Writing Comedic Gold Writing Comedic Gold

Mort Nathan (MEDIA '75), executive writer and producer of The Golden Girls, was kind enough to answer this fangirl's questions about the iconic show.

Interviewed by

Abigail Bobrow

Picture it. Champaign, 1971.

A young man fresh from his family’s West Rogers Park apartment arrives at the state of Illinois’ flagship university.

He writes think pieces for the Daily Illini like “Reincarnation of the B-movie” and “Old stars never die, they just win Academy Awards.”

Four years later, when he’s a senior, he goes to a party and meets the love of his life. She’s a year younger and laughs at his jokes.

But I digress.

The man moves to New York City to attend film school, where he meets his lifelong writing partner.

There’s an instant attraction. They laugh. They sing. They share comedic sensibilities. They share an apartment. And when grad school is over, they move to Los Angeles.

In the mid-1980s, the two are convinced to write for a comedy about four older women who live together in Miami, Florida. It features a tall, sarcastic divorcee; her diminutive feisty mother; a flirtatious Southerner; a naive widow from the Midwest, surrounded by wicker furniture and floral prints.

The four bring to life the lines written by two young men still in their twenties.

To be a fly on the wall during those table reads.

The women go on to make us laugh for seven seasons as they look for love, tackle prejudice and confront what it means to be a woman during the latter years of her life.

They also eat a lot of cheesecake and frequently retreat to the lanai to play cards.

They lob comedic—and sometimes stinging—one-liners, collecting awards along the way.

The show draws fans as different as Queen Elizabeth II and DMX.

It goes on to live in syndication and spawns an industry of old lady-emblazoned tchotchkes—from Chia Pets to oven mitts. (I own both.)

Decades after the show ends, academics at prestigious universities cite it as a cultural touchstone, an important turning point in how older women in television are portrayed.

That man, whose father wondered how his son would make a living, has Emmys lining his shelf.

Oh, and the woman he met at a party when he was in college? She is his wife of 36 years.

And he still makes her laugh.

 

So how did you get from Illinois to writing for The Golden Girls?

I started Golden Girls about seven years after I graduated from Illinois. When I went to college, I thought I was going to be a lawyer. I was taking a variety of liberal arts classes, and was always interested in media, communications, storytelling, movies. And the more classes I took, the more movies I saw, and the more I became immersed in the whole idea of media, the more I became intrigued about making a career out of it. I was already accepted to law school when I told my parents that I changed my mind and I wanted to go to NYU film school—that I wanted to be a filmmaker. They were horrified, but they were supportive. They agreed, and I went to NYU and got an MFA in film.

Mort Nathan, head writer and executive producer of “The Golden Girls,” is the author of the Farrelly Brothers cult classic “Kingpin” and has worked as a script doctor on many major Hollywood films, including “Analyze This” and “My Favorite Martian.” He made his directorial debut with “Boat Trip,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr., which Nathan also co-wrote. He is also an associate professor at Chapman University in Irvine, California. Photo courtesy of Mort Nathan

That’s where I met my writing partner, Barry Fanaro, who I still write with to this day. He started out as my roommate in grad school. I ended up moving from NYU to Los Angeles, where I felt was there was more work. I got involved in some writing workshops, and the more I got into writing, the more I liked it. Barry liked comedy writing as well. We took a few workshops together, sold our first spec script, and got a job on a TV show called “Benson.”

Soon after, the company was producing a brand-new show—which we weren’t sure we wanted to do—called “Golden Girls.” We weren’t working at the time, and the company liked us quite a bit. Several lucky things happened and ultimately, they put people in their mid-twenties in charge of a show about sixty-five- to seventy-five-year-old people.

Right, so that begs the question, what storylines were you mining from? Not your own I imagine.

So, that’s actually not true. Originally, we were hesitant about working for people who were in their sixties and seventies because that wasn’t our experience. We were single, we had no children, and we were extremely young. So, we talked about it: How do we approach this? What we decided was to write to the truth of who these people were. And the truth we found is that when you really thought about it, you’re no different at thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, than you are at twenty. You’re exactly the same in terms of most basic emotions.

The Golden Girls pictured from left: Estelle Getty as Sophia Petrillo, Rue McClanahan as Blanche Devereaux, Betty White as Rose Nylund, and Beatrice Arthur as Dorothy Zbornak. The show ran from 1985-92.

