BY STEPHEN HOOVER
In honor of the 40th Anniversary of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE I decided to post my full interview with former Saturday Night Live head writer David Sheffield. David wrote some of the most memorable sketches during the Eddie Murphy period of SNL. David went on to co-write COMING TO AMERICA and NUTTY PROFESSOR, among other credits, and I was fortunate enough to take a Master Screenwriting course with him at the University of Southern Mississippi last year.
This and other interviews will eventually be part of a book entitled CONVERSATIONS WITH THE COMEDY MASTERS, but I wanted to share it here as that book is still being written.
If you want insight on what it was like to be a head writer on Saturday Night Live during its heyday then you must read this interview. Interesting insights on Andy Kaufman, and well as the last project of Chris Farley.
If you want insight on what it was like to be a head writer on Saturday Night Live during its heyday then you must read this interview. Interesting insights on Andy Kaufman, and well as the last project of Chris Farley.
Q. Okay. Primarily my blog is oriented for aspiring comedy writers or, existing comedy writers. This book also is going to kind of reflect -- you know, I figure kind of the best place to start would be like your background, like where were you born and --
Q. -- your education. Kind of, we'll start there.
A. Well, let's see now. I guess you could say I'm from Biloxi. The family moved to Biloxi from North Mississippi in 1960, so grew up on the Coast and went to Biloxi High School, was president of the Thespian Club and editor of the school newspaper and won the Quill & Scrolls Star Award and managed to make a D in English.
Q. That has to be quite an accomplishment.
A. Yeah, well, I wasn't the best student. I had wanted to be a writer, knew I was going to be a writer, by age 15, probably. And my first impulse was comedic because I wrote sketch comedy with my brother Buddy Sheffield, who was two years younger than me. We did put up a show at Biloxi High School, sketches, and we mocked some of the teachers and got into deep trouble for it.
Q. So the school sketches were kind of the first -- first display you had --
A. First --
Q. -- of the laughs you got.
A. That's right. And then I wrote, I went on from there to -- I was at Ole Miss for only one year and then transferred to USM when I graduated. I worked my way through school as a reporter for WDAM TV in Hattiesburg, and back in those days I was what I called a reporter/producer/photographer/writer/editor.
Q. You did it all.
A. We were -- I was a one-man show with a camera. And so I learned a lot about telling a story that way. And then I wrote plays at Southern. I wrote -- well, I was in a college play called The Cinna Cycle, which illuminated a minor character from Julius Caesar. It was a long one act, and that was produced at the old Red Barn Theater at Southern Miss.
Q. All right. Well, let's go back. On the background, like you're starting to write comedy sketches. What were your inspirations or your influences? Like who, what comedians did you like --
Q. -- or what shows inspired you?
A. I always said that my brother Buddy and I actually grew up in the 40s, even though we were --
A. -- growing up in the 60s because we got -- we were addicted to afternoon television.
A. And we got The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy -- mostly The Three Stooges and Laurel and Hardy. We -- there was a station that played them in the afternoon. We memorized every one of them. And we could do all the voices. My brother and I both had a gift for mimicry, so we'd go around the house doing funny voices, much to my father's consternation. My mother was an artistic type. She taught English and --
A. -- wrote children's plays and was an accomplished pianist and was the -- she played piano for the Baptist church, for example, and wrote little children's plays. One was about the Biloxi and the Pascagoula Indians. I remember when I was a kid, she wrote this little saga of the Indians.
A. So she, I guess you could say, was kind of a stage mother who encouraged us along those lines. My dad was a football coach and an outdoorsman and a -- I remember he came to one of our shows at Biloxi High School and he came backstage afterwards, and his first words were, "I sure did raise some strange boys."
Q. So -- and then later you had the -- just recently, The Three Stooges/William Faulkner tribute, so The Stooges have followed you all these years?
A. That's true. I guess you're right. I hadn't thought of that. I did write "As I Lay Kvetching" --
A. -- which was very -- the premise being that William Faulkner had written an episode of The Three Stooges. It was mostly, as you might imagine, a lot of tortured- -- description.
A. And then very shy on the dialogue end.
Q. Right. What about The Marx Brothers; did you have --
A. Oh, The Marx Brothers, absolutely. Of course, there was not as much to see, but we did love The Marx Brothers because we did see their films on television. And my brother Buddy does, for example, a brilliant Groucho. He does the best impression of Groucho you'll ever see, and even dances like Groucho.
Q. Oh, okay.
A. After college, we formed a theater company called the Sheffield Ensemble Theater, writing original children's plays and touring public schools. And our first tour went out in an old ice cream truck. We bought a used ice cream truck and painted over the ice cream sign and wrote Sheffield Ensemble Theater on the side and went on the road. And that touring company expanded over the years. We did it to the point where it was playing about 20 states, and we were opening our plays at The Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap, and we became prestigious, so we decided to quit.
Q. As far as sketch shows, was, like, Your Show of Shows available? Had you seen that show or --
A. I went out of my way to find Your Show of Shows later when I had access to it, because I had occasion to work with Sid Caesar, who hosted Saturday Night Live. And I'd always heard about Your Show of Shows. And it was one brilliant sketch show.
A. And I had the pleasure years later of meeting Howie Morris --
A. -- one of the actors on Sid Caesar's show --
A. -- and when I met him, I -- it was a party in Malibu, and I said, "Mr. Morris, I just want to tell you that I think the sketch, the 'This Is Your Life' sketch on Your Show of Shows is the funniest single sketch that's ever been on television." And he said, "Yeah, I know." And that was the end of the interview.
Q. End of the conversation. Well, that was a great one where he's grabbing his leg and --
Q. -- Sid is walking around.
Q. So the first, I guess, big break to the Saturday Night Live job, how did that come about?
A. Well, when Saturday Night Live hit, it was just a phenomenon because it was -- it broke the rules of television as we knew it. Somebody said it best that said it felt like a bunch of hippies had broken into NBC and done a show without permission, and that appealed to me. I loved the show and quickly became a fan. And then I started telling my friends I was going to write for the show one day. And they'd all roll their eyes and say, "Yeah, sure, Dave."
So I bummed around writing local commercials, industrial films and worked in politics writing speeches, and I wrote anything and everything to stay alive. And then in 1980 I got a call. I was in Ocean Springs, living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, with my wife, English teacher Cynthia Walker, and --
Q. Y'all had a child or two or --
A. We have -- we have one -- one son. I had two daughters by a previous marriage.
A. Anyway, back to 1980 in Ocean Springs.
A. I got a call from a friend of mine named Patrick Weathers. Pat and I had known each other all through college and bummed around together, and we entertained at parties. Pat was a singer/songwriter/comedian who did great Dylan parody. He did a brilliant Johnny Cash. I played harmonica. We did comedy at parties, mostly to try to get girls.
And so I out of the clear blue, Patrick called up and said, "Hey, Dave, I'm getting ready to audition for Saturday Night Live, and if you'll give me some material, I'll see that it gets to the attention of the producers." I didn't know how seriously to take it, but I knew that Patrick was very well placed in New York because he was in the exalted position of men's room attendant at Studio 54. He -- Pat met people easily, and he gloms onto people, and he had found an agent to represent him and met several -- he met Robin Williams. He met -- you know -- Chevy.
A. He met a lot of people.
Q. In the bathroom at Studio 54.
A. And Belushi was in there often, I can imagine.
A. Anyway, Patrick called and said write this stuff, and so I did. I stayed up all night and wrote sketches and put them in the mail overnight to New York. And I didn't hear anything for about a week or so and then dismissed it as just being part of Patrick's fervid imagination.
And then Pat called back and said, "Hey, man. They read your stuff, and they like it. I think they want to hire you."
And I said, "Really?"
And I said, "Well, now," you know, "who did you give it to?"
And Patrick said, "Uh, this producer guy."
And I said, "Do you know his name?"
"Uh, no, I don't know his name, but he wears glasses."
So I start calling NBC and asking for Saturday Night Live and asking if there's a producer there who wears glasses, and they kept hanging up on me, just assumed it was a prank call, but -- I gave up. And then a friend of mine took it on herself to ferret out the truth, and she found the name of the producer, who was Alan Stern, and he had indeed read my material.
I got him on the phone, and he said, "Oh, yeah, I read your stuff. Yeah, it's good. Send me some more." So now I started writing sketches in earnest, and I sat in Ocean Springs, and they kept wanting more and more. And I never got an offer for a job; they just kept saying "write more sketches."
So I sat in Ocean Springs and wrote sketches for five or six weeks, sending them off in the mail to New York. Later when I got to the show, I learned that they'd been putting my sketches into the read-through with the actors along with the writing staff, so they were trying my stuff out before they hired me.
A. And then I finally got a call, "Come on up. We want to interview you." And I flew up and met with the producer. She was an interim producer, Jean Doumanian was -- began in 1980 and she didn't last the season. She was canned before the season ended. But --
Q. There was a big transition going on --
A. Huge transition. The original geniuses had left the building --
A. -- because the -- everyone had left the show, and NBC did a really dumb thing. They fired every writer and every actor on the show and started over. Looking back on it, it was a strategic mistake because I was -- I was brought in with a staff that was so green, we didn't have a clue what we were doing. Most of the writers that Jean had hired were Harvard types. They'd come by way of the National -- the Harvard Lampoon. And they were all very young and inexperienced and cocksure. And I, on the other hand, I was 31 years old when I got my first job at NBC. So I had lived a bit. I'd been a reporter. I'd worked in the trenches, and I'd starved quite a while; and I knew what a big shot it was to get a job like that.
A. So I was determined to make the most of the opportunity, and did. I remember when Jean finally called to tell me I had the job, I was working in a little ad agency, Guice & Guice, in Biloxi. We were upstairs in an old building in downtown Biloxi. And when she called to say I had the job, I yelled so loudly that I scared the bill collector in the office next door, who called the police, thinking something was --
Q. Oh, my gosh. You yelled over his yelling.
A. So here I am at Saturday Night Live and hoping that I could just do well enough to keep up --
Q. So this was --
A. -- with the others.
Q. -- a staff writer job that was to last how long? Was there a contract?
A. Well, there was a contract, yeah, I mean, but it was a minimal contract, and I was paid the minimum. And I was paid Writer's Guild minimum and was given, I think, a 13-week contract. I remember --
Q. Swim or sink?
Q. Swim or sink? Like, we'll see how it works out?
A. Exactly. We'll see how you work out. So at the end of 13 weeks, my contract came up for renewal. By then, there'd been a massive coup at Saturday Night Live, and Jean Doumanian's head had been placed on a pike outside 30 Rock, I believe, for the vultures to pick at.
A. And -- sorry, Jean -- and --
Q. You had a new producer.
A. We had a new producer. They brought in the iron-fisted Dick Ebersol, who for many, many years reigned as the president of NBC Sports, a job he was ideally suited for.
Q. The comedy job, however --
A. Well, Dick came in at a point where they were threatening to cancel the show.
A. And he had been one of the executives who had -- who had nursed the show along originally, along with Lorne Michaels who -- the creator. They went in -- he'd been one of the ones who'd sold the show to NBC. So he had some credibility in that department. And they felt like after Jean's reign, they needed someone with a strong hand to set it back on course, and so they brought in Dick. And the first thing Dick did was fire everybody on the staff except for me and my then-writing partner, Barry Blaustein; a writer named Pam Norris, who went on to be the producer and show runner of Designing Women; The only actors they kept were Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo. Everybody else got the axe.
