‘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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.”
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
“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