Thursday, May 14, 2020

An Interview with Ron Friedman


Ron Friedman: I wrote for Timmie Rogers. I worked with a lot of Black comics and singers who did the Chitlin Circuit. Timmie Rogers was an absolutely lovely guy. I was just beginning in the business and the William Morris office always assigned new writers to the Black clients because they couldn't pay that much. So the beginner got to work with the Black comics. I certainly didn't mind. 



Timmie Rogers was a lovely guy and he told me he wanted to make his act stronger and he wanted to make an album. He took me up to 125th Street to a bar and introduced me to some of the other favorite Black acts. He had more irons in the fire than just one-liners or anecdotal jokes. Although there were very few comics doing anecdotal stuff in the 1950s. Timmie was a good musician and he wrote some songs. One of them made the Hit Parade. It was called Fla-Ga-La-Pa. 



Kliph Nesteroff: Were you specifically writing material for nightclubs?

Ron Friedman: Yes. Timmie hired me. The William Morris office put me together with two other writers - Ronald Axe and Sol Weinstein. And we wrote the Timmie Rogers comedy album If I Were President. I don't know if you know Sol Weinstein.





Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah, I interviewed him before he died.

Ron Friedman: Oh, so you did know him. He was an absolutely brilliant meshugganah and great fun to work with. He wrote all of his Israel Bond books - the Jewish James Bond. The album was, I thought, hilarious. So did everyone who heard it including our A&R man Quincy Jones. Also the guy at Mercury Records who hired us - Creed Taylor. The album looked very hot and then Mercury pulled it because all of the Southern radio stations threatened to ban everything released by Mercury Records in protest. And so they squelched it.


Kliph Nesteroff: Was that album, at least in part, sort of based on the success of Vaughn Meader's The First Family?


Ron Friedman: At this moment, I can't say for sure, but I imagine so. It was the same time frame. I really thought it was a hilarious album and we had some great performers on it like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. And a guy named Hal Cromer who was the original Stumpy of Stump and Stumpy. They were a great act that played the Chitlin Circuit for years. They always played the Apollo.



Hal was one of the greatest impressionists I have ever encountered. He was the first Black act to do white impressions. Sammy Davis Jr. got the courage to do it from Hal. Hal was a dead ringer for Miles Davis. Shortly after we recorded If I Were President, I was brought out to Hollywood by Danny Kaye to write on The Danny Kaye Show.


I was standing by the pool at the Chateau Marmont and I saw Hal Cromer. I said, "Hal, why didn't you tell me you were in town? We could've had dinner." He said, "We all look the same to you, don't we baby?" I said, "What's with your voice?" He said, "Yeah, you can't tell one of us from the other." I said, "Don't give me that shit, Hal. What's the problem?" He laughed. "Man, I'm not Hal Cromer, Goddammit! I'm Miles Davis!" I said, "Well, who gives a fuck!" He roared with laughter. "You don't dig music?" I said, "Oh, you're the guy who played eight bars at the Hollywood Bowl and then stormed off!" Anyway, he and Hal were dead ringers. He said, "I'm just fucking with you. People have been confusing me with Hal for generations." 




Kliph Nesteroff: Tell me more about Timmie Rogers...

Ron Friedman: Timmie Rogers was the first person William Morris put me together with. In those days, Wally Amos was a famous William Morris agent because he brought in all the Black singers and they all became crossover successes - like Sam Cooke. But he became too visible at William Morris and the head of the music department replaced him out of jealousy. But he's the guy who brought in those crossover acts. Wally Amos of Famous Amos.




Kliph Nesteroff: On that same Timmie Rogers comedy record there is the very inspired casting of Kenny Delmar as a bigoted Southern politician. He famously played Senator Claghorn on Fred Allen's radio show. That character was later the basis for Foghorn Leghorn in Looney Tunes cartoons.

Ron Friedman: "That's a joke, son! That's a joke!"


Kliph Nesteroff: When he did that character on The Fred Allen Show, it was obvious he was a Southern politician but there was never any reference to race or racism. In a way it was implied. Finally, here on this comedy record, the character is basically channeling Senator Bilbo or one of the other notorious bigots in Washington. I think the character's name on the LP is Senator Bullbo...