Q. Wow. That's a pretty big coup.
A. It was a big coup, and I remember at the -- the time came to renew my contract, and I was making Writer's Guild minimum. And the show attorney, the guy who was in charge of making deals for the network was a guy named Jim Henry. And I was up there, and by this point, I was -- we were writing the bulk of the show, and the show heavily depended on us. And Jim Henry was walking down the hall. I stuck my head out the door and at the top of my lungs, I yelled, "Henry, I want more money."
Q. So, well, let's go over what Barry -- Barry was just another writer at first --
A. Yeah, Barry and I -- Barry had worked in the business before, but his credentials were not sterling. He was an ambitious young producer, writer/producer, graduate of NYU Film School, native New Yorker, and he'd already worked in LA on a couple of shows. Circus of the Stars was his first job. And then he got a job on The Mike Douglas Show and did very well at The Mike Douglas Show, a show that was kind of a sketch comedy show in its time. And so he had experience. And the prejudice against him was that he was too mainstream because he'd come from The Mike Douglas Show. But the truth is, he had a vicious sense of humor. And we had read-throughs, and I recognized some of his stuff as being especially dark and bold.
One of -- one of his sketches that we read, had read, was a group, a pro-life group that was promoting, you know, the sanctity of life and how we should -- it was anti-abortion PSA that included a little fetus puppet. But it was -- it became, here's the little fetus, and it was a talking fetus, and "Hello, how are you" and all that. And then the joke became, "I'm now going to drink a glass of water while the fetus sings 'America The Beautiful.'" I thought that was funny. So Barry and I were eyeing each other. And then Eddie -- Eddie Murphy came along, and Eddie was hired as a featured player, not a member of the regular cast. He was very young, 19.
Q. Like, 19.
A. 19 and fresh out of high school, and had been on -- he had been doing standup. But Eddie only suffered for about two weeks before he landed his first network job. And -- but he -- he didn't make a mark at all. He wasn't in any sketches for the first two or three shows. He was just kind of hanging back and watching to see what was going on. And then one night he started just riffing on a character that he was thinking of doing called Raheem Abdul Mohammad, a militant film critic --
A. -- who always went to the multiplex and saw the wrong movie. He'd get the movie wrong, so he'd always review the wrong movie. For example --
A. -- he said, "I went to see On Goldie Pond, and Goldie Hawn wasn't even in it."
A. So we heard Eddie and decided he was very funny, so we wrote a sketch for him to do on Update, the very first sketch he did on Update, and collaborated with Eddie on it. And he just -- I remember standing right off camera watching Eddie do this. It was a piece about how a judge somewhere had ruled that a certain number of white kids had to be included on a basketball team. And he wrote -- his was a rebuttal.
A. And he was real hostile about the whole thing. And we wrote this with him, and it was -- it just killed. And I was standing off camera watching Eddie, and he had absolutely no anxiety. He was not at all nervous. He didn't seem to care about anything. He was so relaxed out there that it instantly put the audience at ease, and he was really funny. So then we just hooked up with Eddie and started writing all his stuff. And then we -- we just rode that Eddie Murphy train as long and far as we could.
Q. Yeah. So let's go over a few of the more famous sketches. The -- of course, the "Ebony and Ivory" spoof.
Q. Did you guys have like a -- I guess in your mind, you had a list of, okay, here are impressions that this actor can do, that actor can do, try to put them together?
A. We absolutely did. And the writers who worked best were the ones who sat down with the actors and found out what characters they could do and who collaborated with them. There were a number of people who failed as writers on the show, just tried to write sort of in a vacuum. They'd come back with these funny little notions and they kept them to themselves, and they were okay, but the ones that really worked were always done in collaboration with the actors.
And, yeah, what characters can you do? Joe Piscopo said he could do a great Frank Sinatra, so we did a great Frank Sinatra sketch with him. And Eddie could do Stevie Wonder and James Brown and all these great characters. And not just -- not just -- we collaborated not just on impressions but --
A. -- all kinds of ideas.
Q. Well, it went beyond the impressions to get to, I guess like a whole parody of the character of the James Brown sketch with --
Q. So --
A. We did several James Brown sketches. We did one -- the last one we did was James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub.
Q. Right, yeah.
A. And that got a lot of attention. It was -- it was pretty funny, Eddie doing James Brown and sticking his toe in the water and going "Oww!" It all started from that one joke. Barry and I were actually sitting in a hot tub in LA, and we started doing -- the floor was a little slippery, so we both started doing our James Brown moves. And I stuck my toe in the water and went "Oww!" And it went from there, and that was the whole premise of the sketch. Other than that, it had absolutely no meaning. And then we put him in the tub, the hot tub at the end with Dr. Joyce Brothers. It was Barry's idea to hire Dr. Joyce Brothers. And I said, "Do you think we can get her?" And he said, "Only if we ask her."
Q. Um --
A. If you'd like to know some of the sketches we did, we -- we did all those Buckwheat sketches --
A. -- with Eddie.
Q. Now let's talk about -- I guess that's a kind of a good transition to kind of talk about, I guess, your experience, your background, growing up white in Mississippi to winning the NAACP Image Award and also writing, you know, primarily for African-American performers. I guess what -- growing up, what were your experiences with blacks in Mississippi kind of in a post-Jim Crow era?
A. Well, yeah. It was hardly post-Jim Crow when I grew up. I'm 65, and so I grew up in the -- you know, came of age in the sixties, right at the height of the --
A. -- Civil Rights Movement. My father went back to school in 1960, I think it was, to Ole Miss to get his master's degree to become a guidance counselor. We spent several long months there while he finished his degree in a big old barn of a rental house in Oxford. And we were so poor, we lived next door to black people. There -- there was actually a black orphanage right down the hill, and we went down there because they had great toys. They -- the wonderful old man who ran that orphanage -- it was -- it was an ad hoc agency. It had no legal authority, and it had no backing or anything. He was just a good-hearted man who took in all these kids, and he supported them and himself by taking in toys and refurbishing them and selling them. And they sold barbecue, and they sold sno-cones. And they had a group that toured around to churches, singing, and the girls would sit down there and we could hear them from up at the house. They would sit in the swing set and sing, "Oh, Dinah's dead, oh how she died, oh she died like this, oh she died like this." So we went down there and met those kids and played with them and used their pogo stick, especially, I remember. And their names were all like Kenisha and Menusha and K’Twain, and we just fell right in.
A. And I think -- I don't know -- you know, I was a liberal kid in school, and I was paired -- when I worked at WDAM, I was paired with the first African-American newscaster in Mississippi, a guy named Mack Hayes, and I spent -- he became a good friend, and I went to a number of NAACP meetings with Mack and hung out and was kind of around -- I can't say that I was a vocal part of the Civil Rights movement, but I was involved as a reporter. I covered a lot of it. And I think probably being a Southerner, I had a great affinity for Eddie's voice and sense of humor because, you know, Eddie Murphy's grandparents were from the South. He grew up on Long Island, but they grew tomatoes and okra in the back yard. And speech patterns are similar. And I always -- as I say, I always had a gift for mimicry, and I quickly figured out how to write for Eddie. I knew his voice, and I think that was one thing that made it work.
A. And then --
Q. What were some of the other, I guess, more famous or infamous sketches that you guys worked on? Oh, yeah, we were talking about Buckwheat.
A. Buckwheat, yes.
Q. And the famous death of Buckwheat --
Q. -- that took place, the assassination attempt. But Buckwheat in general, I guess he was kind of a holdover of racist Hollywood, a pretty, you know, denigrated character on the show?
A. You know, I -- I didn't see it that way, and Eddie didn't either. Let me tell you the genesis of Buckwheat, and we can talk a little about the real Buckwheat. If you think about it, The Little Rascals, the very idea that they included a black kid in their circle of friends and that they were all playing together was -- was way ahead of its time. And, yeah, I mean, they did little jokes sometimes. I remember especially on the Little Rascals that they all pretended to have the measles one time --
A. -- and they all put dots on their faces so they'd look like they had --
A. -- measles, and then it got to Buckwheat, and they put white dots on his face so they would show up. But I guess, if you want to say that was racist, then I guess it was, but here's how it happened. Eddie was doing standup, and he had in his standup a bit about The Little Rascals and how come they named the only black kid Buckwheat; why was he the only one named after a breakfast cereal, you know. And so we decided to do Buckwheat. And we chose to do it as a record commercial: Buckwheat sings. And then Eddie started doing the voice for us, and we were just rolling on the floor because, you know, Buckwheat had a speech impediment of some kind. But -- and to Eddie's ear, he talked "like dis'" and "henno, it's been a nong time tince dem days. My name Buckwheat."
A. And I -- I wrote in Buckwheat. I was the one who had a good enough ear that I could sit --
A. -- at the keyboard and write phonetically for Buckwheat. And then we -- we did, during the commercial, we -- commercial parody, we did, you know, superered the names of the songs and all and they were written in Buckwheatese also. Anyway, that commer- -- for some reason, that just struck a -- that was a hugely popular sketch. I remember Ebersol coming to us afterwards and saying that in that sketch Eddie had tested higher for likeability than any performer they had at NBC at the time. His likeability ratings just went straight through the roof when he did Buckwheat. I don't know why. What does that say about white America? I don't know.
Q. Uh --
A. So then we decided to kill him. We did about two or three Buckwheat sketches, and then Eddie came in one day on a Monday and said, "Let's kill the bastard. Everywhere I go, you have yelling 'Hey, Buckwheat, Buckwheat.' I don't want to be Buckwheat the rest of my life. Let's kill him." So we said okay. So Barry and I wrote this, and we based it all on -- it was a kind of compendium of a number of assassinations and assassination attempts --
A. -- but we staged it downstairs, and we kind of reproduced the Reagan assassination attempt. He was standing at the door of his limo and somebody yelled, "Hey, Mr. Wheat!" And then "Yes?" And pow-pow-pow, he gets shot. Interesting little sidebar, when we shot that, we brought in a special effects guy to put the squibs on Eddie; blood spurted.
A. So we shot one with the squibs, and it looked so gruesome, I said, you know what, let's shoot another one without the squibs just --
A. -- in case, and we did. And thank God, because the one we wound up using was the one sans sang.
Q. Yeah. That kind of reminds me of like the John Cleese conversation I was telling you I had where they did the dog without the blood. If you see the blood, it hurts.
A. That's right. It was a little too real with the blood. Then we did -- there was a lot of pressure to do another one, and they kept coming back saying you've got to do another Buckwheat. And we said we killed him, we can't, he's dead. And so then we came up with the idea of doing Buckwheat's killer --
A. -- also played by Eddie, a guy named John David Stutz, who killed Buckwheat because his dog told him to do it in a dream. Then he was killed, sort of like Lee Harvey Oswald --
A. -- was killed. It was a grand statement about violence and assassinations in America.
Q. And a mass conspiracy, no doubt.
A. Yeah. The final sketch we did was Buckwheat impersonators, so we staged it -- we -- we looked at a famous David Susskind show with Elvis impersonators --
A. -- and so we -- we did, we called David Susskind and asked him to come in, and he did; and he hosted a Susskind show that was all -- with a bunch of different Buckwheat impersonators. One of them was Eddie as Buckwheat.
