Russ Woody [Interview]

 

 

Hello Folks! Welcome back to another wonderful edition to our “Week of Becker” coming to you live on the unusual Thursday. Usually we leave this day blank (a day of rest, if you will) but how the hell could we do that when we have such an incredible week with some incredible writers and producers to share with you all? Today we are hearing from the absolutely brilliant man himself, Mr. Russ Woody!

Just as our previous guests had, Russ was around for the vast majority of the run of this program that we love so very much. He was a major contributing factor to the show as well, and we are delighted that he wanted to share some words with us. Russ also brought an entirely new element into the story behind my favorite sitcom of all time, one that would literally bring tears of joy as well as sadness to my eyes. And that element would be in the form of Russ’s father. Honestly Folks, when I was reaching out to the idea of making a Becker themed week happen, or just to talk with anyone who happened to worked on the series at all, I wasn’t planning on being just so damn moved by some behind the scenes stories that occurred during the making of Becker. I honestly can not thank Mr. Woody enough for sharing his and his amazing father’s story here with us today. What is the story? Well, keep reading you (albeit beautiful) animals!

Beyond the world of Becker, Russ Woody is an Emmy and Golden Globe winning writer and producer who has worked on other incredible shows like Murphy Brown, The Drew Carey Show (the one that took him away, haha. Also happens to feature our dear friend John Carrol Lynch!), a new favorite of mine known as Haters Back Off, Mad About You, and so many more. He has done some absolutely incredible work, and also happens to give one hell of a great interview. He’s an absolutely hilarious human being by nature, and we are so excited that he is here!

So Folks, please enjoy some incredible words from the amazing Russ Woody!

 

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What inspired you to get into the world of writing? Was the idea of being a  writer something you had aspired to be since you were a child, or did you  just find yourself in this world one day? 

I’ve always admired writers, always looked at them with awe, always assumed they were the smartest people on earth. Though I’ve since found that to be untrue – in some instances, laughingly so – the epithet has always inspired me. That my efforts as a writer tend to dribble out as comedy (or at least attempts at), was inevitable from the 5th grade. On my way to school in Red Bluff, California, I used to sit at the back of the bus with a bunch of 7th graders who were wildly funny and sharp and sarcastic and caustic and I wanted desperately to be one of them. So I struggled valiantly to hone my humor skills, which then started a life- long quest to figure out this whole comedy/humor thing. I came to realize, many years later that the concept of “figuring comedy out” is a fools errand (both the medieval one and the modern day fool). What I have found was that any time I think I’ve got the rules figured out, they change. Comedy is a complex and vaporous miasma that denies formula. It is (to me) so much more interesting than drama or informational writing, as they can be ultimately “figured out.” If you write that someone’s dog died, you can pretty much get to “why” it is a sad story. But try to turn the same story into something funny (it can be done), and it’s much more complicated. 

Anyway, I did my share of getting in classroom trouble for things said/done, etc. In college I was drafted from a public speaking class into the debate team, where I competed in After Dinner Speaking (humorous speeches). I did well, but was forever disappointed to find there were never any “dinners” before the “after dinner” speeches. After college, I moved to Los Angeles and managed to get a couple of production assistant jobs on sitcoms: Benson, Bosom Buddies and Family Ties. It was a wonderful experience that I highly recommend for any neophyte (though the jobs are hard hard to get) because you can often sit in on the comedy-writing process and see that it’s not magic. In fact, it’s so much not magic that, after 35 years of it, I began to ease my way out of it. 

Do you remember the first time you saw your name appear in the credits of a series? Do you remember where you were when you first saw it? 

Yeah. It was a nightmare. (I’ve never liked watching my own stuff anyway.) It was an episode of Benson. It came on the air while I was in Oregon with my then- girlfriend and her family. So everyone gathered around the TV, all very excited. The episode had been totally rewritten and (like everyone just talked to everyone else throughout the whole thing). I just sat there and ate my liver. But the rewriting thing happens all the time in television. After a while you get used to it, or you try to get used to it, or you don’t get used to it, but you get used to eating your liver. 

