I guess Penny Marshall’s passing brought this to mind....
Back in the 70’s, I knew an excellent writer named Michael L (protecting his privacy.) Among other working arrangements, Michael and I collaborated on episodes of Best of the West. Plus, we were friends.
Earlier in his career, Michael had been teamed with another writer. Together, among other credits, they wrote episodes for The Odd Couple and Happy Days. I imagine that’s how Michael knew Penny Marshall, who participated in both of those shows.
I shall get to her in a minute. But first, I want to write about this.
After lunching together, Michael and I would take post-prandial strolls…. wait, I gotta check if that’s right……………….. yes it is. “Post prandial” – “After dinner or lunch.” (Sometimes I just guess about those things and I hope I’m correct. If I’m wrong, it’s a tough call whether to leave them in anyway, ‘cause I just like the word.)
Anyway, before returning to work, Michael and I would walk the Paramount lot, where, since I was newer to that hallowed locale than he was – and he knew I liked westerns – Michael introduced me to the studio’s “Gun Shop”, where I luxuriated in the arsenal of (fake) six-guns and Winchesters.
Sorry, I just felt like reliving that experience, and the best way to do so is to write about it. Thank you for indulging me. I shall now go back to what I was talking about.
After our stop at the “Gun Shop” we continued over to the other side of the lot. It was there that we ran into Penny Marshall, lunching outside the Laverne and Shirley soundstage, where she relaxed casually on the grass. She seemed happy to see Michael, who immediately included me in the encounter.
At that time, Michael and I were regular scriptwriters on Taxi. Penny, of course, co-starred prominently on Laverne and Shirley.
I got the sense from that meeting that Penny Marshall was not happy. That might have just been her face. Or her natural offstage demeanor. I don’t know. But it appeared that the morose message she was transmitting was,
“My show is not good.”
And, by implication,
Our show – meaning the show Michael and I worked on, Taxi – was better.
I thought Taxi was better too.
Which made me a snob.
And, of course, also made Penny Marshall a snob.
(To be honest, I had no idea what Michael was feeling, though, knowing Michael, I believe he felt you do the best you can at whatever you do. Which made me feel even worse about being a snob.)
Now think about this. In many ways, the two shows we were affiliated with – Laverne and Shirley and Taxi – were polar opposites, filmed, symbolically if not deliberately, on opposite sides of the studio backlot. Though that is not where the distinction ended.
I am not making this up. Writers passing the Taxi production offices, you could feel the respectful “awe” wafting up through the windows. We were – or at least we were treated – like we were the “Harvard of Sitcoms.” By direct contrast, Laverne and Shirley – I’m not talking about snobs now, but the writers affiliated with that show – was seen as “Remedial High School.”
The thing is,
By the available standards of measurement – ratings, tent-pole scheduling (wherein a show makes the shows around it more popular), series longevity – Laverne and Shirley was substantially more successful than Taxi.
So what do we – that “we” apparently including Penny Marshall – mean when we believe Taxi was “better”?
My public position was that Taxi was just more “to my style.” (Which, snob that I was, I truly imagined to be “better”.) Accompanying descriptives – like “smarter” – would reflect that personal prejudice, so I won’t use any. Nor would I be totally accurate if I did. A skillfully executed “broad” comedy can be liberatingly satisfying. I recall laughing my head off at Laverne, desperately swinging from something.
So, by commercial standards, Laverne and Shirley kicked Taxi’s elevated butt. By standards of quality? Comedic “apples and oranges.”
And yet, there’s Penny Marshall and me, thinking Taxi was innately superior, simultaneously making Penny Marshall feel worse and Earl Pomerantz feel better.
That’s weird, isn’t it.
And yet, that is exactly the way it was.