Okay people, I know we have a said this before, but we really have a good one for you all today. Today, we have an absolute legend feature here on these humble digital pages. Today we have some words from a man who has behind some of the greatest comedic gifts ever given to the world. Today we are featuring the amazing comedian and comedy writer Steve Skrovan.
Steve Skrovan is a guy who obviously knows what the hell it means to be funny. He has written for some of the greatest sitcoms of all time. Notably, you will definitely know (or read about for the first time in this article, maybe? Not sure that’s possible) shows he has worked on like Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond. But, there is so much more to this man than you can even begin to comprehend. Personally, I knew why I wanted to talk to this cat. Obviously he has worked on some of the finest shows that we all know and love, but he also worked on one of my favorite sitcoms that just didn’t quite make it, War At Home. The idea that he was working on this show alone is what drew me to his work in itself.
And as we always hope, he is an amazingly charismatic dude who was so kind to actually take some time and answer our questions honestly and with so damn much class. I seriously can not say enough good shit about this guy. So how about I stop rambling on, and let you get into the actual words from this genius. Ladies and Gentlemen, please enjoy this amazing interview with the legend in his own right, Steve Skrovan!
When did you initially get drawn to the world of comedy? What were some of your earliest influences?
After college, I was living at home in the small town I grew up outside of Cleveland, not knowing what I wanted to do with my life, hanging out in my parent’s basement. I had been a football player and an English major at Yale. I wasn’t good enough to go pro and had no interest in graduate school or working in a “real” job. I had moved through my school years pretty easily, but now for the first time in my life felt lost, not knowing what the next move was. I had some notion about being a writer of some sort but had no idea how one went about that. Almost a year after I graduated I came upon an ad in the Cleveland paper advertising “The Cleveland Comedy Club.” I had never heard of such a thing. This was in the first months of 1980 when downtown Cleveland looked post-apocalyptic. There was not much down there but some dingy strip clubs and this old Greek restaurant that these four young guys had turned into a comedy club. I started going down there as a patron and seeing guys (mostly guys) around my age, (Bob Saget, Jimmy Alleck) even some a little younger (Dave Coulier, Mike Binder) doing stand-up. I was enthralled. Loved it. Was a great laugher. Then I noticed they had an amateur night on Sundays, so I signed up. The idea was to bring a bunch of your friends, because the winner of the fifty-dollar prize was voted on by the audience. I wrote some material, brought a handful of friends and was terrible. But everyone else was worse, so I won the fifty bucks. More importantly, I caught the bug. Couldn’t stop thinking about jokes and what might be funny. I came back two weeks later. Did much better. But some other guy brought more people, so he won the fifty bucks. After that second time, though, one of the owners of the club, Dino Vince, offered me a job as an emcee, Wednesday through Sunday for thirty-five dollars. I took it. Just loved the whole creative process, the audiences, the atmosphere, the collegiality, the way comedians observed and interpreted the world. It turned out to be the very embryonic phase of what became known as the Comedy Boom of the ‘80s. After six months, I moved to New York City, where my girlfriend (now my wife) was living to pursue it as a full-time career. Where the Cleveland Comedy Club formerly stood is now second base at Progressive Field where the Indians play.
Only in retrospect did becoming a comedian make any sense. Because when I look back on my childhood, a lot of my most enduring memories had to do with entertaining people, whether it was putting together a funny story using that week’s spelling words in fifth grade and reading it in front of the class, or singing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” in the living room for my aunts and uncles, or even being an altar boy lector when it was my classes’ turn to do the Stations of the Cross. Growing up in what was essentially farm country in the Midwest, I had no idea people could actually do this for a living. And up until just recently, when someone would ask me about my influences, I would name the usual suspects, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby. But when I really think about it, I have to say my biggest comedy influence was my dad, Clarence Skrovan. He was a businessman – a salesman and a plant manager – very outgoing guy, good with people, not afraid to speak in front of a crowd. And he was always asked to emcee the church’s fall fundraiser or the local town festival. I watched him up on stage doing that. I memorized jokes from the joke books he would buy in preparation for those events. I absorbed how he told stories at neighborhood picnics. He had a booming voice and a hearty laugh. So, after all these years, it finally occurred to me that all this time I’ve been doing my dad.
