Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.
He & She is a sitcom that ran on CBS for one year, during the 1967-1968 season. A relatively sophisticated comedy for the era, the series was centered on a young married couple played by Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, who were wedded to one another off the soundstage, too. The series was created by the prolific TV producer Leonard Stern, who turned over story editor duties to the writing team Allan Burns and Chris Hayward. They were fresh off a successful run with the ghoulish family comedy The Munsters, but they were also recovering from the shellacking suffered by My Mother the Car, another of their creations that was already considered of all the all-time duds in TV history. Burns later recalled that Stern was a demanding boss, pushing the duo and their cohorts on the writers’ room to keep working jokes until they were perfect.
“He taught me a lot about not being satisfied with the easy joke,” said Burns. “He was always looking for: Where’s the character in this? Jokes are easy, character is difficult…and it was very exhilarating — but it was also exhausting.”
“The Coming-Out Party,” a midseason offering of He & She that credits Burns and Hayward as the writers, demonstrates the value of Stern’s approach. The plot is set into motion when Paula (Prentiss) decides to play matchmaker for her coworker Dorothy (Mariette Hartley). Paul employs her usual tactic of throwing a party — to the mild displeasure of her husband, Dick (Benjamin) — extending invites to other members of her friend group until she comes upon one of the gentlemen who isn’t is a current relationship. In this case, that turns out to be Dick’s physician (John Astin). The first half of the episode is the build up to and execution of the party, and the second half catches up with the situation a short while later, when the new couple is going through a late-night spat, causing Dick anxiety because he’s scheduled to be wheeled into surgery with the agitated, distracted doc in the morning.
The jokes click off as dependably as mile markers, but every one of them does indeed stem from character rather than zany concepts or boisterous business. Importantly, especially for the era, that doesn’t mean the humor is dependent on deep, longstanding knowledge of the characters. Burns and Hayward deftly sketch in who everyone is, largely based on reactions and interaction. I’ve seen exactly one episode of He & She, and I have a good understanding of the personalities of every person on screen.
At a time when the placement of a series on a network’s schedule had a major influence on its prospects for success, He & She was plopped onto Wednesday nights with the tonally discordant Green Acres as a lead-in. It was unsurprisingly canceled, but well-regarded enough within the industry to earn Burns and Hayward a writing Emmy, specifically for the episode “The Coming-Out Party.” Another episode of He & She was among the competition in the category. The show also caught the eye of Grant Tinker, a television producer who was developing a new sitcom for his wife, Mary Tyler Moore. Tinker recruited Burns, specifically citing She & He as an example of the tone he had in mind for the new program. Burns teamed with James L. Brooks, who he’d recently worked with on the high school–set drama Room 222. The show Burns and Brooks created for Moore wound up doing pretty well at the Emmys, too.
Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.