What Is the Deal with ‘The Show About Nothing’?

imagesEvery time I tell someone I’m writing a book about Seinfeld, they say something along the lines of: “Oh, you should call it The Book About Nothing.” This week, I’ve written a few pieces about Seinfeld in anticipation of its Hulu launch on Thursday, and almost every editor I’ve worked with has asked me to add something about it being “the show about nothing” and/or has said they plan to use a variation of the phrase in the headline.

I know popular TV shows have often had sticky catchphrases, but to paraphrase one of Jerry Seinfeld’s other catchphrases, “What is the deal with ‘the show about nothing’?”

It’s not useful, like 30 Rock‘s “I want to go to there” or “Blurg.” It’s not a catch-all exclamatory phrase like Good Times‘ “Dy-no-mite!” It’s not even as funny as a lot of other Seinfeld-isms like “spongeworthy” or “master of my domain.” But people love it.

I like to try to figure these things out, but maybe I’m too close to the topic this time. So I’m asking you, readers: Any ideas? What’s so interesting about “the show about nothing”?

Being an Extra on ‘Nashville’

11096554_692008618036_6881256909531933780_nI made my network television debut on last night’s Nashville. Except there’s no way you’ll find me anywhere if you watch the episode.

A few months ago, during a trip to Nashville, I pulled some strings to get the privilege of working as an extra for a day on Nashville, a silly soap with great music that I love. My fellow fans Julie Armstrong (also my sister) and Sean Skyler (her boyfriend) came with me. I’ve been on sets before as a reporter, but I’d never been an extra. I thought about pitching it as a story to one of the outlets I write for, but in the end, I decided I wanted the full extra experience. I got it. The day reinforced something I already knew, but it reinforced it harder than ever: A lot of damn work goes into every moment of television you watch; so much that it’s shocking so much television gets made.

We started the day with an 8:30 a.m. call time. We were asked to dress “Nashville chic” because we were playing “backstage VIPs.” We had to bring a change of clothes in case the costume folks didn’t like our first choice. They really did check every single one of us, and style us a little bit. They asked me to tuck in my shirt a certain way and push up the sleeves. They had my sister change out of her plaid shirt into a dressier sweater.

For about four hours, we walked. Back and forth, over and over, via slightly varying routes, in what was deemed the “backstage” set. We were VIPs at the Rascal Flatts show where the fictional band The Triple Xs were opening. We were given cues and motivation: We were to be relatively uninterested in the fictional band members during the earlier scenes before their sets; we were there to see Rascal Flatts. But once the Xs had played their set, we were to be impressed and interested in them.

It was seriously exhausting. They had production assistants assigned to small groups of us, directing our moves and genuinely concerned if the scene looked “a little dead” in terms of extra movement. All of this translates to this: One of the blurs you saw in front of the camera, walking by as Avery talked on his cell to Juliette, was probably one of us.

By the end of our first four-hour shift of doing this, we were starving and needed the restroom like nobody’s business. Luckily, back at the holding room, they had lots of snacks (and later a meal), drinks, and porta-potties. For the next three or four hours, numbing boredom set in. This was alleviated only by our chatting up a woman sitting near us. Her name was Kathy Meredith, and she was a kick. It was her first time as an extra, too, even though she’s a local. She’d grown up in Nashville and had amazing stories. She’d had the chance to go to what turned out to be Elvis’ final birthday party when she was a teenager, but she declined because she was a good girl and knew she couldn’t stay out all night. She works as a flight attendant, among several jobs. Her husband and son have driven music-tour buses for a living. She impulse-bought a stunning Antebellum mansion — we saw video of it — that she hopes to turn into a bed and breakfast.

After this storytime break, we finally got to go back to the set, where we now played audience members with a much larger pool of extras — maybe 300 or so. It was fun to see it on the episode last night, with the smaller audience presumably CGI-ed to look much bigger, like an arena audience.

