Thursday, September 20, 2018

An Interview with Sam Bobrick - Part One

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote an album that I have owned for years called Mad Twists Rock n' Roll.

Sam Bobrick: Oh, Mad, yeah. We did two of them. Mad Twists Rock n' Roll and Fink Along with Mad. I made zero dollars on both. I was a young man then. It was the late 1950s and it was fun. We thought it was going to take off, but it was with a very crooked record company. Big Top Records. And the tent came down...

Kliph Nesteroff: Most record companies seemed to be crooked back then, but what was it about Big Top Records that was specifically crooked?

Sam Bobrick: They didn't pay you. That's crooked enough.

Kliph Nesteroff: The song Nose Job had staying power. It's sort of a novelty classic and it was even covered by a couple of different bands.

Sam Bobrick: Yes, and on the second album we had a thing called It's a Gas. Howard Stern still plays it. It's just music punctuated with a belch. I left the music business because nobody would pay me. I had one hit for Elvis Presley called The Girl of My Best Friend and that was it. I had an agent, George Shaprio, who became the manager of Jerry Seinfeld. He came to New York, he took me to California, and I started writing half-hours. I never went back into the music business. He hired me for my first job in New York as an office boy for the scarecrow - Ray Bolger. He had a show on NBC called Washington Square.

My first job in the business was in the mail room of ABC. There was a guy who had the job before me at the Ray Bolger show. After a few weeks he felt he wasn't going anywhere - because you don't go anywhere. I hated the mail room so much. I applied for this job and George Shapiro hired me. I wrote a lot on spec, sketches and things like that. He always liked my writing and at that time most of the television was moving to the Coast.  I don't know why, but I didn't like New York. It was just okay. George brought me out to Los Angeles in 1962. I left my apartment and everything in New York. I wasn't going back. I just loved it here! But I did have to go back and live in New York for a year because I was doing the Kraft Music Hall.

Kliph Nesteroff: Where else did you submit material prior to the Ray Bolger show?

Sam Bobrick: There were some radio programs. The Robert Q. Lewis radio show, which was the last network show on the air. After my job as an office boy on Ray Bolger, I got another job as an office boy on Make Me Laugh. It lasted thirteen weeks. Robert Q. Lewis was the host. They got a bunch of comics, put a person in a chair and tried to make them laugh. You don't know how hard that is because the comics weren't funny. It was a disastrous show. 

They were paying me a hundred dollars a week to write jokes for the comics, but they would never use them. These were old time comics who never trusted new material. They only trusted the old material, which they had stolen. When the show closed, I was very funny at the closing night party and Robert Q. Lewis hired me for his radio show. That kind of started me in the New York area writing. I wrote Captain Kangaroo

I wrote a bunch of game shows. One was called Music Bingo. I would write the interviews and you would work wherever you could. I started writing, but there was no business left in New York at the time. George said, "You've got to come out here to California and you'll work."

Kliph Nesteroff: Robert Q. Lewis obviously liked you a lot, but a lot of people behind the scenes did not like Robert Q. Lewis.

Sam Bobrick: Well, he wasn't likable! He was convinced that he was destined to replace Jack Paar. It never happened and suddenly his fortunes faded. The show went off the air and I think he moved out here. I saw him once, but he didn't remember who I was.

Kliph Nesteroff: By the late sixties he was mostly doing cigarette commercials.

Sam Bobrick: And on Make Me Laugh, the sponsor was L&M Cigarettes. There was a comic by the name of Lenny Kent on the show and there was a brand at the time called Kent Cigarettes which was a competitor. We got a note, one of those stupid notes that I wish I had kept. It said, "When you introduce Lenny Kent - say the word Kent very fast."

Kliph Nesteroff: I've seen one episode of the Robert Q. Lewis Make Me Laugh where Ernie Kovacs does a walk-on to promote some show.

Sam Bobrick: I don't remember. Those days were fun... maybe. When you're struggling, it's never really fun until you look back at it. I had an apartment in Brooklyn Heights, forty dollars a month and my unemployment check was forty dollars a week. So I lived pretty good struggling. You can't do that anymore. I look back on New York more fondly than I thought I would.

Kliph Nesteroff: Many of your first credits in Los Angeles were with Bill Idelson.

Sam Bobrick: Those are the half-hours that I did. When I came out here they teamed me up with Bill Idelson. He had an assignment and needed a partner for The Andy Griffith Show. Bill Idelson was also an actor and he worked on The Dick Van Dyke Show. He asked Carl Reiner who he would recommend. 

