Everybody loves Ellen

From Ray Romano to Tel Aviv, US television comedy writer Ellen Sandler finds a lot to laugh about.

June 29, 2013 21:59
4 minute read.
Ellen Sandler

Ellen Sandler 370. (photo credit: courtesy PR)

‘If I wrote an autobiography, it would be called, ‘The Only Girl at the Table,’” says Ellen Sandler, a veteran US television comedy writer who has written for such shows as Everybody Loves Raymond and Taxi.

Sandler is in Israel to teach at the 2013 Television Writers Summit in Tel Aviv which runs from June 30 to July 2, and is sponsored by the Producers Association for Film and Television in Israel.

Back then, when she was starting out, Sandler recalls, “They’d say to my face, ‘Girls aren’t funny!’ It was a boys’ club, not a democracy.” But she learned to ignore the taunts. “The head writer was the king and you were there to support him,” she notes philosophically. But if she could answer those guys now, she says she would say, “Women are not funny? What about Elaine May and Tina Fey and everyone in between!” Sandler will teach alongside the summit’s other guests: Chad Gervich, a writer and producer of such series as After Lately; Troy Devolld, a writer/producer for many shows, including Basketball Wives; and Jen Grisanti, an executive who worked closely with Aaron Spelling on such shows as Melrose Place and 90210.

Sandler, who is excited to be visiting Israel for the first time, and says, “I’m so Jewish,” teaches often and has been called, “the Dalai Lama of TV writing,” is the author of The TV Writer’s Workbook. Asked how she got the Dalai Lama title, she says, “That happens when you know the writer of the article and he’s very nice and very clever.”

Sandler, a native of Sioux City, Iowa, where “there was enough a Jewish community so that there was one shul we didn’t go to,” fell in love with theater when she saw a touring company perform Two for the Seesaw as a child. After college, “I couldn’t wait to get myself to New York and get into theater.” She wrote plays and did all kinds of work in stage plays – “Meaning I wasn’t getting paid much” – and then a young actress named Rhea Perlman was cast in a play Sandler had written. Perlman appeared occasionally on the television series, Taxi, and her husband, Danny DeVito, was a regular on that show, which remains one of the wittiest and best written comedies ever.

“Danny brought everyone to see the play,” Sandler says. This included James L. Brooks, one of the producers of Taxi, who also created The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Simpsons and directed the movies Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News.

“Jim is kind of a comedy genius. He liked to find new talent, he liked fresh voices. Once he says you’re going to be a comedy writer, you do it.”

She wrote a two-part episode of Taxi and was on her way. “I started learning the ropes of the film and television business, and I got other job offers.”

Sandler had studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute, but found herself writing mainly for television.

“It was sort of a golden age for comedy series. They were coming into their own, there were lots of comedies on the air, with big staffs. Television hadn’t been cannibalized by cable yet, they were still spending money on shows. Now, no one watches shows when they first air, but then, there was no other way to see them. It was called, ‘appointment TV,’” meaning people actually planned their evenings around watching their favorite shows.

She learned the business, writing for shows and creating pilots, and developed her skill at keeping quiet when the comedy talent of her gender were disparaged.

“Comedy is usually focused on males, although that’s changed in the last 10 years, with shows like 30 Rock. But when I started, the showrunners [the series’ creators] were exclusively men. In the writing room, everybody can pitch ideas, though. You do your job. You are not there to change the system.

You are there to support the system.”

Sandler wrote for Everybody Loves Raymond for three years and was an executive producer as well, eventually leaving to do a pilot of her own. But she enjoyed collaborating with Ray Romano, the series star and creator, very much.

“Ray was a very active and involved producer on the show. He was very smart and understands what makes a story work and that he as the star looks better if the entire show is working. He would go over every page of every script and he was never a prima donna.”

Sandler downplays the pressure of working on a hit network series. “As a staff writer on the show, I’m not carrying the burden. I didn’t deal directly with the studio.”

She was also not daunted by writing for millions of people. “You don’t think about millions of viewers. You just think about coming up with the next story. There is a big time crunch each week, to get out the weekly product.” She did feel anxiety about “waiting for the show to get picked up for the next season. And the show may be picked up, but you may not.”

Sandler, whose father was “a retail jeweler for the farmers” of Sioux City, says she is eager to meet her Israeli students, and will then spend some time touring Israel with her son.

“I like to go all over and eat in local restaurants that are really good, even if they’re kind of scruffy,” she says. Maybe the Holy Land will give her an idea for a new series? She laughs, saying, “I’m really going to teach and be a tourist,” but she won’t rule it out.

For more information on the summit, go to the www.tvwriterssummit.co.il

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