Ron Friedman: Absolutely. Exactly. I haven't heard the album in years, but I remember being very proud of it. I particularly enjoyed the track called Timmie Rogers' Dream where Hal plays a slave ancestor. At the time I thought it was a breakthrough. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Who were some of the other African-American comedians you wrote for?




Ron Friedman: Flip Wilson. We hit it off. But I lucked out and I got better paying gigs and had a play to write. I wanted to get out of the stand-up world as quickly as I could because I had to follow the acts around. I went to places like Erie, Pennsylvania and the Elegante in Brooklyn and the Upstairs at the Duplex, and the Downstairs at the Fuck You...

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs) 




Ron Friedman: I met all the Mafia guys I ever wanted to meet. That was no life. I had a family and wanted to be there for my kids. Lucky for me, I don't have to stand up to be funny. I don't have that need. That's enabled me to have a real life. I don't know of too many comics who manage to have a real life. 

Kliph Nesteroff: When I interviewed Sol Weinstein it was for an article I was writing about Alan Drake.


Ron Friedman: Oh yeah, I remember Alan. Absolutely. Sol Weinstein also wrote songs. He couldn't read or write music, but he would sing the song to people to sell it. I was there when he sang - and sold - "The Curtain Falls" to Bobby Darin.





Kliph Nesteroff: When Dick Gregory burst on the scene he hired white, Jewish, comedy writers to punch up his act.

Ron Friedman: He did. One of them was Ronnie Axe with whom I worked with on the Timmie Rogers album. I met with Dick and Ronnie and gave them some jokes. In those days you would give away a lot of material with the hopes that it would get you a writing job for real money. I also knew Godfrey Cambridge. He was another lovely guy. 




I wrote some jokes for Scatman Crothers. Louis Armstrong too. My admiration for these Black artists was enormous because I knew the shit they put up with. They managed not to let it make them bitter. It made them angry, but not bitter. That kind of courage in the face of horrible adversary... I admired their heart and their guts. It's all kind of a blur because if you were writing for stand-up comics in New York in the early 1960s - you didn't sleep. You'd have to hang with them, go to their try-outs, and sit with them. And even though I loved a lot of the comics... to sit with a comic when they're not working or don't feel successful is to take a page out of Edgar Allen Poe. 



Jonathan Winters was one. He'd go in the other room and paint the windows black and say, "It's a bad scene, man, it's a bad scene. A bad, bad, bad scene." And I'd say, "What will cheer you up, Jonny? You want me to talk about somebody dying? You want me to set something on fire? You want me to talk about the history of Israel?" Nothing worked. "Bad scene, bad scene." Most successful comics that really make you laugh are either hurting a lot or are terminally pissed off. 


Joan Rivers was like that. She was intensely sensitive. She never thought she was pretty enough or bright enough. We started at the same time. I remember William Morris sending me over to meet with her because I was new and so was she. I had no money. Neither did she. Her manager was Bobby Bernard. I met her in his office in the Brill Building. The thing about the Brill Building, whenever anybody left the building, they put their hat in front of their face. There were a lot of Mafia fronts in the Brill Building acting as theatrical agents. Anyway, Rivers was there and she was stealing stamps from Bobby Bernard so she could cash them in to eat at the automat.

Kliph Nesteroff: Wasn't AGVA a Mafia front?



Ron Friedman: Probably. Everything else was. Every restaurant in New York was the Mob. If you wanted to get your linen or wanted your garbage removed, that's who you were dealing with. The front table at the clubs would be reserved for the wiseguys and their hooker girlfriends. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned the Brill Building. The other important showbiz building was a block away - 1650 Broadway.


Ron Friedman: Oh, yes.




Kliph Nesteroff: There were a lot of managers and song publishers upstairs and on the ground floor was Hanson's Drugstore.

Ron Friedman: Yes, Hanson's was one place and also the B&G.

Kliph Nesteroff: The B&G Coffee Shop next door.

Ron Friedman: Yeah. That was a big hangout for comics. Also the automat was very popular. You'd always see Jerry Lester there. Also a lot of old vaudeville comics. I'd always see Billy 'Cheese and Crackers' Hagan there. He was a famous burlesque comic. After anyone ever said anything he'd say, "Jeez! And crackers!" That was his whole act! Also Mike Sachs, the blind baggy-pants comic who performed with the Seeing-Eye Lady, a stooge with big tits. He'd always reach for them and say, "Oh, the weather is soft." 




