"One of the amazing things about writing, is that you know in comedy that it works if they laugh. It keeps everybody honest in comedy and it's why people develop strange personalities. It's just a brutal fact that if they don't laugh, you die; if they laugh, you live."
About This Interview
In his five-and-a-half-hour Archive interview, James L. Brooks recalls his early days as a page at CBS - working his way up to the newsroom - and speaks about his transition from researching documentaries to writing comedy. He tells of writing scripts for Hey Landlord, The Andy Griffith Show and My Three Sons before co-creating (with Gene Reynolds) Room 222. Brooks describes being teamed with Allan Burns to create and produce The Mary Tyler Moore Show and discusses his work on the program's spin-off series: Rhoda, Phyllis and Lou Grant. He recounts his work after he left MTM - producing Taxi, The Associates, and The Tracey Ullman Show, as well as several feature films including the Oscar-winning "Terms of Endearment." Brooks also talks about the craft of writing and producing for television and his continuing work as executive producer on The Simpsons. Karen Herman conducted the two-part interview on January 17 and February 12, 2003 in Bel-Air, CA.
James L. Brooks is one of television's most outstanding and successful writer-producers. He is also one of the few who have become highly successful screenwriters and directors of feature films. His work in both media has been recognized with numerous awards from peers and critics, and both television programs and films have been acclaimed by audiences.
Brooks career in television began, however, in a very different arena. He was a writer for CBS News in New York from 1964 to 1966. In 1966 he moved to Los Angeles and became a writer and producer of documentaries for David Wolper at Wolper Productions. By 1968, however, Brooks and his partner, Allan Burns, had created the hit television show, Room 222, where they served as executive story editors. This program broke new ground for television by focusing on the career of a black high school teacher, Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haynes). The show tackled tough issues such as drug use and racial conflict in a concerned, humane manner and won an Emmy as Outstanding New Series in 1969.
Much of the same style and tone carried over into Brooks and Burns next success, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. At MTM Productions Brooks and Burns were among the first members of a large group of extremely talented individuals, all working in a creatively charged atmosphere established by executive producer Grant Tinker. Tinker's philosophy was to acquire the services of creative individuals and then assist them in every way possible to become even more productive. Brooks and Burns thrived under the system, working first on The MTM Show, then creating or co-creating, Rhoda, Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers, Taxi, The Associates, and Lou Grant. On the basis of these successes the team of Brooks and Burns became known as members of a new group of Hollywood television producers, often referred to as the auteur producers. They were the creative force behind their shows, imparting a recognizable, distinctive style and tone. Indeed, programs created at MTM Productions have been referred to as the defining examples of "quality television."
The programs were noted not only for their wit and quick jokes, but for establishing a focus on character. Most were built around groups of characters related by circumstance or profession rather than by family relations. They were quickly recognized by critics as something different from the earlier forms of television comedy focused either on zany "situations" or on domestic settings. These new programs were among the first and strongest of the "ensemble comedies" that were to dominate television for decades to come. Human frailty and the comfort of friends, professional limitations and the joy of co-workers, a readiness to take one's self too seriously at times, matched by a willingness to puncture excessive ego--all these are hallmarks of the Brooks style of ensemble comedy. While social issues might come to the foreground in any given episode, they were always subordinate to the comedy of human manners, to character. In this way, the MTM shows were distinguished from the more overtly issue-oriented style of Norman Lear. This focus on character and ensemble has been passed down through professional and industrial relationships into the work of other producer-writers in shows as diverse as ER and Hill Street Blues, and programs such as Cheers, Murphy Brown or Seinfeld are clear descendants of the work of Brooks and his various partners.
In 1978 Brooks began to shift his work toward feature films. He worked as writer and co-producer on the film Starting Over and in 1983 he wrote, produced, and directed Terms of Endearment, a highly successful film in terms of both box office and critical response.
In 1984 Brooks founded Gracie Films, his own production company, to oversee work on film and television projects. To date, the best known television programs developed at Gracie Films have been The Tracey Ullman Show and its immensely popular spin-off, The Simpsons. With some degree of irony, given Brooks' career, these two shows are marvelously skewed views of television comedy. The Tracey Ullman Show was replete with send-ups of American TV "types," the housewife-mother, the bored "pink collar" worker, the prime-time vamp. And The Simpsons, using all the cartoon techniques at its disposal, pokes fun at, and holes in, the idealized version of domestic comedy that has long been a television staple. While Brooks' involvement with these shows remains primarily at the level of executive producer, the style and attitude he developed throughout his years in television comedy is clearly at work. In some ways he might be said to have inherited the mantle of Grant Tinker, discovering new talent, making a space for creative individuals, and changing the face of television in the process.
JAMES L. BROOKS. Born in Brooklyn, New York, U.S. 9 May 1940. Attended New York University, New York City, 1958-60. Married (1) Marianne Katherine Morrissey, July 7, 1964 (divorced), children: Amy Lorriane; (2) Holly Beth Holmberg. Began career at CBS television Sports division. Moved to Los Angeles 1966 to work as writer-producer for David Wolper Productions. Began television career as co-creator, with Alan Burns, of Room 222; writer-producer for MTM Productions where he participated with outstanding writing producing teams in creating The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, Lou Grant, and other series; co-creator of TAXI and The Associates. Founded own production company, Gracie Films, 1984. Film writer, producer and director of Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, Big, and others. Recipient: Emmy Awards; Golden Globe Awards; George Foster Peabody Awards; Humanitas Awards; Director's Guild Awards; Writers Guild of America Awards.
1966-67 David Wolper Productions 1968-69 Room 222 1970-77 Mary Tyler Moore Show 1974 Paul Sands in Friends and Lovers 1974-75 Rhoda 1976 The New Lorenzo Music Show 1977-82 Lou Grant 1978-83 Taxi 1978 Cindy 1979 The Associates 1986-90 The Tracy Ullman Show 1990-- The Simpsons 1994-- The Critic
1974 Thursday's Game (Writer-Producer)
Starting Over (writer, producer), 1979; Modern Romance (actor), 1981; Terms of Endearment(director, writer, producer), 1983; Broadcast News (director, writer, producer), 1987; Big (producer), 1988; The War of the Roses (producer), 1989; Say Anything... (executive producer), 1989; I'll Do Anything (director, writer), 1994; Bottle Rocket (executive producer), 1996.