Well, George Shapiro is Carl Reiner's nephew. You know, it's all luck. There were two writers working for Carl named Sam Denoff and Bill Persky. I was Sam Denoff's roommate when I came out here. They recommended me. Bill Idelson and I did our first assignment and Aaron Reuben liked it. Aaron Reuben was the producer of The Andy Griffith Show. The first episode that we wrote won a Writers Guild award. That helped us even more. So we were a team. But my heart really wasn't into writing half-hours, although I loved The Andy Griffith Show. After Don Knotts left the show, it wasn't so good. It wasn't so much fun. I wanted to get away from it so George got me a job on the Smothers Brothers show.

Kliph Nesteroff: The Andy Griffith Show from what I hear was an abnormally blissful set.

Sam Bobrick: Yes. You couldn't find a better show to be on. There were several shows being made at the time, all on the same lot, all produced by Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas. There was a great atmosphere because they appreciated writers and in this town, very few people do.

Kliph Nesteroff: Desilu was a factory.

Sam Bobrick: Yeah, we shot at the Desilu studio but the production company was Leonard-Thomas or Thomas-Leonard. They started with The Danny Thomas Show and then The Dick Van Dyke Show, and I Spy and The Andy Griffith Show. It was a nice atmosphere. Most of Hollywood did not treat writers great. Writers are just unimportant. 

Ron Clark was my next writing partner. We wrote four Broadway plays and they all got killed. East of the Mississippi we were playwrights. West of the Mississippi we were gag writers. Writers became more important around the late eighties when they became show runners and started to get paid a lot of money. Making producers out of writers really started with Sheldon Leonard and Danny Thomas. They really appreciated writers. I think it was because Sheldon Leonard came from the Broadway stage where they do respect writers. Desilu was a great atmosphere and everybody knew everybody else. We worked on several other shows. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you write on Joey Bishop's sitcom? That was done at Desilu around the same time.

Sam Bobrick: No, thank God I didn't write on that one. I wrote some Gomer Pyles and whenever Persky and Denoff had a show I would write on those. They didn't last. One was called Good Morning, World. It was a small business. Now it's a huge business with network and cable and the web. It's hard to know everybody, but when I came out here in the early sixties it was not that big of a business.

Kliph Nesteroff: January 1965 - you wrote a special called Allan Sherman's Funnyland.

Sam Bobrick: Oh God, was that a nightmare. Yeah. God, how do you know this? I do not list that on my bio! It was an awful show. Allan was in and out of the hospital and on all kinds of drugs. He was hot after his comedy record. Ronnie Graham and I teamed up to write it. Allan was in the old Cedars-Lebanon Hospital near Los Feliz and he had a suite up there. We wrote this whole show up in his hospital room. But he had doctors giving him pills up the ass. Uppers in the morning and downers at night and he was a total mess. He was all over the place. He was a wreck and thank God we got it over with, but it wasn't fun. 

Kliph Nesteroff: The writers I have listed for that Allan Sherman special are you, Bill Idelson, David Vern and Roger Price.

Sam Bobrick: Oh, yes, you're right. I thought it was Ronnie Graham, but it was actually Roger Price. That's right. I get them mixed up. Roger Price was the guy who did Droodles. Nice guy, very nice guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: The guest stars on that special were Angie Dickinson, Lorne Greene, The Ray Charles Singers and Jack Gilford.

Sam Bobrick: Jack Gilford used to do a lot half-hours too and he was a very nice guy.

Kliph Nesteroff: The special was directed by television veteran Greg Garrison.

Sam Bobrick: Greg Garrison, yes. I knew Greg. He was a nice guy. He was the director of that Ray Bolger show I worked on. He was a ladies man. Great looking. He had the Dean Martin show too. Our paths crossed a little bit and I always found him nice although I never knew him in depth.

Kliph Nesterff: How about the experience of writing a couple episodes of the Flintstones?

Sam Bobrick: Oh, that was fun. Joe Barbera was a great guy. It was the old Jackie Gleason show, basically. Joe called me up one time when I was writing on my own. It was very early in my career. He said, "Let's have lunch." I thought, "Great! My first Hollywood lunch!" When it was time for lunch he called in his secretary and gave her some change. He said, "Get sandwiches." There was a machine that dispensed sandwiches! So disappointing! But he was a nice guy and I wrote a few of them, but I preferred live-action.

Kliph Nesteroff: Same process writing for a cartoon sitcom...

Sam Bobrick: Yeah, actually it is the same process. As a writer you might think a little differently when it's animated. In the old days they would do eighty or ninety percent of what you wrote. That's just the way it was. Now, working on these half hour shows - if ten percent of your script remains, you're very lucky. They tear them apart. Sometimes they make them better. Sometimes they make them worse.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote for the Sandy Baron sitcom Hey, Landlord...