Kliph Nesteroff: One of your credits is the 1963 version of The Jerry Lester Show.

Ron Friedman: It originated from New York. It was another thing I wrote with Ronnie Axe and Sol Weinstein. It was 90-minutes on Fridays and Saturdays. Jerry liked joke-jokes and I wrote a routine called the Voice of Russia. There was a radio station called Voice of America. One of the jokes, "Here are soccer scores: Poland - nil. Russia - fifteen. Yugoslavia - nothing, Russia - twelve. Romania - 2, Russia - 42. All games scheduled to be played tomorrow night." Jerry Lester said to me, "No, no, no. I'm not going to get political." 




So I sent that routine to a show where comics read material to see if it would get laughs. Shecky Greene was on the show and he read the Voice of Russia. I met Shecky later. He appeared in a Love, American Style episode that I wrote. He played opposite Mama Cass. Shecky was fabulous. I'm sure you've written about Shecky somewhere.

Kliph Nesteroff: Yes.


Ron Friedman: You know about the drinking problem and the Caesar's Palace? No spray wax?


Kliph Nesteroff: Yes. The thing I find most interesting about him is his name. If you call yourself Shecky, it means comedian. 




Ron Friedman: Exactly.

Kliph Nesteroff: But it usually means - and this is not Shecky Greene's fault - but over the years the name has been distorted into a shorthand which means "bad comedian."


Ron Friedman: Yes. That's true. Shecky was brilliant and probably one of the faster minds on the planet. Just like Don Rickles. He could make things happen.


Kliph Nesteroff: Shecky was underrated as an impressionist. His impression of Danny Thomas is hilarious. His impression of Shelley Berman is also hysterical.


Ron Friedman: Absolutely. Also a superb actor. As was Don Rickles. The Rat Race was one of the best Don Rickles films.


Kliph Nesteroff: With Debbie Reynolds.




Ron Friedman: Yes, and he was also in Casino.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you were writing for Black comedians - where did you go see them perform? Were they still playing Black venues or had they crossed over already?


Ron Friedman: I was mostly at this Black nightclub down the street from Small's Paradise in Harlem. I was walking around Harlem with Timmie and he goes, "The eyes are upon you!" And he put his arm around me and said, "Now the eyes will close." 



I saw what he put up with sometimes and yet he didn't let that kill his joy of life. Sammy Davis wasn't able to manage quite the same way. He would often just tear into white people and get in their face. But he was wounded deeply

Kliph Nesteroff: Jerry Lester had a number of short-lived shows in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most of them were regional programs. After he left Broadway Open House on NBC in 1950, he never had another real success. What was the format of the one you worked on?




Ron Friedman: It was a syndicated show originating in New York. I don't know where else it aired. The guy who produced it was Vern something. The orchestra was top flight with some of the best studio musicians around and Tyree Glenn was the trombone guy. Clark Terry sat in with the band a couple of times. It was just another Tonight Show rip-off with an endless supply of one-liners and guests like Rudy Vallee who was one of the least funny guys ever. He took me and Ronnie and Sol out for dinner to some off-Broadway, under-Broadway, restaurant. The reason he did this was because he was comped if he would do fifteen minutes. 



So we were eating and he stands up and they shined a flash light on him and he did fifteen minutes! He said, "She was my Melancholy Baby. She had a head like a melon and a face like a collie. Her teeth were like stars - they came out at night." Those were his jokes. So we hid underneath the table.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was it called The Jerry Lester Show?


Ron Friedman: I think it was called Weekend with Jerry Lester.




Part of my job was to interview the guests to find out if they had something interesting to say. 
Rudy Vallee. Bobby Darin. Bobby Vinton who was more nervous than anyone I had ever seen. He was literally sweating. Nipsey Russell - who was a much-decorated war hero and never spoke of it.


Kliph Nesteroff: Nipsey Russell's first big break was in Montreal in the late 1940s. He became fluent in French and had two different stand-up acts, one in English and one in French.




Ron Friedman: I'm not surprised because he was absolutely brilliant. A highly intelligent person. I think he was gay. I would meet Black guys who said, "We love Nipsey even though he's on the fence." Back then that was jive talk for being gay.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you write for Nipsey?


Ron Friedman: No, but I met him and talked to him at length when he was on the Tonight Show with Jack Carter. Jack was guest hosting. Jack Paar left and Johnny Carson hadn't taken over yet.

