Fresh Air Remembers Garry Marshall, Creator Of 'Happy Days' And 'Laverne & Shirley'
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with Garry Marshall, who died yesterday at the age of 81 after a series of strokes. In the 1970s and '80s, he created or co-created several really popular sitcoms, including "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," "Joanie Loves Chachi," "The Odd Couple" and "Mork & Mindy." Scott Baio, who was in two of those shows, just spoke at the Republican convention.
Two of Marshall's shows, "Happy Days" and the spin-off "Laverne & Shirley," featured his sister Penny Marshall. Garry Marshall also directed the film "Pretty Woman." He learned about writing for TV in the 1960s when he worked on shows like Danny Thomas' "Make Room For Daddy," Lucille Ball's "The Lucy Show" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." I spoke with Marshall in 1991 after he directed the film "Frankie And Johnny" starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer.
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GROSS: How did you get into show business? You started off as a standup comic, right, doing your own material.
GARRY MARSHALL: Yes. That's why my ires always come comedic in a way because - can I just say something? See, I sound like such a smooth talker. It's the way this public radio sounds. It's very calming. I tried to do it in "Frankie and Johnny" with the the announcer at the end. He talks like this. A lot of radio, they talk like this. How are you? (Unintelligible) This is very smooth. I like this...
MARSHALL: I'm just so calm. It's like you should do this for stress. You could just come here and talk and you'll go around like this. But, yes, I started as a journalist actually. I graduated from Northwestern Medill School of Journalism and with my degree discovered, once out in the real world, I wasn't very good at it. And I wasn't really that good at being a musician. And then I tried being a standup. I was an actor. I was a photographer. I tried everything. Nothing was particularly working for me, but then, as a musician, I wrote jokes for comics. And they started to buy my jokes, and that's where I thought maybe that might work.
GROSS: And that did pretty good.
MARSHALL: Well, yeah, I always remember writing a page of jokes for a comedian and handing it to him backstage at a club and he read it and then took his cigarette lighter and lit the page on...
MARSHALL: ...Actually lit it on fire and let it float into the wastebasket. A flaming rejection, I chalked it up to, and I must, you know, be very serious. I went home and cried a little bit, but, you know, when you want something or you have a passion for it, I guess I talked myself into the fact that I thought he might have smiled just a little bit by reading it before he set it on fire, so maybe something good was there. But after a while, everybody threw my jokes away, but then they - I heard them on the television, so I knew they were stealing them, so I figured I had a shot.
GROSS: So you had to learn how to write for a different kind of comics, comics who were, by the way, of an older generation than you were. Can you think of, like, what was a good Joey Bishop joke?
MARSHALL: For Joey Bishop, always was kind of the lost soul, so I did a traffic joke. So I drove from - the traffic was so heavy that I drove from New York to Long Island in neutral. You know, old jokes of that sort. Like there's nothing startling, but I just was consistent.
GROSS: Now, how did writing for other people lead to sitcoms?
MARSHALL: Well, people always say, well, how do you get through show business? How do you swim the waters? And how do you survive and all that? I had a very solid method, and that is team up with ambitious partners.
MARSHALL: It works for me. I was never ambitious. I just wanted to have quiet, calm, listen to public radio and say, hello, how are you? Sit down, rest. But I had an early partner named Fred Freeman, a wonderful writer who I met at Northwestern. And I thought we were doing very well with "Jack Paar," and he said, no, we got to go to Hollywood. We got to write sitcom. It's the coming thing.
And I really wasn't too interested in writing "Father Knows Best" and "Ozzie And Harriet." I thought they were pleasant enough, but it wasn't really what I wanted to do. And then this new show came on called "Bilko" - "Sgt. Bilko." And I said, oh, my, this is what I want to do. This is funny. And so he convinced me - Fred Freeman - to go to Hollywood and we went to Hollywood to write sitcoms. Joey Bishop actually paid my way to Hollywood.
GROSS: Did you write for "Bilko?"
MARSHALL: No, never got to write for "Bilko," but that was what was to me the standard to aim for, and so I wrote for Dick, Danny Thomas, Joey Bishop. The old "Dick Van Dyke Show" was a great education for me. I wrote three years for Lucille Ball. She taught me everything I know about physical comedy, which I went on to teach Laverne and Shirley and even Michelle Pfeiffer and Kate Nelligan in something areas. You learn from them.
My partner after Fred Freeman was Jerry Belson. And Jerry Belson, after I was doing so well writing situation comedy, said, this is not good enough. We got to create our own shows. I said, but we're very happy doing this. No, no, no, you got to get your own show. So he made me - and he and I created our own shows. And we actually - everything we created failed. "Hey, Landlord" was our first show - 99th in the ratings. But imagine this - it's a great reflection on the years. "Hey, Landlord" truly was 99th in the ratings, yet we stayed on an entire year. You know how fast a show goes to...