People still fall in love, people still get hurt, people still get angry. People still get jealous. People still feel revenge, people still feel lost. The Golden Girls embodied all those organic, genuine human emotions that cross all age groups, which I think is why people of all ages like the show. They weren’t stories about older people going to the doctor. They were stories that were organic to anybody of any age who could understand and appreciate it.

Yes, that’s very true. What was interesting about The Golden Girls, and it’s been mentioned many times online, is that the show tackled a lot of current-day issues of the 1980s and early 1990s. So how did those conversations go when you were sitting down to write?

The characters were strong, independent, fiercely honest, and fierce supporters of individual rights, female rights, gay rights, all across the board. They made fun of everybody, because it was a comedy. They were equal opportunity offenders sometimes, which had the effect of pointing out people’s prejudices. But at the end of the day, they were very decent people.

We approached issues in an honest way, and these were characters whose hearts were open. That’s why we wanted to look at how they dealt with issues that affected them in an honest and relatable way.

When these shows went on the air, what did your parents back in Chicago say?

Well, they were very surprised that I became so successful so quickly. Suddenly, they would see me on national television accepting awards and doing occasional interviews. They would see me in magazines. First of all, they were stunned because they never thought I was that amusing. Secondly, they were extremely proud, obviously.

What was it like growing up in your household as a child? Was humor a big part of your experience?

I grew up a noisy household—noisy in the sense that the atmosphere was very lively. My grandparents lived in the same building as we did. My grandmother, in a general way, was not unlike the character Sophia. She lived her early life in Europe, and her early life was a struggle. She fled Europe to the safety of the United States with her family by boat. So, there were parallels to Sophia’s story. And because my grandmother had lived a long, colorful, hard life, she was very open in our conversations and not afraid of expressing her opinion. Not dissimilar from the way Sophia looked at things. As a writer you don’t necessarily steal from your own experience, but you’re inspired by your own experience. And I definitely was inspired by the turmoil in my household.

I heard that the Golden Girls’ address, 6151 Richmond Street, was chosen for your parents’ home street in Chicago. Were there any other details about yourself that you snuck in the series?

All the time. Characters were constantly given the names of friends and relatives. It was the writers’ way of saying a secret hello to people.

Were you funny growing up?

Funny is in the eyes of the beholder. I might have been funny to my friends. But to my parents, I just had a smart-aleck problem. When I was a teenager, my father would always say, “Why is everything funny to you? How do you think you’re going to make a living?” And then when I became successful, I actually said on national television, “You don’t have to worry anymore, dad. I think I’m going to make a living,” as I held up an Emmy Award.

Not going to lie. I spent quite a bit of time on Hulu, doing research (ahem) to remind myself of all the great storylines on the show. Are there any stories that you wanted to pursue during your time that you were unable to for some reason or another?

No, oddly enough. We, along with the staff, had to think of twenty-five episodes for the season. And after about six episodes, we just kind of ran out of ideas. Nothing seemed right. Nothing seemed like it could work. And we thought, how are we going to get through the year, let alone do this for several years?

Barry Fanaro, from left, Mitlon Berle, and Mort Nathan on the night they received their first Emmy Award in 1986. Photo courtesy of Mort Nathan

So, we had a long conversation where we just had to re-emphasize to each other that any story that works in life at any age—it could be about teenagers, about people in their twenties, about people going to college, the things that we knew, that we understood, we could relate to—could be ideas transposable into what we’re doing. And when we thought about it, it actually was the right approach. When we were in college, there were a lot of stories about people taking someone else’s boyfriend, people not sure if they want to commit, roommates not getting along. These were organic to our experience at the time. And then we realized you could write stories like that about people in their sixties and seventies, and it works exactly the same.

Was that kind of the pitch that Susan Harris, the show’s creator, gave you, when she asked you to write for the show?

Susan had the idea. She wrote a wonderful pilot about people who found themselves alone again. When you are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, you try to make your way in the world to figure out how you want to live your life, what you want to do, and who you want to spend it with. And these women were faced with those issues again in their sixties and seventies. Their husbands passed away or divorced them, and suddenly they were on their own. So, they had to go through that experience a second time of, “How do I make my way through life? And with the time I have left, who do I share my life with?”

Do you think there are shows today that draw from what you created in The Golden Girls?