A. And the others were like Tim Kazurinsky, a white guy who said his Buckwheat was better because he sang better Buckwheat than… It was pretty funny. That was the end of the Buckwheat saga.
Q. Let's talk about other writers on the show. Michael O'Donoghue was a writer at that time?
A. Oh, my God, Mr. Mike. I loved Mr. Mike's sense of humor, and I loved Mr. Mike. He was one of a kind, and he was a bad boy by nature and he saw to it that everyone knew it constantly. He was a dark angel. There was a writer of Animal House whose name I can't recall, and we got word that that writer had been traveling with Chevy Chase in Hawaii and had fallen off a cliff to his death.
Q. Oh, my gosh.
A. And we were in a room when somebody came -- just came in and said, you know, "He died. He fell off a cliff." And Michael, without missing a beat, said, "I hope he was holding Chevy's hand." Michael -- Michael set out to be -- okay. It was right -- Ebersol brought Michael in.
A. After Doumanian was fired, Michael came in and with a spray can of paint -- and he wrote on the wall in giant letters, "Danger." He said that's what the show is missing, danger.
A. And then he took a giant stack of scripts that had been written, and he said, "I've been poring through these manuscripts of yours, and there's no fucking diamonds here. In fact, there's not even" -- what is that, what is that diamond --
A. Thank you. That's the line. I blew Michael's line.
Q. Yeah. I'll correct it.
A. Maybe you'll correct it. "There's not even zirconium." And -- and -- and then Michael called in all the writers, one by one, and fired them. And -- and Barry and I decided, well, he's going to fire us too. But I've just -- there's enough redneck in me, I guess, that I decided I was going to go down swinging. I went over to Barry's parents' apartment in the East 30s and got drunk on his dad's bourbon, and I went back to the network and I picked up a can of spray paint and I stuck it in my pants. And I was drunk when I walked in the room to be fired by O'Donoghue. And I said, okay, here's the deal. If that son of a bitch fires us, we're going to wrestle him to the floor. I'm going to spray paint that motherfucker from one end to the other.
And O'Donoghue could sense that I was a little hostile when I entered the room, and he said, "You can put that way, Sheffield. You and Blaustein are the only decent writers here. You guys are staying. I like your stuff." And then he critiqued a couple of things, and then he fished out a sketch that Jean had not approved of called Drive For America, and it was Joe Pi- -- and then we did it with Joe Piscopo as Frank Sinatra doing a telethon for the Chrysler Corporation, which was being bailed out at the time.
A. But it was all viciously anti-Japanese. It was all aimed at the Japanese carmakers. And I remember Frank singing at the end of it, you know, "Each time I see those Nissan Ds, I want to punch out a Japanese. Go to hell, Toyota. Drop dead, Subaru. It's drive for America, that old, I'm talking red, white and blue." My song and lyric. So that was a hit. And we became suddenly the leading writers on the show. And Michael was Peck's bad boy. He -- Michael did a sketch that he co-wrote with -- he brought in some unusual people. He brought in Terry Southern.
A. Terry was, of course, the cutting edge writer of the sixties.
Q. Dr. Strangelove.
A. Dr. Strangelove, he'd written -- and he wrote the novel Candy, which was just libelous and slanderous and salacious and all those wonderful things. And Terry and a guy named Nelson Lyon -- Nelson's greatest claim to fame is that he was in the room with Belushi when Belushi OD'd. Terry and Michael, they wrote -- those three got together and they wrote a sketch called Silverman's Bunker. Fred Silverman was the president of NBC at the time, and the network was in the tank.
Q. I remember that.
A. The network was completely in the tank; it was going downhill, downhill, downhill, and so they -- they wrote this sketch where Silverman is in the bunker, you know, like Hitler in the --
A. -- final days in the -- and think, now, what do you think? Silverman was in -- in Hawaii because he was trying to avoid the press because it was widely rumored that he was about to be fired.
A. But he -- he called up and said, "I want to see that sketch." And they arranged to have Silverman see a rehearsal at an NBC affiliate in Honolulu, live. They put the sketch up live so he could get a taste of what this sketch was. And then he saw it, and he came back and said, "Over my dead body will this sketch appear on my network. Hell, no," which is all Michael needed --
A. -- to quit with great fanfare because he had been -- he had been -- he had been censored in an unfair way. And then that was a long sketch, and all of this went down on Friday. So we now were looking at the prospect of having about a 15-minute hole in the show. And as it turned out, that week the -- the guest host was -- guys, help me out; I'm an old man -- Dr. Frank N. Furter from --
[Unknown] - Tim Curry.
A. Tim Curry. Thank you. We're sitting in the office, head in hands, what the hell do we do now, there's this giant -- no kidding. I mean, it was like a 10-minute hole in the show to fill. And I just said, "Don't you do Mick Jagger?" And he said, "Yes, I do," and he started doing Mick Jagger in front of us, and it was hilariously funny. So Barry and I went back to the office and stayed up all night writing a sketch called the Mick Jagger Special. Mick Jagger was going back on tour at that point, so our -- the point of our sketch was Mick Jagger had gone mainstream and was doing one of those really sappy NBC specials like, "Look, it's the lovely puppeteer, the beautifully preserved Shari Lewis." --
A. So we wrote that overnight, and one of his -- one of the guests on there was Joe doing Frank Sinatra. So we had Tim Curry doing Mick Jagger next to Joe's Sinatra, and they did a duet, during which Frank said stuff like, "You know one thing I've always thought, Mick. Rock singers suck, but I would love to sing with you." And so they sing the duets together. And it was -- it was a huge hit. It got huge laughs. The sketch had tremendous energy, and it -- and it filled that vacant spot on the show so well, Michael became jealous of us and decided he hated me. And because I -- I guess I'd betrayed him by hopping to and filling that hole in the show that he had blown apart by design. And -- and so we didn't speak after that, which I thought was unfortunate, because I really liked Michael.
Q. And he passed away I believe from throat cancer.
A. No, he died of a sudden brain aneurysm.
Q. Oh, okay.
A. And at his funeral, all his friends gathered, and you know how they always have a picture of the late departed.
A. They had a brain scan of Michael's aneurysm, the one that killed him. I remember we went to a party after -- Michael brought in a punk act called Fear.
Q. Right. I remember.
A. And it was right around Halloween, and so the entire set at SNL was decorated with pumpkins. Fear started, and all their fans came and they formed a giant mosh pit right there in the studio, and then they all started hurling pumpkins. And so they were smashing pumpkins and throwing them everywhere, and it was just a melee. And Ebersol went nuts and called in the NBC security guards and hugely overreacted to what was just normal punk behavior.
A. But, God, Michael was so thrilled that he pulled that off, and he asked me to ride with him in his limo to the party afterward. And we stopped by his apartment so he could pick up a pair of shoes he'd just found. They were real leopard skin, and he said, "Wait till your liberal friends get a hold of these, Sheffield."
Q. If we're talking about memorable folks, we definitely need to go to Andy Kaufman. He was a guest on the show and the famous 1-900, the 1-900 vote which voted him off the show. How did that come about? Now, I guess, where did you first meet Andy Kaufman?
A. He came to the show. You know, he'd done the show almost from the beginning. He kind of broke out on the show.
Q. I believe the first episode he did Mighty Mouse.
A. Did he? Was it the very first episode?
Q. I believe so.
A. When Andy started doing comedy, his mom drove him in from New Jersey and then stayed while he did the show and then took him home. Andy kind of stood comedy on its head. I always say it's sort of like he went away from the traditional concept of someone standing up in the firelight making funny gestures and fart noises and amusing the others to turning it around so that it was him laughing at the audience. He didn't want to evoke laughs; he wanted to anger his audience, if that makes any sense at all.
He loved wrestling, and he patterned his comedy career after bad wrestlers, villains, the ones who go out there and pull hair and cheat and -- while the ref isn't looking, and the ones that everybody always hates. That's who he aspired to be, the bad wrestler. So he did -- he went out and he wrestled, and he hung out with wrestlers. And one of his big claims at the time was that he could -- he could pin any woman alive in a wrestling match. And he could. Andy was anything but strong and anything but physically fit, but he had figured out that any male torso could pin down any female torso in a one-on-one wrestling match, so he went to Memphis and, you know, he would taunt people.
He showed us a video that he shot down in Memphis at one of those wrestling shows, and he said, "You know, you people from the South, you're here with your eats. You shell yo' peas, and you eat, and you talk like you've got cornmeal mush in your mouth. And I can beat every -- any woman in the South." And by now, they're screaming; they want to rip his head off. And that was, to his way of thinking, exactly what he -- the reaction he was after.
And then Andy, when Andy showed up at the show, he was wearing a neck brace because he had supposedly been injured in a wrestling match by a wrestler whose name escapes me. I want to say Cowboy Bob Kelly, but it was a different guy. Anyway, the deal was that Andy was going around with a neck brace on because he'd suffered this trauma in the wrestling arena. So when I met him, I was -- Barry and I were in a swimming pool at Dick's place in -- actually, it was Susan St. James's house in the Hollywood Hills.
[Unknown: Do you mean Jeffrey -- Jerry Lawler?]
A. Jerry Lawler.
A. Jerry Lawler was his wrestling partner, and Jerry Lawler had supposedly injured him so badly he had to wear this neck brace. Now, Andy showed us the videotape of that incident. And I looked at it real closely, and I could see where -- it was very well done. It was a kind of a head jam deal where Andy had his head between Jerry Lawler's knees, and then Jerry Lawler leaps in the air and comes down on the mat, boom, and supposedly fractured a vertebra, and now Andy has got to wear... But I could see, watching the video, where Jerry Lawler was assisting. So I knew it was phony, and I -- what else would it be? Come on. Everything the guy did was a joke, so why would you think this would be any different. And so I -- I called him on it. I said, "Andy, it looks to me like that was a set-up deal." And he gave me this kind of sly look and nodded and said, "Come with me."
Q. So you were in.
A. I was in the "in" group. Andy was notorious at the time. He went on Fridays, our competition over there at ABC --
A. -- was a short-lived sketch show called Fridays. And on Fridays, he had proposed marriage to some woman and then stood her up and then he got into a fistfight on the show, just anything he could do --
Q. With the cast, right?
A. Anything he could do to stir up controversy. Because in his world, he was not just up there entertaining the audience. He wanted his jokes to be repeated in all media; he wanted it to be a giant joke that was reported in the press. And they were giant jokes. I don't know how else to put it. And he engineered these things, and he kept people stirred up all the time.
This is what we worked out together in advance, and here’s how we played it out:
He came to the show and did an Elvis sketch that we cut between dress rehearsal and air, and after that, Andy and I had a loud argument in the hallway about -- and he was saying, you know, "Why did you cut me?"
And I said, "Well, we only did it because of time," you know.
And he said, "No, it's not. You just didn't like it. You don't think I'm funny. You don't think I'm funny."
And finally I said, "You know something, Andy? You're not funny. We don't even want you here. Just get out of here." This was exactly what Andy wanted, because he was -- it was in all the papers, big fight, you know, between Andy Kaufman --
A. -- and SNL. And he -- he said, "Okay, well, we'll come back and we'll see if they want me back on the show, and we'll have a contest to see and we'll let the public vote." So we set up a 900 number, should Andy be allowed back on the show or not. And to our amazement -- it was one of the first 900 number call-in audience response things ever done.
