Summer 2010: Features
Here’s Pie in Your Sy
A Hollywood pitchman’s delectable decades
By Susan Carini 04G
In the annals of failed television pilots, this one’s a classic. Its cocreator, Sy Rosen 69C, says, “It starred Rodney Dangerfield, who was supposed to come down in a bubble and give advice to a kid. Contractually, Dangerfield could be in each episode only for a minute and a half, so he was always clutching a stopwatch. It was bizarre and terrible.”
Had Where’s Rodney? occurred earlier in Rosen’s career, it coulda been curtains. But by 1990, Rosen was a decorated television writer.
He has written for some of the most beloved programs of the small screen: The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, Rhoda, M*A*S*H, Maude, Sanford, The Wonder Years, Northern Exposure, and Frasier. Rosen also produced The Jeffersons, Sanford, and the MTV series 2Gether; co-executive-produced The Wonder Years; executive-produced Sister/Sister; cocreated Gimme a Break; and created Spencer and The Robert Guillaume Show.
The ‘sylent’ phase
A student at Emory during the tumultuous Vietnam years, Rosen recalls a largely conservative, pro-war student body. He and a minority of students opposed the war. “Our big protest was standing silently in front of the cafeteria for an hour a week,” he says. “I did that to hopefully meet girls. Since you had to be silent, I didn’t meet anyone.”
A psychology major and English minor, Rosen felt his writing get traction in the class of creative writing professor Benedict Kiely. Born in Ireland, Kiely moved to the United States in 1964 and became writer-in-residence at Emory. Says Rosen, “Kiely was a great storyteller and had a bawdy sense of humor. He wrote beautifully and poetically. I wrote simply and breezily, but for some reason he really liked my stuff and encouraged me.”
Winning a short story contest in Emory Magazine didn’t hurt the young scribe’s prospects, though. Rosen received $25 for the honor, which—with a writer’s bad math—he believes equates to “about six billion dollars today.” Rosen confesses that he has used the personalities of Emory people in his subsequent work. (Eyes peeled, Emory watchers.)
Foot in door
After Emory, Rosen became a social worker for the Department of Rehabilitation in Miami. Every few years, he would rehabilitate his own fledgling career—at one point becoming a personnel manager for General Electric. “I was terrible at it,” says Rosen. “My job was to discharge people who were not doing well. I didn’t let anyone go.” Rosen let himself go—back to social work for a time. By this time, he was working as head of the counseling department for Goodwill in San Jose.
On Saturday nights, he and his wife—a social worker turned psychologist—enjoyed the rich fare of 1970s television: The Bob Newhart Show, Mary Tyler Moore, All in the Family, and M*A*S*H. Amid career stops and starts, Rosen would write short stories and squirrel them away, but not before showing them to his wife, who liked what she saw. Both Rosen and his wife felt an affinity for Newhart, in which Bob Newhart played a psychologist.
Rosen took the ambitious step of creating a script for the show—this one a vehicle for Bob’s secretary, Carol. In “Guaranteed Not to Shrink,” Carol enrolls in school to become a psychologist, in the process wreaking havoc on Bob’s practice by interviewing stunned patients as they arrive for appointments.
Rosen also sneaked onto the set posing as a deliveryman to make sure that the script got to its final destination. According to Classic Sitcoms.com, “Story editors Gordon and Lynne Farr received this script from a hopeful writer who was then working at a California Goodwill store. We liked it so much, we actually bought it—which was almost never done,” recalls Lynne. “And then we invited him to sit in on the rewrite, which was also never done. Afterward, we told him we needed another story editor for the next season. . . . His jaw nearly hit the floor, he was so excited.”
Whole body through door
“Guaranteed Not to Shrink” is a high-water mark of sitcom humor, penning another hilarious chapter in marital politics. (See an excerpt.)
The air date was January 24, 1976. Since then, the years have zipped by—like a joke told too fast. The memories and stars Rosen has known personally are highlights of TV history: Dick Martin and Don Rickles hanging around the set of The Bob Newhart Show. Working with child-actor Fred Savage on The Wonder Years and watching him grow up to become a director. And the awards have racked up: The Bob Newhart Show, Frasier, and The Wonder Years all have been nominated for series Emmys. The Bob Newhart Show and The Wonder Years—framing the beginning and later stages of Rosen’s career—have been his favorites.
Mark Wilding is a fellow writer and executive producer for Grey’s Anatomy. He and Rosen met on the set of Working, which starred Fred Savage. “Sy is one of the wittiest people you’ll ever meet—and that’s in a town of already very witty people,” Wilding says. “He always has great ideas and is willing to help less-experienced writers.”
Queried about his extensive experience with producing and executive producing, Rosen says that “editing and giving the director’s notes is easy in sitcoms.” He talks about luck. But he’s onto something when he says, “The better writers move up.”
Kriss Turner first encountered Rosen when she handed him a spec script for The Larry Sanders Show. In response, he hired her as a staff writer for Sister/Sister. Says Turner, “Sy had to completely rewrite the first Sister/Sister script I wrote, but he gave me my break, taught me you can be successful as well as kind, and is the reason my student loans are paid.” Since then, Turner has gone on to produce several TV shows, including Cosby, The Bernie Mac Show, and Everybody Hates Chris as well as writing the film Something New.
Don’t call him ‘the dean’ or ‘the vet’
Age bias exists for comedy writers, thinly veiled in terms such as “the dean” or “the vet.” As Rosen reveals in the essay “My First Senior Discount”: “[I] was told a month ago by the executive producer of a TV show that [the] . . . people above him wanted someone younger.”
In response, Rosen expanded his platform—writing plays along with magazine and newspaper articles. He finds playwriting “exhilarating and scary; it reflects your own personality and ideas much more than writing for TV.” Four plays have been produced in Los Angeles; one, The Miracle Group, is being performed around the country. In the past year, he has written and directed two short films, Devastated by Love (coauthored with his daughter Katie) and Jackie in Love. He and Katie also wrote a vampire film. “If it gets made,” Rosen promises, “we will have someone killed in an Emory sweatshirt.”
Daughter Katie, who is an established magazine and newspaper writer, calls her dad “amazingly quick and ridiculously funny. As a little kid, you never see your parents that way. Now, I don’t know how I could have ever missed it. As a writer, I am definitely benefiting from his guidance.”
Regrets? Like Sinatra, Rosen has had a few. One is never contributing to Seinfeld. He once got the opportunity to pitch for work on it. The conversation began with a lesser deity from the show; then Larry David—the show’s cocreator and producer—got on the phone. “Whatta ya got?” David demanded. Says Rosen, “I couldn’t get anything out. I told him that I would call him back, but never did.”
A life this rich deserves a book. When asked, Rosen deadpans: “It’s a lot of words, isn’t it? If I could write a short one, a novelty book, with pictures . . .”
Badda bing, badda boom.