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Show me the Funny!

In the world of situation comedy, Penn alums are getting big bucks for big yucks.

By Howard Gensler

To understand what it's like to create situation comedies in the crazed, egomaniacal world of network television, talk to Bob Young, C'74. A 15-year veteran of laugh tracks, punchlines, and more than a half-dozen popular shows, Young can philosophize about television with equal parts merriment and bile.
Here's an example. In a sitcom, this would be the teaserthe short, pithy opening which may or may not have anything to do with anything:
"A writer and a director and a network executive are sitting at Spago having lunch. And the waiter brings each of them a bowl of the carrot soup. And each of Headline: Show me the Funny!them tastes it. And the writer says, 'That is wonderful. It is utterly the essence of carrot. It's perfectly seasoned. It's just perfect soup. I wouldn't change a thing.'
"And the director tastes his and says, 'You know, it is quite good. It does have that carrot flavor. But the seasoning is off. I would add a little more salt. I would puree it a little further, maybe reduce it, get it a little thicker, and then I think you would have good soup.'
"The network executive tastes his and says, 'It's pretty good soup. Let's piss in it.' "
Normally the teaser would end herebut this isn't a sitcom. So here's another Young example:
"On My Two Dads [a somewhat improbably-premised family sitcom about a teenage girl who lives with two menplayed by Greg Evigan and Paul Reiserbecause her deceased mother was unsure which was the father], we would spend a lot of time writing every line of dialogue. And we would bring the script to the table, which is the first day of rehearsal, in what I considered to be damn near perfect shape. Big laughs. Good stories. Excellent. The network would listen to it and say 'You know, what if it was less about the two dads. Our research shows that we're getting more of an audience in the younger demographics, so let's make it more about the little girl's life.' So we would stay up until 2 a.m. totally rewriting a perfectly good script, so that on the second day of production the cast would get an entirely new script. The cast gets the script, which they thought was good the first day, and sees all this new writingand none of it makes any sense. They didn't hear the network notes. And they come up to us and say 'Why did you throw out all the good stuff?' So then we'd stay up the second night until 2 a.m. trying to write it kind of back to what it was the first day, but trying to keep some of the network notes. So then we bring it in the third day, it's now another new script, and now the network's angry: 'What happened to all our notes?!' So by Friday, the fifth day, you've got this cobbled together, malformed, hump-backed, horrid script comprised of network notes, the parts that the cast was fond of in the first place, and studio notes from the production company. And it's almost never as good as the first day."
Ah, television.
Young last appeared in the pages of the Gazette in the company of his then-partner Bob Myer, C'73, when the former Mask & Wiggers were the hardest-working comedians in Philadelphia ["The Value of Silliness," November 1981]. (Young married Joan Ruggles, the photographer who took the photos for the piece.) In 1982, the team left Philadelphia for Los Angeles. "Our goal when we came out here was making it as stand-up comedians," says Young, "but we discovered when we got here that there were a zillion comedians. But there weren't a zillion writers." So after a year of writing sample scripts ("specs"), Myer and Young got their first jobpenning prep school bon mots on The Facts of Life. From there, they quickly moved up the sitcom food chain to positions on 227, Who's the Boss? and My Two Dads. It was during that show that the duo severed their partnership and began working independently, though they remain friends. Continued. . .

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Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette | Last modified Mon, Jun 9, 1997