Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The Business of Laughter

If, like me, you're an admirer of that quintessentially American art form, the situation comedy, you'll want to pick up a copy of Paula Finn's insightful, smart, and funny Sitcom Writers Talk Shop: Behind the Scenes with Carl Reiner, Norman Lear, and Other Geniuses of TV Comedy (Rowman & Littlefield).

It's a compelling book of interviews with the likes of Matt Williams (Roseanne, Home Improvement), Dava Savel (Ellen), James L. Brooks (Mary Tyler Moore), and, of course, the aforementioned Messrs. Reiner and Lear. Ms. Finn brings an unusual insider's perspective in that her father -- to whom she pays tribute in a charming preface -- was sitcom writer Herbert Finn, whose credits include The Honeymooners and (be still, my heart!) The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna. 

I had already read one fine book of interviews with sitcom writers, Scott Lewellen's Funny You Should Ask, which I reviewed about five years ago, so I wondered if the newer work would cause an attack of deja vu. Surprisingly, there isn't that much duplication between the two books in terms of interviewees, although Lila Garrett, Bill Persky, and a few others grace both volumes. Ms. Finn's book skews a bit more toward recent TV history, including shows that ran into the 21st century. But don't let that mislead you: there's plenty here for the classic sitcom fan to savor. And while Lewellen presented his book in an oral history format, organizing the material by topics (working with actors, shows that failed, etc.), Ms. Finn conducts full-length interviews that cover her subjects' careers and experiences in depth. A nice touch is her periodic inclusion of sidebars, in which a colleague of the writer being interviewed adds a different perspective on the shows discussed.

I'm frequently reminded that, when it comes to capturing the type of firsthand memories that Ms. Finn's book contains, the clock is always ticking. Sitcom Writers Talk Shop is a valuable piece of television history.

NOTE: I was provided a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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