You were a program consultant during the prime times of Seinfeld, back in the early 90’s, which was a show that definitely changed the way we watch television today. So, what were those early days like? Were you aware that you were molding the future? And most importantly, were you have a good time?
I had known Larry David from comedy days in New York. Before season 4 (the year they did the show about the show), he offered me and three other comics he knew from that time, Jon Hayman, Bob Shaw and Bill Masters a job. Our job was not to write scripts per se, but to be a “think tank” for Larry, come up with premises that he could turn into scripts. I have to say, I wasn’t so much a writer on that show as someone who was auditing a master class. Most of my contributions were by mistake, saying something dumb in the writer’s room like mispronouncing the word “Svengali” and finding that Larry had put it into a script. Or one time, Bill Masters and I were pitching to Larry at his house, because he had taken ill. In the middle of our pitch, he excused himself to go to the bathroom. Bill and I turn to each other, thinking that it’s going pretty well until we hear Larry very loudly throwing up in the toilet for what seemed like fucking forever. When he comes out of the bathroom, he says, “I don’t know about your story, but this scene is pretty funny.” And sure enough our idea never saw the light of day, but that vomit scene made it into the episode where George and Jerry are pitching their pilot to the NBC exec played by Bob Balaban. So, I can take absolutely no credit for “molding the future” of TV comedy then or any other time. I was more of an accidental tourist, a spectator to a very exciting time when the show went from cult hit to top ten “Must See TV.” The only thing I will take credit for is blurting out “Mulva,” when we were pitching on potential names that rhymed with a female body part. I have Larry to thank for giving me my first writing job and teaching me so much in that season I spent on Seinfeld.
As a viewer, the reasons behind the great success of Everybody Loves Raymond are very obvious. It was basically the perfect sitcom. But, as a man on the inside, who was there for the whole damn run, what is it that you believed made this show such an amazing success? Basically, what were some things that the common viewer may not have realized that were making this show so great?
Phil Rosenthal, another writing mentor, albeit younger than me, was a television savant. And he always insisted that the episodes “be about something.” He always wanted to do a show like his favorites, The Dick Van Dyck Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family. Like those shows, every episode we did was based on some real story or actual relationship issue that had occurred in the life of the writer. In fact, during the run of the show and for sometime afterwards, we would get booked to do “Inside The Writer’s Room” panels. We would sit on stage in front of an audience, pick an episode, tell the audience the story of the real event or conflict that inspired the episode, then show a clip of the show. The greatest compliment we could get was when someone would say, “You must have had a camera in our house. That exact thing happened to us.” That’s why the show always rang so true. That, and the fact that we were too lazy to make shit up.
Watching your amazing doc, An Unreasonable Man, about Ralph Nader, feels like more of an experience to be had rather than just a film, especially in these new trying times. How did the idea for this film come about? What drew you to create a film about Mr. Nader?
It started as a sitcom idea. My friend, Henriette Mantel, a comedienne from ‘80s New York comedy days had worked for Ralph as an office manager in the late ‘70s early ‘80s. In the bar at Catch a Rising Star she would tell me stories about working for Ralph. I told her at the time that maybe there was a show in that, a public interest office where anyone could come in and start a story. I wasn’t even a writer back then, still just performing. Flash forward fifteen years later, I’m in the middle of the Raymond run and have a development deal. They don’t like the first idea I pitch, and I don’t want to tell them I don’t have a second idea. A couple of weeks later, I happen to run into Hen, who I hadn’t seen in years. By this time, most of my New York comedian friends had migrated to LA. That’s one of the pleasantly quirky things about this career. One by one, most of your friends end up moving across the country with you. I asked her if she had ever done anything with her Ralph experience, and she started telling me more stories and introducing me to people she knew from that time, who would also try to relate the funny human stories about working for Ralph. In the meantime, I started reading about him. I had been aware of him growing up but really didn’t know much about his history. I had voted for Al Gore in 2000. Ralph was nowhere on my radar. The more I read, though, the more I was amazed at all he had accomplished and intrigued by the fact that everyone was now so mad at him. This is three years after that 2000 election. I thought that was an interesting arc. How does someone go from folk hero to pariah? This is one of the most influential men in American history and no one has really told this story. Here I was with access to him through Henriette. He trusted her. So, I put the sitcom in my pocket, and we set out to make a documentary, which of course I had no idea how to do. Less than three years after that encounter with Henriette, we were at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was then shortlisted for Academy Award consideration, given a nationwide theatrical release, shown on PBS’ Independent Lens and is still available as a two-disc DVD and for streaming. Completely changed my life in terms of how I view history and the current political landscape. And now every week, I co-host a radio/show podcast with Ralph called “The Ralph Nader Radio Hour.” Every week for the past three years, I get to talk to this living legend about what is going on in the world. Turns out I went to graduate school after all. Nothing ever happened with the sitcom idea, but my favorite part of the movie is still the part in the middle when we take a break from all of the issue oriented stuff and interview the people who tell the funny, human stories about what it was like to work for Ralph.
