How The Golden Girls creator Susan Harris changed TV comedy forever — and why she doesn’t watch it now

October 15, 2018 at 06:00 PM EDT
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For more than 20 years, it was almost impossible to turn on a television without seeing these four words: “Created by Susan Harris.”

Between 1975 and 1998, Harris was one of TV’s most prolific writers, creating 13 comedies, including the trailblazing cult hit Soap, the future pop culture paradigm known as The Golden Girls, and the long-running family sitcom Empty Nest. Along with mentor Norman Lear, Harris and her brand of bold, brainy comedy brought the sitcom into the modern era — and she did it all at a time when women were barely represented in the room, let alone seated at the head of the table.

Though Harris has remained largely out of the spotlight since her last show, The Secret Lives of Men, went off the air in 1998, she invited EW into her suburban Los Angeles home to discuss her long and influential career. She does not even cringe when, in a spasm of fangirl excitement, I refer to her as a living legend. “Well, living at least,” she notes drily. We are sitting on the couch in her cozy library, where photos of her family — including her producing partner and husband of 35 years, the late Paul Junger Witt, and her two sons — decorate the shelves. Her husband passed away in April after battling cancer, and Harris says she’s “grateful for the distraction” of the interview.

With her wavy mass of pale blond hair and wide blue eyes, Harris looks a solid two decades younger than her 77 years — and she speaks with the polite frankness of a woman who built an empire from scratch and has nothing left to prove. When asked why she moved from her home state of New York to Los Angeles in 1965, for example, she says simply, “A man.” (That would be her first husband, actor Berkeley Harris.) Looking back on her legacy (a word she’ll hate, no doubt), Harris is neither self-deprecating nor self-congratulatory; instead, she is clear-eyed and practical. Early on in her career, she recalls, “I tried to write a medical show, and everybody was funny. I realized I can’t do a serious show.” And for that, we are thankful.

BREAKING INTO THE BUSINESS
Necessity is the mother of invention, and so is divorce. Harris’ first foray into TV writing came as a result of an unexpected life change.

I was never interested in TV writing. But I had a 2-year-old and no visible means of support — my husband had left and he was giving me $500 a month, and after four months, nothing. He was an unemployed actor. I ran into a woman I knew in the supermarket; she and her husband had just split up, and we were talking about the financial aspects of it. Her name was Lisabeth Hush, she was an actress. I had taken a class prior to that in short-story writing at UCLA and I had written a short story. I showed it to her and she said, “Let’s do a teleplay based on the short story.” She happened to have a friend who knew the producer of [the NBC drama] Then Came Bronson, and they happened to have needed one script more that season, and they took that one.

After that, I became friendly with [Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley creator and Pretty Woman director] Garry Marshall, who said, “Let me talk to the guys at Love, American Style” — that was a show where you had 8-, 10-minute segments. He said, “Listen, guys, if she can’t do it, I’ll write it.” Well, I did it, and they gave me 10 more to do, and that started everything.

ALL IN THE FAMILY (CBS, 1971–73)
In the early ’70s, after contributing scripts to The Courtship of Eddie’s Father and The Partridge Family, Harris met Norman Lear, who invited her to write for his hit comedy All in the Family. Harris used to bring her toddler son to story meetings in his stroller, and she doesn’t remember any other women writing for the show at that time.

It was out of necessity. I gave him his bottle, and we pitched, and it worked. I didn’t take him to every story meeting, but sometimes I simply had to. He probably learned a lot. [Laughs] Then Norman asked if I would be on staff, and I said no because I didn’t want to leave my baby. I just wanted to write at home. I never went to the set, never went to the writers’ room. I don’t think I ever did [meet the cast]. I was just an episode writer.

CBS

MAUDE (CBS, 1972–73)
Harris transitioned from All in the Family to its spin-off Maude, starring future Golden Girl Bea Arthur. Harris wrote four episodes in total, including the now legendary two-part abortion story, “Maude’s Dilemma.”
Norman wanted an abortion episode for Maude’s neighbor Vivian [played by Rue McClanahan]. I thought it was a wonderful idea. I thought it was something that absolutely should be addressed, and I liked tackling issues as well as entertaining. I gave it to him, and he said, “This is too good for Vivian. We have to give it to Maude.” They lost, I think, all their sponsors. I wasn’t surprised he asked me [to write it] because he had seen my work on All in the Family and he had confidence in me. I knew it would be an intense reaction [from viewers]. I knew people felt very strongly about it one way or the other — but something like that would never deter me.

