Interview with Rowby Goren, Writer for Pink Lady ...and Jeff
Well, kiddies, time to pop some corn, pour yourselves a Kahlua and cream, and put on “I Luv I Jah” by Bad Brains, because this is Mendo Talks to Rather Interesting People from Around the Internet!
So in keeping with the fact that absolutely every aspect of pop culture is inextricably tied to every other aspect of pop culture, I now get the chance to pick the mind of someone who was a writer for Laugh-In, knew two-thirds of Spinal Tap before it even existed, directed a movie starring a current U.S. Senator, somehow found a way to turn a violent R-rated movie into a kids’ show, wrote alongside Sid Caesar, and won an Emmy for writing jokes on Hollywood Squares.
Yeesh! And I thought Howard Hughes deserved a movie about him.
Yes, I was just as shocked as anyone when Rowby Goren himself showed up on our site recently (which he found by googling himself, how awesome is that?), so I pounced at the chance to find out just what the hell was going on at NBC in those days. What I got was more than I could have ever imagined.
Let’s find out what a man who’s done all this could possibly have to say for himself! Together!
Mendo: Before we get started, I was looking over some of your work, and there are a lot of my favorites on there…
Rowby Goren: There are some that aren’t on that list. [Not sure how he knew that… —Mendo] Another infamous show, I don’t know if it’s on your website or not, it’s called Mr. T and Tina. It was starring Pat Morita, from Happy Days. That was an infamous show, I guess, in some ways. Then there’s Pink Lady and Jeff. Those are the two most controversial shows, I guess.
Laugh-In wasn’t controversial?
I was just a kid on that show. I was 20 years old when I got on that show.
I read somewhere that you were working at a Laundromat before you landed that job?
I was working at a divorce court. I was a typist clerk. Laugh-In got on the air, and I would take the bus on Wednesdays to watch them tape. Sneaking into NBC, it was a lot easier in those days, to get in to watch them tape the cocktail parties and the Joke Wall. I just sat way up on the mostly-empty audience bleachers and watched the tapings. The production company was basically unaware of my presence. I was worried if they caught me, they might kick me out.
I would take the bus to my job at the Los Angeles County Courthouse. On the bus ride, I would write jokes into a tablet. I would write jokes during my two 15-minute lunch breaks and jokes during my 30-minute lunch breaks—with my dream of becoming a Laugh-In writer. In the evenings, I would type up the jokes into a 3 ring binder, which I still have, by the way.
About six months into the show, while I was still working as a typist clerk at the Marriage Counseling division of Los Angeles County Divorce Court, I mailed in my ten best jokes on 3×5 cards to George Schlatter [executive producer and creator of Laugh-In]. A couple days later, I picked up the phone in the Marriage Counseling office. It was George Schlatter, inviting me to meet with him and Dan Rowan at his offices in Burbank. I met with George and Dan the next day. They had no idea that I was sneaking into the taping of the show—and I didn’t tell them.
During the meeting, George offered me the job, and I put in my resignation at divorce court. There was plenty of excitement at the Los Angeles County Courthouse; Laugh-In was the biggest show on television. Judges took their photos with me, I signed autographs, etc. My transition from a typist clerk to the Laugh-In writing staff took about five days.
It must have been a pretty interesting time at NBC during the ‘60s.
Oh, it was! Anyone could go in there. They had a guard, but it wasn’t… you could go watch them tape The Tonight Show, I’d go into the green room and Johnny Carson was there, and you could just do anything you wanted. Now there’s tons of security there. It was exciting, it was like the MGM of television. All the great shows were on, and they’d built the sets there, the soap operas, local shows, late night specials… The Dean Martin show was taped right across from Laugh-In. Elvis’s comeback special was shot there, a friend of mine produced and wrote it.
You were just at Ground Zero, weren’t you?
It was quite exciting in those days. It really was.
You did a couple movies around that time, Cracking Up and Tunnel Vision, right?