By the end, we’d put in a 12-hour day and were exhausted — just to make sure a few blurs passed in front of the camera at the right time, and a bunch of blurs were in the audience for the concert scene. But even in the moment, we were glad we’d done it. (We did also get paid for our time; about $75 after taxes for the day.) Watching the episode last night, I thought about how hundreds of people had put in 12-hour days, and dozens of people had put in many, many 12-hour days, to make that one episode of television. Notice the background players when you watch shows. I always do now.

Why You Should Be Watching ‘Chasing Life’

18319Cancer is a tough sell, but I’ve been loving ABC Family’s Chasing Life, a drama about a 20-something with cancer. Its first season finale is tonight — it does look like it’s going to involve more cancer after a remission — and you should check it out. Despite the cancer, because of the cancer, whatever works for you.

I must admit that the reason I started watching is that my brilliant friend, Patrick Sean Smith, who created one of my favorite shows of the last decade, Greek, is the showrunner on Chasing Life. I mention this as a disclaimer, but also because it explains why the cancer wasn’t a hurdle for me. I watched it to support him, but I kept watching because I was drawn into the show. Cancer — and other fatal illnesses — have been sort-of romanticized at times in teen entertainment, as in The Fault in Our Stars and The Red Band SocietyChasing Life chooses a nice middle-path, making cancer simply one part of main character April’s life. On one hand, fighting with cancer has given her more perspective on her young life. On the other, what seemed like a big deal to her at first is just becoming part of who she is. She still has to struggle with work and romance and friends like any 20-something.

Those are the reasons I actually like this show: First of all, she’s a newspaper reporter, which is what I was in my 20s. And, miraculously, the show gets newspaper drama right, which is a rarity. (Don’t get me started on Never Been Kissed.) In some ways, April’s race to break more scoops than her colleagues felt more dramatic — or maybe more relatable — than her fight with cancer. And as a Greek fan, I have, of course, particularly enjoyed her romance with fellow cancer patient Leo, played by Scott Michael Foster (that is, Cappie).

A second season is happening, so that’s the good news. I’m looking forward to seeing lots more of Chasing Life.

I Want to Talk About the ‘Sopranos’ Finale

Sopranos621I know it’s been almost eight years since The Sopranos famously cut to black. But I just finished bingeing the entire series for a second time, and even though I was obviously familiar with the ending, I can’t stop thinking about it a day after watching it. It’s actually more interesting to watch for a second time, knowing what’s coming — instead of getting caught up in the complications of mob politics and the spate of shocking deaths that comes near the end of the series, you can look for the clues to whether … and this is your one SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched and somehow don’t know what happens … Tony Soprano dies in the end or not. This is the question that everyone asks series creator David Chase every time he’s interviewed, and probably an annoying number of times when he’s not being interviewed, too. It is a question that will plague Chase all the way to his own cut to black. I even wonder if he knew just what he was setting himself up for when he wrote that finale. Mass perceptions can be very different from authorial intent.

There are two things I want to say right now after re-watching what is still a brilliant, if not perfect, show, and its brilliant, and in my opinion perfect, finale:

1. Whether Chase intended the finale to be such a subject of continuing cultural debate, on the order of “About whom was the song ‘You’re So Vain’ written?”, it is perfect for the era of TV bingeing and digital obsession. We can now treat all these shows as if they are “always” on, so we can go over and over this for as long as it pleases us. He’s smart to keep giving ambiguous answers to the question. What fun would it be otherwise? One of the reasons the Lost finale was so disappointing is that its definitive answer was, despite the producers’ great strains to complicate the matter, exactly what we expected and also kind-of silly. I like a good “choose your own adventure” ending, as long as it is, in fact, good. I think The Sopranos ending is good. It makes sense for a show that played with audiences’ expectations as a way to enforce its themes and was at its best when showing restraint. It could get overly obvious and proud of itself at times, especially toward the end — gosh, did you want to say something about America and the war in Iraq with those nine million shots of flags and A.J.’s constant speechifying about George Bush? A cut to black at what I believe really was the moment of truth is genius.