FAY (NBC, 1975–76)
In 1975, Harris teamed up with producers Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas for her first sitcom creation, Fay, a sharply observed NBC comedy starring Lee Grant as a newly divorced fortysomething woman reentering the workforce and the dating world. Though the Witt/Thomas/Harris partnership would soon become a producing powerhouse, Fay lasted just 10 episodes, much to Harris’ consternation.

My first heartbreak was Fay. I remember crying when that got canceled. And the next day I drove on the lot and my parking space was gone. It was that fast! When they canceled us, I had no idea that that was what the meeting was going to be about. They called us into the network and they said, “Listen…” And I went berserk. [I said] all kinds of terrible things to the network [vice president] Marvin Antonowsky. From then on, they would take any heavy objects, like ashtrays, out of the room [when they met with me] because I had made such a scene. Don’t take that literally. [Laughs]

Paul was having a meeting with another writer, Steve Gordon [who later wrote and directed Dudley Moore’s hit film Arthur], and I burst into the office. I said, “Fay was just canceled, and you’re having a meeting with another writer about another show?” I really was a little bit bonkers. Steve Gordon was terrified of me from that day on.

SOAP (ABC, 1977–81)
Harris launched two shows in 1977. The first was a CBS rom-com called Loves Me, Loves Me Not, starring The Partridge Family’s Susan Dey as a schoolteacher who falls for a reporter (Kip Gilman). “It was basically ‘See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane fall in love,’” says Harris of the short-lived series. Six months later, she bounced back with her first hit: The absurdist serial comedy Soap followed two sisters, Jessica Tate (played by Katherine Helmond) and Mary Campbell (Cathryn Damon), and their ridiculous families. In between all the high-concept hilarity — which ranged from murder mysteries and love triangles to alien abductions and demonic possession — Soap told groundbreaking stories about sexuality, interracial relationships, mental illness, religion, and more. A then-unknown Billy Crystal played Mary’s gay son Jodie, whose sexuality was treated with humanity as well as humor.

I wanted to do a series where you weren’t confined to a beginning, middle, and an end in 23 minutes. And that really was the appeal. We would change the storyboard around, we could shift things, kill people, bring them back. If it didn’t work out, [the character] was gone, or if we had only scheduled this person for two episodes, they could become regulars. There was a lot to play around with. And that was my favorite show.

We pitched it, I think, to [then ABC entertainment president] Freddy Silverman. I wrote a bible [a guide to the show and characters] — I don’t even think I have a copy anymore — and that really sold it, because everybody had a profile. It was a very funny bible; it was about half an inch thick, and they loved it.

ABC/Getty Images

A lot of [the cast] were from theater. We had to cast Mary, I think, three or four times before it worked out. Jessica we had from the get-go, once we met Katherine and she read. And Richard Mulligan was just gold. You didn’t even have to write for him — one of his looks was enough. [Billy Crystal] tells this story about when he met Paul. Paul had been given two tarantulas by the casting women. Billy went into Paul’s office, and I think he didn’t have any intention of taking the part — this is what he says — but when he saw Paul feeding crickets to the tarantulas, he said, “Fine, I’ll do it.”

I didn’t have a writers’ room. I always hated the writers’ room. For me, writing was much more of a personal experience, and I didn’t want to sit around a table with people throwing jokes around. I think I went to one writers’ room and cried. On Soap, I wrote the first year and a half by myself. Writers’ rooms now, what are they, like, 15 people? We tried a few people. It just didn’t work out. So I would rewrite them. My son and I lived in a little rental in Sherman Oaks, no pool. I said to my son at the time, “Listen, Mom’s got a choice here.” I said, “I can work really hard, which means I’m not going to see you as much, and we can get a pool. Or I can stay home and not work so hard, but then I think we can’t get a pool.” He said, “Go for the pool.” And we got the pool!

After a year and a half, we found Stu Silver, and that was a really good fit, so Stu started writing, which eased the burden. But it was exhausting.

Due to its boundary-pushing content — including a romance between Jessica’s daughter Corinne (Diana Canova) and a Catholic priest (Sal Viscuso) — Soap began making headlines before the first episode aired. A screed against the sitcom written by Newsweek’s Harry F. Waters blasted the pilot for being “saturated with sex” — a dubious characterization, even by 1977 standards — and got religious groups all in a lather, which helped earn ABC’s new comedy plenty of pre-premiere press.

[He said] there was sex with a priest in a church — which never happened, by the way — and he stirred up a lot of controversy about the show. When the show went on the air, people had expectations that simply weren’t met. They thought, “There’s nothing wrong with this.” But it did very well.

