to write sketches at this very posh East Side revue place called Upstairs at the Downstairs. It was a great opportunity, and my sketches got a lot of attention.

The maitre d’ told me, “Carol Burnett is coming to the 9:30 show Thursday to see your sketches. She’s going to do a variety show.” I called all of my friends and said, “Hey, you haven’t been to the show. Come Thursday at 9:30 and I’ll treat.” So everybody I’d ever met came to the 9:30.

At the time, I was making $15 per sketch. That was my entire income. Then Carol’s people called to say she’d be at the 11:30 show instead. Meanwhile, all my friends showed up for the 9:30, and all I saw were dollar bills with wings on them — I figured I was going to be in hock for the rest of my life.

But the great thing was, it was the worst show ever. My friends were so over-eager, they would laugh even if the waiter went by. It was kind of obnoxious. When Carol came to the 11:30 show, luckily it was just a nice, normal show. She loved it, and I got hired for The Entertainers.

Q: What was The Entertainers?
A: It was a variety show on CBS. It starred Carol and Bob Newhart, with Dom DeLuise, Ruth Buzzi and John Davidson. I was not only the youngest writer, but I was the only woman writing the show. In the morning, I would get dressed, eat breakfast, get sick to my stomach and go to the office. I was terrified.

I had heard about how they didn’t want women on TV shows because the guys were macho, cursing and stuff — they didn’t want to feel restricted. So I went to the first story conference and said, “Oh, the f---ing this and f---ing that… son of a bitch!” This nice older writer came up to me later and said, “We wish you wouldn’t curse so much. It just makes us embarrassed.” So, that didn’t work out too well. But I had a great time doing the show.
 
Q: You segued to a staff job on The Monkees....
A: I’d done The Entertainers, then nothing, nothing, nothing. I was living in New York. I got a call from my agent, who had talked to the producers for The Monkees. They were looking for writers from New York — they didn’t care what the writers had done, they were interested in what kind of brain they had. They said they wanted that New York mentality, the quickness. At the time, I had no idea how unusual a request that was.

I saw the pilot in a screening room with these guys with great big beards, great big glasses and curly Afros — this was the late sixties. I was thinking, “I’ve got to get on this show.” I loved the whole sensibility and silliness.

Q: Was the show already cast when you came in?
A: Yes. They had figured out that Micky [Dolenz] was going to be the wild one and Davy [Jones] was going to be the romantic one and Mike Nesmith was going to be the leader. At our first story meeting, they told us they couldn’t decide whether Peter Tork was going to be dumb or a genius, so they had us take a vote.

When we finished, it was like white smoke should be coming out of our building. The vote was for him to be dumb.

Q: Once again, you were the only female on the writing staff....
A: Yes. At that point, I was the only woman writing singly for TV. Everybody else had a male partner.
 
Q: Did the songs come first, before each episode was written?
A: We would get our outlines approved, then the script. Then they would put in the songs. But we had no say. That was a corporate thing. We didn’t really know about what was going on with the music and the rights and all the big fights. We were busy in our little rooms trying to figure out blackouts. They were off in their corporate places trying to figure out top-ten hits.

Q: A little later, you worked on the series Room 222....
A: Ever since Jim Brooks and I met singing around the piano, we’d been good friends. He had graduated from being a CBS page to working in the newsroom to writing [series] episodes. Early on, with his usual brilliance, he created Room 222. He asked me to write some episodes, and so we worked together. Later on, Allan Burns came in as producer and I got to work with Allan and Jim at the same time. I was the luckiest person in the world.

In one episode I was about to write, I decided to have the teachers go on strike, and I had them singing the school’s anthem. But they didn’t have an anthem. So I said, “I’ll write one.” But Fox said I couldn’t, because Lionel Newman was the head of their music department and was contracted to do all the music. So Lionel Newman wrote the music and I wrote the lyrics. We never met or even talked, but the song turned out fine. I still get royalties.

Q: How did you come to write for The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
A: Jim [Brooks] called and said, “We just got picked up. Allan and I would like you to write as many episodes as you want.” As many as I want? It was just so perfect. I had my first story meeting with Jim and Allan, and it was the way life should be. We would interrupt each other and laugh and carry on. When we first started talking, I was casually relating something that had happened to me, and Allan said, “That’s an episode!” It was great.

Q: Many have said that you were instrumental in the formation of Rhoda’s character....  
A: When I wrote my first script, I unconsciously softened Rhoda. I saw her as not so abrasive. I remembered seeing Valerie Harper performing in Story Theatre and thought she was adorable. So I wrote her softer, and then they said that they were going to continue writing her that way. She could still be the foil, but with softer edges. Rhoda was the “Come on, Mary, let’s do it!” Mary was the “Oh, I don’t know….”

Q: And you created the character of Georgette?
A: The episode was going to be a surprise party for Rhoda. In addition to our regular characters being at the party, they suggested I write a window dresser who worked with Rhoda. So just as Jim and Allan figured out who was the perfect duet with Mary, I thought, “Well, who’s the perfect duet with Rhoda?” Rhoda was sharp, so she couldn’t be sharp, so I thought I’d create a ditsy character.

