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AFF Panel: The Kings of Sit-comedy

Staff Writer
Austin 360

THE KINGS OF SIT-COMEDY

Friday at 10:45 a.m. in the Driskill Hotel, Maximilian Room

Panelists: Lee Aronsohn (“Two and a Half Men”); Phil Rosenthal (“Everybody Loves Raymond”); Peter Mehlman (“Seinfeld”)

Moderator: Ben Blacker (“Nerdists Writers Panel”)

Overview:

Blacker chatted with the trio of panelists about their childhood influences, beginnings in comedy writing and experiences in writers’ rooms.

Influences:

Aronsohn was influenced by Mad Magazine, “The Dick van Dyke Show,” Woody Allen, Albert Brooks and, later, the National Lampoon. “I learned more from Mad Magazine than I ever did from school,” he said. For example, one issue he remembered had a parody ad for peanut butter with Fidel Castro, his beard smeared with the stuff. “I didn’t know who Fidel Castro was and so I had to ask,” he said. “That’s how I learned about Fidel Castro.” His parents also exposed him to comedy albums from the likes of Bob Newhart and Shelley Berman.

Rosenthal said his influences were his parents. “They would fight at the dinner table and I thought that was hilarious,” he said. Other influences were Mad Magazine and comedy records. His parents did not like comedy. His mother would play opera music so Rosenthal rebelled by playing Bill Cosby records. “I would fall asleep listening to those albums,” he remembered. Later, he would be influenced by Nichols and May. “I was learning about life from these people,” he explained.

Mehlman, who took a while to warm up to the interview but later elicited the lion’s share of huge laughs, claimed he had no childhood comedy influences. He didn’t read Mad Magazine nor watch sitcoms, with the exception of “Get Smart,” which he loved. Later, he got into Richard Pryor but, “I was into journalism,” he said. He read a lot of novels, too, although he admitted that “John Updike is not really a common comic influence.”

Beginnings in comedy:

“I still look at comedy as a career detour,” Mehlman said. He was a journalist and a freelance writer who moved to Los Angeles. He knew Larry David, who was about to create a show for Jerry Seinfeld and asked Mehlman to write a script. Jerry liked it and, Mehlman said, “I put in one lucky clutch performance in my life and now I’m unbelievably loaded.”

Rosenthal studied theater in school. He knew he wanted to be in television but, as a child, was not aware of anything but the actors and saw theater as his best bet to get involved in the industry. “If you’re a writer, take an acting class,” he advised the crowd. “If you’re an actor, learn to direct. It’s all connected.” He began writing with a partner. “It’s good to start with a partner,” he said, “because you’re a bargain. They get two for one.”

Aronsohn went to Los Angeles to perform stand-up comedy. “I was the class clown,” he said. “I thought I’d get famous and have a sitcom. I had no intention of being a writer,” he said. “It sounded like having a term paper due every day for the rest of your life.”

He first wrote for “The Love Boat,” he said. “I created the character of the Captain’s bastard daughter and then I decided to go and be a drug addict for a while.”

He got involved in “Two and a Half Men” because he needed a writing gig to hold onto his Writers’ Guild medical insurance.

Writers’ rooms:

Mehlman said he’d never been in one. “Seinfeld” was unusual because the writers didn’t work in groups. They would pitch ideas to David and Seinfeld. If they liked the ideas, the writer would go off and write the script alone. Having a rich dating history really helped him write for the show, Mehlman said. “In fact, I saw a woman walk by me this morning with all of these tattoos and I thought that it must be handy to date a woman like that because you know going in that you’re dating a woman who is willing to make a really big mistake.” That, he noted, could have been a “Seinfeld” story pitch. Mehlman said that most people liked writing for George and Kramer, but that he preferred to write for Jerry and Elaine because “they were borderline normal.”

Rosenthal said that hen he wasn’t in charge in the writers’ room, he would act as “the room monkey,” breaking the tension and goofing off, which he claimed is necessary. He also claimed that “Everybody Loves Raymond” was written each week as a short play. “The three-camera sitcom is the perfect step between theater and film,” he said.

One important skill in a writers’ room, Aronsohn said, is to be able to say no without crushing a writer’s spirit.

Network notes:

“You’ll never get a note from the network that says ‘We think this might be too dumb for our audience,’” Mehlman quipped.

“I got a note in season one that said, ‘Can you make the show a little hotter, a little sexier?’” Rosenthal recalled. “I said, ‘Have you seen our cast?’ “

“We didn’t get a lot of notes until the Superbowl malfunction with Janet Jackson,” Aronsohn said.

Current inspiration:

Rosenthal sang the praises of Stephen Colbert, saying that he was at the top of his game.

Aronsohn watches mainly dramas, he said. “Watching people die is just hilarious to me.”

Mehlman, who wrote a few “Seinfeld” episodes in which Bryan Cranston appeared, said that he’s got the whole series on his DVR. “I ran into him a while back and I told him ‘I am happy for your success, but you’re totally not funny anymore. What the hell happened?’”

The final funny exchange of the panel came toward the end when an audience member asked the panel to offer their advice for a “perfect path” a writer should take to avoid all potential pitfalls.

“Are your parents wealthy?” Rosenthal asked.

“I would reconsider law school,” Aronsohn said.