After Laugh-In, I did a bunch of other things, and ended up writing for Tony Orlando and Dawn. Tony told us writers, “Look, I know I’m not a comedian, but I’ll do my best.” So we did the best we could for him.
But while I was there, a friend of mine, Neal Israel was in charge of promo at CBS, so I produced a lot of promos, freelance, while I was working with Tony. We had a very crude editing system, literally a felt pen that we would mark the tape with, and we’d get two tapes and sync ‘em up. It was amazing how well we got them to sync together. Finally, Neal decided he couldn’t stand it there anymore, so he decided he was going to do a stage show called Tunnel Vision, with a mixture of live actors and tape, at what’s now called the Improv.
We started filming some of the sketches at the theater, and the guy who was running the box office, Joe Roth…
The Joe Roth?
His career just skyrocketed, he’s still very big to this day, but he was working at the box office there, and he was the manager of the show. So, we were filming the actors and Neal decided, “Let’s make it a movie, instead.” Which is why half the film is film and half of it is tape. We edited it at CBS using the film editing device at the promo department. Neal got into a lot of trouble for doing that. We even stole the background for the CBS Eye, for the clouds you see behind the Tunnelvision eyeball. When his boss up in New York found out about that…
I remember walking out of CBS with a dub of Johnny Mathis special so we would have something to tape on; we really did it guerilla-style in those days. After that, they wanted a real quickie movie, that was Cracking Up. They just wanted one real fast. Tunnel Vision did very well, it was the first film to star Chevy Chase; Chevy shot a sequence where he was seen for about ten seconds, that was right before Saturday Night Live came out, and when it did they promoted it like it was Chevy’s movie. His manager wasn’t too happy about it.
I know there were a couple of the SCTV guys and Ron Silver in there, as well.
There were a lot of people in Tunnel Vision who went on to do lots of things! Lenny and Squiggy from Laverne and Shirley are in there, Harry Shearer, a lot of them were in both films. Tunnel Vision was more successful, but I directed Cracking Up, it was one of the last pictures shot on the MGM backlot before they turned it into condos. They could have had an incredible tourist attraction; the train station from Meet Me in St. Louis, Andy Hardy’s street was there. They had just finished shooting the remake of King Kong, so we were able to reuse a lot of the rocks for the earthquake. It was kind of sad to be in that great facility and know that it was going to be torn down in less than a year. But we had a great time.
It’s kind of funny that nowadays, if you try to look up Cracking Up, you’ll find a Jerry Lewis movie that was made around the same time, since he ended up on Pink Lady and Jeff.
Yeah, episode five.
We had a lot of stars on that show, and I know it’s implied in your review that the stars didn’t want to do it, but they did. They had a wonderful time. Fred Silverman, who was in charge of NBC, would get us all these stars, and they made good money for being on the show.
The big problem was availability, we had one sketch… I think it was about an army show. First we wrote it for Penny Marshall, but she couldn’t do it. Then Erik Estrada couldn’t do it. You could imagine what it was like, we were rewriting constantly. Every day for a week, it was gonna be a different star, I don’t know who ended up doing it…
I haven’t seen most of them. Mark Evanier has videotapes of many of the shows he’s done.
Mark Evanier, the only person ever to work on Dungeons & Dragons and Law & Order…
And Cheers! And most of the Garfield cartoons!
Speaking of which, I noticed somewhere along the line you transitioned from live action to Saturday morning cartoons. How did that come about?
It just sort of happened. I don’t know what I was working on, but I got a call from my agent. I’d already done one for Hanna-Barbera, but I don’t count that, I had no idea what I was doing. But I got a call, for whatever reason, saying, “Can you write Fat Albert?”
I didn’t think so. They spoke in a sort of pseudo-black dialect, I wasn’t used to that kind of style. But I went in, did one script, they really liked it, and offered to put me on staff. So, I was doing live-action and animation at the same time for a while. What was nice about animation in those days was, if they liked you, whatever you wrote pretty much made it onscreen. When you’re doing a sitcom, you’re writing it a few days before taping, and not only do you find problems, but the performers say, “I don’t wanna do this, I don’t wanna do that.” When voiceover actors come in, they pretty much say whatever you wrote.