Sam Bobrick: That was a Sheldon Leonard show. Garry Marshall was a producer on it and he was fun. He has a theater out here and I wrote a couple plays he put on. Just four years ago one of them won the Edgar Award. Garry has managed to stay on top forever and he loves the business. 

Kliph Nesteroff: He's very funny guy. He has the energy of a stand-up comedian.

Sam Bobrick: There's an old comic named Phil Foster and Garry talks a lot like him. If you were in a room and they were talking you wouldn't know who was who.

Kliph Nesteroff: I still can't believe he isn't Jewish. He has that same cadence and that rhythm.

Sam Bobrick: I know! He broke a lot of hearts by not being Jewish! He's from Brooklyn. I didn't know very much about Sandy Baron, but I know it didn't end well for him. Will Hutchins was on Hey Landlord, but I don't remember what I wrote. I don't even remember the Andy Griffiths I wrote.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wrote for Get Smart...

Sam Bobrick: I wrote a couple, but they would change it so much. I remember hating their rewrites so much. I remember one of my Get Smart scripts won the Writers Guild award - but it was totally different from the actual show they shot! I didn't know Don Adams because most of the time you wouldn't go on the set if you were a writer. 

Kliph Nesteroff: How did you get hired for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour? Everyone talks about its controversial third season, but you were there from the very beginning for season one.

Sam Bobrick: Actually, Ron Clark and I got hired for the second season and we didn't stay for the third. George Shapiro handled the show for the Morris office. Saul Illson and Ernie Chambers were the producers. The third season was when Tommy Smothers took over the show and Illson and Chambers left. Tommy was a terrific talent, but I don't think he was a great producer. We didn't trust him. When the job for the Kraft Music Hall came along for us in New York we took that instead. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Two writers on your season of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour were Hal Goodman and Al Gordon.

Sam Bobrick: My favorite comic in the whole world was Jack Benny. Hal and Al were one of his writing teams. They were just great. Al Gordon was the best joke man I ever met. He would come up with it in a second and Hal was the constructionist. He saw how to make a sketch work. They were a very unusual team. Two totally different guys. Al was very, very nervous. I used to wonder if he was on something. Hal was the calmest man in the word. 

They were great guys and terrific writers. I really, really respected them and they wrote great stuff for the Smothers Brothers. You know when Pat Paulsen would have his monologues? They wrote Pat Paulsen's monologues. I only ever wrote one of them. I stayed friends with Pat Paulsen. I directed him in a couple plays out in Michigan. We had a good time on The Smothers Comedy Hour. It was just fun!

Kliph Nesteroff: How about Gene Farmer?

Sam Bobrick: You know, they first teamed me up with Gene Farmer. I worked one day with him and I said, "It's oil and water." I could not work with him. He had a different style and I was ready to quit the show after the first day. I saw that we weren't a good team. Then they teamed me up with Ron Clark and from the very first hour we were together, it just clicked. Sometimes people have good chemistry and sometimes they don't, just like marriage. Your sense of comedy should really be just like that of your partner. 

Neither of us had much of an ego. If he didn't like my joke I'd come up with another and we could write quickly together. We're still friends. I see Ron about once a week and we have a lot of laughs. It was fun to write with Ron. We started with a summer replacement and I think Eddy Arnold was the host. There was nothing to write because he sang most of the time so we had all this spare time and we said, "Well, let's write a play." We wrote our first play and it was called Norman, Is That You? It bombed in New York.

Kliph Nesteroff: Before we get into that... Allan Blye joined the writing staff of the Smothers Brothers while you were still there...

Sam Bobrick: Yeah, he wrote mostly their musical routines. Later on Bob Einstein and Allan Blye produced a show in Canada called Bizarre with John Byner. It was one of the first cable shows. 

Steve Martin used to hang around the show before he was hired as a writer and I think we maybe even used him as a guest. We used a lot of comics as guests. I remember we used a guy by the name of Gary Mule Deer around that time. Mason Williams was another writer on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, but I didn't get to know him too well. But I do remember when he called me into the room to hear a song he'd just composed called Classical Gas. He taught himself the guitar. He wrote a book that was just a big fold-out of a bus. That was the whole book. He wrote another song called Saturday Night at the World, which I thought was pretty good. He was a wonderful musician. The fact that he taught himself was amazing. Mason Williams was a real wild thinker. It could been from drugs, I don't know. It was that period in history when psychedelic drugs and stuff like that became common - especially around the Smothers Brothers show.