2. Yeah, I totally think Tony Soprano is dead. I could go on and on about this, but a lot of people have already taken great pains to do this all over the Internet. (If you’re feeling ambitious, comb through this 10,000-word comprehensive analysis of every sign that Tony is dead. I did read the whole thing, and while some of it is repetitive, I enjoyed all of it.) What I will add is that it seems so obvious to me that I get a little mad that so many people think differently. I cannot conceive of a way this show and all of the symbolism of the final season make any sense if he just goes on living. The three ducks (a series-long symbol for his family) with the bell sounds flying away at the lake, coupled with the bells that accompany the family members’ entrances to the diner in the final scene? The lingering on the idea that you “never hear it coming” when you’re killed? All the references to assassinated leaders? The way the fates aligned to make the hit work? (Carmela abandoning plans to make manicotti for dinner to instead go out; Meadow struggling to parallel park and thus leaving the space to her father’s back right open for a clean shot; the very real possibility that the presumed gunman in the Members Only jacket followed A.J. to the location.) The cut, not fade, to black? Right in the middle of the chorus of “Don’t Stop Believing”? I know, I know, everybody loves that theory about how the final scene really shows that Tony will always be looking over his shoulder or whatever. That sounds like a nice rationalization for a nation that wants its favorite antihero to live, and is maybe hoping for a film version at the time James Gandolfini was still alive. I subscribed to that theory at the time it aired. I realize now that I was too distracted by thinking my cable cut out to think logically about what I’d just watched. I also know that Chase supposedly told this writer for Vox that Tony didn’t die. Whatever he said, I don’t believe it was as simple an answer as that. Chase released a statement after the piece ran that said as much. And while I don’t like to cast aspersions on other reporters’ work when I have no reason to, I also know these discussions can be complicated to convey in simple quotes. Besides which, I like Chase’s original answer; that is, the finale he wrote and directed and ended with a black, silent screen.

Why ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ Fans Should Read Nick Hornby’s ‘Funny Girl’

urlNick Hornby is one of my writing idols. His way of combining pop sensibilities with serious emotions, humor, and great characters has always spoken to me and inspired me to become a better writer. So I almost felt like I had made it up myself when I read that his newest book, Funny Girl, was about a British woman in the 1960s who happens to be both beautiful and funny, who also happens to land on a groundbreaking television comedy. I wrote a book kind-of like that, except it was the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, and it was real, and the woman’s name was Mary Tyler Moore.

If you have any interest at all in The Mary Tyler Moore Show — and I suspect at least some of you found me because you do — you should definitely check out Funny Girl. My book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, focuses a bit more on the female writers and the feminist movement than this one does. But it’s easy to see Funny Girl almost as a prequel, documenting a fictional history mixed in with some real history; the book does mention the influence of Til Death Us Do Part, for instance, which was the precursor to the massive U.S. hit All in the Family. It also documents the difficulties of being an ambitious, independent woman at the time. I even suspect that the heroine, Sophie Straw, is modeled loosely on Moore; Sophie rises to fame as the wife in a domestic comedy, like Moore did on The Dick Van Dyke Show, though Sophie gets first billing in the humorously punctuated Barbara (and Jim). Her follow-up show includes a female co-writer and features Sophie as a single woman, though her show sounds fluffier than The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In any case, if you love Mary, you’ll love Sophie.

What ‘The Bachelor’ Teaches Us About Narrative Structure

1417720585_chris-soules-lgI have a number of legitimate excuses for watching The Bachelor regularly: I really did start watching several years ago because I had to cover it at Entertainment Weekly. I write about television, particularly gender on television, and it is certainly some very gendered (and heteronormative, and white) television. I’m also very interested in the biology and psychology of attraction, and it’s full of that as well. But as I sat and watched two hours of it last night, about 90 minutes longer than I had intended, and past my bedtime, I was more aware than I normally am that The Bachelor is, at its core, just damn good storytelling. Professionally manipulative storytelling, lacking in all subtlety and art. But if you want to know how to tell a good story (then, hopefully, add your own subtlety and art), you can learn some things from The Bachelor:

Add some competition. At its heart, The Bachelor is a sport. Every week is one game, and the overall arc is that of a bracket elimination. We love it in sports, we love it on dating shows. It satisfies our human desire for order and sorting the good from the bad from the best. If you can give your story some sense of competition leading to a final showdown, you have a good story. This is among the many reasons sports movies like The Karate Kid are so compelling.

