Neil Simon once said the best comedy comes from pain and veteran television writer, Russ Woody, proves there might be something to Simon’s theory. Woody has used his painful beginnings to create a successful career in television writing. He has won an Emmy for his work as a writer/producer on Murphy Brown and a Golden Globe for his work as a writer/producer on Cybil. He has also written for TV shows like Bosom Buddies, Benson, Hillstreet Blues, and Slap Maxwell. Presently, he’s the co-executive producer for the CBS sitcom, Becker.
When Woody sat down to talk about his TV writing career, it soon became less of an interview and more like a relaxed therapy session. After ten minutes, he was lying back on the couch and talking about his mother, his “pretty miserable childhood,” and his short-lived life as a stand-up comedian.
“My mother was a very bitter and horrible person,” Woody said. “The way I dealt with it was just taking shots at her all the time — to my friends.” And so a comedian was born. Woody learned how to take the anger from his troubled relationship with his mother and transform it into something that would make people laugh.
“I think a lot of comedy comes from anger, especially with stand-up comics. When you’re impacted by things you have to lash out in one way or another,” Woody said. “Some people get a rifle and go to a bell tower and others make jokes.”
Woody wasn’t exactly the violent type so he chose the path of the wise-cracking prankster instead. His comedic talent led him to try stand-up when he was getting his Bachelor’s degree at California State University, at Chico. Woody discovered how stand-up was also a wonderful way to learn how to write comedy.
“If you write a joke, go up on-stage, perform it and if it bombs you’re just hanging out there to dry,” he said. “It’s sort of a trial by fire way to learn. Learning how to write from that had a big impact.”
Woody soon realized doing stand-up alone wouldn’t make the pain disappear as much as he would have liked. This became clear to him when he began to experience debilitating bouts of depression. “In those days I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “And obviously I didn’t take medication. Life at times was really miserable, really not worth living.”
After going through the throws of his last “really true deep clinical depression” he was treated. “When I finally did treat the depression with medication everything was a lot easier,” he said. The medication then made it possible for Woody to move beyond his depression and put one hundred percent into his writing.
Some people would say to make it in Hollywood a TV writer needs a really thick skin. But Woody disagrees. Obviously not being thick-skinned himself, he began to focus on the actual writing process as a way to ground himself emotionally.
“I take care and pride in the actual words that are on the page,” Woody explained. “I think where (TV) writers sometimes make a mistake is they concentrate on the status instead of the work. My goals aren’t quite the same as a lot of people. I only cared about being a writer. If I write a script and three or four people that I really respect looked at it and said this is good — those are my high points.”
Keeping emotionally grounded is very important for a TV writer, especially for a sitcom writer, whose life can be very unstable. “Every situation you go into, you have no idea if it’s going to be a hit or a piece of crap,” he said. “(You don’t know) if you’re going to be able to write it, of if you’re going to be able to get along with whomever, or if the star’s going to go crazy on you. There’s a zillion variables in TV writing.”
With only five days to put together a sitcom script, a lot of things can go wrong. One of the biggest problems are the jokes might have appeared funny on the page but then bombed after they were actually read aloud by the actors. “Actors trip over their lines and sometimes they trip over their lines because the lines aren’t good or they just don’t fit their mouth the right way,” Woody said. “So it’s back and forth all week between the writers and the actors trying to get a script to some semblance of quality.”
Woody explained further, “The network people all have their input, and the studio people all have their input and if it’s a star with a lot of power, they have a lot of input. You have a number of sources telling you what to write and what the show should be and it’s really rough to transform all of that into some sort of intelligible piece of work.”
Dealing with a powerful star can create its very own set of problems for the writer. Woody experienced this kind of star power on Cybil. According to Woody, this star definitely had control issues. “There were a lot of points the star wanted to make and it’s the writer’s job to execute those points,” Woody said. “But usually the writer feels like executing themselves by the time he tries to put it all into words.”
Neil Simon once said the most honest comedy comes from personal experience. Woody again proves one of Simon’s theories by taking his personal experiences and translating them into something audiences laugh at nightly in their homes, the sitcom.