I remembered seeing the Milos Forman film Taking Off, and Georgia [Engel] was in that — I thought her name was Georgette Engel. I kept her in mind when writing the ditsy girl and called the character Georgette. The minute I can get somebody’s voice, that’s when the writing becomes easier. I finished the script and Allan asked me, “Who do you see for Georgette?” I told him, and he thought that was a fine idea.

During rehearsal, Georgia was so sweet and endearing, we developed more and more lines for her. Then, at the end of filming on Friday night, the decision was made to make her a semi-regular. Allan — one of the few people in Hollywood who’s generous and brilliant — said, “Treva, you created her; we want you to tell her.” I told her and saw the happiest person I’d ever seen in my life. 

Q: How did she become Ted Baxter’s girlfriend? 
A: I wrote Ted as my mother. My mother once said to my cousin, who had just bought a house, “What an ugly little house!” She said it cheerfully. She did horrible things, but she didn’t know they were horrible. So Ted never would know that he was saying these horrible things. He would just get off scot-free, having a great time.

Well, we figured the only kind of person who would fall in love with him was somebody as pure as Georgette, who could see through that and see that he didn’t mean any of that stuff. Her character was such a pure soul. It seemed so unlikely, but in another way just so right. And over the seasons, she very much humanized him.

Q: What was it like working with Brooks and Burns?
A: The best, best, best. Jim and Allan set the standards so high that all the writers unconsciously tried to be up there. I think it was everybody’s time to blossom and burst out, and we were all surrounded by such approval and enthusiasm. Jim and Allan would be so happy if you’d come up with something great.

Jim has a particular laugh — sometimes if you’re listening to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, you’ll hear a kind of honk. You wanted that honk. And you wanted Allan’s chuckle and his “Great! Great!” You can’t separate out who did what with Jim and Allan — it was the combination, the synergy, the balance between them.  
 
Q: How about Grant Tinker?
A: Grant has said that he hired talented people and then got out of their way. He was smart enough to read the scripts and appreciate them when network people didn’t — and to support us against the network. He’s exactly what should be on every show — and isn’t.
 
Q: And Mary Tyler Moore?
A: Had Mary not been so gracious, the show never would have been what it was. She absolutely cheered when another actor shone. She didn’t care if it was her or if it was Ed, Val, whoever. All she cared about was that the show was good. 

Q: Which elements of the characters or the storylines came from your own experiences?
A: The episode “Rhoda the Beautiful” was very personal to me. Valerie came back from hiatus and had lost twenty pounds. Jim and Allan, knowing that I’d spent my life on and off diets, said, “We want you to write a show explaining what this twenty pounds means.”

I put a lot of my feelings into it. I knew the whole thing of losing weight and gaining weight, what it did to her pride and to her fears. She couldn’t be the old knockabout Rhoda anymore. So much of that was extremely moving to me. I remember crying as I wrote the ending, which is hard to do — type and cry, type and cry.

Q: You were the first woman writing solo to win an Emmy for comedy, for the episode “The Lou and Edie Story.”
A: I was asked what would I like to write about. I said I wanted to see Lou Grant in pain. He was always so together. A lot of my women friends had told me they found Ed Asner very sexy. Jim and Allan and Ed. [Weinberger] didn’t see that. I said, “Look, this is just what I’m reporting. A lot of my single women friends ask, ‘Is he married? He’s sort of sexy and cute.’” So I wanted to write about his relationship and see who he was emotionally.

This was around 1974, when a lot of wives were leaving their husbands. We decided that his wife was going to leave. It was an opportunity to write about someone who’s not used to thinking about feelings, who is married to a woman who has been unaware of her feelings and is finally bringing them to the surface and realizing she wants to know who she is, without him. I loved writing it. It was writing for a consummate actor.

Q: What made you leave the show ultimately?
A: I wanted very much to live in Europe. I didn’t want to leave the show per se, because I loved doing the show. But I felt that since I was 4, I had been taking music lessons, writing music, writing lyrics, writing sketches, writing scripts. I felt the pressure of always having to live up to expectations… to give out. I wanted to take in.

So I lived in Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I went all over and made new friends and saw different ways of living and experiencing. I just wanted to renew myself.

Q: You left at the top of your game. You’d just won two Emmys, including Writer of the Year, and yet you walked away from TV.
A: But then I walked back!

Q: Among the many projects you’ve worked on, you were brought in on the film Romancing the Stone....  
A: Michael Douglas called and said, “We have a problem. We have a film that’s unreleasable because everybody hates Kathleen Turner’s character.... We have enough money to reshoot the first scene, but the situation is, she’s totally alone in a room and we don’t know what to do. We’d like to fly you out first-class, put you up at a terrific hotel….”

Well, I already knew what to do while we were talking on the phone, but flying first class, a terrific hotel... So they flew me to L.A., and I rewrote the scene. What I did was, I gave her a cat — a cat that she adored, one that she talked to and prepared this special food for. She was really sweet with the cat. After that, everybody liked her character. Everything in life should be that simple. 

Q: What would you like to be remembered for?
A: I guess for loving all the characters that I’ve written. I can’t write a character unless I love them. And if I love them, it means that I’ve taken their flaws — and their faults, too — and accepted them. I wish I could do that 100 percent in real life. Without gobbling down a billion antidepressants. But, yeah, loving my characters, like Robert Benchley did.

Originally published Emmy® magazine issue 9-2013.

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