A. And the audience decided overwhelmingly that Andy should not come back to the show. So we had to go over to his hotel and tell him, and he said, "Okay." He was hurt. He was hurt. I think he -- I think he kind of hoped that he would -- they'd want him back on the show, but he was prepared in case they didn't. And his idea was that he would sneak back on the show as an extra. He wanted to appear as an African-American woman in the background in a sketch and then have somebody stop the show and say, "Wait a minute, that's Andy Kaufman" and rip his face and his wig off and have it be another big blowup episode; but Ebersol wouldn't let him do it because he said, no, you've been voted off the show and that's just that. And that was, I think, the end of his relationship with the show.
Q. And then when you heard later about, I guess it's cancer and his treatment --
A. Well, by then, Barry and I had left the show. It was a couple of years later, and we saw a picture of Andy being in a wheelchair, boarding a plane to Mexico to pursue some last resort effort to cure him of cancer. So Barry and I fell out laughing. We just -- there was no doubt in our minds it was just Andy being Andy. And then the word came that he'd died, and we still didn't believe it.
And then it slowly dawned on us, we heard from other people who had been to his funeral and -- that he actually had died. So we were so convinced that he was going to come back from the dead any minute that Barry and I wrote a sketch in tribute to him, and it was a bunch of people close to him who just couldn't accept that he was dead. We had -- we wrote the doctor, who said, you know, "I was his physician, and I was at his bedside when his heart stopped beating and his brain was declared legally dead, and I declared him dead." But something tells me he's kidding.
And then we ended it with the guy at the funeral home. He said, "Well, I embalmed Andy, and I put his lifeless body into a corpse and then we buried him." But something tells me he's still kidding. And Dick Ebersol wouldn't do it, though; he wouldn't put it on the air. I think he thought it was tasteless, which, of course, it was.
Q. But that was Andy.
A. That was Andy.
Q. And you had some other guests. I believe Bill Murray guest starred a couple of times on the show.
A. Bill Murray was -- is a generous man, and he came back to do the show at a point where we sorely needed a boost. The show was in trouble. And just the week before, a guy on the cast had used the F-word on the air, supposedly the first time the F-word had ever been uttered on national television.
Q. And there was no delay --
A. Charlie Rocket was his -- there was no delay, and it went out live on the East Coast. And they bleeped it by the time it got to the West Coast, but it went live. And it was a stupid sketch somebody did, and Charlie Rocket was the guy who said it at the end of the show, at the good-nights. He said, "I wish I knew who the fuck did it." And so he -- it was all in the press, and he had to apologize for saying it and all of that.
So Billy came in, Bill Murray, came in with the attitude that he was going to -- he was going to get us in shape and straighten things out. Now, Bill is a member of a big Irish family in Chicago. He grew up with lots of brothers and sisters. And he was an ensemble theater guy. He had worked with Second City, I believe; I think I'm right in that.
A. And he had a strong sense of let's do the show, and we're all in this together. So I'm sitting in the office, and I've never met Bill Murray. And it was extremely cold, extremely cold night in New York. It was in the teens. I mean, it was -- the wind was howling; it was cold outside.
So we're all up there, and he comes -- Bill Murray walks in the office. And I start to get up to greet him, and he didn't say a damn word. He just grabbed me, slammed me down in the chair. I said, "Hello?" you know, and "What the hell?" And then he goes over and he opens the windows, open to the night air, and it's freezing. And he just sat down, and he's glaring across the table at me. So I didn't do a damn thing but get up and put on my coat and a muffler. I figured, if we were going to sit here in the cold, at least I'll try to, you know, be comfortable, so I put on my coat.
And then he grabbed me and he dragged me down the hall. I don't know what he was trying to do to me. I think -- I know what it was. His brother Brian Doyle-Murray had told him that I was a smart ass, and of course I was. What the hell? I mean, that's why I was hired, isn't it?
A. But then Billy had it in his head that I needed straightening out or something. And he started telling us how he felt we should be doing comedy. And I started hearing him. And, you know, the man certainly knew what he was doing. Then we got -- once we got past sort of that initial kerfuffle, kerfluffle --
A. -- we got along fine. And I never will forget. This happened: We did a little -- it was around Christmas. That's why it was so cold. We did a little Christmas sketch, and we hired some child actors to be in it. It was Mary Gross talking about the wonders of Christmas, and she went out and interviewed -- we hired all these little child actors to be real cynical about Christmas. The joke was that these kids were saying things like, "I wish it was over. God," you know. And so we hired a little kid, a little red-headed kid, as one of the actors. His name was Seth Green.
A. Okay. You know who he is now, but at the time, Seth was a little pint-sized little shit wearing cowboy boots, and he was -- and he came with his mom, who was a stage mother, and he was just a horrible child and really full of himself. And he was coming in bugging all the writers while we were trying to work. And Bill Murray was out watching in the lobby -- he was watching a Japanese game show on television. And we hear this ruckus down the hallway, and here comes little Seth Green stomping down the hall in his cowboy boots. And he said, "Bill Murray just threw me in the trash." And apparently Billy had just picked him -- had enough of him.
A. He picked him up by his heels and dropped him headlong into a trash can. And I remember Seth saying, "Nobody throws me in the trash, I don't care how big a star they are." We wrote -- and after that, Barry and I wrote with Bill one of those Nick the Lounge Singer sketches.
A. We did Nick Rivers floating down the Mississippi on the Delta Queen with Billy, and that was great fun to do one of those sketches. I really loved those sketches, and it was fun doing it with him. And we had -- it ended up with him saying, "It's up to you, New Or-leans, New Or-leans."
Q. And then Danny DeVito was on the show on a fateful night.
A. He was. Danny came to do the show as host right after ABC had summarily canceled Taxi without giving the cast or even the producer advanced notice. They just pulled the rug right out from under them, and they were never allowed to do a final episode. And so when Danny came to do the show, all of the cast of Taxi came. Marilu Henner and all of them, and Judd --
Q. Yeah, Judd Hirsch.
A. Judd Hirsch.
Q. And --
A. And James L. Brooks came with them. And I was so impressed with him. Just before they all went on the air, they all gathered around James L. Brooks, and you could just tell that they loved that man. And he was so good at what he did. I learned a couple of things from him. Somebody was trying to write sketches for Danny, and -- Danny DeVito -- and Danny was having a hard time with it. It was real wordy. And I remember Jim Brooks saying, "Don't give him all those words. Just give him an attitude. Give him an attitude to play." That was kind of eye opening. I learned something from Jim Brooks. That's about all I can think of.
Q. Johnny Cash was also a guest, I believe?
A. Johnny Cash. Well, he wasn't. Johnny was a legend, of course, and when he showed up, he fit the mold; he did not disappoint. Johnny came in, in a long black coat with knee-high boots on and a cape, I think, and he sat down. And he and June were there, and we talked about it. We talked about what kind of sketches we were going to do. And they had an apartment right on Central Park South. I'm sure it was a huge suite of rooms. So they came over, and June came in the room. She stuck her head in the door. Now, this is just the producers. By then, I was a supervising producer on the show.
A. So it was just me and Barry, Bob Tischler and Dick Ebersol in the room. And June comes in; June Carter Cash sticks her head in the door and says, "Hey, I just want y'all to know I'm really good at comedy. I'm real funny. I worked with Jackie Gleason one time, and I used to do comedy. I'm just real funny, and you should definitely put me on the show."
And Johnny said, "Yes, it's true. June is a really funny comedienne." And he's, "Bye, honey." He said, "Go on back to the house. I need to talk to these men about the show." And so she left. The minute she left, Johnny said, "Boys, whatever you do, don't put June on the show." I think they're all safely dead now, aren't they?
Q. Yeah. I believe Elton John was the musical guest that night, so it would have been interesting if they'd have done a duet.
A. You know, that's interesting. I'll tell you the story -- I'll tell you the story of the after-party.
Q. Oh, okay.
A. You remember my telling you about this dark angel Nelson Lyon --
A. -- who was a writer on the show? Nelson was in charge that night of selecting the club we would go to after the show. Now, Johnny and I had gotten along famously all week because -- I wrote a couple of sketches that he was in, and, you know, we talked about the fact that I was the only Southerner on the staff. And we just got along fine.
And then we show up for the party afterward, and as a joke -- as a very nasty joke -- Nelson Lyon had chosen a gay leather club in Tribeca. So we walk into the party, and there was a guy with nipple clips on and very little, like a leather jock strap, dancing in a cage of barbed wire.
And I look over, and there's Johnny sitting in the corner over there with June and his daughter. And I walked over, and I said, "Johnny, hey, good show." And I said, "I don't know how in the world we wound up at this place, but I apologize."
And he said, "That's all right, son. I guess they're trying to shock me, but I seen a lot worse than this."
Q. Folsom Prison, you know, that'd be worse. And now that, I guess, the transition from -- well, first of all, I wanted to go over like the process of Saturday Night Live. What was like a week at Saturday Night Live? How did you get the show together and --
A. Okay. Started on Monday morning, and we would meet the host. It began with the host coming in for a meeting with the entire writing staff and all the actors in the producer's office. We all sat around and pitched ideas to the host, whoever that was. And then from there, we went off and wrote the show.
Now, the show was essentially written on Monday and Tuesday nights, and the scripts were due Wednesday morning. And so you wrote the best stuff you could, and then you had this giant read-through with the host and the rest of the cast on Wednesday.
And from the Wednesday read-through, the producers would select the sketches they wanted to mount for the show. You always picked about -- you always tried to go in with about -- 10 or maybe even 15 minutes long with the idea that the sketches that didn't work would be cut before air time.
They built all the sets out in Brooklyn and hauled it in starting Thursday, and we started camera blocking bright and early Thursday, and then blocked the show Thursday and Friday.
And then Saturday, my job when I became supervising producer was to edit all the short films and commercial parodies. So I would kill myself writing, and then I'd have to stay up all night long in the edit room at NBC editing these things. And so I would wrap it up about 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning on Saturday. Then I'd go home and crash for a few hours and then come back and do the show.
There's a dress rehearsal. As I said, it's always a little long. We had an audience in for the dress rehearsal. And then there -- between dress and air, you make cuts and revisions and changes and cut it for time, and then you go on the air at 11:30, ready or not.
The most panicked we were ever were was the time when we ran so long that we only had a 45-minute break between dress rehearsal and air. But I'll tell you, to be in that pressure cooker between dress rehearsal and air and to watch that crew -- and Davy Wilson, the director -- we would sit there, and we would go around the room. And at the time, there were four of us making the decisions: Dick Ebersol, Bob Tischler, Barry, and me; the director, Dave Wilson; and a supervisor -- another producer, I think she was called an associate producer, Audrey Peart Dickman, a lovely Englishwoman. She was the keeper of the time. And Audrey would sit there and time every sketch with a stopwatch. And she knew what the budget of the show was, and so we would have to cut sketches to get it within time.
And then we'd rearrange the show between dress rehearsal and air. We would recognize that the opening sketch that we thought was going to work had not worked, was going to be cut, so we'd have to put something else up front. And every time you made a change like that, we would turn to Davy Wilson and say, "Davy, can you do it?"
