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How About a Sitcom on Ageism?

ENDANGERED PEOPLE. As times change, some colorful ways of life are disappearing. Last in an occasional series.

May 26, 1996|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An older generation of television comedy writers is dying, their culture and values a thing of the past. But in this youth-oriented business, immortality is just a laugh track away.

You can whine about ageism all you want . . . or turn your troubles into a hit series.

Here's the pitch: In four decades of American television, a handful of shows have hit pay dirt with behind-the-scenes stories about comedy. "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was the first, and others have followed, most notably "Seinfeld" and "The Larry Sanders Show" today.

So why not do a sitcom about ageism and TV? Brandon Tartikoff smells a winner.

"I have two friends, both sitcom writers in their mid-40s, and they were complaining how they couldn't get arrested when they tried to pitch an idea these days," says NBC's former programming chief and the co-creator of "Cheers," "Family Ties" and "The Cosby Show."

"They spoke facetiously about finding two kids in their 20s and training them how to pitch shows. The kids could get in the door because they looked contemporary, and these two older writers--behind the scenes--could keep working. I thought, we've got a good TV show here."

If this sounds familiar, it is. Hollywood is filled with apocryphal stories about writers who tried this exact strategy, with mixed results. The Woody Allen movie "The Front," about blacklisting in the McCarthy era, had a similar premise. Currently, there's a play at Actors Alley in North Hollywood, "Marvin and Mel" by George Tricker and Neil Rosen, which tells yet another story about aging comedy writers--except that the front is a Latina instead of two males.

"There's more truth here than meets the eye," says Tartikoff about "Household Names," his pilot in development for New World Entertainment. "It's painful and funny all at once."

In the pitch memo, fictional writers Paul and Artie ponder their fate. "Our sin is that we're not 25," Paul gripes. "If we were 25, we'd be the hottest schmucks in Tinseltown."

The die is cast when Paul and Artie visit the Movietime video store on La Cienega and meet Armando and Rick: "Two refugees from the Valley (Quentin Tarantino wannabes with no film in their camera or paper in their typewriter). . . . They know everything on TV because they are total couch potatoes. They crave money but lack the ambition to go out and get it."

Sounds real. But the joke is lost on Hal Kanter, 77, a legendary TV figure who produced "The George Gobel Show" in the 1950s. He's had it with all this kid stuff. Why can't the networks aim comedy shows at people over 60, he asks? Don't they have credit cards too?

"The Eskimos have a habit of putting old people on an ice floe and floating them out to sea," Kanter says. "And that's how a lot of us feel we've been treated in television. But the problem is, there are millions of us on this ice floe. Aren't we a market share by now?"

We'll bring it up with the big boys, Hal. And while we're at it, let's fix those laugh tracks on late-night TV. They haven't been updated in years, and it could be that a lot of the voices yukking it up in our living rooms have been . . . uh . . . demographically terminated.

"Imagine, dead people laughing on television!" Kanter says. "They can't keep us down!"

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