GROSS: Two weeks.
MARSHALL: If it's not in the top 40, it's gone. We were 99th. We stayed. But then I went on. The first show was "The Odd Couple," which Jerry Belson insisted we adapt. And we did, and it was a great experience.
GROSS: You said you learned everything you know about physical comedy from writing for Lucille Ball...
GROSS: ...And that you passed on some of that to Michelle Pfeiffer. Is there an example that you could tell us?
MARSHALL: Well, I first - my sister Penny and Cindy on "Laverne & Shirley." No - but some of the stuff - in "Frankie And Johnny," there's a scene where they - a customer's very rude to the waitress. And we asked waitresses what happens when people are rude you. What do you do and this and that? And there's a whole physical bit they do together with this guy. You got - you got to go to see "Frankie And Johnny" to see this. But it's stuff like that.
And that - I learned how to do it from Lucy, how to time it, how to be in the right spot with the camera, that you never do a physical joke that in any way would harm another person. For instance, if in this particular case, they spilled ice water on this customer. Now, the original thought would always be when people came up and they said, no, hot coffee. I said, no, no, hot coffee is not funny.
MARSHALL: Hot coffee will hurt him. And then I very carefully cast an actor in the part of the one the waitress was attacking that would not get sympathy for the audience. You can't have an actor where the audience says, aw, that poor, sweet guy. You got to get somebody who's, like, nondescript in a way or just somebody that looks a little like they should get it. So this is all I learned actually learn from Lucy.
GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with writer and director Garry Marshall. He died yesterday at the age of 81. We'll hear more after break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Garry Marshall, the creator or co-creator of the sitcoms "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley" and "Mork & Mindy" and the director of the film "Pretty Woman." Early in his career, he wrote for "The Danny Thomas Show," "The Lucy Show" and "The Dick Van Dyke Show." Marshall died yesterday at the age of 81. Let's get back to my 1991 interview with him.
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GROSS: Now, in writing for "The Dick Van Dyke Show," was it fun to write for a character who basically did what you used to do? 'Cause Dick Van Dyke used to write - I mean, the character used to be the head writer for, you know, a guy who did a variety show.
MARSHALL: Well, yeah, I used to - it was about my days when I wrote - I wrote variety shows beside "Jack Paar." We did "The Danny Thomas Special." There wasn't a lot of specials. And it was fun to write, but the - really the way writers write on the old "Dick Van Dyke Show," the way we portrayed them is not how we really do it (laughter). But it was good for the - that was a better thing for the - more interesting for the public to see.
What we really do is we sit around the room and old Carl Reiner always would run these sessions and you would think of all the most embarrassing moments in your life and all the horrifying things that happened to you. See, I wrote for a lot of the old comics, but I wrote for the young comics. And a great influence on me was Lenny Bruce, who really you couldn't write for but you could kind of pitch with and learn about it. And his formula always was very clear, which was pain plus time equals humor.
So the way we got most of the humor was we had to think about our pain that had been done in the past and turned into humor. A sample on the old "Dick Van Dyke Show," I - this is radio, but you can picture this, folks. I have some moles on my back, and my mother, a sensitive women, said to me when I was 9 years old, you have so many moles on your back I could take a pencil and connect all the dots and it would turn out to be a picture like in the book you do, your connect the dots book.
Well, it totally embarrassed me at 9 years old. I didn't take my shirt off at the beach for two years. But later in life in thinking about that, I kind of pitched a story about that, that that should happen to Dick Van Dyke. And we did a whole episode on "Dick Van Dyke" where he falls asleep with his shirt off and this kid connects his moles and it comes out a picture of the Liberty Bell. And he goes on "Believe It Or Not." So it was a whole crazy episode that was based on my pain.
GROSS: So, again, back to something you just said, did you work with Lenny Bruce?
MARSHALL: I worked with him, but I was a drummer where he worked, so I talked to him a lot...
GROSS: Oh, no.
MARSHALL: ...And I studied him. And you can't really write his material. He writes it himself, but he was another one where he said you got to find it in life. Every day you look out and you see something humorous. That's what it comes from.
GROSS: Now, Lenny Bruce wasn't exactly a rimshot kind of comic, but did you do rimshots for (laughter) during his monologues?
MARSHALL: Well, you know, he started out as a winner on the Arthur Godfrey talent contest. No, he lost (unintelligible) actually lost the Arthur Godfrey talent contest to a man who sang "I Believe." But he didn't do rimshots, but he did a lot of stuff with - actually with percussions. He did do some stuff. He played the drums himself, so we had some camaraderie.