He'd say, "Yeah, let's see. I'm going to have to pull camera 3. We won't be able to use the crane, so forget the crane shot. And we'll have to go with a lavalier mic because I'm going to have to use the boom down at the other end." And he'd do all this in his head.
A. And he'd say, "Yeah, we can do that." And then we'd go on live. And very often, you'd see that you were going to run long and you'd have to cut parts of sketches during the show, and that was probably the toughest part of my job as a producer because it fell to me to go tell the actors that their sketches had been cut. And they very often were not at all happy when they were -- when I delivered this news.
A. And then there was a time I snatched a script out of Roger Ebert's hand, for example. It was my idea to have Siskel and Ebert on the show to review the show in progress. And so they did. They did a very funny job. The guys were very funny.
A. And they reviewed the show as it was going on, and then we had to cut their segment.
Q. Oh, no.
A. So I went back and said, "Roger, we've got to cut a minute out of this." And he said -- and so I actually took the script out of his hand and started slashing his dialogue. And I'll never forget the look on his face.
He said, "I cut my own copy, thank you."
A. And I go, boy, there go my chances of ever getting a good review out of Roger Ebert.
Q. So much for the two thumbs up. So that's a good transition. We go from TV to Hollywood. How did that happen?
A. Do you mind if I take a quick break?
Q. Oh, sure thing.
A. When Sid Caesar came in to host the show, he was looking to make a bit of a comeback. He had just written a book which he wanted to promote called Where Have I Been? Sid apparently had a long bout with alcoholism.
A. And he'd gotten himself physically fit to an almost alarming degree. He was powerful. And Sid had been working out, and he was, by then, I'm sure in his sixties, but, man, he was strong as an ox. And he's flexing his muscles around. And he wanted to rehearse. So we wrote a sketch with him. He and Eddie were in it, and it was kind of a longish sketch. And Sid wanted to rehearse. Of course, we didn't rehearse on Saturday Night Live; we just didn't.
A. But Sid did, and he wanted to rehearse. And he wanted to get up -- put it on its feet, as he put it. "I want to put it on its feet." Okay. So we -- I said, all right, we'll rehearse. So we, up on the 17th floor, we got out chairs and put them around to mark where the -- the sketch took place in a hotel room. So I tried to set it out, lay it out kind of like the set was going to be so Sid could rehearse it. And the first thing he did was, he went up there and he starts doing lines and walking around in circles, and he's walking around; he gets very agitated, and all of a sudden, he picked up a chair and hurled it. It slammed against the wall right over my head. And he immediately rushed to me said, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. You okay? You okay?"
"I'm fine, Mr. Caesar."
Then Sid did the show, and I have to say, he wasn't good on the show. We didn't write well for him, and he came from another era. Sid wanted to come out, for example, and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, have you ever been in this following situation."
And I said, "Sid, we don't do that. We don't come out and explain the joke. We just do it," you know. He didn't like that. He didn't like anything about the experience. And then he bad-mouthed us in the press. He went -- he was asked by reporters what the experience was like, and he said, "They don’t know what they're doing up there," you know. "They're even worse than my original writers." Of course, his original writers --
Q. Some of the best ever.
A. The best ever. So then another bizarre coincidence, Barry, my writing partner Barry and I were on a flight from LA to New York, and -- excuse me, the other way around; it was New York to LA -- and we got out, off the plane in LA, and there was Sid standing at the baggage carousel with a limo driver, waiting for his bags to come out. And, boy, was he sheepish. Because he had just called us everything but good comedy writers.
A. And he immediately, "I'm sorry, fellows. They misquoted me, and I didn't mean to." He was almost -- he had two distinctly different characters in his head at the same time. One was kind of, you know, apologized a lot and was very sweet, and the other one would rip your head off.
Q. Okay. Yeah, so let's do the transition from New York to Los Angeles.
Q. How did that come about?
A. Well, we did the show for three years, and we decided that we had -- we were sort of burned out. We'd been working long and hard, and we decided we wanted to be screenwriters, so we got a very good agent from the show. We were signed by John Gaines, who was the most powerful comedy agent at that time. He represented just, Steve Martin and John Candy and a bunch of the leading comedians of the day. And he signed us and promised us that he would get us in to pitch movies immediately. And he made good on that.
We got off the plane, and the very day we got off the plane, we pitched our movie, first movie idea to the president of Columbia, who passed. And then we went around town pitching ideas all over town, and they passed. And we were trying to do a comedy called, Barry and I were calling My Favorite Charity. It was about a couple of guys, couple of low-rent guys who set up a phony charity and put a kid in a wheelchair and pretended -- then created a new disease so that they can rake off all the money. No one in town would do it because --
Q. It was too dark or --
A. Well, it was too dark I suppose for that time. It was certainly dark. But, actually, one of the studio execs we pitched it to said it best. He said, "You're never going to sell that because we take our charity very seriously in this town."
A. So, anyway, we're now in LA, and the money from the show is starting to run out. And we haven't been able to sell anything. And then they came to us and said would you be interested in writing a sequel to this movie Police Academy. So they showed us the movie, which was not yet in theaters, and asked us if we would write the sequel. And we said yes, because we desperately needed money.
So we flew to London, believe it or not, to meet with the producer, Paul Mazlansky, and worked up a story with Paul in London and then came back and wrote it. We didn't have much time to do it, as I recall. Seemed like they wanted to rush it in production.
Q. Well, the first movie hadn't been released at that point?
A. That's right.
Q. And so they must have gotten some good testing or --
A. Oh, yeah. They knew they had a hit. They tested it.
Q. I've heard that film has one of the distinctions of being one of the few to actually get to net profits because they made it so cheaply, they actually got to get net profits.
A. They did. And I'll be honest with you. It's the only movie I've ever had a credit on that actually paid profits. And every year I look forward to the check from Warner Brothers. Because there were no big stars in it.
A. There was no star producer on it, and it was made so cheaply and made so much money, it just came in over the transom. They had no way to hide it.
Q. And I heard the actors were signed on to a multiple, definitely two-picture deal, so they kept the cost down for the sequel as well.
A. Yeah. Well, it was not a good experience. I hate writing sequels. There's really no reason to do a sequel except for the money, and the notes you get from the studio are always the same: They want you to make it exactly the same as the original one, but different. And every time you try to make it a little bit different, they all look at each other say, "Yeah, but that's not what we did the first time." So they kind of goad you into --
A. -- reproducing the original if you're not careful. But, again, it made money. When that movie came out, it opened to -- I remember they ran a double-wide ad in Daily Variety bragging that it had made, I think, $14 million its opening weekend. Check the figures, but that was, for that time, an extraordinary amount of money.
And so Barry and I went from couldn't get arrested to everyone in town pitching us their comedy ideas. We became hot writers; we were hot. The whole idea of heat and who's hot and who's not is one of the most annoying aspects of the business. But when it works in your favor, it sure is nice because suddenly everybody in town wanted us to write movies for them.
Q. And some of those projects, or most of those projects, I guess, didn't -- weren't eventually made, right, you worked on?
A. That's the nature of the business. And, you know, the truth is that, for every movie that gets made, there are probably at least a dozen screenplays sitting on shelves that will never see the light of day. Veal, I call it; they're veal screenplays. They never see the light of day.
Q. One of those was interesting. You actually worked with Carl Reiner was your writing partner on a script.
A. That was a rewrite of a script of a -- it was actually a remake of an Ealing comedy called Last Holiday. It had been written by Seaman and Price, and Carl wanted a rewrite, and we met with him and we agreed to work with Carl on it. It was for John Candy to star.
And we had a great time working with Carl, wonderful time. I always said Carl was the Jewish grandfather I never had. But that wasn't made. I can't recall -- I know John Candy died right around that time, but I think he had already passed on it by that time. But we had a good time working with Carl.
Q. Had Carl done much -- well, obviously collaborated with Mel Brooks --
A. Oh, but Carl had done all the Steve Martin movies. He did The Jerk.
A. He did Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid. He did --
Q. Yeah, let's talk about Steve Martin. He's sort of -- of that era.
Q. And Saturday Night Live, and you never got the chance to work with him?
A. Never did. I always wanted to. Pitched a couple of ideas to him over the years. Met with him while he was shooting Planes, Trains & Automobiles in his trailer, and he was very funny. He had just done the Cyrano movie.
Q. Right, yeah, Roxanne.
A. Roxanne. And I thought I was going to be clever, and so when I walked in -- no, I was going to pay tribute to him, really; it was a genuine thing I said.
A. I said -- I came in saying, "Steve, I just saw Roxanne, and I want to tell you, I loved it. Of course, I was always such a huge fan of the original de Bergerac story."
A. And he said, "de Bergerac was a bum. I breathed life into it." And then he laughed. He was very funny. He heard us out, and he told us on the spot he didn't want to do our idea because it was too complicated; and I think he was right. But as he was leaving, his wife came in and brought some laundry by. He was married to this blonde English actress that he had met on L.A. Story, I think.
A. Whose name I can't recall. But she came by, and he was very sweet. And he said -- as she left, he said, "Goodbye, Honey. Don't fuck anybody."
Q. Let's talk about this -- that's a good point on just personality of great comedians that you've worked with. There's always kind of a mix of brashness and kind of the balls to get out there and appear in public, but also vulnerability and shyness and insecurity.
A. There is always that combination. Some of them are so good at concealing the insecurity, you wouldn't know it's there. But somebody said, if you scratch any actor, you'll find an actress. And comedians as a group, I think it's fair to say that most funny people got to be funny people in response to something early in life, to overcome a shyness, or they're overweight, or, you know, they came from the wrong side of the tracks, or they felt inferior in some way, and so they used comedy to overcome that. I think that's generally true.
A. Now, I'm sure that there are plenty of comedians out there, perfectly normal, not at all neurotic, good citizens who pay their taxes and are kind to their dogs, but I've never met them.
Q. Uh --
A. I'll tell you, for example, yeah. I remember when I first met Robin Williams. You know, you see that antic personality of his, and so when you meet him, you're ready for him to start cracking lines. Instead, he was extremely shy and soft spoken. Well, what are we talking about?
Q. Also, is there, I mean, kind of a hostility to comedy?
A. All the words used to describe success in comedy are violent.
A. You say "I killed them," "I slayed them," "I had them rolling in the aisles."
A. Yeah. I think, you know, we've all seen it over and over again, you know. The cliché is that a person struggles to become famous, and then when they become famous and people start adoring them, then they hate the public for liking them. Does that make any sense?
Q. Right. And Steve Martin was kind of, I guess, a transitional figure in that you kind of had to have seen the comedians that went before him to understand his act, kind of as a spoof on that. And, you know, with Saturday Night Live, we didn't talk about Monty Python, which I kind of think is something we should have discussed --
Q. -- especially since you had a chance to work with John Cleese and --
A. Wrote --
Q. -- it really changed the nature of sketch comedy.
Q. Did you guys catch SNL -- I mean, Python? I mean, my first viewing of it was on public television back during that era.
A. Yeah. I was a devoted fan and have memorized most of the Monty Python sketches. I just loved it. They were the first show to grab me. Before SNL, there was Monty Python. And then after Monty Python, there was the Harvard Lampoon Radio Hour, which I listened to on public radio. And Bill Murray was on that show, and Belushi, and I think Billy -- Bill Murray was on the show. Those were really funny shows. And all sort of -- I think -- I think Monty Python was the boldest, most innovative show ever, and I don't think anything has topped it since.