Kliph Nesteroff: Let's talk about Jack Carter. I knew him very well.


Ron Friedman: I did too.


Kliph Nesteroff: In the years before I knew him I would see him on TV and I never ever liked his act. 




Ron Friedman: Yeah.


Kliph Nesteroff: But once I got to know him, I found him to be absolutely hilarious - offstage.


Ron Friedman: Yes. He was.


Kliph Nesteroff: His rage. His rage was so funny.


Ron Friedman: Yes, it was. You know, he did a series of "nude impressions" with his dick...


Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)


Ron Friedman: Which I didn't particularly want to see, but he would do "Telephone Repairman" and "Flowers by Wire" and all kinds of shit. I'll tell you a great Jack story. I really liked Jack. He was his own worst enemy. He was a sore, sore winner. 




He was saying to me, "Fran Jeffries. Fran Jeffries. I'd really like to get with her. But every time we're about to set it up, something happens. She's out of town or I get a gig or she gets married. But tonight! Tonight! I'm seeing her tonight and we're going to do it.  Fran Jeffries! Can't wait!" 



So I see him the next day and I said, "So, how'd it go with Fran?" He says, "Well, we were in the hotel and she takes out this little satchel. A little suitcase. She opens it. There's an electric vibrator. There's another electric something with a windmill on it. There's another electric thing you shove up your ass and your balls light up." She's laying all this stuff out and Jack says, "Call me when there's a power failure!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)




Ron Friedman: I was writing for Jack the week he hosted the Tonight Show. I was working with him in his apartment and he goes, "That's it! I can't stand it anymore! I can't listen to this! That's it! Go home!" So I go home. At three in the morning he calls. He says, "You like that chair in my living room? It's yours." I said, "What the fuck are you talking about? It's three in the morning!" He says, "Yeah, but I was rough with you yesterday. So when you come over next time - take the chair."


Kliph Nesteroff: (laughs)




Ron Friedman: This other time he was walking with his wife and he sees this beautiful girl go by. He said to his wife, "Look at those tits! Look at that ass! Jesus Christ! Look at that body!" His wife goes, "Yeah, let's get her to suck our dick." That was the Jack Carter I knew.

Kliph Nesteroff: He had an incredible memory. If I mentioned some obscure dance team he worked with in 1944 he could recall every detail - and was still mad about something they did seventy years ago. What was the week that he guest hosted the Tonight Show like?




Ron Friedman: Jack was always impossible. I would write a lot of jokes for him and he would always say, "That's an applause line. I don't want applause. I want laugh lines." I remember that one of the guests was going to be Don Rickles so I wrote some sort of intro about how he was supposed to be in a western movie "but they couldn't find a holster to fit his mouth." Jack read that and said to me, "Why make him look good?"

Kliph Nesteroff: How was Jack as a Tonight Show host?




Ron Friedman: Very funny! He was very good, but didn't listen too well. So he didn't really interview the guests, he would just listen long enough until he thought of a line to throw back at them. I remember Gordon and Sheila MacRae were the guests and he didn't know what to say to them. So finally he just said, "Hey, nobody wants to hear you talk. Sing something!" It was a very successful week. I remember his manager Ray Katz was absolutely thrilled. He said to me, "You're the first guy to make Jack look like a human being." I said, "Please don't accuse me of things." He said, "No, no, you gave him lines that were funny and they didn't just sound like a stand-up comic rattling off one-liners." I said, "Well, I wrote a whole act that Jack might like." 



Ray Katz said, "Come down to the office and do it for me and Jack." And so I did. It was about New York. "New York. Founded by Louis Stuyvesant in 1642 - and they still haven't finished it yet." Anyway, they liked it. Jack said, "I'm not going to pay you because I'm already paying you, but I'll take some of the lines. Okay?" I said, "Um, no." He said, "Good."

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you write for any of the other Tonight Show guest hosts?

Ron Friedman: No, because at that time I was writing Car 54, Where Are You? starring Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne. I met with the head writer, Nat Hiken - and his writing partner... Billy Friedkin?


Kliph Nesteroff: Billy Friedberg, I think.