On all the more prestigious shows I worked on, like Alice and Hart to Hart, the scripts just got butchered. They were never your work. With animation, in my case at least, what I wrote was what they did, so it ended up giving me more confidence. It was like writing for the old pulp magazines—you wrote a lot of stuff. I wrote some comedy, action-adventure, which was interesting for me, because I wasn’t qualified to write it, but I did.
I was writing more and more animation; NBC, CBS, ABC always wanted to use me, I always got on well with whoever was in charge. It just sort of evolved. I moved into animation, and eventually got out of the writing business altogether and got into the internet.
To all these websites that have popped up twenty years after we did these shows, you have to understand, we were writers for hire. It’s not like I walked up and had the idea for Pink Lady and Jeff. They were given to us, and we thought, “This is never going to make it.” We wrote the pilot, and to our surprise, it was picked up for thirteen episodes.
The entertainment business is make-believe; nothing is any good until it’s finished and it becomes good. You have to believe in the show. When we were writing Pink Lady, we were really excited, even though at first we had no idea how we were going to do it. We got Sid Caesar, we got a wonderful supporting cast, and the network really let us do what we wanted to do. They let us run with it, and even though the end results have you people describing it as painful to watch, when we were writing it, in our make-believe minds we were trying to do some really good stuff. Jeff Altman, who, actually, I recommended to be on that show, he was very talented. A great ad-libber.
It’s always a little interesting to me to read a review where they say, “What were they thinking?” You have to do what you can to get the script approved by the producer, the network, Mattel (in the case of He-Man)… There’s a lot of twisting around when you’re writing for hire. To see your show reviewed twenty years later by someone who wasn’t there is interesting. To say the least.
You mentioned having to get scripts approved by both the network and sometimes a toy company. Were there any tricks you learned to speed up the process?
Well, you just get good at it. And that’s why I got out of it, because I didn‘t realize I was getting so good at giving them what they wanted. In the case of writing for Saturday morning, for example, Judy Price, president of CBS’s daytime… I knew how to get my work through her, she liked my work, so I knew what she would like. But you also want to make something the audience will like.
I basically started to feel that I was prostituting my talent. It wasn’t always that way; for example, when I was writing on The Berenstain Bears, before I got there, the Berenstains were ready to pull out, they were furious with the scripts they were getting. They wanted to pull the show. I came in, I wrote a script, they loved it, and from then on I worked very close with Stan and Jan [Berenstain]. It was a good experience. It was usually a good experience, but it was always someone else’s property, like Pink Lady.
I had an interesting experience when I wrote Hart to Hart: I came in with an idea for a Valentine’s special. They liked it, but then I got a call saying we had to change it to Christmas, because there was going to be a strike, and it had to get done right away. The story editor was one of the Mankiewicz writers, the famous family of writers of film and television. He and I came up with this idea that at one point Mr. and Mrs. Hart would be in bed reading Variety. Mankiewicz goes on vacation, I finish the story, and a different story editor reads it over and says, “What the hell is this all about? Mr. and Mrs. Hart reading the trades?”
Even within the staff, you’re always juggling things around trying to get them approved. Of course, Hart to Hart was a pretty ridiculous show, but he was getting hung up on the magazine, when I was told to put that in. You’re dealing with all these things.
When I was originally writing my recaps of Pink Lady, I read that when SNL started spoofing the show, Mie and Kei took it personally.
Probably they did, because it was them that they were talking about, and they did work really hard. They didn’t speak a word of English, but they had someone working with them phonetically, and they were not prima donnas. They came in early, and they did their absolute best.
Pink Lady was very exciting to do, because the writers, for good or bad, had a lot of control and they listened to us a lot closer than they would otherwise. But we still had to put up with changing guest stars overnight. I remember when… What was the name of that singer you said was barely awake?
