In a rare reunion, the production team behind some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and ’80s gathered at USC on Saturday to dish about old times and the issue of ageism in Hollywood
Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas took part in a panel sesh as part of USC’s Comedy@SCA fest. Susan Harris, a partner in the Witt Thomas Harris banner, had been expected but was unable to attend due to illness
Joining them were Betty White, star of “The Golden Girls,” director Jay Sandrich and Mitch Hurwitz, the “Arrested Development” creator who worked on “Golden Girls” early in his career. Convo was moderated by scribe Ken Levine (“M*A*S*H,” “Cheers”).
Harris, the pen behind so many of the triumvirate’s episodes (she wrote all, or part of all, 93 episodes of “Soap”), wrote a letter addressing the aud.
She wrote that she was on cough medicine so strong that if she weren’t coughing, maybe she’d enjoy it, and she buttered up White and the rest of the crew onstage, saying, in so many words, that everybody knew the crowd had gathered to see White.
“Sitting here with this gang is really something — talk about family,” White said. “I’m the oldest broad on two feet in the business, so I’ve had a lot of families throughout the years.”
White, who will turn 92 in January, stole the spotlight of the panel, as special attention was devoted to her portrayal of Rose on “Golden Girls.”
She called her character amorphous, but said that helmer Sandrich really made her job easy by unpacking Rose’s vices and virtues. Sandrich told the comedienne that White’s character should believe everything, not have a negative thing to say about anybody and trust everybody.
“Suddenly the script took on a whole other life,” White said. “It’s not life imitating art, it’s art imitating life.”
Thomas praised White and her comrades-in-arms on the show, recalling that a friend of his said: “‘Golden Girls’ was like watching an All-Star game.”
Thomas attributed the show’s success to its off-beat messages, which resonated with auds spanning a variety of demographics. He pinpointed that at the center of the show were two main themes: There’s life going on after a certain age, and everybody knows somebody like one of the four ladies in the skein.
Although Harris wasn’t present, she received a lot of praise from her husband, Witt, and colleagues for making “Golden Girls” click.
“Ageism has always been rampant in this business on a number of levels,” he said. “Susan took to that concept immediately.”
Harris’ innovative storytelling bent also shone through in “Soap,” as Hurwitz noted the soap opera-esque structure of the series.
“We were breaking form first and foremost,” Witt said, of “Soap.” “And then we wanted to do a series about people we knew.”
Most sitcom families that the panelists grew up watching, they acknowledged, were too sweet and Waspy, too high-strung and fake.
Hurwitz took inspiration from Witt, Thomas and Harris, noting that everything in “Arrested Development” he owed to what he called the tripartite soul of the TV comedy Plato, aka Witt/Thomas/Harris.
“You want to be fortunate enough to have really talented people mentor you,” Hurwitz said, calling the trio “mavericks” and noting that they passionately fought for their writers and shows.
Thomas echoed Hurwitz, stressing that they wrestled tooth and nail for the gags and jokes that appeared on skeins like “Soap.” The production house’s shows gained a reputation in the industry for constantly pushing the envelope, dealing with such controversial topics as ageism, racism, classism, sexism and homosexuality, over the decades.
“Everything is based on something real,” Witt said. “It’s not jokes, it’s not shtick; it’s funny because we are a funny breed. We’re an interesting bunch, humans. So we better be able to laugh at ourselves, and great writing in comedy tends to be the most real.”
Mood continued to be sentimental when some in the group reminisced on their humble (but soon-to-be epic) beginnings: Hurwitz recalled his transition from runner to protégé with Witt/Thomas/Harris; Sandrich remembered his first job on “I Love Lucy”; and — perhaps — best of all, White revisited her doubt in a career that started in local television that would one day lead to iconic superstardom.
“Maybe it’s a little late,” White said, to the panelists, “but thank you.”