Ron Friedman: Friedberg. I was writing this script with George Foster. He was an old hand who wanted my help writing a situation comedy because he had never written one before. So we're in there working on this script. Joe E. Ross was in the hallway and asked to come in. Nat said, "Tell him to wait a minute." Ross married actual hookers. Hiken said to Foster and me, "Listen, he just got divorced. That was like the fifth hooker marriage he's had so... be prepared for anything." So he came in, "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!" Hiken said, "How's the divorce situation?" Ross said, "Being married to a hooker is like being married to a doctor. They get calls in the middle of the night and you gotta let them go because that's their profession. But I figured out how much she charges for each fuck and each blowjob, so in this one, I feel like I got off easy. It worked out to less than twenty-seven dollars." A very sensitive guy (laughs).


Kliph Nesteroff: How about Nat Hiken? A legend.


Ron Friedman: Oh yeah. Totally. He was sort of like a Sheldon Leonard. If they said it - it was etched in stone. So one time we were in there working and talking away. He tells us what the line would be and then asked, "What do you think, Billy?" Billy Friedberg said, "Whatever you say, Nat." That was their whole relationship. "What do you think?" "Whatever you say." 




Kliph Nesteroff: Were you a staff writer on Car 54?

Ron Friedman: Nat Hiken didn't have staff writers because he preferred to write every show or most of them. I was writing for the show, but then it got canceled and they never even shot it. 


Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned George Foster. He produced many famous comedy records later on - sketch comedy. And to that point - you became a writer for Vaughn Meader.




Ron Friedman: Mickey Ross was a director and a writer who got me a job writing Sergio Franchi's nightclub act. Mickey liked my work and he was offered an album with Vaughn Meader. It was his first non-JFK album. We wrote an album called Have Some Nuts. Vaughn loved what I wrote and asked me to write his new act. His first post-Kennedy act. He was worried. "Oh fuck, what am I going to do..." I said, "I'll write a new act for you, you'll open big, and everyone in the world will be there." And they were. He opened at the Blue Angel. 



Shelley Berman came in a tuxedo to introduce Vaughn and to introduce me as his writer. Shelley had been instrumental in getting me into the business. Everybody was there. Every magazine, every newspaper, local New York and national television. They were all there and it was jammed. The reviews all said the material was brilliant. Danny Kaye was in the audience. Afterward he said to me, "You're coming to California." I said, "Never. I hate California." He said, "You'll come." Anyway, that was how I ended up on The Danny Kaye Show. It was a natural progression. Each step I wanted to write more substantial things with the ultimate goal of plays and books and novels - not stand-up. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How did Shelley Berman help you?




Ron Friedman: He knew me from summer stock. I convinced him to let me write for him. He had told me, "Nobody can write for me - but here's my address." Six weeks later he phoned me. "You can really do this. Come to New York. I'll be doing The Perry Como Show. I'll get you an agent." So I made arrangements, went to the Como show, and there was Shelley. I said, "Shelley, I'm here. Ron Friedman from Pittsburgh." He said, "It'll be there when you return." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I'm having a nervous breakdown. I'm going to Jamaica. I'll see you later." I said, "But I flew in from Pittsburgh!" He said, "I'm sorry. I'm going to Jamaica." And he did! He did the Como show and went straight to Jamaica. 



The scenic designer on The Perry Como Show was my fraternity brother Gary Smith. He saw the exchange and he said, "Did you bring any material with you?" I said, "I did." He said, "Give it to me and I'll show it to the head writer Goodman Ace." So he gave it to him and I waited outside. Goodman came out and said, "Come with me." He took me into the writer's room and gestured to the boys and said, "I don't have any money in the budget, but if any of these Jews die - you're hired." He told me to call Larry Auerbach at William Morris and asked him to sign me right away. I talked to him and he said, "I can't sign you if you're in Pittsburgh." So that's when I moved to New York.



Kliph Nesteroff: Did you meet Vaughn Meader before the Kennedy assassination ended his career?


Ron Friedman: Yes. I also met his close friend and part-time road manager, Bucky Searles. He was married to Donna Jean Young who was a stand-up comedian from Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania. 



After the assassination Vaughn Meader was essentially the same guy. He was genuinely a good guy with a good heart. He had a German wife named Vera. He enjoyed success more than anybody I knew. He took me to the opening game of the Mets season at Shea's Stadium where he had a box seat. He took me to his tailor where he had suits made for me by the dozens. He had suits made for me and wouldn't take a penny. He was just a generous, warm-hearted, really good guy. He was also kind of lazy. He liked to play Kennedy because he had that accent naturally. If you had met him - you would have liked him. There was nothing mean-spirited about him nor did he rejoice in the failures of his competitors. 



