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Exit Laughing

Once, they were the kings of comedy. Wisecracking gag-writers who wrote for the biggest stars around: Jack Benny, George Burns, Phil Silvers. Now they're pitching TV pilots to stony-faced young execs, if they haven't quit entirely.

May 26, 1996|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Did you hear the one about the old comedy star and the pishers?

Several months before he died, Jack Benny met with a roomful of young NBC executives in Burbank and pitched an idea for a sitcom. He was in failing health, but after more than 60 years in show biz, the legendary funny man thought he had a killer concept:

A liberated modern woman falls for a traditional Italian man and the show is about clashing cultures--old and new--as their love affair blossoms. It was 1974, a time of domestic turmoil, and Benny told his hosts that viewers might enjoy a wry, gentle look at such change.

The 80-year-old comedian, one of the nation's most beloved entertainers, "really got into it . . . his pitch was just a marvelous acting performance," recalls Sheldon Leonard, a veteran TV producer and writer who had accompanied his longtime friend to the studio.

"But then there was silence," Leonard adds. "Finally, one kid told Jack the idea didn't work. He offered to show him how to make it work, and he looked forward to Jack's rewrite."

Benny rose slowly and said: "I look forward to it too. But I've got root canal this afternoon and I look forward to that even more." Calmly, he strolled out of the room.

"This is a business that spits out the old," says Leonard, 89, shaking his head at the memory. "Experience doesn't count much anymore, because the people in control are children. In television, a whole cast of characters is dying out, and as they go, who really cares?"

The man who produced "I Spy," "Make Room for Daddy" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show" laughs ruefully, and a table full of comedy writers nods in agreement. Here at the Algonquin West, it's just one more story they tell about the pishers--a Yiddish term for inexperienced young people who think they know it all--and the death of television's golden age.

Call it Broadway Danny Rose does Beverly Hills: a wisecracking crowd of writers who eat well and dress well, but couldn't sell a hit series now if their lives depended on it. Once, they were the kings of comedy. Some, like Sid Caesar, were huge stars. Others wrote for Benny, George Burns and Phil Silvers. They were powers behind the scenes, gag-writers with their fingers on America's funny bone who thought they could laugh . . . and work . . . forever.

Now, they meet at different restaurants every month and compare notes on who's died, whose prostate is in worse shape, and who's still trying to sell a pilot. To a man, they insist they're not bitter. Yet their faces tell another story. This is a floating round table of wounded egos and angry pride, where heartburn fights with heartbreak for center stage.

"The joke's on us," says Aaron Ruben, one of the regulars at Leonard's table. "We once embodied a whole world, a very special way of doing comedy, and one by one we're disappearing. But you know, it's not like we can't breathe. In this town, you die when you can't work."

So does an entire culture. The aging pranksters who once ruled comedy TV are truly endangered people--craftsmen from another era who pioneered a new medium and captivated millions of viewers, only to lose the biggest ratings battle of all.

"I don't think people become less funny as they get older, but they do become less hip," says Barnet Kellman, producer of "Murphy Brown," "Mad About You" and other shows. "Sitcoms reflect shifting tastes, and there's a whole new frame of reference today. You've got to be in on the joke to tell it. If you're not, what's the point of trying?"

A look at the prime-time lineup from 1965--the last year Benny's show regularly appeared on TV--tells the story. In a quieter, less cynical era, Americans watched "My Three Sons," "The Lucy Show," "Bewitched," "McHale's Navy," "My Favorite Martian," "The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet," "Hazel" and the like.

Today's situation comedies are quicker, nastier and more youth-oriented. Casual jokes about condoms and masturbation that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago are now commonplace.

"Styles of humor change and writers have to stay current," says Bill Persky, who wrote for "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and others. "If Marlo Thomas had a plumbing problem in the '60s, she'd call her father. In the '70s, Mary Tyler Moore would call a plumber. In the '80s, Kate and Allie would fix it themselves--and then Kate would have a six-month affair with the plumber."

Patience is also a thing of the past: Sitcoms that once told two-act, linear stories have been replaced by quirky, riff-driven shows like "Seinfeld" that put a higher premium on attitude and jokes per minute than plot or character. Meanwhile, actors leap from obscurity to network TV with the speed of a punch line. Nowadays, says producer Norman Lear, "somebody who makes people laugh in a club for three minutes gets their own series. It used to take years."

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