I think good writing is something that exists all over TV today in a very powerful way. We were part of the Norman Lear school of television in terms of philosophy. We took characters and showed their faults. We showed them in real situations that people could relate to. That started with Norman Lear’s “All in the Family.” That was the beginning of changing the direction of half-hour TV and making it more real, more relatable, and more emotional. And that begot hundreds of television shows. Comedy is still designed first and foremost, to make you laugh, but comedy also has drama. And if it’s working right, good drama has comedy. It’s all about the quotients in each particular medium.

The Golden Girls was part of a tradition, which was the Norman Lear tradition of telling the truth. I’m not just here to create a cardboard character. I’m here to create multi-dimensional relatable characters that people can not only laugh with, but identify with. Today, most television is done that way, stylistically. That’s what people try to emulate. They try to emulate truth. They try to emulate real life.

Amanda Ciafone, a media studies professor here on campus, published an article, “Gray Panthers are Watching: Gray women’s media activism in the 1970s and ‘80s,” and it talks a lot about The Golden Girls. You spoke about creating multi-dimensional characters and situations, and it seems like from a scholarly perspective there was a shift in how women were perceived in entertainment. Did you realize you were contributing to that shift when you were giving your older women characters a platform they didn’t necessarily have before?

We never approached the show from a political point of view. We approached it from a creative point of view. The women we realized we wanted to write were strong women, creative women, passionate women, women who were capable, who had opinions and feelings, and were able to exist by themselves as strong women or as women in a unit together. Did that become kind of a political statement of the time? Absolutely, absolutely.

We wrote it more from a point of view that felt truthful. It would be ridiculous, for example, to make the Sophia character a weak, one-dimensional grandma who baked cookies. Her life experience made her tough as nails. She was a four-foot-eleven Navy Seal. In terms of toughness, she lived a life and a half and was able to survive, and humor was her character’s armor to help her get through it all. There’s a truthfulness to that. To portray her or any of the characters on the show as anything less than strong, independent women would have been a lie. And it would have also been unsuccessful, comedically and dramatically.

I noticed when I was looking at our records, Deborah Levine (LAS ’76) graduated from here, too, and is listed as your spouse.

Yes. I just saw her this morning. I slept with her last night.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you met?

I was a senior, she was a junior. I met her at a party, and we hit it off, obviously. I went to grad school while she was a senior at Illinois, and we had a long-distance romance. When I got out of NYU and moved to California, she moved in with me. She worked in television for a while as a casting director, and I started working regularly as a writer and producer. We are together to this day.

Do you share the same sense of humor?

Well, let’s put it this way. She used to think I was extremely funny. After thirty-six years, she’s not laughing as hard as she used to. She’s heard the act many times at this point. But, after all these years, yes, I still can make her laugh.

What do you think of all the Golden Girls tchotchkes out there?

 Well, you know what, it makes me smile. Back then when we were doing the show, none of us would have thought the ladies’ likenesses on coffee cups is something people would buy. Greeting cards, chia pets, you know, all this weird stuff. But it’s all part of the nostalgia of the show. People like those characters and identify with them. They’ve all become iconic. The memorabilia make people smile. I understand it now, but only in hindsight.

Do you still keep in touch with anybody from the show besides your writing partner?

Sure. Winifred Harvey, a very good writer who has had a wonderfully long career, is still a very, very good friend of mine. I’ve known her a long time. I still talk to one of the interns on the show, Chris Lloyd, who went on to create “Modern Family.” And Betty [White] who’s close to 100. I haven’t seen her in a while. She lives in my neighborhood, and I used to see her every few months at the grocery store. We always would take time to chat. The past year or so, I haven’t seen her because I know she slowed down a lot. But I talked to her many times over the years as well.

COVID has probably played a part in that too, I imagine.

That hasn’t helped.

Just to think of you and Betty running into each other at the grocery store…

She greets me like a long-lost friend. Nice as can be. Still grateful for all the fun we had together for all those years. She’s the real deal. She’s a lovely person.

After all these years, people are still talking about the Golden Girls. Is that at all surprising to you?

I’ve worked on a hundred different projects, and you never know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. As a professional, you try to be as truthful, as honest, as interesting, and as entertaining as you possibly can be for every project that you work on. Sometimes something magical happens. Sometimes you’re able to create something that’s memorable.

How does one create classic television? The answer is you don’t. You do the best you can. And if you’re blessed—with magic or with showbiz alchemy to have the right actors at the right time with the right premise—then you have a classic on your hands. But it’s not easy. My advice to people who want to write is to just do the best you can and try to have as many laughs as you can while you’re doing it.