Q. During your time, I believe Palin was a guest, correct?
A. Palin was a guest. He was a guest. I didn't write anything for Palin that week, I don't know why.
Q. And then later you wrote something for John Cleese, whether it --
A. I wrote a screenplay for Billy Crystal and John Cleese. They wanted -- Billy wanted to pay a New York detective, and he wanted the story to have to do with the art world. So that's about all we had, but he wanted it to be with him and Emma Thompson, and he wanted her to be a London detective and Scotland Yard who comes to New York in pursuit of some famous painting that's been stolen.
So we thought it should be juicier than that. The screenplay we wound up writing, Barry and I wrote for them, had John Cleese as a deranged museum guard in the European gallery of The Metropolitan Museum. And he was crazy and hell-bent on killing every modern artist he could get within range. He was crazy, and he spoke to paintings. And as he walked through the gallery, famous paintings would say, "Hello, how are you?" And he would say, "Hi there." And he was -- they'd flirt with him, and he was -- in his mind, he was -- he was exacting revenge for modern art, which he considered a travesty. And so it was a series of murders of modern artists. And then Billy Crystal was the New York police detective trying to solve this and catch John.
I like to think it was a good screenplay. We met with Billy and John after the first draft. I was so in awe of John Cleese that for the -- my knees were knocking before I went into that meeting. I just worshipped him, and still do. And so I was a little intimidated, but he was very nice and put us at ease and was wildly enthusiastic about the part he had to play because he had the juiciest part, the villain, and he liked it; he was ready to go. "Let's do it!" He kept saying, "Let's do it!"
But then we got a call saying that Billy was unhappy because he was in pursuit of the John Cleese character, but he didn't have many scenes with John. So he said, "You've got to put me in more scenes with John."
We said, "Well, now, gee, Billy, that's going to be tough because you're trying to" --
Q. That's the killer.
A. "He's the killer, and you're the detective. And if we have too many scenes with him, we're going to be smacking our heads saying how long before Billy figures out he's the killer?" So we had a bit of a disagreement about that, to my regret, and it didn't go forward. Looking back on it, I wish we had totally rewritten the script and found characters for John and Billy together to play, just kind of thrown out our script and started over because the opportunity to write for those two --
A. -- was so rich, and I regret that it didn't go forward.
Q. Let's talk about one that did go forward, Coming to America. How did that come about?
A. Well, that was a phone call from Eddie saying, "Hey, guys, I've got this idea. Do you want to write it?" And we said, "Yeah." We didn't know what the idea was yet. So we go in, and Eddie -- it was a giant meeting at Paramount. Eddie had just done Beverly Hills Cop and had a multi-picture deal at Paramount. And so they were looking for his summer movie, and they hadn't found anything that was to Eddie's liking.
So Eddie came in and pitched to us and to all the execs in Paramount this idea, which at the time he was calling The Quest. He had about, oh, I guess a dozen yellow legal pad pages, the beginning of the scene in the African country. And he had the premise of a spoiled and pampered prince coming to America to find a woman who would love him for herself. And then they asked if we could write it, and then they said, "Now, you're going to have to write this in five weeks because we're going to have to go straight into production." So we said, "Sure."
I remember looking around the room, and it was like Mount Rushmore. Not only was the president of the studio there, who was Ned Tanen at the time, but the chairman of the board was in that room. And all the top executives from the film division at Paramount were in the room. And Barry and I sat there, wide-eyed, while this was discussed, and then one of them looked to us and said, "Will you guys write it?" And we said, "Yes." After the meeting, five or six of the junior executives came up to us to tell us we were brilliant in the meeting.
Q. That's all you said.
A. All we said, "Yeah."
A. So we went to New York and wrote it in five weeks. They put us up at The Mayflower Hotel, a rock 'n roll hotel right off of Columbus Circle. We stayed there for the full five weeks and wrote the script with Eddie, and Arsenio coming in to help us with the characters. We were up there writing it. I remember we were writing at The Mayflower, in our room at The Mayflower at night, and by day we'd meet with Eddie and Arsenio sometimes at the Gulf & Western Building, which was right next door. And we were all doing the characters from the barbershop scenes in Coming to America. And you talk in character when you -- we'd learned at Saturday Night Live that you write out loud. You -- when you're working with a group or a partner, you don't write it down; you say it. So we're sitting around goofing, as these characters, these old guys from the barbershop.
So we're over there, and we're all doing the voices, and we're all over there, going, "Mother fucker, you know, pound for pound, Joe Lewis is the greatest fighter ever lived." And all that stuff. And Paul Schrader, the screenwriter, who'd written Taxi Driver was at the same office building, and he had an office next door. He was writing us a version of The Mosquito Coast. And he was so annoyed, he sent his assistant over to us and asked if the cleaning crew could please hold it down.
Q. Well, you're lucky he didn't come, because as I understand, he packs heat, so, yeah, watch out for Mr. Schrader. So five weeks and then --
A. Five weeks --
Q. -- they're shooting it?
A. In five weeks, we turned in the first draft screenplay. By then, John Landis had been attached as director. And we turned it in on a Friday, and Monday morning, they said, "It's green lit; let's go."
A. So it went right into production. I mean, there was not time --
Q. There were no notes, there was no rewriting --
A. No, there were notes; there were notes. You get the usual notes, and sure enough, they sent down a sheaf of notes. And Landis, when they came in the door and said "Here are the notes from the studio," he didn't even look at them. He said, "What?" Grabbed them, went straight to the chairman of the board's office, threw them out on the floor and said, "Don't you ever give notes to my writers again."
Looking back on it, we should have rewritten it because it needed some rewriting. It was a first draft. There were a couple of rough spots in the script. But John just believed in, he was so brilliant, he was just going to ease right through that, and did. He did a great job. And we were on the set -- we were on the set for a good bit of the shooting in New York.
Q. Now, what was it like working with John Landis?
A. Great fun. John is an outlandish guy, and he had a magnificent temper, and he loved to blow up in front of executives. But with the people he was working with, he was kind and gracious and fun to be with and just dearly loved old movies and comedies. And he'd find some obscure comedy that he couldn't get his hands on, had been looking for, for years, and we'd have, we'd order Chinese food and sit on the floor and watch it. And he had a -- we were special guests on the set, which is highly unusual for writers. You know, writers are usually banished from the set. They don't really want you around after you've delivered the script. They don't want you to see what they're about to do to your baby, you know.
A. But John was very inclusive, and he had us on the set. And when we came back to shoot the interiors on the soundstages in Paramount, we were around. And he'd let you call "action." And he put Barry and me in a scene.
Q. Oh. Which one was that?
A. We're extras, standing in line to go to the men's room at Madison Square Garden. My starring role. I'll tell you, I've never been better. But John put us there, and he said, "Now, guys" -- the scene was that a -- Eddie was this prince from Africa.
A. And he's recognized by one of his subjects --
Q. Right, right.
A. -- from his --
Q. I remember that.
A. -- from the mythical country of Zamunda, who drops down to his knees and says, "Sir," you know, and pays homage to his prince. So all this happens in front of a bunch of guys standing in line to go to the men's room at Madison Square Garden, and Barry and I were prominently right behind him in the shot. And I remember John saying, "Hey, David. I want you guys to all look to the left and look to the right, in unison, just like that. Just like that."
And I said, "No."
He said, "What do you mean, no?"
And I said, "I think that's a sucky idea. I'm not going to do that."
And he took me aside, and he said, "David, you misunderstand the relationship. I'm the director. You're supposed to do what I say."
And I said, "Well, what if I don't feel like doing what you say?"
Q. Did the other actors know you were the writer or did they think --
A. Oh, they did, and they -- you know, but John laughed it off. It wasn't a big conflict. It was just funny. And I was right, by the way.
A. It would have been goofy.
Q. What about the first screening? Where was that; where was the premiere for that?
A. Oh, let's see. The first screening was in Las Vegas. We had a test screening. Um, boy, was it rushed. Everything about that production was so rushed. They were editing it as we shot, and they had a rough assembly by the time we -- it was wrapped. And there was a test screening in Vegas, and we all drove over, and it was met with huge laughter. And people liked it and it scored very well. And they did a little tweaking, and then John had us in for the sound mix. We were interrupted by a Writers Guild strike. It was very frustrating because, as I told you, we were always on the set.
A. But then we had to -- we had to drop out because as members of the Guild, we couldn't cross the lines and we weren't allowed on the lot by Guild rules. So that was a little bit painful. But then John had us in off the lot when he did the sound mix so that we could see the film. So the first time we saw it was a black-and-white slop print, that's called, that you mix the sound to. And it did not look beautiful, but we could see that it was -- that it hung together pretty well. And it opened to, I've forgotten what the opening numbers were, but it was the number two box office hit of 1987 --
A. -- right behind Roger Rabbit, which was number one.
A. We were neck and neck in the box office race. I went to the screening with our agent, Stu Miller, from APA, and Stu watched the movie with us. And Frank Mancuso, the chairman of the company, of Paramount, came up to us afterwards and hugged Barry and me and said, "Thank you, guys. It's a great entertainment."
And then we went for pizza, and Stu Miller shrugged and said, "Well, it is what it is. What are you going to do now?"
Q. Didn't want to give you one night of glory?
A. No, well --
Q. On to the next task.
A. I don't think -- I don't think he knew what -- that it was going to be the hit it was, but it was certainly a big hit. And then, based on that, we could pretty much write our own ticket.
Q. Let's talk about one of those projects, I guess the -- I think this was back in Saturday Night Live, the Billy Liar opportunity, talking about kind of false starts or --
A. A lost opportunity. We were hot writers on the show. In 1982, we got a call from the agent saying that the British director John Schlesinger wants to meet with you. He wants -- and we met with Schlesinger at, I think, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. He was there with his producer, and John wanted to do an American remake of his film Billy Liar and asked if we would consider writing it. And we told him we could and we would and that we would get right to work on an adaptation.
But we were lying, because we were doing Saturday Night Live, and we didn't have a moment to think about that. And then we met a second time, not with John Schlesinger but with the producer, and we had to admit to him that we had not come up with a story; and so it just kind of died on the vine. I've always regretted that because it would have made a huge difference. It was sort of like, work with John Schlesinger, distinguished director of Midnight Cowboy, or write Police Academy 2. And, of course, we chose Police Academy 2, and it's a little bit like the Frost poem: Two roads diverged in Hollywood, and sorry I could not travel both. We chose the shitty sequel, and it has made all the difference.
Q. Right. And then there was a Chevy Chase movie that was a script that was written.
A. Yeah. Well, we, that was also done during -- that was done on hiatus in, I think, '83. We came out, were going to write a screenplay during our summer off. We were babes in the woods to think that was possible, and it took us all summer to get the deal in place. And we chose to write -- we were pitched this idea for Chevy Chase, so we snapped at it. And we did a very poor job. It was our first screenplay, and we didn't -- we were distracted and had to go back and do the show. We were trying to write it during the show, on weekends, and we were exhausted. And more than anything, it was the suckiest idea I've ever heard in my life, and why we chose -- and I found out later that they had no intention of making it in Warner Brothers. They just were -- they had hired us to write it just to placate Chevy, who was a huge star at the time.