No, now that I think of it, the very first time I saw my name in credits was when I was a production assistant on Bosom Buddies (Tom Hanks/Peter Scolari). THAT thrilled me. Another cool experience was many years later, when I was writing Murphy Brown (the original). I’d gone up to Chico, California (my alma mater) and dropped into the restaurant where I used to work. I was sitting at the bar, drinking, bullshitting with a couple of friends. There was an attractive woman that I didn’t know sitting nearby. Murphy came on the overhead TV, and one of my friends turned to the woman and pointed out my name in the opening sequence. He said, that’s this guy right here. She thought he was full of shit, and producing my driver’s license would’ve made me look like an asshole. But still, it was cool. 

You have worked on so many of the most iconic television series of all time for nearly 40 years. I have loved so many of them, but regular readers here at TWS know that my favorite sitcom of all time is one you spent quite a bit of time on, which was Becker. We have spoken with a few people about their time on the show. With that, I am curious to know how you enjoyed your time working on this project? Was there anything about this specific project that set itself apart from the plethora of other projects you have worked on? 

Actually, I’m surprised to hear it was your favorite show. Becker always seemed to fly so far under the general public’s radar. I was there for 5 of its 5 1⁄2 years (I left when we didn’t know if the show would be renewed and Drew Carey sent a money-filled truck to my house—yes, okay, that’s essentially prostitution, but let’s not think TV is above that classification). Mostly, I suppose, I was there for so long because Ted (Danson) was such a great guy to work with. And Dave Hackel, the show runner, though he could be a little gruff at times, ran a well- organized show and reasonable schedule—often an anomaly in sitcoms. 

But what made the show so uniquely endearing to me was the part in the middle of my tenure, the year-and-a-half that followed one particular week when my mother died suddenly and my dad was diagnosed with ALS. I got him a house in Studio City (L.A.) and he began coming to filmings of the show every Tuesday night. In the months to follow, I was astonished to see how much, and how wholeheartedly, the writers, the crew, the cast, especially Ted Danson, adopted him. We ended up doing an episode of Becker about him, with Tom Poston playing “an old man with ALS, who could no longer speak,” so Dr. Becker gets him a small computer that will speak for him. The episode was given an award by the Muscular Dystrophy Association at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills at a black tie event with the Becker producers and the cast. My dad wore a tux for the first time, rode in a limousine for the first time and found himself sitting in the audience of 800 supporters as Ted Danson stood on the stage and told him how special he’d made the year for everyone at Becker, and how my dad made him (Ted) “miss my daddy.” As well, he ended up becoming friends with my friends, half of whom are gay—an eye-opening experience for an older man (a Republican [when they were reasonable]) and a former marine who fought in the Second World War. He ended up becoming pro-gay, to the point I told him he’ll be sitting atop a float in the West Hollywood Gay Pride Parade. 

 

 

So much happened that, yes heartbreaking but fulfilling, year and a half. (If you’ll indulge me.) He had Thanksgiving dinner at my friend’s house in New Mexico with Shirley MacLaine and Marsha Mason. All of which paled in comparison to the time he was able to spend with his two young grandsons Henry and Joe (6 and 4 respectively). After he bought bunk beds for the spare room of his house, the boys spent most weekends over there, where they woke to the smell of bacon and pancakes wafting in from the kitchen. While he still had strength in his arms and legs, he built the boys a huge fort in the backyard. It sat on of 4×4 stilts, with a ladder leading up to its trapdoor entrance. It had a shingled roof and, after a trip to the junkyard where we picked up some used bucket seats and a steering wheel, it became an intergalactic spaceship. Then one day he called me into his living room and said we had to move or get rid of the furniture. Odd. Then he showed me two huge plywood tables he’d built, that we moved into the living room. After a trip to the miniature train store where he bought slot cars and a few hundred dollars worth of slot car track that was installed on the tables along with artificial grass, mountains made from insulation foam and lakes made from mirrors, his living room had been transformed into a giant race track. The boys were thrilled, and as they raced and mostly blasted the cars into the back wall, I turned to my dad and said, “You never built anything like this for me.” He took his talking computer out and typed: “TOUGH.” 