GROSS: But, I mean, you didn't do rimshots for him during his act.
MARSHALL: No, no, only to make fun of rimshots.
GROSS: Right, exactly, oh, OK.
MARSHALL: But the other guys I did it for real, you know, bah-dum-bum (ph).
MARSHALL: Now, we don't even do rimshots. The band just says it. The band doesn't play it. They - the whole band goes bah-dum-bum.
MARSHALL: But that's the old style of comedy, but still, you know, in a way has a place.
GROSS: Now, I had always assumed that "Happy Days" was based on George Lucas' "American Graffiti." But I was reading one of my TV reference books, and it turns out "American Graffiti" was based on a pilot that you did for "Happy Days."
MARSHALL: Well, I wouldn't say it was based on it. We both were coming out about the same time. I had done an early version of "Happy Days." It was called "New Family In Town," and it starred Ron Howard and some of the other members of the cast. Henry Winkler as Fonzie was not in the original pilot. But I did this pilot, and it did not sell. They said, who cares about the '50s?
And then George, meanwhile, was working on his "American Graffiti." And his casting director called me up when they were finally ready to shoot it and asked me could he see my pilot because he wanted to see Ron Howard's performance as a '50s character. And I sent him the pilot, and that's how they cast Ron Howard in "American Graffiti."
GROSS: Now had did an ethnic kid from the Bronx, like yourself, write a series about, you know, a seemingly non-ethnic family in Middle America?
MARSHALL: Well, I am Italian - my real name is Masciarelli - and I grew up in the Bronx and actually was raised Protestant in a Jewish neighborhood, yet I'm Italian. So I'm a mix-up of everything, as my sister Penny is. So we just would write to kind of a New York feel. But at the time, it was very difficult to do ethnic things on television. But mostly, in my day, there was Molly Goldberg. That with the ethnic show.
MARSHALL: And there was "Amos 'n' Andy," and that was that. The rest all had to be - they had to look like "Father Knows Best." So what worked for us is we took the humor of - which is a lot of ethnic humor, but we put it in the mouth of an actor like Ron Howard. And suddenly, it comes out funny, but it doesn't - it has a more national base. More of the audience relates to it.
GROSS: So tell me, do have any weird, unproduced pilots in your drawer?
MARSHALL: Oh, some we produced were pretty weird. You know, back to the many - you know, I was very fortunate in TV that I had, really, I guess, four or five shows that really made an impression and were - have to be considered hits. But I had 13 that were flops, you know. I did a lot of pilots. I was the genius who came up with a show called "The Recruiters" right in the middle of the Vietnam War...
MARSHALL: ...Where I was doing - recruiting young men for the war, which was a quiet quick one. Boom - that was gone.
MARSHALL: I also did a show called "Me And The Chimp" that - I thought I'd dabble in animals, but that was a big fiasco. But the best pilot I ever did never did get on the air (unintelligible).
GROSS: What was that?
MARSHALL: Jerry Belson and I did a pilot called "Sheriff Who?" which was our statement against violence. It was a big anti-violence statement, but nobody got it. And they thought it was violent. And...
MARSHALL: So they didn't want it. But many - to this day, I still get calls. And we made it a movie called "Evil Roy Slade." Many people, to this day will come up to me - a lot of the young people - you know, I figure well, I've been doing it for a long time. These kids, they don't know who I am. The first thing they do when they meet me, they say - can you get me a copy of that "Evil Roy Slade," that "Sheriff Who?" thing? That was the hippest, funniest thing I ever saw.
I don't know where they saw it. They run this thing at 3 in the morning. And it was probably the best thing Jerry Belson and I ever did as a pilot. It was just a little too hip for the territory and a little too far out. But we found - Alice Cooper had T-shirts made for his band called the Evil Roy Slade. He had them written on. He loved that show - and it was only on once. And it was a rerun sometimes late at night. So that was my favorite. It just never happened.
GROSS: Well, Garry Marshall, it's been a lot of fun to talk with you. Thanks a lot for talking with us.
MARSHALL: OK. I had fun, Terry, a pleasure. And I love this sound of this microphone. It's so calm.
GROSS: Garry Marshall, recorded in 1991. He died yesterday at the age of 81.
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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, black lives and blue lives. I'll speak with Tom Gibbons, a former Philadelphia Police officer who was shot three times and Eric Adams who's experienced the duality of marching against police brutality and also serving as an NYPD officer. He was beaten up by cops when he was 15, and now, as a black father, he worries about his son. Eric Adams currently serves as Brooklyn Borough president. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers and Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.