It was Chevy's idea. It was -- he wanted to play a guy who got in shape with the aid of some brilliant trainer, and he turns his life around and becomes Mr. Strong Man. It was -- Chevy had it in his head he wanted to demonstrate his super-fast tennis stroke. And it was bad, the script was bad, it was a lost cause, and we never should have done it. But we did it, and we were paid, and that was our introduction to Hollywood.
Q. Back then, I guess the screenwriting guide was Sid Field? That's kind of what was the starting point on learning screenwriting?
A. Well, we learned, the same way I learned everything else, by doing it. From that first -- no, let me go back. After -- after Police Academy 2, we got an offer from Paramount to set up a housekeeping deal, it's called in the business. They gave us an office in the Dressing Room Building, a very prestigious building on the Paramount lot, and they gave us an assistant and a golf cart and an expense account.
A. And the idea at the time was that they were going to nurture writers and see if they could put together some of the best and brightest up and coming writers in that building. And it was great. We'd see the executives by day, and they'd say, "What are you working on?" Well, we were thinking of doing this. And I remember Seaman and Price had an office right down the hall. And another guy who had an office on that floor at the same time was a very good screenwriter who adapted Get Shorty. We'll look up his name.
Q. Yeah, okay.
A. We were all there. And then within -- within a year or two of us all being there in the Dressing Room Building, we all went on to success.
Q. Scott Frank?
A. Scott Frank proved to be an excellent screenwriter.
A. One of the best in the business. And Seaman and Price wrote Roger Rabbit. And then we wrote Coming to America. And we were all successful. So whoever was -- whoever was doling out those offices knew what they doing. While we were there, we had carte blanche to write anything we wanted. Boy, it wouldn't happen today --
A. -- that way. But we wrote a script for Eddie, in mind. Eddie Murphy came to us and said, "I want to do something like The Kid," the Chaplain film.
A. And something with a kid, so we said okay. So we -- we came up with the idea of setting this story in the world of black vaudeville, and we wrote a screenplay called The Butterscotch Kid that took place on the road, and Eddie would have played a promoter and a road manager of this company on the road of musicians and comedians and magic acts, and it was just a funny, winning screenplay. And Eddie read it and liked it, and it looked like it was going forward. And the executives at Paramount liked it, and they sent us a fruit basket, "Congratulations," and oh boy.
Hardly had the fruit wilted in the basket than it came back to us that Eddie had changed his mind. His manager at the time was a guy named Bob Wachs, W-A-C-H-S. And Bob had what he called a saggy mattress theory. He said, "Eddie just did Beverly Hills Cop. We're getting ready to do Beverly Hills Cop 2. This is the movie in the middle, and it shouldn't sag in the middle at the box office; it shouldn't be a saggy mattress." So Eddie decided not to do it and chose to do The Golden Child instead.
The Golden Child was written by another writer who was on that floor at the time. We can look up his name. But it was never written for Eddie. And it was directed by --
Q. I can look it up real quick. Golden Child was --
A. Dennis Feldman?
Q. -- Dennis Feldman and directed by Michael Ritchie.
A. Michael Ritchie.
Q. I just remember it kind of tanked.
A. Yeah. It was in trouble, and they came back to us when they were trying to edit The Golden Child and said, look, this movie is in trouble, would you guys come in and do a couple of weeks of work and write some additional scenes to try to make it funny. So we met with Michael Ritchie, and we met with Eddie, and we wrote some material. And they did go back and do some reshoots, but it was not the plasma transfusion that would have been necessary to animate this beast.
Q. And that also happened with Pluto Nash, correct?
A. We did some rewriters on Pluto Nash, you know. When they bring it to you and say, hey, uh, we're going to do some reshoots, you know all of a sudden, you know, they're trying to polish a turd. And this particular turd was unpolishable. This particular turd was not easily salvaged.
Q. Uh --
A. Why did I say that? That's an awful phrase. Cut that.
Q. Yeah, I'll cut it. Let's see. Let's go on to a couple of shows. What's Alan Watching? which seems like a very unique concept for a TV --
A. Well, I'll say. We had -- off the strength of the box office numbers for Coming to America, we announced that we were interested in doing television, and so Bob Tischler came to us with the idea of doing the pilot for a series for Eddie Murphy Productions at Paramount TV. And they just let us do whatever we wanted to do. They said, here, go make a pilot. And we wrote this pilot. Eddie didn't write it with us. We wrote -- he was going to make some cameo appearances in it, but it wasn't really for Eddie. It was about a family, a dysfunctional family, and this kid named Alan who watched entirely too much TV. But the premise was that he could mind meld with characters on TV. He could step right through the screen and go into the world of whatever television show he was watching.
Q. A Sherlock Jr.-type concept?
A. Yeah. And plus he turned and spoke directly to camera, which was -- broke the fourth wall in a way that wasn't being done on TV. And the other thing that was so different about that pilot is that we started out -- I coined the phrase for it: Form follows funny. We're going to shoot this in whatever form it naturally takes. We were given a high budget, and we were shooting the pilot on 35. But our idea was that if Alan was watching a crummy wrestling match, that we'd go in and shoot it on video and he'd be a part of the wrestling match, and whatever -- whatever television came through Alan's screen is what we used.
We shot -- we had a very interesting look on that show, because we shot parts of it on 35. I went to Scottsdale, Arizona, and shot The Smothers Brothers for a segment, and I shot them on 16. But the DP was a very open-minded guy. We had -- we had short little sketches within the show. One of them was called Pit Babies, and it was about the sick underworld of wrestling babies and how there were people out there making money on, you know, putting babies in pits and having them wrestle. And so we shot all of this -- all of this, and the DP shot it handheld. And then he went back and shot it with a camcorder. And we decided we liked the look of the camcorder because it was what, like surveillance video.
Q. Like found footage, that kind of thing?
A. Yeah. It was like it was black and white, and it was, you know, handheld, rough, grainy video. So we're getting all of this together, and it's coming together; and we're very proud of the show. And I'll tell you, the director did a brilliant job. He got it immediately. We got along famously with him. And he was -- he was all for any kind of innovation we wanted to try. And that director's name was --
A. Tommy Schlamme. Tommy is a great guy. We had a fun time making that show. And then we show it to the executives at Paramount TV. They called us in and said, "We refuse to put the Paramount name on this show."
"What's the matter?"
"Well, here you are, you're supposed to be shooting this film, single-camera film, 35, and you're putting video in it. What's that all about?"
We said, "Well, form follows funny. That's what we thought it should be."
"No." Well, uh --
"You're going to cut it. You're going to reshoot it, and you're going to make it look like a Paramount show, or we're not going to air it."
And I said, "Well" -- and I remember saying, "Well, look, why don't you just kiss my ass?"
And the guy who was in charge of Paramount TV said, "Where exactly would you like me to kiss your ass, David?"
And I said, "You know that trophy case where they have all the Oscars up by the commissary? That would be an excellent place for you to kiss my ass." And, uh --
Q. That's the end --
A. Then they came back, and not surprisingly, we were all fired off of our own show, and they brought in some hacks to do some rewrites.
Q. Oh, God.
A. And Tommy, to his everlasting credit, made nice and stayed on the show so he could ward off some of their worst ideas. It actually did air almost 99% of what we shot, and it was a hodgepodge of video in 16 and 35 and all of that. And it was so innovative, it got a double spread in the New York Times. Every newspaper, every magazine in the country lit up with praise for this show. It was very different. And then they showed it to Mr. CBS, the guy who owned CBS at the time, Lawrence Tish took a look at it and said, "I don't get it." And so it never went forward. It aired as a special --
A. -- during the summer, and we won the National TV Critics Award. But we'll never get to do television like that again. It was just a fluke.
And then we made a two-year deal with NBC to create series. And coming off of that, we thought, man, we're going to remake television. The first thing they pitched us was a pet pig. It wasn't a talking pig. They kept making -- the network kept saying, "Now, it's about a pig, but it's not a talking pig. He's just a regular pig. Just a regular pig."
I kept saying, "You know, if the mother fucker talked, it might work."
Q. So did you go write the talking pig --
A. No, we did not. We refused. We fought, fought, fought, fought, fought, fought with those execs. And we finally wrote a -- we pitched an idea that I was proud of, and it would have made a great series. It was a bunch of low-life, down-and-dirty, nasty slip-and-fall lawyers working out of the The Bronx. So we actually flew to New York and met with some of these guys, and went around and met with some of them. They were hilarious; they were hilarious. I mean, they were totally without scruples. And the idea was to show a law firm without scruples and to show these ambulance-chasing lawyers and what was going on in their personal lives.
A. I'm convinced to this day, it would have made a hell of a series.
Q. Oh, it would have been great.
A. And the young executive on the show said, "Yeah, but you've got to put a kid in it."
I said, "What?"
"We don't have any slots open except the 8:00 evening slots so you've got to put a kid in it."
Q. Yeah. It doesn't work.
A. Horrible idea, so we didn't do it. We spent two years wasting our time bumping up against the television people at NBC and never saw eye to eye on anything.
Q. What about -- let's see. Let's go to Boomerang as far as another credit, before we get to Nutty Professor, a little Boomerang.
A. Do we have to?
Q. So that was --
A. Boomerang was from an idea by Eddie. He hired -- he called us up and told us the concept that he had, that he wanted to play an executive and that he was a womanizer and that he was done in by a woman that he met. That's as much as he had. So Barry and I wrote the screenplay and turned it in, and then they hired the Hudlin Brothers.
Q. Right. Coming off of House Party?
A. Yes. They had done House Party, and they were hot directors and pro- -- one directed, and -- Reginald Hudlin directed, and his brother Warrington was the producer. And they took it over, and they pretty much didn't want us around after that. They wanted to go off and make the movie with Eddie, and they just didn't want us around.
And so they actually changed -- we went to New York to sit in on rehearsals, and the Hudlins moved to another rehearsal hall and left no forwarding address. We didn't even know how to find them. We were -- we never saw the movie until it came out, and then it was vastly changed by the time we got around to it. The Hudlins' approach was, they took the screenplay we wrote, and then they had the actors get up on their feet, and they videotaped all the scenes. And whatever the acts said, ad libbed, became the screenplay. So it had kind of a loosy-goosy style. And we had -- we had a good cast. We had Martin Lawrence --
A. -- who is very funny. And, you know, I've met people over the years who loved that movie. I didn't, but --
Q. Not when it came out.
A. Again, it was -- it was a hit though. It was a hit. So here we have three movies with three up -- and every one of them has made a lot of money, which kept us steadily employed all through the nineties.
Q. And then it's Nutty Professor. We get to that, a remake of a classic. Were you a fan of Jerry Lewis growing up?
A. I was a huge fan of Jerry's when I was a kid. I remember being totally enthralled by CinderFella. Loved that. Then that began, as was often the case, with Eddie calling up and saying he had a way of doing the Nutty Professor that was completely different. He said, "I want to play him a big fat guy." And we laughed out loud, and he told us the idea. And so we went off and wrote the screenplay, did a first draft.
