Bookpleasures.com is honored to welcome as our guest Bill Persky, five-time Emmy Award-winning writer, director and producer of over 300 TV shows and films. Bill was responsible for some of the most successful and acclaimed sitcoms of all time, including the classics The Dick Van Dyke Show, That Girl and Kate & Allie. Persky blazed a trail through television during a time of tremendous social upheaval, when TV was still discovering its power to influence and move audiences. To this day, Persky’s groundbreaking female characters, such as That Girl’s Ann Marie, remain pop culture icons. Bill has just published a new memoir, My Life is a Situation Comedy.
Good day Bill and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing comedy and why had you been drawn to comedy? What kept you going? What has been the best part about writing comedy?
I got started by default, someone gave me a book of jokes and I started telling them and it was fun to get the laughs. I then started to entertain at small clubs while I was in college, mixing the jokes with impressions of actors like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and countless others of the 40's and 50's; they were easy. Then after college I got a job at a radio station in New York that involved putting together the copy book for the dj's and started writing jokes for them as leading to the commercial that led to writing more copy and then Sam Denoff got hired.
We started writing together and did a show for the Christmas Party that was great and a young agent, George Shapiro- who discovered Andy Kaufman and Jerry Seinfeld, wanted to sign us. After that we started writing for stand up comics and eventually that led to a job on the Steve Allen show in LA
Does comedy writing have a particular form?
Well there are many different kinds of comedy but if they have one thing in common it is that laughter is spontaneous and has to catch you off guard, whether it's a punch line or a piece of dialogue.
What did you want to achieve with your sitcoms? As a follow up, what was your most challenging sitcom?
In the beginning just to get into the field of writing situation Comedy, which wasn't easy and still isn't, we wrote a lot of sample scripts. Carl Reiner liked the one we sent him and gave us a chance to write for the Dick Van Dyke Show, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. Then after becoming successful, I started to think, what do I care about and what would I like to say that had some value? That led to That Girl, which had a powerful effect on a whole generation of young women and really was important. The most challenging was Kate & Allie because it was really breaking new ground. In the 80's there was a lot in transition with relationships, and I wanted to have it be about what it takes to make a relationship work.
What do you see as the
influences on your comedy writing?
People. We take ourselves so seriously and yet we are pretty silly creatures and life, which is so out of our control. That's why I called my book My life is a Situation Comedy because it is even in the sad and painful stuff. If we take a minute to look at ourselves, we are kind of amusing.
How would you compare the comedy sitcoms of today with your era?
With the exception of Modern Family, which is brilliant, I think they are all kind of sad, and vulgar and going for laughs on the lowest level. I'm particularly concerned about the portrayal of young women on today's shows. They seem to all have low self esteem and kind of wallow in their dysfunction. The guys don't come off much better.
You have written for such actors Mary Tyler Moore, Goldie Hawn, Dick Van Dyke and Marlo Thomas. Could you tell us a little about your experiences?
They are true stars and I hate when people like the Kardashians and Snookie are referred to as stars. Stars shine and light up the sky; they are something we look up to in wonder, not down on. And stars bring magic to your writing; elevate it to places you didn't know were there when you wrote it. The minute Goldie Hawn walked into my office I knew she was special; she had never acted in anything and it was her first audition and she was wrong for the part, but I actually rewrote the script to put in a part for her.
Mary just had a quality that when she was in trouble, you were rooting for her and she was always so unaware of how wonderful she was so you wanted things to work out for her.
Dick was probably the most talented actor I have ever worked with, especially when it came to physical comedy, or inventiveness.
Marlo Thomas was and is a great comedian, and yet her dramatic work has won her awards.
It was a challenge to keep finding new things for them to do that you just couldn't wait to see what they would do with it.
You have just authored a memoir, My Life is a Situation Comedy. Could you briefly tell our readers something about your book and what motivated you to write the book?
It really is a combination of my personal and professional lives from the 60's to the present: how the shows I did were a reflection of the life I was living, and the way the world was at the time. I wrote about divorce because I had gone through divorce. I wrote about raising children because I was a single parent and went through all the challenges, failures and victories of raising my kids to be great young women. People will learn about the shows they love, and relate to the experiences they went through in their own lives, and hopefully be able to laugh at me slipping on the same banana peels that they did.
Where can our readers find out more about you and My Life is a Situation Comedy?
As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Norm: At 81, Is your life still a situation comedy?
out of bed is pretty funny with all the body part that don't want to
cooperate. I still go to the office everyday and write, mostly about
trying to see the humor in falling apart and trying to understand the
changes that are going on around me. I got on Facebook by accident:
someone sent an email that they wanted to be my friend and I didn't
want to hurt their feelings so I confirmed; now, I have a couple
hundred friends and have no idea what I'm supposed to do with them.
My password is I hate this.
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It's been an absolute pleasure to meet with you and read your work. Good luck with My Life is a Situation Comedy !
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