I don’t know what was going through his mind, from the time he entered the studio until he left, he had that weird look. It was at the end of his career, although he would become big again right before he died. But, he was like that the entire taping.
Sid Caesar was very exciting to work for. He’d worked with all the great writers of television, Carl Reiner, Woody Allen, but he treated us like we were those same kind of people! He just worked with us, and to see him shape a sketch or rewrite something we’d worked on was very exciting. We had him, I think, for all thirteen shows. Our supporting cast all came from an improv background, so they were able to work with us, changing the scripts to make them, though you may disagree, better.
When I was writing for Laugh-In, everyone asked us what we were smoking, but we didn’t smoke marijuana, we were working so hard. Well, one guy was, but I didn’t know that at the time.
I notice, nowadays, you have quite a few websites set up.
When I segued out of writing, I told my agent, “I’m not writing for TV anymore, don’t even call me.” Then, about a year later, I got called back to work with some people I’d worked with before, but I had no idea what I was doing there. I wrote one last script and left. I don’t even know what show it was.
I got into internet consulting, building websites for businesses, which was boring after working in television, but I did it because I was interested in the internet and thought maybe someday video would become a factor online. I had a friend at UCLA who was in charge of running videos online, who said I could use the UCLA bandwidth to do a show, which was really expensive in those days. I started doing a lot of little shows with puppets, very experimental.
The internet is the solution. I don’t mind when someone says Pink Lady and Jeff was miserable, because it wasn’t mine. But if you go to rowby.com or rowbyville.com, I’m a little more serious about them. That’s something I deserve to be critiqued on, if you wish. The things I’ve been doing for websites for other people, now I’ll see if I can do it for myself.
One more thing: you have an Emmy for Hollywood Squares. Were you writing the jokes or the answers?
It’s interesting that I got an Emmy for a show I really didn’t like writing. I hated it. The reason I hated it, and yes, we did write the jokes, but we would get these celebrities in very much at the last minute, whoever was in town, and we were given the responsibility of coming up with funny material for these people. So, if you watch the original Hollywood Squares with Paul Lynde, because of the quiz show scandals in the ‘50s and ‘60s, networks were keeping a close eye on the honesty of their shows. At the end it would say, “Celebrities have been briefed on their answers.” If they couldn’t think of an answer, they were given a fake answer. The contestant had to decide whether they agreed or disagreed, so they had to have something to answer with. What the audience was not told in that disclaimer was what went beyond that.
We gave them their joke lines, like for Paul Lynde, we gave him all his jokes. The way we did it, and I think they still do this, was on the host’s podium, there were nine stacks of question cards. Paul Lynde didn’t know what the question was, but he knows that for the first question that he’s going to be asked, his fake answer (if the question was, “Who discovered America?”) is “Tony Orlando”. He didn’t know what the punch line meant, but he knew what he was supposed to say. He had a little stack of 3×5 cards just hidden from view. If you watch, Paul Lynde laughed the loudest because we’d give him these weird “punch lines” that didn’t make any sense to him—until he heard Peter Marshall ask the question. He got as big as kick out of it as the audience did. So, he had his gag line, and his fake answer to say after that if he didn’t know what the answer was, something that was close enough. They called it their “bluff”.
It wasn’t very glamorous, because everyone assumed that Paul Lynde really was ad-libbing, and he never credited the writers. Maybe some of the celebrities did credit the writers, I don’t know. Some of them really did write their own material, like Joan Rivers. She’d ignore our answers and give her own. It was really a chore, and I was really glad to leave, but it was after I left that they gave me my Emmy. I wasn’t even on the show at that point.
And there you have it!
You know, I must confess that while I still don’t think very highly of Pink Lady and Jeff, I can sort of see what they might have had to deal with. And I think we’ve all learned a very valuable lesson about… um…
Compassion, maybe? Sure, we’ll go with that.
And that’s our show! If you’d like to be one of Mendo’s Rather Interesting People from Around the Internet, feel free to contact me, and then go out and do something… rather interesting!