Bill Persky says Carl Reiner is the most important person to ever come into his life.
Apparently, Reiner feels the same way about Persky, who Reiner hired in 1963 as a writer for “The Dick Van Dyke Show” — along with Persky’s writing partner, the late Sam Denoff. “I daresay that had Bill Persky not come into my life in 1963, I would most certainly not be here today writing a heartfelt and glowing foreword to this highly entertaining memoir,” Reiner wrote in a foreword to “My Life is a Situation Comedy,” Persky’s memoir, released just last month, of his life as a writer, director and producer at the forefront of television comedy.
In 1963, Reiner was producing and writing “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which was due to start its third season that September on CBS. As he writes in the foreword to Persky’s book, Reiner needed help if he was going to get through Season Three and beyond.
As it happened, Persky and Denoff stuck around for the remaining three seasons of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” writing 48 episodes (according to Persky’s own reckoning) and, as story editors and story consultants, having a hand in scores of other episodes produced until the show ended its run in 1966.
Later that year, Persky and Denoff went on to create Marlo Thomas’ groundbreaking comedy series “That Girl” (though Persky acknowledges the driving force behind that show was Thomas herself). Persky went on to work on other shows too, including directing episodes of “Kate and Allie,” for which he won an Emmy in 1984, his fifth out of 13 nominations (including two Emmy wins for the “Van Dyke” show), according to the Emmy Awards’ own Web site.
Persky, now 81 and living and working in New York, is a widely sought-after speaker who loves to talk about the history of television, and understandably, his own history in TV. We caught up with Persky the other day on the phone, and he schooled us in the fundamentals of comedy writing, and told us what it was like to write for Carl Reiner, Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie on one of TV’s most revered shows, “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” And he recommended two episodes in particular that you can watch, one above and one below.
Here’s what he had to say:
Xfinity: How do you know good TV writing when you hear it? Well, people keep asking, What is comedy? And George Burns said, If you laugh, it’s comedy. And good writing, I think, is that you don’t notice it, that it just seems to be what people should be saying in those circumstances rather than what they’re being ‘forced’ to say. I learned at the knee of Carl Reiner who said, ‘You gotta start with honesty, you have to be honest.’ And really good writing, especially in comedy, takes chances. It’s about revealing universal truths through yourself and the ability to be willing to show how stupid and foolish you are. So many ‘Van Dyke’ shows – all the ‘Van Dyke’ shows – started with something that really happened to one of the people who wrote or produced the show.
Please tell us an episode or two that really stand out, for you, among the ones you wrote? And why do these stand out? Well, I would have to say there were two. One was the very first one that we wrote, which was about [Rob and Laura Petrie -- Van Dyke and Moore] having the wrong baby because that was a landmark show in that, at the end of it, it was the introduction of an African-American couple who had the child that they thought they were mixed up with. [The episode, titled "That's My Boy?," premiered on Sept. 25, 1963. It had Rob telling the story about the time they brought their baby son home from the hospital and Rob was certain they had the wrong child.]
And it was revolutionary at that time. And the network refused to let us do it. They said, ‘You can’t do that. The world is not ready for a white couple to make a black couple the butt of a joke.’ And we said, ‘No, it’s the black couple that’s making the white couple the butt of the joke.’ And they said, ‘We’re certainly not ready for that.’
And yet, it was one of the longest laughs when that couple [one of whom was Greg Morris] walked through the door. [First,] there was a deadly silence long enough for Carl to say to me, Oh, God, because we didn’t know if the audience would accept it. And then there was a laugh that literally went on for 20 minutes. Also, I won an Emmy so I won’t forget it for that.
How did the network eventually come around to airing it? They said that we needed an alternate ending if it didn’t work. I don’t even remember what the alternate ending was, but we roughed something together. But once they saw the response, there was no question.
And the other show — I would have to say ‘Coast-to-Coast Big Mouth,’ which is the show where Mary Tyler Moore was tricked into [revealing] on a [TV game show] that Alan Brady – Dick’s boss, Carl Reiner – wore a toupee. [The episode premiered on Sept. 15, 1965, to usher in the "Van Dyke Show's" fifth and final season.] That scene where Mary goes up to Carl’s office and he has all his toupees on the little Styrofoam heads and he’s talking to them like they’re people — that’s my favorite. [The "toupee" scene is justifiably famous and is often cited when experts compile lists of the best comedy scenes in the history of television.]
Those two episodes both contained scenes that were positioned almost as visual “punchlines” that provided a real payoff at the end of each of them. But what was it like writing the rest of these shows and others, and writing the dialogue for the show’s cast of characters? One of the great things about the ‘Van Dyke Show’ was that the people who worked with Dick worked as comedy writers. [The show was about the writing staff on "The Alan Brady Show," a fictional variety show starring the Reiner character for which Rob was head writer.] It wasn’t a guy who runs a drugstore who was saying funny things. It was people who were supposed to say funny things, so that was easy to write for Rose Marie and Morey.
And again, I go back to [Reiner's rule that the show's scenarios be about] real life. What would your experience be? [Reiner would ask]. And Carl would always say, ‘[The characters] won’t do anything that you wouldn’t do.’
And if you want to see more “Dick Van Dyke,” we have every single episode of this beloved show on this site — right HERE.