Plant revelations along the way. The Bachelor always involves some major revelations at some point. A number of the women vying for the bachelor’s affections inevitably have secrets they must eventually tell him. Traumatic past relationships are big; we had two widows this season. So are secrets that may cause some judgement, like Jade’s Playboy past this season. Secrets cause tension, and their revelation always leads to some kind of resolution.

Make heroes and villains. We love rooting for an against people. The Bachelor will always have at least one villain per season. Once, in a fun twist, the bachelor himself (Juan Pablo) became the villain.

Pull characters out of their element. This season has the advantage of a farmer from a teeny Iowa town as its title star. This inherently means that at some point, the women — most of them model/actress/waitress types from places like Los Angeles — have to decide whether they can live on a farm. This discussion began with a trip to bachelor Chris’ hometown this week; the expected explosions did ensue. Other seasons contain this element, too, even if it’s just giving the bungee-jumping date to the girl who obviously said on her pre-show questionnaire that she was afraid of heights.

Golden Globe Nominations: Why You Should Be Watching ‘Jane the Virgin’

jane-the-virginI will talk to anyone who will listen about The CW’s new show Jane the Virgin. So I was thrilled to see it get nominated for a Golden Globe yesterday. The Golden Globes are kind-of an also-ran of awards shows when it comes to the big guns — it’s not going to make a huge difference for, say, Game of Thrones — but they can be a boon to a little show that not many people have heard of. It’s telling that when I saw the phrase “Jane the Virgin” trending on Twitter yesterday, my heart sank; I thought it had been cancelled. (It had already gotten a full-season order, at least, but I didn’t know that at the time.) Instead, it turned out to be trending as a surprise nominee and because many Twitter users’ response was, “What the hell is Jane the Virgin?”

So glad you asked, Twitter. Jane has gotten rapturous reviews, but for whatever reason hasn’t quite caught on at a mass level yet. Probably because it doesn’t occur to most grown adults to watch The CW, especially in such an oversaturated market for high-quality programming. Add a very basic statement of the premise — “young woman who is a virgin gets pregnant when her doctor accidentally inseminates her instead of giving her a pap smear” — and you’re not exactly packing in the crowds. This is no How to Get Away With Murder, with a killer title, spectacular and known star (Viola Davis), and spectacular pedigree (produced by Shonda Rhimes). This is a show starring an unknown actress with an absurd plotline. And it’s on The CW, which didn’t get nominations even for critical favorites like Gilmore Girls.

It also happens to be a magical, star-making vehicle for Gina Rodriguez, who’s also nominated. Jane is an adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela, and it’s Americanized in particularly clever ways, unlike Ugly Betty‘s more straightforward translation. Jane has one of the greatest voiceover narrators of all time, the unseen Anthony Mendez playing Kristen Bell in Gossip Girl here. He gives the set-up a winking tone that acknowledges the absurdities and allows us to go with them. In an extraordinary move, particularly for a dramedy, Jane’s immigrant grandmother speaks only in Spanish, with subtitles. The plots are twisty and silly and utterly engaging, with any given episode dabbling in hostage-taking, extortion, murder, sting operations, prostitutes hired to drug and seduce hotel magnates, and the occasional lesbian affair between a doctor and her stepmother.

Despite these crazy telenovela flourishes, the show is sweet and grounded, thanks in large part to Jane. Rodriguez has one of those faces you want to watch constantly, and she doesn’t play dumb or naive just because she’s a virgin in her early 20s. It’s a hard sell, but she nails it without breaking a sweat. I’m also crazy about the character of Rogelio, Jane’s once-absentee father and telenovela star, who’s charmingly clueless about how to be a normal person. (When Jane explains that she’s having trouble with her young, twin half-sisters because he bought Jane a car, he solves the problem not by having a talk with the girls, but by buying the teenagers identical cars.) He’s an egomaniac with a huge heart, not something often seen or easily played. Then there’s Justin Baldoni as the father of Jane’s accidental baby (it was his sperm in the inseminator), a hotel magnate whom Jane once coincidentally kissed. They’re now testing the waters of romance, and their chemistry is off the charts, in large part because Baldoni is pure sex — I was so excited to see him in this show, as I have fond memories of drooling over him when he was on Everwood. He, too, lends a sweetness to a character who still maintains some edge; I believe he was a playboy, but I also believe he loves Jane. Jane the Virgin is, in short, the perfect antidote to the era of dark, serious, antihero-driven dramas that are heavy with their own importance.

