Susan Silver, Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms, www.merrittbooks.com
With the recent unsavory revelations coming out of the entertainment industry, Susan Silver’s new book, Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms, has a timely quality not always enjoyed by tell-all memoirs.
Silver, who wrote laugh lines for some of the most iconic sitcoms of the 1970s, writes in her book that she is like Woody Allen’s character, Zelig, who stood next to every famous person in history. In her case, some of those persons were Jim Morrison, a college acquaintance she knew before he assumed his bad-boy persona; Bill Cosby, who she escaped by inches; Elvis Presley, whose intentions she did not wait around to assess; Steve McQueen, who abruptly withdrew his dinner invitation when she pointed out a man she had had a crush on, and Richard Nixon, who, blessedly, did not make any advances.
Still, she says, she did not face the kind of sexual pressure many women—and men—are reporting today. “I was either the luckiest person or nobody wanted me,” she quipped. I knew Harvey Weinstein but he was just nasty. I know it was prevalent, but if I said ‘no’ to men, they were just fine with it. Stupid men, that they would risk everything to be with us. Good for us.”
In the book, which she will discuss and sign November 18th at 1PM at the Merritt Book Store in Millbrook, Silver chronicles her years as a trailblazing comedy writer on 1970s blockbusters such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Maude and The Partridge Family.
Her tour de force career was, ironically, enhanced by the very paucity of women in the business at that time. A Midwestern girl who grew up near Milwaukee, she was the daughter of parents who did not encourage—or really discourage—her career choice. “I started writing when I was about ten years old and was always a funny kid, mainly to keep myself sane,” she said. “I don’t think they wanted me to be in show business. I was an only child and wasn’t allowed to cross Main Street by myself until I was twelve.”
Despite her parents’ doubts, there were telltale signs of their pride in her accomplishments. Her father, Morey Bensman, kept everything she wrote until his death at age 91, and her mother, Dorothy Horowitz, initially dubious about her daughter’s writing career, was immediately converted when Emmy Award-winning actor Ed Asner mentioned Silver in his acceptance speech.
At eighteen she escaped Milwaukee, going to Northwestern University, where she became involved in theater and soon identified herself as a writer rather than as an actor. “I wrote a sketch and when it was performed I could hear people laughing,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘That is what I want to do.’”
She was literally forced to look beyond the careers then open to women, confessing that she couldn’t be a secretary because I have the worst skills. I was told you have to take typing and shorthand, but I couldn’t do it so I took speed writing. But when I got a job at a local television station in LA, I would have to make up the letters I sent out because I couldn’t read the squiggles I put on paper. It was a nightmare.”
At the University of California at Los Angeles she studied screenwriting with Francis Ford Coppola, acted in local theater productions and appeared on-camera stints at TV stations. In 1969 was casting director for Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, but it was putting stories on paper that still attracted her.
“I wanted to be a writer,” she said, “but I was told men didn’t want any women in their office, which was an apartment. I was told they wanted to walk around in their underwear and fart. Farting almost cost me my career.”
Instead, she closed the door to her Laugh-In office and wrote anyway. She formed a writing partnership with Iris Rainer Dart, author of Beaches. The two wrote Love American Style and co-wrote an episode of That Girl with Marlo Thomas. The episode called for Anne Marie to marry her long-time boyfriend but Thomas nixed the idea, not wanting to let down single women.
Then serendipity struck. Dart took a hiatus to have a baby and Silver saw the Mary Tyler Moore Show, which had debuted mid-season. She was then managed by sitcom icon, Garry Marshall. “I told Garry I could do that show because I was from the Midwest and had worked in a small television station.”
With Marshall backing her, she was allowed to pitch stories for the series, stories that reflected a previously unexplored female perspective. “I wasn’t aware that I could make up stories,” she revealed, “so I pitched stories from my own life.” Her first was one most women can relate to, about being a bridesmaid in a gown you detest for someone you don’t like very much.
“It was the best experience,” she said. “Allan Burns and Jim Brooks wanted an authentic female point of view. I went in with stories that most women could have shared but men hadn’t heard them before. It was the best possible place to start.”
She said there are three schools of comedy: realistic (Bob Newhart), political (Maude) and “recess” (Happy Days and its ilk). “I managed to do all three.”
She explained that sitcom writing is all about listening to the characters’ voices and how one sounds different from others. She based some of her characters on people she knew, fashioning Bob Newhart on her laconic ex-husband while her mother was the model for Maude.
Mary Tyler Moore was both very close to the character she played and executive producer of her show. “She was just that person on the show,” she said. “She never acted like a diva and at readings she would always get it immediately. Valerie (Harper, who played Rhoda) experimented a little and Cloris (Leachman, who played Phyllis) was just nuts and was all over the place.”
Silver said the prospects for writers has not gotten better since the 1970s, when many episodes were written by freelancers. “It’s very different,” she said. “Now they have this writers’ room thing, where there are seven people in a room writing a show. I don’t like it. I call it ‘spritzing’ and don’t consider it writing. There is no pride of ownership. We had our meetings and then went home to write.”
Worse than the lack of individual craftsmanship is ageism. “If you are over forty, don’t show up,” she said. She recounted the story of one successful writer who partnered with his son. “He was told to let his son talk in meetings and then go home and do the writing.”
It is not a wasteland in entertainment, however. She points to comedians like Amy Schumer Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Mindy Kaling. Pressed for a television show she likes, she termed Veep “brilliant” but said she is now more of a news junkie. She offers a weekly radio commentary, Susan Says, on the NPR affiliate robinhood.com.