Well, we’ve lost another great one — writer-producer Leonard Stern, who died at the age of 87.
Stern is best known for working on such shows as “Get Smart,” “The Honeymooners” and “McMillan and Wife,” but he was a man of diverse interests and talents, running a publishing operation, Tallfellow Press, and assembling (with Diane L. Robison) a book that every Hollywood writer should read, “A Martian Wouldn’t Say That.”
The title, of course, was inspired by an actual network note to the producers of “My Favorite Martian.” It’s one of several howlers found in the book, including straight-faced notes from TV execs like, “Although Connie is a sociopath, make sure she’s not without warmth,” or “Can you make the Rabbi less Jewish?”
One of the most enjoyable pieces I ever worked on for the Los Angeles Times was a roundtable panel I assembled consisting of Stern, Norman Lear, Carl Reiner and “Gilligan’s Island” creator Sherwood Schwartz.
Here’s one passage, just to provide some flavor:
Not surprisingly, perhaps, none of them could begin to fathom the appeal of the so-called reality shows that have helped push sitcoms to the sidelines this season. “Grrr,” Reiner said. “Can you put that down? Grrr.”
“I cannot comprehend why those shows are entertainment,” Schwartz said. “It’s like a car crash, but that’s over in an instant.”
“You don’t like people eating worms?” Lear asked.
As for the fact that such shows reach the younger viewers advertisers covet, Stern called that “a ridiculous self-fulfilling prophecy. If you make shows that only appeal to a certain age group, eventually, that’s all you’re going to have.”
The producers acknowledged that not every project they made deserved immortality, and Reiner stressed that current hand-wringing over TV comedy might not be borne out by history.
“Everybody has their own nostalgia,” he said. “The people who are living today will watch these shows and remember them fondly, because that’s what they grew up with. That’s the food you were served as child, even if it’s not as good as the food that was served before.”
And while Schwartz deadpanned that he always knew his castaways would remain stranded and the Bradys would still be smiling from their grid into the 21st century, Stern echoed a common adage among those whose work plays on and on.
“If we knew the shows were going to become classics,” he said, “we would have written them better.”
They didn’t make them much better than Stern. He was a true gentleman. He’ll be missed.