I hope the Golden Globe nominations encourage more people to check out Jane the Virgin over the largely programming-free holiday break. It deserves all the love it can get.

Here’s the trailer for the show to whet your appetite:

Diversity: Good for Business, Good for Media

We’re going to see what feels like an onslaught of people of color on our new fall TV shows. It’ll feel like an onslaught because there have been so shockingly few shows featuring people of color. But ABC, in particular, has what seems to me like the most diverse slate of new offerings ever to come from one major network in one season: Blackish, How to Get Away With Murder, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat This is apparently the result of years of effort poured into the network’s Diversity Showcase, which finds and mentors actors of color, then puts them right in front of industry types to get them jobs. It’s even more directly the result of ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee asking showrunners for their “passion projects,” which, no shock, happen to directly represent their own lives, in all their “diverse” glory. This fall, we’ll also see the first black co-anchor on Saturday Night Live‘s “Weekend Update,” Michael Che; in January, we’ll see Larry Wilmore “take over” Stephen Colbert’s timeslot on Comedy Central with Minority Report.

This is all a great start, but there’s more work to be done, of course. Just as President Obama’s election doesn’t mean racism is dead, neither does this one TV season. (After all, we’ve gone through phases before, most notably in the 1970s and the post-Cosby ’80s, when we saw several all-black shows on the air, only to disappear once again.) In broader media, in particular, diversity problems still loom large. A new survey shows the vast majority of black and Hispanic news consumers don’t trust mainstream news sources to cover their communities accurately. It seems like the most obvious first step toward eradicating that likely well-founded doubt is hiring more people of color to cover these issues.

The same goes for women in media. Even though we’ve made great strides in female representation on TV, another recent study shows that women are still way behind, what with being 50 percent of the population and all. A heartfelt tirade from ESPN reporter Hannah Storm on the Ray Rice debacle spoke to something else: This is why we need women covering sports, and everything else. Because they can lend the perspective needed to understand issues that seem to broadside white men of privilege:

‘Seinfeld’ Fans: ‘If you argue with them, you’ll lose.’


imagesI’m interviewing some “professional”-grade Seinfeld fans for my book, and one of my favorite pieces of wisdom came from Jazmine Hughes, who managed to live her 22 years (until now) without seeing an episode and is now blogging about her virgin viewing experience with her superfan roommate (join the fun at Hot Girls Watching Seinfeld). Jazmine told me about talking to her parents about Seinfeld, and her father, who works in TV production, had this brilliant advice:

“Jazmine, some people just think that M*A*S*H and Seinfeld are the greatest shows to ever exist, and if you argue with them, you’ll lose. So just go through life and tell people that Seinfeld is a good show, and it’ll be so much easier.”

‘Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted’ Excerpt: Comedy and the Single Girl

The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my book, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, which tells the story of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its relationship to the Women’s Movement.

paperback coverTreva Silverman had always wanted to be the beautiful, funny, smart heroine of a 1930s screwball comedy. In that world, the woman bantered with the man; the woman was independent, sexy, desirable, witty. Idiosyncratic actresses like Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard, Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, and Margaret Sullavan were the leading ladies there. Unfortunately, when Treva was a twelve-year-old in Cedarhurst, Long Island—the time when this desire took hold of her—the movie world had moved on from fast-talking comediennes to man-pleasing models of femininity like Doris Day, who seemed to have endless hangups about being good and pure, and Marilyn Monroe, who was the quintessential dumb blonde. The idea of an equal partnership between equally bright men and women trading quips had all but disappeared. And TV was even worse: Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show featured “dialogue” in which the woman’s only role was to say, “Yes, dear.” The most popular TV comedy heroine was Lucy, who wanted to be in show business but had to hide it from Ricky, who didn’t approve. The central joke of the show hinged on the fact that male approval ruled.