The protests may not have derailed the show (it ranked No. 13 in the ratings for the 1977–78 season and ultimately earned three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series), but Soap was a nonstop source of stress for ABC, causing the network to lose sponsors and giving the standards and practices department agita.

We got memos [from the network] all the time. What we did on a weekly basis was, I would put things in the script that were completely unacceptable. I can’t remember what they were, but things that I didn’t care about that I could use [for] bargaining for things I really did want in the script. And they were very lenient. Al Schneider was at [ABC] standards and practices — we made his job much harder, but he gave us a lot of room, as did Freddy. We were pretty much allowed to do anything, and we were really ahead of the time. Now if you read something about, you know, “We’re finally able to do this gay character” — [Soap] did it way before.

I think our only advertiser was Vlasic pickles and a car company, Alfa Romeo. That was it. To this day I only get Vlasic pickles. It was a very expensive show to produce, and after giving us four years [the network] just couldn’t afford it anymore, and we understood. [Otherwise] it could have run for years.

 

ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images

BENSON (ABC, 1979–86)
Harris knew “almost immediately” that the character of Benson — the Tate family’s sharp-witted butler played by Robert Guillaume — could carry his own show. When asked what interested her about building a show around Benson, she replies, “Money.” Harris wrote the pilot and then returned to her “baby,” Soap — a pattern that would continue throughout her career. Benson would run seven seasons, three more than the show that spawned it.

Benson was such a beloved character, we knew we could do a spin-off. What [Robert] brought to the role was, he was the smartest person in the room. He was the voice of sanity and reality, and he let everybody know that. He really did everything — he served every aspect of a character that you could. And he was a pleasure to work with. The show did very, very well. I was not very [involved] because of Soap. I couldn’t do everything — as it was, I could hardly do Soap. There’s just so much of me you can spread around. But it didn’t stop me from creating shows, writing the pilot, and leaving — and that’s why [my husband] called me a “creator-deserter.” I would stick around for the first couple of episodes and that was it. I wasn’t emotionally invested in those shows the way I was in Soap and Golden Girls.

THE GOLDEN GIRLS (NBC, 1985–92)
As Soap ended its run, Harris continued to create shows at an impressive rate — I’m a Big Girl Now (1980–81), a starring vehicle for Soap’s Diana Canova; It Takes Two (1982–83); Hail to the Chief (1985), starring Patty Duke as the first female president — but she continued with her “creator-deserter” pattern. “After Soap, I said I will never have this experience again, because I was exhausted.” But “never” came sooner than she expected, when her husband presented her with an idea she couldn’t refuse.

In 1985, Paul and Tony took a meeting at NBC. They were with [another] writer. Miami Vice was on, and [the network] said, “What about Miami Nice, a show about older women?” The writer said, “No, I’m not interested.” Paul said, “I think I might have someone who’s interested.” He came home, and I remember where the conversation took place — in the bathroom — and he said, “Honey, listen. What about…” I said, “No, Paul! I’m not — don’t do this to me!” He said, “It would be four older women.” Older appealed to me, because old people have stories and young people didn’t. It was always hard for me to write young people, but old people — there’s a richness that’s there. I said, “Old women?” He said, “Yes, old women.” I thought, “Okay, I could do that.”

Well, by “old women,” NBC meant women in their 40s or 50s. I was thinking old. So we negotiated — we never pinned [their] ages down. We just found the women, and we had the most remarkable women.

I remember writing in the pilot [script] that Dorothy was “Bea Arthur-like,” and who did we get? [Laughs] We sent Tony to New York [to audition actors] and he called up and he said, “I’ve found Sophia. There’s just no question.” And Estelle Getty came in — it was a no-brainer. She had it. And when somebody like Betty White wanted to do it and was available, it was just gold. Betty read for Rue’s part, and Jay Sandrich, who was the director, said, “Betty’s done that before. On Mary Tyler Moore, she was the slut. Let her read for the part of Rose.” And then we got Rue for Blanche.

To this day, Harris says the pilot, “The Engagement” — in which Blanche nearly marries a man who turns out to be a bigamist six times over — remains her favorite episode of The Golden Girls.

The pilot — and I say this as humbly as I possibly can — it was a perfect episode. You know how much you have to do in a pilot, besides tell a story in 23 minutes. You’ve got to introduce people that no one has seen before, give a bit of the backstories, establish their characters — much more goes into a pilot than any other episode. It’s the hardest to pull off. [St. Elsewhere executive producer] Bruce Paltrow — I think we were at an affiliate screening — turned and said to us, “This is the perfect pilot.” And it was.

