Sitcom Writers on Favorite Sitcom Moments

The “sitcom moment” — Sam proposing to Diane on the boat, Seinfeld’s “Master of Your Domain,” Lucy at the chocolate factory — has died.

In memoriam, a couple years ago I asked some of the most respected sitcom writers and actors in the world whose e-mail addresses I had  to pick their favorite moment in sitcom history.

What’s yours? Let’s let this premium Wordpress comment feature sing…

 

Phil Rosenthal (Creator/Writer: Everybody Loves Raymond): One moment? That’s impossible.

Jonathan Schmock (Writer/Director: Real Time with Bill Maher): There are so many.

Eric Gilliland (Writer/Executive Producer: Roseanne): By asking me to choose only one moment, you do realize you’re asking me to ignore “Vitameatavegamin.”

Nell Scovell (Creator/Writer: Sabrina, The Teenage Witch;The Simpsons): And the life raft inflating in the Petrie living room on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Greg Malins (Writer/Executive Producer: FriendsWill & Grace): It’s hard to pick one moment because I watched so many sitcoms growing up, they’ve all kind of melded in my brain into one giant episode. Like, The Brady Brunch goes to Hawaii where Mallory has to confront a teacher who touched her inappropriately played by Mork’s son, Jonathan Winters who lived in an egg. Willis tried tried to tell his brother about it but he didn’t understand what he was talking about then Newhart woke up and it was a dream. Then at the end Ted Danson pulled off his wig and it gave me nightmares about going bald.

Phil Rosenthal: Every moment with my family on Raymond was a gift. Here’s one off the top of my head. MARIE: Don’t you tell me to be quiet. I have a mind of my own, you know, I can contribute. I’m not just some trophy wife. FRANK: You’re a trophy wife? What contest in hell did I win?

Eric Gilliland: There’s Rhoda’s Wedding…

Nell Scovell: And the substitute teacher (voiced by Dustin Hoffman) handing Lisa Simpson a note that read simply: “You are Lisa Simpson.”

Claudia Lonow (Writer/Creator: Rude AwakeningAccidentally on Purpose): And Mork’s first appearance on Happy Days. But maybe that’s just because Robin Williams had been sleeping on my floor for a month.

Jay Kogen: I’m not sure if this counts as the greatest moment in sitcom history because it was on the radio, but it’s the greatest moment in program history. On The Jack Benny Program, Benny’s character was insanely, hilariously cheap. When a robber comes up to him and says, “Your money or your life!” the audience roars with laughter before Benny even says a word. Then the robber says, “Look, bud, I said your money or your life!” And Benny says, “I’m thinking it over.”

The genius of this moment is that it can only come from a show that you’ve established all this information over the course of years. We know Benny. So nothing needs to be explained. That’s perfection. When I have written moments on shows like Frasier and The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle where a look says more and gets a bigger laugh than words ever could, I tip my hat in gratitude to “Your money or your life.”

Stephen Root (Actor: King of the HillNews RadioOffice Space): And Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie Bunker.

Claudia Lonow: And when Phyllis suspects Mary Tyler Moore of sleeping with Lars and says: “Did you know Lars has a pathological fear of getting hair stuck in his throat?”

Merrill Markoe (Writer/Creator: Late Night with David Letterman): On The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Burns played a guy who had a show. When he wanted to find out how the rest of the plot was progressing with his wife Gracie in the scenes he wasn’t in, he’d go upstairs, turn on the TV and watch his own show: Gracie, plotting behind his back with other characters. That double-edged surrealism so killed me that I kind of tuned out sitcoms for a long time afterward.

Nell Scovell: There’s Taxi when Alex opens the door for Death (a Girl Scout).

Stephen Root: And Opie shooting a bird with a slingshot and raising the baby birds on The Andy Griffith Show.

Eric Gilliland: …and Roseanne, Dan and Jackie getting stoned in the bathroom.

 

Jim Vallely (Writer: Arrested DevelopmentThe Golden Girls): I was sick when I was a kid and got to stay home for a year, which is the first time I saw Bilko in reruns. It was also the first time I laughed at an “adult” show. (Actually, it was the first time I laughed at any show except for Bugs Bunny).

There’s an episode where Bilko accidently inducts a monkey into the army. After they’ve learned they’ve inducted a monkey, they decide that the only way to get the monkey out of the army is to court martial him. Bilko defends the monkey (because even a monkey needs a lawyer at a court martial) and of course, the monkey (not the best trained one) goes off his mark and the brilliant Phil Silvers does some of the best ad-libbing in television history. It’s almost sixty years old, and I saw it recently and it made me laugh just as hard as it did forty or so years ago, which makes me either a very mature 12 year old or a very immature 56 year old.

Kevin Rooney (Retired Comedian/Writer): I don’t know what these people are talking about. My favorite moments of sitcoms I worked on (all bad) all concern personal interactions with other writers and staff in the writing room.

Kevin RooneyKevin Rooney, Retired Comedian/Writer

Jonathan Schmock: Those types of moments are not to be shared with “civilians.” Sorry. I don’t know if winemakers save the best, most complex wine for themselves, but sitcom writers do. They come in a flash and are gone, unexplainable.

Kevin Biggins (Writer: The Cleveland ShowTosh.O): The jokes that don’t make it into scripts are often the funniest. Dirty stuff. Sometimes sexist. Mostly racist.

Kevin Rooney: …but the shows themselves and the scripts we were working on? No moment stands out as funny or interesting. Nothing. Junk. Distractions used to sell soap.

Laraine Newman (Actor, Saturday Night Live): Although I suppose SCTV can’t be classified as a sitcom, this sketch absolutely blew me away. I Cry Each Day I Die was a soap opera setting that kept changing reality with a consistent cast of characters. You thought you were seeing a screen test at first but then the ingénue who seems to have gotten the part (Kathrine O’Hara) stands up, goes over to her director and has an argument with him as if she’s been doing the show for years. They yell “cut’ as if that were a scene, then another scene commences and so on and so on. A show within a show within a show. The thru line is Andrea Martin as the alcoholic actress saying the last line of each scene. So if the last line was “Wasn’t she good?” Andrea would say “Sure…I was good once” Then she throws back her flask and sucks on it. IF the line were, “Wasn’t that funny?” She’d say “Yeah… I was funny once.” Flask.

I was on Saturday Night Live at the time and with all due respect to our brilliant writers I felt that we never really touched the edginess of SCTV’s style. What was exceptional about that moment for me was understanding the tone being set by Canadian sensibilities. The entire cast wasn’t Canadian but the show was idiosyncratic and personal — so different from anything that could be seen in America. It’s no wonder it was assimilated so quickly.

David Pressman (Actor/Comedian: NewhartMr. Sunshine): I loved the “very special” episodes. Like when Gary Coleman was molested by a photographer (Gordon Jump) on Diff’rent Strokes. Or in Growing Pains when Tracey Gold’s boyfriend (Matthew Perry) drives drunk and dies. Good Times seemed to have a “very special” episode every other week.

But my personal favorite was when Edith was raped on All in the Family.

 

More on this tomorrow…

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