Magazines bombarded Treva with advice to young women—talk about his interests, don’t be competitive, learn how to make his favorite meals. To get the guy, she learned, she had to be all about him. At her grammar school, PS #3, her girlfriends chastised her for winning a spelling bee over Jerry Yaeger, the very boy she had a crush on. She’d never have a chance with him now, they lamented.

So Treva would settle for sitting next to her older sister, Corinne, in the moth-eaten seats of her neighborhood’s only revival movie house, watching and listening to her idols, Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard. Jean Arthur, in her day, made a name for herself as a funny leading lady in the Frank Capra films Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and You Can’t Take It with You. Lombard was once described by Graham Greene as “platinum blonde, with a heart-shaped face, delicate, impish features, and a figure made to be swathed in silver lamé, [who] wriggled expressively through such classics of hysteria as Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey.” When Treva watched Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard, she wanted to soak up every last bit of them, the way her movie-house popcorn soaked up melted butter.

Treva had one other escape route from suburban ennui: Every week, she took the train from her family’s home in Cedarhurst for more than an hour to get to New York City. It was where she belonged, she was sure. For now, though, she’d settle for going there weekly for her piano lessons at Columbia University. Two officials at the Juilliard School had declared her a “genius” at age five. She had perfect pitch and could play almost any piece by ear after hearing it once; she could transpose into any key. A unique talent, to be sure. But besides her music, something else was becoming a passion.

After her piano lesson every week, she’d race down to the New York Public Library in midtown Manhattan to read her way through the vast stacks of the humor section, in alphabetical order: Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, James Thurber. There, at the Forty-Second Street library, she had found her people: the humor writers for the New Yorker. Along with some journalists, critics, and actors, they had met daily throughout the ’20s for lunches at the Algonquin Hotel, forming a loose camaraderie called the Algonquin Round Table. They were known for their sharp witticisms and one-liners, which were quoted all over the newspaper columns. More importantly, the Algonquin Round Table consisted of men and—yes!—women. Not only Dorothy Parker, one of the wittiest of them all, but also Edna Ferber, Tallulah Bankhead, and Beatrice Kaufman.

Treva read on and on, as afternoon turned into dusk, the shadows cast by the library’s stone lions growing longer until they dissolved. She wished she could travel back to the days of the Algonquin Round Table, overhearing them from a neighboring table, or, even better, somehow getting a seat at that table.


When Silverman graduated from Bennington College nearly a decade later, even though the joke of the day was to try to graduate with an “M.R.S. degree,” she had nestled nicely into a Manhattan creative life on her own. She had broken into comedy writing and rejoiced when, one by one, a sketch or song of hers was accepted for an off-Broadway show or for Upstairs at the Downstairs, a topical revue nightclub that featured future stars like Lily Tomlin and Madeline Kahn. The rest of her evenings were spent using her musical talent: She played and sang show tunes—Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Gershwin—anywhere around town that had a piano and offered the chance to make a few bucks.

She played at bars, bowling alleys, Japanese restaurants. She got to meet people she never would have met otherwise, who lived the kinds of lives she’d only read about. There was the guy who pulled up his jacket sleeve to reveal five men’s watches and whispered to her, “You got a boyfriend who needs a Patek-Philippe timepiece?” There was the guy in the strip joint who wore a black eye patch—he had lost his left eye in a knife fight —who asked her, “Are you a sport, or are you a good girl?” She had only a hazy idea of what a sport was, but she knew she didn’t want to be one, and replied that she was a good girl. He gave her a twenty anyway. This piano-playing stint wasn’t exactly the way to find a husband, but at least it left her days free to write her songs and sketches, and she was making enough money to survive.

