Terry Hart [Interview]


Hot damn do we have another great interview for you fine folks today! Continuing our new found love for speaking with some of the finest writers & performers in the world of comedy, I would say we stepped it up a bit even more, if that is somehow possible. Today’s interview subject is a man who has earned legendary status in the world of comedic television. Terry Hart is a man who has been creating some of the most classic comedic entertainment for about as long as most of us have been alive.

Die hard fans of comedy will know that there was a time when late night shows ran supreme. And there was no higher than The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. It was the top of the food chain. It was clearly known during its tenure that a stand up comedian simply HAD to have a Carson appearance if they wanted to have even the tiniest glimmer of hope to make it in the comedy world. And Terry Hart was a man who was there! Terry has worked in some capacity on some of the most classic television shows the world has ever known. Going back to shows like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley to Bosom Buddies and Perfect Strangers. And how can we forget the brilliant 80’s run of Gimmie A Break! Essentially, when the situational comedy format was the mighty powerhouse of television, Terry Hart was at the forefront of it all. And even to this day we remains a highly respected force to be reckoned with in the world of television.

This one is HUGE folks! The legendary status of Mr. Hart is one that deserves our highest regards and upmost respect. And we would love to give him just that. So with that being said, it is an honor and a privilege to welcome to our digital space, legendary comedy writer and producer Terry Hart!

When did you first realize you wanted to write for a living? Specifically, what made you want to join the world of comedic television?

As a kid I had a particular sense of humor – which in my younger years got me in minor, but frequent trouble. Seemed not all adults were amused by sarcasm from a 9 year old. I always lived in a humorous universe, but the concept of writing comedy as a career wasn’t in my family’s Midwest values DNA. Writing wasn’t a long held goal. Right after college I went to work for a big-time, very stuffy advertising agency in NYC (J. Walter Thompson) as a suit & tie account executive. Turned out I was the most amusing executive in the New York office – a lot like being the best steakhouse in India. But enough for me to start writing jokes for a few standups. That led to the move to LA. At the time, the idea of writing (making stuff up) seemed like more fun than a real job. That turned out to be true.

You are credited as a writer for the legendary Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, that still stands the test of time. In the comedy world, there has been a lot of varied opinions about the modern day versions of late night talk shows. As a master of the writing craft, what are your thoughts on the modern day late night shows?

Television has evolved. But late night shows haven’t really changed since Carson’s Tonight Show, and even earlier. It’s like baseball – 150 years ago they laid out the dimensions of a baseball diamond. That’s it – our work here is done. Today the infield is the same. So’s late night. Monologue. Desk. A little more comedy. Guests plugging something.

There are some smaller differences. Even though Carson wasn’t the only late night guy, he dominated. His monologue was virtually the only comedic political and cultural commentary on TV. Today there are a lot more shows and all competitive. The material is edgier and most of the hosts take a position on politicians and policies. Carson was studiously neutral and his sharp-edged jokes were wrapped in his softer, Middle America persona. And clips of the current late night stars show up on cable news – didn’t happen in Carson’s time.

Unrelated Writer Note: When we wrote Carson’s monologue jokes (then, maybe 6-7 writers – each wrote about 16+ jokes per day) they went directly to Johnny. No head writer involved. And when Carson did your jokes he did the lines exactly as you wrote them – didn’t change a word. That was a rare experience.

 

You had a major role as a producer and writer on one of my favorite sitcoms of all time, the classic Perfect Strangers. With so many credits before and after this one, what would you say made your time with that particular program special? What do you believe just made this show work so well?

The foundation of a good TV comedy series is a good writing staff. Drama might work with one talented writer (the British sometimes demonstrate that, and maybe Aaron Sorkin). Comedies need bright, funny writers around the table – which Perfect Strangers had. But a lot of shows have great writers, and still fail. My belief… second only to good writing is casting. There are great actors who can’t do comedy – especially half hour comedy. Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot were (are) talented actors who could do comedy. As Cousin Larry and Balki they delivered dialogue with perfect attitude and timing. They were also amazing physical comedians. There were episodes where their physical comedy added minutes to the show and we’d end up with “as broadcast” scripts under 30 pages. I suppose this is where I use the cliché “good chemistry.” It was a fun, silly show. Great show and actors to write for…and very few late night rewrites. It was a good time. The writer/actor relationship is the core of successful TV comedy. But everyone on Perfect Strangers, crew, production staff, etc., were terrific and important.

But… Also worked on Bosom Buddies. Bright, funny writers plus Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari. Two seasons – cancelled. Go figure.

There have been a lot of changes in the way that television is seen and created these days, with so many different platforms to showcase and create the product. As a man who has been in the business for some time, what are your thoughts on the modern age of television? Are we better off having 1,000 channels to choose from, or are the airwaves becoming diluted?

More choices. Fewer rules. More people being seen, heard and taking chances. All great.

When you look back on your amazing and successful career in the world of television, what would you say you are most proud of?

“Proud” might be a bit strong. But pleased and grateful that I’m part of a relatively small group. I make my living as a writer. Written some good stuff. More in the works. And written some dreadful shit. But never worked as a bartender (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Or a real estate agent (not that there’s a lot wrong with that). Mostly TV. Sold a couple screenplays (in its infinite wisdom Hollywood has, thus far, chosen not to produce either). Write and ghostwrite books, speeches, and special material. But, other than a couple early years on Madison Avenue, never any non-writing work. I have writer friends (I include actors, artists, musicians…), but more friends who are executives, lawyers, entrepreneurs, etc. Why do tens of millions of people choose to be executives, lawyers and entrepreneurs? I’m thinking because they can’t be writers. Not a ton of people get to do what we do for a living. We’re lucky.

 

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

Writing-wise, I’m writing. But now projects I want to do, and have an understanding of. (Last sentence sounds pretentious. Sorry.) Recently put my two semi-perfect sons through college (both doing very well, thank you – neither living in my basement). Don’t have the same economic responsibilities I once did – that’s very liberating. Today? Future? Just finished two virgin scripts – half hour comedy and a screenplay. Clearing shelf space for multiple awards. Plus a book in progress that’ll probably appeal only to sarcastic, 9 year old assholes.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

In a previous question you referred to me as “a master of the writing craft.” That made me audibly chuckle.

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About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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