Paul Drinkwater/NBCU Photo Bank

The Golden Girls was an instant smash, premiering at No. 1 with an estimated 44 million viewers. Fans loved the depiction of four mature women supporting one another while looking for love (yep, these grannies had sex, and plenty of it!) and living their best lives in Miami. The friendship between Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, and Sophia — and their regular heart-to-heart talks over cheesecake — became the standard to which all future TV quartets aspired.

I couldn’t believe [the ratings]. It was just stunning. I think people felt like you could have a family no matter who you were, at any stage in life. So there was hope in that show — that you didn’t have to be married, you could create your own family. These were four women who became a family.

Some [of the characters] were easier to write for than others. A few came more naturally, like Dorothy and Sophia. They were New York girls [like me], and they had that edge. It was a little bit more difficult to write for Rose and for Blanche, but it was an all-star cast. You just couldn’t get anybody better for any of those roles. I always liked to write — in Soap and in Golden Girls — scenes that meant something. I never liked setups and jokes. I wanted there to be some reality to what I was writing. Sitting around eating cheesecake gave them the opportunity to talk about something. And that’s why it was so appealing.… You didn’t see people talking [on TV].

There were comparisons made later to Sex and the City, and I fail to find the similarities there. These [Golden Girls] women had solid, real relationships; Sex and the City and Designing Women were something else. As crazy as those women could be on Golden Girls — Rose with her stories and Sophia with her mouth — it was more grounded in reality than those other shows, which I thought conformed more to the situation-comedy formula.

Though much like SATC, The Golden Girls featured very memorable fashion.

Oh my God. [Covers her face] Oh my God. Bea — those outfits. They were horrible! Did I ask to have any of the wardrobe myself? No. But listen, that was one of the last things I could pay attention to, what they looked like. It was more of “Okay, fine, whatever.”

The Girls’ active sex lives sometimes raised red flags for NBC censors, but Harris recalls winning most of the battles.

Listen, it was so successful, we had a lot of leverage.… Paul and Tony said, “We’ll do the notes [meetings] with the network — go home and write.” Because I just had no patience with them. It was always somebody from corporate giving his opinion of what should happen, and I really had no use for it.

Way after [Golden Girls], I had a show called The Secret Lives of Men. The network [representative] came down to give notes, and I said, “I refuse to take notes from somebody I drove in the car pool.” And it was true! She had gone to school [with my kids], and I drove the car pool. I said, “I’m not taking notes from her.”

RELATED: The ultimate Golden Girls binge guide

The Golden Girls spent six seasons in the top 10, then dropped to No. 30 in its seventh and final year. When Arthur chose not to renew for an eighth season, Harris & Co. tried to keep a version of the show going with a spin-off — The Golden Palace, in which Rose, Blanche, and Sophia ran a Miami hotel — but it was canceled after one season. (“It just didn’t work,” says Harris.) Girls did spawn one successful spin-off: Empty Nest, starring Soap’s Richard Mulligan as a widower living with his two adult daughters, which ran for seven seasons on NBC. Though TV is now flush with ’80s and ’90s reboots and revivals — Murphy Brown, Will & Grace, Charmed, Designing Women, ALF, and The Facts of Life are all airing or in the works — Harris isn’t interested in revisiting any of her old shows (or creating new ones).

No. No. Uh-uh. Listen, they wanted us to do a Golden Girls musical and I said no. Golden Girls was what Golden Girls was — it was those women, and let’s leave it alone. It was iconic. Even if I were much younger, I wouldn’t do it. And I don’t have any ideas for television shows or anything like that. I am fine not writing or even thinking about it. I really am.

WHAT SHE’S WATCHING
Today, Harris isn’t a big fan of network TV, but she’s making her way through a running list of dramas, including Hulu’s The Looming Tower, PBS’ Poldark, and HBO’s Succession. As for comedies…

I’m not an easy laugher. I’ve never found any comedies that I really like. I’m a dark soul. [Arrested Development creator] Mitch [Hurwitz] worked with us [on Golden Girls]. I think I watched [Arrested] once in the very beginning. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. And then somebody told me I should watch [The Marvelous] Mrs. Maisel, and I don’t even know if I got through one episode — I didn’t like it.

As our conversation winds down, I inform Harris that it’s quite possible she’ll be referred to as a pioneer in this article. Does she feel like a pioneer?

How do you define pioneer? Did I break some ground? Yeah. I don’t know that I would ever use the word pioneer because I think of covered wagons when you say it. But if you want to use it, go ahead.

The Golden Girls is currently streaming on Hulu. Soap is available on DVD and it currently reruns daily on Antenna TV. 

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