Her colorful life was radically out of step with those of her girlfriends from high school and college. Not only did they have respectable jobs in publishing and in advertising where nobody asked them to buy stolen watches, but most of them were gradually being whisked away to the magical never-never land called married life. You had to get there by age twenty-five or else—or else . . . well, nobody knew exactly what the else was, but it wasn’t anything a good girl wanted. Treva did want a long-term relationship, but in the meantime she wanted everyone who asked her why she wasn’t married to shut up.

Her parents thoroughly believed in her talent but were nervous for her. They saw her life as all promise and hope, with no guarantee of a stable future. “Treva,” her mother suggested one day, “why don’t you take a shorthand course? Just as a fallback, honey.”

Treva rolled her eyes. “Mom, I don’t want to learn shorthand so that I can take down some man’s ideas. I want someone taking down my ideas.”

Once she was playing at a restaurant on Fifth Avenue, a place high-priced and elegant enough that, finally, she could invite her parents to see her perform. Seated at a flower-laden table listening to her play and sing, her parents watched while a man came up to the piano, spoke a few words to her, and put a ten-dollar bill in her glass piggy bank. Her father rushed to his daughter. “What did that man want?” he demanded.

“‘My Funny Valentine,’ Dad,” she sighed.

The good news was that the women’s lib movement was starting to percolate. The Pill had been introduced in 1960, freeing women from pregnancy fears. And Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl, had recently scandalized the nation, making women like Silverman feel a little less alone in their singlehood while emboldening them to wear shorter skirts and sleep with any man they pleased. Not every woman had to be Jackie Kennedy, for Chrissake. Brown rallied the single-girl troops to pursue their sexual desires, even giving them advice on the art of pleasuring men. “Theoretically a ‘nice’ single woman has no sex life,” she wrote. “What nonsense!”

Brown saw the single woman as a “glamour girl,” contrary to many other contemporary writers, who seemed to pity and fear any unmarried women who displayed both sex drive and career drive. Unmarried women were characterized as spinsters, unmarried men characterized as bachelors-around-town. Brown would soon revamp the magazine Cosmopolitan as a haven for sexually liberated women. Her proposal for the makeover said that her Cosmopolitan would tell an aspiring actress “not to stay back home in Lima, Ohio, like most articles on the subject do, [but would offer] practical advice. Where to live. How much money to save up first.” Treva was beyond the Cosmo girl already—she had loads of practical advice she could give such a creature—but it was comforting to know there were girls who dreamed of the exact kind of life she already had.


One night in 1964, Silverman was playing at a piano bar in Manhattan’s theater district—it was another one of those dark, smoky places, but this one had a well-tuned baby grand. She took her requisite set break, listening to the glasses clink and the patrons murmur in the absence of her playing. Still energized from her performance, she struck up a conversation with an intense, bearded, hippie-ish guy and his girlfriend sitting near her at the bar. Soon they were chatting about their mutual love of F. Scott Fitzgerald and J. D. Salinger. Beards were only just on the brink of acceptable mainstream grooming at the time, a signal of a certain kind of rebelliousness that endeared this guy to Silverman. Guys with beards tended to smoke weed, be creative, listen to cool music. They were Silverman’s people. Even more so when they could talk Fitzgerald and Salinger. It figured that he was there with a woman, though. Those guys were always taken.

The guy, Jim Brooks, worked at CBS as an assistant in the newsroom. Treva and Jim talked about their mutual ambition to write for television. Brooks was intrigued with the sketch comedy work she was doing; his admiration for her was instant. He knew Upstairs at the Downstairs and its reputation for sharp, topical work. She was attracted to the way his mind worked, his quick, easy, funny conversation, his split-second responses. Something clicked between them: that feeling that says, We’re going to matter in each other’s lives.

She stayed in touch with Jim as she got more and more of her comedy sketches and songs performed in New York cabarets. Then came the day she received word that not one, not two, but five sketches of hers were going to be featured at Upstairs at the Downstairs. Five! She had been elevated to being the only sketch writer in the show. She was glowing with success when she ran into the mother of her best friend from high school. What luck, Treva thought—someone with whom to share her excitement. “Mrs. Bernstein, I just found out!” she said. “I have five sketches in the new Upstairs at the Downstairs!”