I absolutely adored the far too short run of The War At Home. It was downright hilarious in my opinion. Can you tell us what your role was in this now cult classic program? And did you enjoy your time working on it?
I did enjoy my time on that show and really liked the other writers. It was a short time, though. I came on in the second season and was about to be let go after thirteen episodes when Brad Garret called me to come over to the new show he was doing called Til Death. Fortunately, I didn’t lose a day of work and actually got a bit of a raise, so it all worked out. That’s one of the things that most people don’t realize. Even someone who has had a relatively “successful” career as I have been fortunate enough to have is not immune to being fired. That’s the fate of many “successful” writers. Most of us are either getting fired or our shows are getting cancelled. They say that the business is 99% rejection. But even when you’re successful, it’s still about 90% rejection. You’re getting fired. You’re getting cancelled. No one buys your script. Or if they do buy your script, they don’t make it a pilot. Or if they do make it a pilot, they don’t pick it up to series. To thrive in this business you not only have to accept that, a big part of you has to be excited about living on that edge, that edge of possibility that more than likely results in failure.
In your personal opinion, what would you say is the ultimate highlight of your job? What is it about your work that truly makes you feel wonderful?
I think it all comes down to laughing. That’s the basic unit of measurement. Either making someone else laugh or someone making you laugh. So, if you’re lucky, your day is punctuated by lot of those little highlights.
I have had and expressed my opinions that stand up comedians and comedy writers are the true philosophers of our current times. I have theories, but I am just coming from the side of a fan. So in your professional opinion, why do you think it is that people take the wisdom of funny people to heart?
I think the ability to make people laugh is a very powerful skill. Because, a laugh in a lot of ways is a mating call. It is a point of crystallization, a clear moment of understanding. You can’t laugh if you are confused, if what is being said is unclear or out of rhythm. I have met some powerful people in my life, politicians, presidents of universities, captains of industry and they are fascinated by what I do. They all want to be able to do it. What could be more heady than walking into a room full of strangers and demanding their attention in a situation where you do all (or most) of the talking? You are conducting this orchestra of laughter. And each wave of laughter is telling you that they “get it.” They understand what you are saying. You are getting through to them. That’s a super power.
Not all funny people are wise. And we aren’t all philosophers. The good ones are good at boiling things down to their essence and putting it in terms you understand. That doesn’t always make for good philosophy, which is often more complex and ambiguous than can be communicated in a joke or even an hour long routine. If we are good at anything, we should be good at saying the things that you dare only think and in so doing remind you that you are not alone.
One question we have to ask any of our interviewees who happen to have some shiny things in their resume is this….Where do you keep your Emmys? And does their place have any significant meaning?
My Emmys are on a shelf in my office at home, which used to be my daughter’s bedroom. They sit near pictures of my mom and dad, who without their love and support, I wouldn’t be where I am in life.
So, what does the future hold for you good Sir? Anything you would like to promote here?
In the spirit of my eclectic career (some might say “checkered”) I would encourage you (especially if you have kids) to watch the Nickelodeon show I write for now called School of Rock. And also listen to “The Ralph Nader Radio Hour,” which you can download on iTunes, Stitcher or anywhere fine podcasts are given away for free. Or go to ralphnaderradiohour.com.
What was the last thing that made you smile?
Just now after reflecting on my career and then looking up at my Emmys when you asked that question and seeing the pictures of my mom and dad, Toni and Clarence.