TO BORROW A BIT OF SHTICK from “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,” Sidney Reznick is old. (How old is he? Thanks for asking.) He’s so old he heard about Milton Berle’s notorious endowment back when those stories were young. He’s so old he crafted the Carnac the Magnificent gag where the answer “UCLA” is followed by the question, “What happens here when the smog lifts?”
With “Friends,” “Frasier” and “Sex and the City” signing off, headline-hungry media outlets are eager to deliver TV comedy’s obituary. So before the wake begins, I decided to consult with two guys that total 170 years of experience. Reznick, 84, wrote for Carson, Berle, Jack Paar and Jackie Gleason, among others, while 86-year-old Mort Lachman saw the world producing Bob Hope specials, along with “All in the Family,” “Archie Bunker’s Place” and “Kate & Allie.”
Being funny has always been serious business, but it’s more so these days, as corporate control of media straps a jacket and tie on creativity. Nevertheless, talking to Lachman and Reznick reminded me of two basic facts: First, we don’t spend enough time siphoning wisdom from broadcasting’s forefathers, many of whom are not only alive but regularly visible at Nate ‘n’ Al’s; and the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Among those evergreens are the inevitable overreaction to business cycles, the influence of commercial pressures and the steadily eroding shoreline of what qualifies as risque. To the second point, Reznick began in radio and remembers well when advertisers produced shows — a resurgent trend today, as sponsors attempt to blunt the impact of TiVo and related technologies. “On the Chesterfield show, you couldn’t say, ‘Boy, was that lucky,’ because Lucky was the name of a competitor,” he recalled.
Lachman, who got his start pitching jokes for Eddie Cantor after answering an ad in Variety, is several decades beyond TV’s target demo but has his own ideas about what’s wrong with modern sitcoms. The best comedies “were about the world, about people’s problems,” he said. “They had something to do with reality…. It’s about humanity.”
BOTH OCTOGENARIANS stress that they are by no means prudes, and that it’s natural for writers to press boundaries of convention. Yet they also object to excessive use of blue language, which they see as a lazy means of engaging an audience.
“That’s just a substitute for vocabulary,” Reznick suggested. (Even some present comics might agree, with Jack Black confessing on AMC’s “Sunday Morning Shootout” that bouts of onstage profanity can function “like a crutch. … [to] get some shock titters.”)
“We challenged whatever rules there were,” Lachman said, adding that unlike club comedy, because TV goes directly into homes it should “show some respect for the kids, and for old people like me.”
Reznick actually explored challenges comedy scribes face a half-century ago, in a 1954 pamphlet titled “How to Write Jokes.” Although headings such as “Censorship” and “Selling Your Comedy Material” still resonate, the booklet shows its age. “As you drift into the upper echelon, you can pull down in excess of $50,000 a year,” it says.
HAVING CUT THEIR TEETH on variety shows, Lachman and Reznick not surprisingly express faith in that genre, whose resurrection seems logical given the revival of other near-dormant forms — from gameshows to “Queen for a Day”-type makeover/suffering contests. Indeed, variety already appears to be making a sort-of comeback, from “American Idol” to ABC’s recent special with Jessica Simpson and Nick what’s-his-face.
“Writing for the old-fashioned variety show was easier because many of the actors had developed a personality in vaudeville,” Reznick said. “It’ll come back if there are good practitioners.”
As recently as 1990 Lachman produced the short-lived series “Bagdad Cafe,” starring Whoopi Goldberg, while Reznick kept at it into his 60s — after being dropped by an agent who told him “I can’t sell you.” “I kept working after that with a different agent,” he said.
Reluctant to sound too wistful, Reznick admitted that the good ol’ days weren’t always so great and that many colleagues developed ulcers. And just to prove writers never cease hunting for jobs, Lachman reports that he’s available for hire, “as long as they’ve got money.”
Reznick also remains quick with a one-liner, though he’s the first to tell you that’s about all that’s quick.
“I used to be a hypochondriac,” he said, after detailing his various ailments, “but I don’t need that anymore.”