Drama In Comedy, and Vice-Versa

A TV writer death of note: Mickey Ross, part of the Nicholl/Ross/West team that ran All in the Family, The Jeffersons and Three’s Company, died Tuesday at the age of 89. Ross and his writing partner Bernie West (who played the dentist/songwriter in Bells Are Ringing) were, like Nicholl, in their 40s when AITF started; Norman Lear believed strongly in hiring “old” (by comedy-writer standards) writers for his shows. But while many of Lear’s shows don’t hold up today, the first five seasons of AITF, which were mostly written and/or produced by Nicholl, Ross and West, hold up extremely well. A lot of writers on the Lear and Lear-style comedies deluded themselves into believing that their work was inherently important because it dealt with big issues; the head writers of Maude, Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf, used to talk about how much more profound their show was than Mary Tyler Moore or The Odd Couple. But almost any AITF script written by Nicholl or Ross and West is a lesson in how to put character and character relationships above everything else, and how the best laughs come from lines that draw on our knowledge of character. Their work on The Jeffersons (which they created) and Three’s Company (which they developed and ran after Larry Gelbart’s original pilot was rejected) wasn’t in the same class, but those were basically joke-based shows, and they wrote for what the shows required.

Their episodes of AITF also, I think, helped go a long way toward showing how TV could break out of the episode-by-episode straitjacket that it had been in. As I’ve said repeatedly and monotonously, most shows in the U.S. were either strictly standalone episodes (outgrowths of the anthology series, which was often considered the ideal form of series television) or soap operas (which were viewed as a lower form, in part because they were serialized). All in the Family wasn’t a soap, and it wasn’t a limited-run series like the British show it was based on, and it wasn’t really serialized — but the characters grew, and they changed, and they found out things about each other, and the writers didn’t just forget about everything that had ever happened between these characters in the previous episodes. When Lionel Jefferson (in a script by Ross and West) confronts Archie about his bigotry, talks about how his attitude to Archie has changed over the years, and finally addresses Archie by his first name for the first time in the series, it’s a memorable moment that could not exist if these characters did not have a past. In this we see that AITF, along with Mary Tyler Moore and its evolving relationships, wasn’t just the ancestor of the modern sitcom, but perhaps even more of the modern TV drama.


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