He rejoiced in the success of his friends and colleagues. He really did. I hated to see him sink. But the fact is, the act was a big success but he wouldn't really do new material. He just played it out doing that one act and then ended up back home in Waterville, Maine where he did a filthy act. Like the Dornan Brothers. You know about the Dornan Brothers? A very famous New England comedy duo.



Kliph Nesteroff: Vaughn Meader did a folk singer parody and a routine called the Living Newspaper during that comeback show at the Blue Angel.

Ron Friedman: That wasn't anything I wrote, but they were in the act. God, I don't remember. All I remember is that it was successful. He did do a folk singing parody at his opening at the Blue Angel, yeah.


Kliph Nesteroff: There was a television pilot called The Vaughn Meader Show with Rip Taylor.


Ron Friedman: Yes, I wrote that and co-produced it for ABC in 1964. Rip Taylor was a delightful guy. Another sweetheart.




Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote an episode of The Andy Griffith Show called Goober's Contest. It is a rare instance in which the whole plot revolves around Floyd the Barber. Howard McNear has more lines than anyone else in the episode, but as I watched it - it seemed like he was slurring his words through the whole thing. It looked like he had a stroke.

Ron Friedman: Exactly right.




Kliph Nesteroff: So the first episode where he has all the lines - he's slurring for a half hour. It's so weird to watch him struggling. I'm really surprised they aired it.

Ron Friedman: It's because Andy insisted on it. He wouldn't let them get rid of him. He was held up with all kinds of braces and things so he would still look like Floyd. I don't remember watching the episode. There was another one that I did called Goober's Contract which I wrote with Pat McCormick. 




Kliph Nesteroff: Pat McCormick is notorious for being a wild man. How did you get him to sit down and write a straight, linear sitcom?

Ron Friedman: I was the guy doing the structure. That was my responsibility. When I wrote with him, I created the story, but Pat would be there with funny lines. Pat was a guy who needed to be on all the time. He had a coterie of friends and would go to any lengths to amuse them. He was friends with barflys and would do anything to get a laugh. And it was often embarrassing.




Kliph Nesteroff: If he needed to be on all the time, why did he stick to writing?


Ron Friedman: Oddly enough, when he was performing - he wasn't comfortable. He was kind of awkward. He didn't trust his own material long enough to wait for the laugh. So he would often run over his own laughs. He was just never comfortable as a stand-up performer.


Kliph Nesteroff: Variety reported that you and Pat McCormick formed a company called Cathrew Productions in 1966. What was that?




Ron Friedman: I do not remember that. I don't think it ever happened. Pat may have planted that. He often planted things in the press and I would say, "What the fuck is this?" He'd say, "Oh, whatever - ink is good. It doesn't matter. Ink is good." Showbiz is bullshit so you never know if what you're reading is true or where it came from or what the intended purpose was. I remember a public relations guy in New York named Larry who had a deal with Earl Wilson's column.



He'd pick up bimbos and tell them to change their names for showbiz to Joan something. He would say, "Whenever you see your new name in Wilson's column or Winchell's column - you'll have to fuck me. I'm helping your career." So he had like nine or ten of these women and renamed them Joan something - all the same name - the column ran the blurb - and then he'd fuck them all. He should've had a heart attack by the time he got to Joan number four, but he didn't. He didn't die and people said it was proof there was no God.



Kliph Nesteroff: I wanted to ask you about Desilu-Cahuenga. I lived exactly mid-point between Desilu-Cahuenga and Desilu-Gower for a long time and biked past them daily. They have such an aura and such a history. This is where The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, The Danny Thomas Show, The Joey Bishop Show, and The Lucy Show were being made all at the same time - side by side by side -all the soundstages in a row. I find this so interesting.



Ron Friedman: The atmosphere there was like the atmosphere at 20th Century Fox or Paramount. 

Kliph Nesteroff: The Studio System.