Treva waited for that spark of respect to alight in the older woman’s eyes. Instead, she got: “How nice that you’re keeping busy. . . . Are you seeing anyone?” Treva wondered if she would ever go a day again without hearing that question, dripping with passive-aggressive judgment.

But comedian Carol Burnett walked into Upstairs at the Downstairs a few months later with a different attitude toward talented, funny women like herself. Not long after Treva had talked to Jim about wanting to break into TV, Burnett came down to Midtown from her Upper East Side apartment to check out new talent at the revue; it was similar to the one in which Burnett had gotten her own start, the Blue Angel, nearly a decade earlier. Burnett liked Silverman’s sketches so much that she invited her to write for a variety show she was about to star in, CBS’s The Entertainers, along with Bob Newhart and Dom DeLuise. Writing comedy on a network TV show! Treva had arrived.

Silverman’s work there led to a job in Hollywood writing for the television show The Monkees. She moved west in 1966 to craft scripts for the made-for-TV band that was aiming to replace the Beatles in teen girls’ hearts, even as posters for the edgier Who and the Kinks, David Bowie and Jefferson Airplane, vied for the poster space on those same teenagers’ walls. When Silverman got to her new gig, she found she was once again, as she had been on The Entertainers, the only woman writer on staff. The only other women she encountered were secretaries who typed up what the funny guys wrote and mimeographed copies for the producers and cast.

At that point, Treva was one of only two or three women writers in TV comedy who worked without a male partner; she was such an anomaly that Mademoiselle magazine did an article on her. She was part of a sociological phenomenon, a generation of new feminists being profiled in newsmagazines, who prioritized their careers over marriage and were often the only women wherever they went, their miniskirts, high boots, and tent dresses distinguishing them from the cinch-waisted, full-skirted secretaries who came before them. Later, interviewers would always ask Silverman, “How did you survive in such an atmosphere? How did you make it in a profession that had only been men?” The truth, however, was that she just did because she had to if she wanted to do the job she wanted. If the cherubic, soft-spoken Treva Silverman had to sit in rooms full of bearded men to be a comedy writer, then that was what she would do.


Then the original bearded guy in Silverman’s life, Jim Brooks, reappeared in the summer of 1969. Treva had written for several sitcoms during the two years since The Monkees went off the air, including a few episodes of Brooks’ groundbreaking high school history class comedy, Room 222. They’d stayed in touch since meeting in New York, and he had even introduced her to his fellow producer on Room 222, the short-haired, clean-cut Allan Burns. Now Brooks was calling her with a rather existential question: “What are you doing right now?”

“Washing my hair.”

“No,” he said, “I mean with your life. Our pilot is going to series—the one I’m doing with Allan Burns—and we want you to come on board. It’s with Mary Tyler Moore.” With the woman from The Dick Van Dyke Show, the one who was pretty and funny? Like Jean Arthur and Carole Lombard? There was nothing Silverman wanted more. That was quite a relief to Brooks and Burns, who needed writers that they felt could understand their kind of show. The fact that Silverman was a woman was a bonus—they could use some estrogen-fueled help with their female lead character. No one knew whether the show would last beyond CBS’s initial thirteen-episode commitment to it, but Brooks offered her all he could: “We want you to write for this series,” he told her, “and we want you to write as many episodes as you want.”

As Brooks, Burns, and Silverman carefully wrote and rewrote the early scripts for The Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970, they didn’t dream their show would have any long-lasting effect on the world. They just sat at their typewriters and pounded away, trying to write the best they could and hoping the show didn’t get canceled. At times the series would veer awfully close to ending prematurely. But instead, the writers and producers’ ideas and actions—some smart, some not—piled on top of each other, mixed together, and made history. They pulled star Mary Tyler Moore out of a perilous career slump. They weathered attacks from network executives who said the program was too different to succeed, or just plain rotten. They survived cast members’ insecurities and jealousies, divorces and diets, and screaming matches between producers and directors. Along the way, they made several unlikely stars, changed the fates of a dozen female TV writers who spun their everyday lives into comedy gold, helped usher in a more woman-friendly era in the television industry, elevated the sitcom to an art form, and killed a clown.