Q. Now, was that the technology, or had he tested the suits to know that he could pull that off convincingly, or --
A. He had not tested it, and -- but he'd worked before with Rick Baker, the greatest makeup artist in the history of the medium. I say that without compunction. Rick is in a separate category. Rick had done, by then -- well, he did all the makeups in Coming to America --
Q. Oh, right.
A. -- all the characters that Eddie had played in that. So we were confident that Rick could transform Eddie into whoever he chose to do, to make him into. And so, yeah, he was going to play the fat guy. We did due diligence. We went to a fat farm. We met with people who were struggling with their weight. We were determined to make it not insulting to overweight people; and, in fact, our hero was Sherman Klump.
A. And he gets the girl, so.
A. But there was criticism of it before it even came out, people assuming that we were going to be denigrating or making fun of overweight people.
Q. Well, you know, people are so touchy about comedy, you know. It's like if you can't make fun of anything, you need to get out of the comedy business.
A. Yeah. It's so true. It's pretty hard to be funny without offending somebody. We wrote a first draft, and then Larry Gelbart was hired to do a draft. And he took a long time, like I think a year. And then they chose not to do Larry's draft. And then they -- Tom Shadyac and Steve Oedekerk did a draft. And then they brought in Seaman and Price to do a draft. We'd rewritten them earlier on a movie, so it was payback. They rewrote us. We rewrite them. Where does it all stop, you know. Then we were called back to do another draft later on in the -- as it neared production.
Q. Was the rewriting from the studio, or was Eddie not happy with the script or was it --
A. No, it was the studio's choice to keep rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. That's the way they do business. It's just what they do. We kept going back, though. When we'd get off track with the story, we would go back and think of the original Jerry Lewis movie and try to hew to that simple story line. And when we got in trouble, we'd go back and see what Jerry did, and it usually seemed to work.
Q. Well, Jerry was quite an innovator, I mean, with the video --
A. He invented video assist.
Q. -- monitor --
A. Yeah. And, so, yeah, we did that one. We shared credit with Tom Shadyac and Steve Oedekerk. I have to say, I didn't know that -- we -- Barry and I had already written a version of the scene around the Klump family table.
Q. Right. The very infamous scene.
A. Yeah. But somewhere between rewrites, it turned into a fart fest. And I was shocked when I saw it screened the first time. I've never liked scatological humor, and I'd always eschewed such humor. I'd always resisted it when somebody said let's put in a shit joke or a fart joke.
A. Just, to me, it's just sort of asinine.
Q. Or kind of an easy laugh.
A. Too easy to get a laugh that way. That's right. And so I didn't love those scenes, but, God, the audiences did. But that's the plight of a screenwriter because then, you know, you find yourself at a party, and somebody says, "I'd like you to meet David Sheffield. He writes fart movies."
Q. Well, let's talk about that, just the lack of respect for comedy in general. Why is it kind of viewed as a -- I guess a lesser form?
A. It's a lesser -- it's seen as a lesser form. I mean, it's very, very rare that the Academy, for example, takes comedy seriously. It's very rare for a comedy to be nominated; even rarer for a comedy to win. I'm trying to think of ones that ever did win, and Annie Hall was one.
A. But that was as much a drama as a comedy, probably. No, when they get ready to pass out Oscars, it's like they either go to a movie that's about the Holocaust or to some costume drama with a bunch of twittery English actors. I mean, almost always. Not almost always, but…
Q. And yet it's extremely difficult to get a laugh and to tell a story that meets the requirements of a story and structure and --
A. And make it funny.
Q. And make it funny.
A. Yeah, that's so true. Of course, it does help when you've got a star like Eddie Murphy who's going to take whatever you do and make it ten times funnier.
Q. Let's see. And then we get to, speaking of remaking classics -- well, we have the Nutty Professor sequel. You were involved -- you did work on the screenplay on that --
Q. The story.
A. Did many drafts of that with Pete Segal, a great guy, who directed. Made a lot of money. Not particularly proud of it. Again, the only reason to do it was to make money. When they told us they wanted a sequel to the Nutty Professor, our first -- my first response was, we did that already, and the Professor kind of went through his change and came out the other end a better man, and I just don't know what to do with him. We had a bunch of different ideas. We wanted to do Son of the Nutty Professor and have him and his wife have a little kid who was a little tubby just like him and make sort of family comedy out of it.
A. I think that was a good idea, but it was shot down. And we fell into what I call sequel-itis: You know, everything we proposed, they would say, "Yeah, but that's not like the first one." So we did a sort of 'nother version of the original, and it wasn't as good. And made a lot of money, and that's that.
Q. Right. And then who proposed the idea of The Honeymooners as a film?
A. I refuse to speak --
A. -- on the subject of The Honeymooners --
A. -- except to say that we did it for the money.
A. No, I'm kidding. It --
Q. Well, I'm --
A. We did -- we did two weeks of work on that script. There was an impending writers strike, and they needed it rewritten. So we had a deal to just work on it for two weeks and then out. And then it was -- we were rewritten after that, and almost nothing remained except part of a story line that we contributed having to do with a greyhound, a dog at a racetrack and --
A. And then when it came out, we had a credit on it. And I felt like I hadn't written it at all, that I just had done a little work on it here and then, but there was my name on it. And --
A. -- it -- it ruined the perfect box score we had --
A. -- because every film we'd done so far had made lots of money, and that one tanked. When it was announced -- what's the guy's name, the sports guy, Olbermann?
[Unknown: Keith Olbermann?]
Q. Yeah, right.
A. Yeah. He announced that they're getting ready to do an all-black version of The Honeymooners at Paramount. He said, "Why don't they just pile the money in a big, giant pile and set fire to it?" And I agreed with him. It was a lousy idea. It's always a bad idea to do a remake of a classic --
A. -- a classic anything, because it's never going to match the original. And you find yourself -- you find yourself saying -- you know, you delude yourself into believing that you're going to do something original, and it's going to be kinda/sorta like it but not really. And so they came to us and said, well, they're not going to really be doing Gleason and -- not really going to be doing the characters. And I said, well, then, why movie?
Q. Why do it?
A. Why movie? Most movies that fail, you could back up looking at it and say that, ask that, why movie?
Q. Another almost-happened project was you working with Chris Farley on a film, correct?
A. Well, that was The Gelfin script that we developed at Imagine for the producer Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, and it was our original idea. We did about, oh, God, over the years, I want to say -- I'm not kidding -- I think we did 14 drafts of it. And they kept paying us over and over again. They'd make new deals for us to write it again and write it again and write it again. Started out, it was for Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks was going to play a young man who was a potato farmer in Idaho. And then we rewrote it to make him a photojournalist in New York. And then we rewrote it to make him a guy who leaved in Seattle on a houseboat. And then we rewrote it again, and he was the operator of the ferry that goes from Staten Island to New York. And then in the final draft, he was still a photojournalist, but it was set in New York.
And there were three or four different directors attached to it at various times, and it just never -- never came together. And the finally they called up and said we've got it cast, we're going forward -- they sent us a fruit basket -- and it's going forward with Chris Farley and -- oh, God, help me out. I can remember everything but names. Vince Vaughn.
Q. Vince Vaughn?
A. Vince Vaughn and Chris Farley were going to play -- do this movie, The Gelfin, and we were thrilled. And then Barry and I went to lunch at a delicatessen in Studio City and came back out to Barry's car, turned on the radio, and it was one of those improbable moments that you would not believe if it were in a movie. We turned on the radio, and the guy said, "Actor Chris Farley was found dead today in his apartment." End of The Gelfin.
Q. The fruit basket is the kiss of death, I think is what it was.
A. That's the -- just don't -- if I wrote an autobiography, it would be called Please Don't Send Me Fruit Baskets.
Q. And then I guess the business changed from -- on a large number of projects in development. The studios kind of backed off, fewer projects, larger films.
A. They seemed to want to make or remake things that are familiar or known already to the audience, hence so many comic book movies, so many remakes. The studios have been overtaken by the marketing department. When I started out, a movie opened in 500 screens, and it was considered a broad release. Today they routinely open in 4500, 5000 screens. You've got all the multiplexes.
The release pattern is different, and they're all about making their money the first and second and third weekends, so they want these things to open. And they don’t care that the movies have legs, as we used to say in the business. They just want to -- they just want to seduce the public to going there the opening weekend. And then they -- the budgets have gotten so absurdly out of control that the studios have gotten more and more prescriptive. They've -- they make a decision what the slate is going to be and they're going to make a certain number of films, and then they try to force them into being --
A. -- by hiring writer after writer after writer.
Q. Yeah. I recall the recent Robin Hood had like 19 writers on it.
A. Oh, my God. I mean, I -- I pity the guys who did the arbitration at the Guild.
Q. And then comedy, you know, it's viewed that American comedy doesn't travel as well as action, so it's become more difficult to get comedies made, especially romantic comedies, which is what used to be a staple.
A. Yeah. There are a lot of fallacies in the business. One is that romantic comedies don't travel well. Another is that African-American movies don't travel well or films with black casts don't travel well. We gave a lie to that with Coming to America. I was actually on a panel one time, and there was a young studio executive on the panel with us discussing state of the business. And he made the flat-out statement that he would never make a romantic comedy with an all-black cast because it would never make money. And I said, "Excuse me. We did a little movie called Coming to America that made about $450 million worldwide."
He said, "That wasn't a romantic comedy."
Q. Yes, it was.
A. And I said, "Excuse me. We wrote it, and I'm pretty damned sure it was a romantic comedy."
A. But -- I don't know. The rules change from week to week, but there are definite rules. There is a definite mindset about what will and won't work, what's permissible and what is not permissible. And all the non-creative people in the business are all agreed on that at any given time.
Q. Right. So did you work on scripts solo? I guess we're kind of getting to like before you came back from Mississippi, you were working solo. Are you still working --
Q. -- with Barry or --
A. No, Barry became a director. He went off and did a documentary called Beyond the Mat about professional wrestling. He asked me to produce it, and I told him that I'd rather slide down a razor blade into a vat of alcohol than sit in an editing room listening to wrestlers for a year. I just wanted no part of it.
A. And so he went off and made his film, and it did very well. And then he parlayed that into deals, direct features. And then I did a rewrite with him of a film he wound up directing called --
Q. Is this The Ringer?
A. -- The Ringer, yeah. We were actually called back. After I left California, I sort of washed my hands of the whole thing and said that's it, I'm going back and become a dirt farmer in Mississippi. I got a call. They want to do another sequel to the Nutty Professor, and would we --
Q. Oh, no.
A. -- consider writing it. So I went back, wrote the script with Barry and turned it in. And it's still sort of in limbo at Universal. They liked the script and wanted to go forward, but they wanted to do it at a price. And it's very difficult to make a movie, that movie, at a price because Eddie plays all the characters.
A. And you're -- there's just no way you're going to shoot that on a lower budget. It's not going to happen.
A. It's going to take a number of days to shoot that.
Q. With the makeup and --
A. Yeah. You can only shoot one character a day. So if you have a scene with three Eddies --
A. -- you're automatically shooting three days at least. And we couldn't make the execs understand that.
Q. And what about Coming to America; is there remake of that in the work or a live-action version, perhaps?
A. God, I hope not.
Q. Okay. And what about advice to the young comedy writer?
A. Um --
Q. As we wrap things up.
A. Be funny. Make yourself laugh with what you offer. And have a tough hide. And learn to fight for what you think is funny without completely pissing everybody off and making them fire you.
Q. Okay. And with that, we'll wrap it up. Thank you, David.
(C) Hoover, 2015. All rights reserved. No portion of this interview may be reproduced without express permission.