Ron Friedman: It really was. But it was definitely not like that if you worked on a show at Universal. Their television studio was like a buttoned-up, black tie, black suit thing - and in a tall black building. That building - you would never know it was show business. It looked like the headquarters of General Motors. None of them were wild and wooly because you had to deliver a show every week. So it was extremely business like. It was hard work. The commissary was often a place of amusement. At the Warner Brothers commissary Jack Warner had a sign that said, "Enjoy your lunch - and get back to work." But every lot was just about the same. You would see people you knew but not have time to talk to them. They were factories. 




Kliph Nesteroff: And a lot of the same actors, a lot of the same writers, working on all these shows.


Ron Friedman: Exactly.


Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote on The Jonathan Winters Show, a program nobody remembers. Nobody has really seen it since it originally aired during the 1967-1968 season. The sidekick was a nightclub comedian named Dick Curtis.


Ron Friedman: Yes, lovely guy. He had been a marine as had Jonny - which is why Jonny wanted him. A nice guy and a good straight man.


Kliph Nesteroff: Was it a successful show? Did it work to put Jonathan Winters into scripted sketches? 




Ron Friedman: The first season worked great and had good ratings. His stuff always made the band laugh - they always understood what he was doing. And the more avant garde comedy fans - they got him. But for everyday people... you know, he was doing stream of consciousness stuff. It was not the usual kind of television comedy with the bidda-bing. The writer-producer was Sheldon Keller and he insisted Jonathan do a regular sketch as a married man. It was like a little family sketch as the put upon husband. That enabled people to relate to Jonathan. 



The ratings were high but then Jonny had a falling out with Sheldon Keller. Shelley was my close friend who I met on The Danny Kaye Show and from then on, whenever Shelley had a job - I worked. Whatever he was doing, he brought me in as a writer. Anyway, Shelley was fired because Jonathan did not want to do that family sketch. And so the second year, when I was the head writer and sometimes co-producer, there was no human, familiar, touchstone. 



I did find one thing that I thought would work. I got the rights to Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy from radio and did a television version of it with Jonathan as Jack Armstrong. Charlie Weaver played his Uncle Jim. It did well and people loved it, but then Jonny didn't want to do that anymore either. There was nothing there for a general audience to connect with. So the ratings declined and I was called into Perry Lafferty's office at CBS to listen to the brass. 




They said, "The show isn't working because Jonathan is doing you." I said, "Huh?" They said, "Jonathan is doing Ron Friedman instead of doing Jonny." I said, "That's not happening. That's Jonathan out there." They said, "Well, something is wrong." I said, "Well, tell him to bring back the family sketch so that he can be relatable." He wouldn't do it and so the show tanked and was canceled. 

Kliph Nesteroff: A lot of the TV shows of that period were trying to be - or felt pressured to be - like Laugh-In.




Ron Friedman: They did, yes. That's what The Andy Williams Show did. Chris Bearde came on as their producer and tried to turn it into another Laugh-In. Absolutely. There were a lot of tries to emulate Laugh-In that failed. Laugh-In just struck it lucky. Rowan and Martin were kind of tame. Everyone knew who they were and Dick Martin was a terrific director but...

Kliph Nesteroff: They were sort of the Gods of the Lake Tahoe and Reno circuit.




Ron Friedman: They were.


Kliph Nesteroff: The circuit was referred to as the Silver Circle. A lot of the comedians that were playing it were teams. Dozens - if not hundreds - of poor man versions of Rowan and Martin.


Ron Friedman: Yes. That's right. There were so many comedy teams.




Kliph Nesteroff: The Jonathan Winters Show booked some of the young hippie bands like The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Jim Morrison and The Doors...

Ron Friedman: I remember The Doors vividly because between dress and air their drummer vanished. And nobody knew where the fuck he was. So they sent someone looking for him. They found him in the parking lot sitting naked in a parked car because he had pissed himself in his leather suit.

1 comment:

Mark Murphy said...

Great job, as always.

I have fond memories of the Jonathan Winters show from the 1960s. It ran Thursdays at 8 p.m., I think. I mostly remember the "interview" bits he did with Dick Curtis, who was superb as a straight man.

I'm pretty sure Paul Weston led the orchestra.

I also think Ron Friedman wrote the Bewitched script that introduced Paul Lynde's character Uncle Arthur. I've sometimes wondered whether Mr. Friendman received residuals for the other Uncle Arthur episodes, whether he wrote them or not.

Anyway, thanks again, Kliph. I hope you are well.