In August of this year (2019) Wyatt-MacKenzie is publishing my book about that amazing year and a half. It’ll be called Tuesdays with Ted (a tongue-in-cheek salute to Mitch Albom’sTuesdays with Morrie). It was a book I had to write, mostly for my sons. They were too young at the time to really understand what was going on with their dad and grandpa, so I hope this will be something they can refer to for a full perspective. As well, I wrote the book because that year and  a half was the most meaningful of my life. To spend cherished, though limited time, with my dad, to see the generosity and kindness of my friends and co- workers at Becker, Even if I wasn’t in it, I’d think it was an amazing story. 

 

 

Another amazing project you worked on was the classic known as Murphy Brown. You actually worked on the original run of the series, and then came back to it during its reincarnation 20 years after it went off the air. I’m always curious to know what that must be like. So, what was it like to jump back into a world 20 years after you leave it? And with everything that has changed in the world since Murphy Brown went off the air, what was it like to dive back into that world after so much time has passed? 

It was a little surreal. Actually it was almost 30 years ago. I was there the first couple of years of the original run. Could be I was younger then. The amazing part of the show was how the original group of writers all stayed very close over the years. Korby Siamis, Gary Dontzig, Steve Peterman, Norm Gunzenhauser, Tom Seeley, Tom Palmer… we never lost contact with each other and see each other frequently. That made it a wonderful experience and a bonus. It was, as well, fun to see the show originally becoming successful. Candice was a blast to work with, bottom of the barrel sense of humor. Grant Shaud (Miles Silverberg) and I are still close. 

 

Russ Woody & Diane English (1980’s)

 

Going back after all that time was kind of fun, especially since I didn’t have to take it seriously. It was great to sit in that room with those guys. Diane (English) too. I didn’t move back to New York with them though, which, this time, is where they shot the show. Burbank, in the original version. But I did go out there to see one of the filmings and the actors and the rest. Was pretty cool. I’m, not by any stretch, a New York person like a lot of them are. That city always freaked me out. I said to Dontzig that it seemed like there were a lot of people in that city. And I never got the layout of the city. Never could find my way around. So the New Yorkers amongst the writing staff mother-henned me, made sure I understood the difference between “uptown” and “downtown,” never knew there was a difference—opened up a whole new world for me. As long as I stayed on one train that went from uptown to downtown, and vice versa, I was reasonably certain I might see my loved ones again. 

The writing of the new version was fine for me, ‘cause I only had one script to write. Weird though, sitting at a computer writing out those character names. It didn’t really take long to start hearing their voices again (along with all the other voices I hear – hah-hah). 

 

Russ Woody & Dian English (2018)

 

After so many years working in the world of television, and the immense amount of changes that have occurred in this world, I am curious to know what your thoughts are on the current state of television. With so many ways to consume television and so many more opportunities to work within that world, are things better for television? Or is the business becoming oversaturated these days? 

No, I see a wonderful world opening up for those looking to get into the business. The need for material is only going to grow with so many outlets now. Back when we were writing the original Murphy (on stone tablets, hah-hah again), there were only a few sources. The money was pretty good, but the chances of getting in were probably more limited. The current field is expanding now and, though the audiences are getting smaller, the content is getting more interesting. Especially in some of the more innovative cable and streaming networks. The three original networks (my own opinion here) are dinosaurs, stuck still thirty years behind the rest. 

So it’s there. It’ll be there. I taught television writing at USC for a while and told the students, if you want to write sitcoms or dramas, study the craft. Work at it. Learn. ‘Cause it is a craft that takes time to get better at. It’s not magic. And though (I contend) you never really “master” the craft, you do get better at it, you do learn how to put forth a professional script. Lotta newbies make the mistake of thinking, if only they can make the contacts, go to the parties, meet the right people, they’ll do okay. And when they do make those contacts, they hand (say) an agent their work, before they’ve really got a hang of what they’re doing. Then, once the agent has read an unpolished, unprofessional, well let’s just say it, shitty script, they aren’t inclined to read the next thing you write. And they are seldom, if ever, nurturing, understanding, patient people. (I mean, I think they’re people.) So write, learn, get better, then jump in. 

