Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Slade-y Bunch

Addendum to my '60s sitcom post: I've linked to this before, but this interview with writer Bernard Slade is a good introduction to the world of the '60s (and early '70s) sitcom, particularly the world of the leading producer of sitcoms in that period, Screen Gems.

Slade, a fellow Canadian, had written a number of plays, TV plays (including one for the CBC's "General Motors Presents") and variety shows (like a special called "The Big Coin Sound" which he sort of reworked into "The Partridge Family"). He came out to Los Angeles and was hired by Danny Arnold to write a script for "Bewitched"; the script was called "The Witches Are Out," an allegory about race issues in which Samantha protests the use of a derogatory stereotype of witches -- an ugly old wart-ridden crone -- in one of her husband's advertising campaign. On the strength of the script, Slade got hired to write more for the show, eventually becoming the supervising writer in the second season; he also worked on one of the dumbest gimmick shows of the period, "My Living Doll."

After that, Slade created "three pilots a year" for Screen Gems, usually along particular specifications based on whatever was "in" at the time:

- "The Flying Nun" filled three needs: a need for a new show for Sally Field, a need for another gimmick show with a female star, and a need for a "nun" show at a time when nuns were big box-office.
- "Bridget Loves Bernie" was Screen Gems's response to the success of "All in the Family"; scrambling around for an "edgy" sitcom, they unveiled an updated "Abie's Irish Rose" with a Catholic-Jewish intermarriage.
- "The Girl With Something Extra" fulfilled the need for still another Sally Field show as well as another supernatural show to take the place of the ones that had just gone off the air.
- "The Partridge Family" was a combination of things that were popular at the time: shows and movies about large families, family musical acts, and incorporating music into sitcoms.

Slade is a very talented writer and his writing was always solid, though you can clearly tell when a project can't be salvaged even with a good writer behind it (nothing could have made "The Girl With Something Extra" work). In the interview he seems dismissive of much of his TV work and indicates that he thinks his best work in the medium was in the one-season wonder "Love on a Rooftop"; that would be my judgment as well. "Love On a Rooftop" was one of the few non-gimmick shows Screen Gems produced in this period, focusing instead on a young married couple struggling to get by in San Francisco; it was a great show that will probably never see a DVD release, alas. Here are Slade's answers to questions about "Love on a Rooftop", part of a fairly exhaustive site for the show and its star, Peter Duell.

After twenty years in television, Slade went back into play writing and had a huge success with Same Time, Next Year; ever since then he's been a fine playwright in the Neil Simon mold, but with a better sense of character comedy than Simon (i.e. his characters may make a lot of wisecracks but they don't all sound the same). His second best-known play was the tragi-comedy Tribute, starring Jack Lemmon as a character reportedly based in part on Jerry Davis.

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