Comedy Imitates Life, Right?
The best of it does, says Earl Pomerantz, father of Anna '05. Pomerantz writes comedy—very successful comedy; his resume reads like a top-10 list of TV hits. Sure, he gets paid, but for him, comic writing is a compulsion.
"I can't do anything else—I just don't know how. I grew up watching a lot of TV (scaring my mother), and then one day it was like I got up from the floor in my living room, stepped through the screen and came out on the other side."
That "other side" was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which Pomerantz loved watching while growing up and ended up writing for. His other writing and/or producing credits include Rhoda, Phyllis, Newhart, Cheers, Major Dad, Becker, Kristin—and, perhaps most memorably, The Cosby Show.
"Cosby was different from anything else we'd seen before. It was comedy out of observation, and he wanted viewers to feel that he'd somehow climbed into their own house and put their lives up there. And he wanted, and got, the Jell-O and Coca-Cola audience by choosing to be universal rather than ethnic."
After Cosby, Pomerantz was approached by others to do shows with an African-American focus, including one built around a black actress. For that one, he says, "I looked around and saw that we were all white writers, writing for a black woman. It just didn't feel as if we could be fresh and real."
The real, he says, is the key to successful comedy, and he admits to favoring those comedies featuring a strong, but quiet, central character dealing with life situations, like Jack Benny or the current Everybody Loves Raymond. "Or Dick Van Dyke —he never yelled, and you could just feel that every story came from experience, unlike I Love Lucy, where you got anxious worrying whether Desi would find the cheese she was hiding in her pants."
Have things changed in 30 years of TV comedy writing? Pomerantz notes that "when TV started, the parents in the shows were normal and the kids were crazy. That's because the parents were the audience they were trying to appeal to. Now, the parents are all crazy, and the kids are normal—because the kids are the audience they're appealing to. With Cosby gone, there's nobody on TV over 50 who's remotely sane."
But then, do you have to be sane to write comedy? Who knows? Pomerantz realizes that you can't think too hard about whether you can write funny.
"Either it's in you, or it's not," he says.