Something we always like to ask our statue holding friends this one particular question: Where do you physically keep your Emmy and Golden Globe today? And does that physical location have any sort of significance?  

They’re on a shelf in my office next to a cigar box with my dad’s ashes in it. (Well, you asked.) Winning that stuff was fun, but I pity the people who take it too seriously (of which I’ve been guilty of). If that’s the thing that validates you, you’re probably gonna be miserable most of the time. I think (think) these days, I’ve learned to appreciate the work itself. If you can get to that point, I feel, you’ve got the system beat, ‘cause you provide your own happiness. You’re not hanging on the opinions of a bunch of disinterested people. (I’m kind of a big talker here – it still stings when someone tells me my script is a piece of shit, words to that effect.) These days, I so look forward to a day without interruptions, just writing. Well, writing and yoga. Okay, writing, yoga and there’s this coffee shop I go to to hang out, to write, to sit around with a bunch of other writers, who are pretty funny. In fact, they’re so funny I frequently don’t get much work done. Which, now that I’m giving it some thought, they really piss me off. 

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

The future? Well, I think once our president finally makes this country great again, everyone is going to be very very happy. All the time. Happy all the time. (That’s a joke, in case your sphincter just slammed shut – not really a Trump fan here.) 

I’ve written a couple of novels and hope to do more. One I’m currently working on is a new type of writing for me. I got intrigued a few years ago by a short funny magazine article about Abraham Lincoln’s (first) vice president: Hannibal Hamlin. He was Lincoln’s second throughout the Civil War, but nobody knows who he was. Anyway, the article explained that he hated the job, had no responsibilities, Lincoln ignored him, Mary Lincoln hated him and he was bored to tears presiding over the senate, casting the tie-breaking vote only once in a blue moon—so he went off and joined the army. While he was sitting vice president. Swear to God. He became a private, was issued a uniform and gun, marched with the other grunts and ended up working in a mess hall kitchen at fort up in Maine. I thought it was hysterical. So I took about 10 or 11 months, just reading, noting, researching him and Lincoln, trying to find an underbelly to the story. Meanwhile the stuff I read about Lincoln was fascinating—he was a funny guy. Wicked sense of humor. And I was (am) fascinated by the small stuff. He hated the name Abe, Mary got pissed at him because he always tried to feed the cats under the dinner table with the nice silverware, when he got tired of listening to some blowhard, he’d start in with a joke that didn’t make sense and, while the blowhard was trying to figure out what the hell the joke meant, Lincoln would wish them a good day and escape. Love stuff like that. Anyway, the story that began to emerge for me was that Hamlin was forever a staunch anti-slavery guy, while Lincoln… not so much. Lincoln didn’t like slavery, to be sure, but ending it wasn’t a priority to him. Yet he has gone down in history as “The Great Emancipator,” while Hamlin is forgotten. That’s the way I’m going with the story. That’s our past, and my future. For now. After that, I’ll probably just write a couple of other things and then die. I don’t have a specific schedule on this particular itinerary, but that’s probably the general path I’ll follow. 

What was the last thing that made you smile? 

The muscles around my mouth. No, sorry about that one (the jokes can’t all be gold). The last thing that made me smile? It’s hard to think about that right now because the dog just 20 seconds ago threw up on the carpet in my office. So now I gotta get up and clean it. And… from the looks of it (the puke), she was eating the artificial plant again… you know how dogs eat grass and such to help their digestive system? Well, that’s what she does, only she’s fooled by plastic foliage. I mean, it’s a level of stupid that’s hard to fathom. Okay, back to the question—smiling? There was something yesterday. Oh, grocery store parking lot, this dick cuts in front of me to get to a parking space but, while he’s at it he ran into another car. It was one of those heartwarming moments that hints at a higher entity, a moment that makes one smile. 

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Russ Woody was kind enough to share some absolutely mesmerizing photos, and a quick video, showcasing the events he previously spoke of in the interview above in regards to his father on the set of Becker. We wanted to you to see all of them. So here you go:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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