From 'All in the Family' to 'Breaking Bad': 24 Legendary Creators Gather to Share Secrets From 53 Years of TV
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
King of the Hill creator Mike Judge arrived first to Quixote Studios in Hollywood. Cagney & Lacey's Barbara Corday pulled up soon after. Then The Simpsons producer Al Jean; Sex and the City's Michael Patrick King; and The Dick Van Dyke Show's Carl Reiner. By 4:30 p.m. on the afternoon of Aug. 6, 19 others — each producers of an Emmy-winning comedy or drama — had joined them.
Over the next hour and a half, the gathering of producers, who have more than 80 statuettes collectively, caught up with old friends, former rivals and, in a few cases, one-time colleagues. (Yes, Mitch Hurwitz once took sandwich orders for Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon as a production assistant on CBS' late-1980s drama, Beauty and the Beast.)
Standing out in the mix of heavyweights was Norman Lear, who rarely was without a cluster of producers coming by to pay their respects. "Norman kicked the door down," Everybody Loves Raymond's Phil Rosenthal noted of the All in the Family creator's influence, with 24 and Homeland's Gordon revealing at one point that he was "too nervous" to introduce himself.
Here, 24 Emmy winners share their memories of producing 53 years of trail-blazing television.
Carl Reiner — The Dick Van Dyke Show outstanding comedy, 1963, '64, '66
After doing Your Show of Shows, I was offered a lot of situation comedies that weren't very good. My wife said, "Why don't you write one?" So I wrote 13 episodes of a series called Head of the Family and taped it with actress Barbara Britton, with me in the lead. It was fair. Then I forgot about it and started doing movies. My agent was so upset that these 13 scripts were running around, he gave them to Sheldon Leonard of T&L Productions, who said, "We'd like to do this show." I said, "No, I don't want to fail twice with the same material." And he said, "You won't fail. We'll get a better actor to play you." People loved it because it felt like it was about real people and how they actually lived. They said, "That's us!"
'The Mary Tyler Moore Show'
Allan Burns — The Mary Tyler Moore Show outstanding comedy, 1975, '76, '77
Mary Tyler Moore and [her then-husband, producer] Grant Tinker loved it and got behind our team and producer Jim Brooks. But CBS absolutely hated the script we'd written. Hated it. They were worried that we'd written Mary as a divorcee. They said, "People are going to think she's divorced Dick Van Dyke!" I said, "No, you'll see her ex‑husband and it isn't Dick." So we [made it so that Mary's character was never married,] wrote about six more scripts and they hated each one more than the last. (Laughs.) So there are no happy stories here, are there? No, we all won Emmys, made money and we're sitting here talking about that. We finally got a divorced character into the spinoff of Mary -- Rhoda, where Valerie Harper's character married a guy then divorced him.
Norman Lear — All in the Family outstanding comedy, 1971, '72, '73, '78
[CBS] was worried about everything -- the tone of the show, lead character Archie Bunker and what he might say. It took three years to get it on the air because we made no real concessions. In those days, everybody knew an Archie Bunker. Also, I'd been upset by shows like I Love Lucy. The structure on that one was always husband against wife. They were antipathetical together. But with All in the Family, they were never plotting against each other. You always knew they were in love. There was no question about it.
Barbara Corday — Cagney & Lacey outstanding drama, 1985, '86
We wrote the show first as a movie for Filmways, which at that time developed films but didn't finance them. So they were trying to sell it to a studio, and [then-MGM executive] Sherry Lansing was a big fan and really, really wanted to make the movie. But she was working for Dan Melnick, who ran the studio, and he said, "OK, if you can make it for a million dollars and get me Ann-Margret and Raquel Welch, I'll make the movie." It wasn't hard to say, "No, thank you." And that was a regular reaction we got from a lot of people: "Two women are partners and they're cops? They would never do that! They'd send a man to be with one of those women." It was pretty brave of CBS in the beginning to put it on.
Tony Thomas — The Golden Girls outstanding comedy, 1986, '87
Paul [Junger Witt] and I went in to pitch an idea to NBC and they passed, but asked if we wanted to do a show about elderly women. We said, "We have just the writer for that." Susan Harris loved to write about older folks. They have more interesting stories! And [then-NBC entertainment president] Brandon Tartikoff wanted to do it. We were blessed that he was willing to take a shot at doing a show about women in their mid‑50s. The three of us sat down, pitched the characters and the pilot. Then Susan put in her own stuff. Brandon went with his gut and put it on Saturday night. It debuted with a 43 share and a 38 rating. Every demo watched it. To this day, people still say, "You can't do a show about older people." Of course you can.
Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz — thirtysomething outstanding drama, 1988
Zwick: The thing that prompted us to create the show was that we didn't see anybody on TV who sounded like we did or lived like we did. So this was some narcissistic attempt to remedy that! It was kismet that we didn't struggle too much getting the show on the air. ABC was in terrible shape at the time and said, "We'll give you a shot." The funny thing is that we were writing about a lot of people we knew. We were terribly afraid that they would recognize themselves because they weren't entirely flattering portrayals. The amazing thing was that they always thought they were someone else and more attractive in the portrayal than we had imagined them.
Herskovitz: I knew we were on to something when the first episode ended and it cut to the local news on ABC. The female broadcaster's mascara was running down her face. Literally, she was still sobbing. She said, "Sorry, I was just watching that show." And I went, "Oh, boy."
Al Jean — The Simpsons outstanding animated program, 1990, '91, '95, '97, '98, 2000, '01, '03, '06, '08
The first episode was such a disaster that it nearly killed the whole thing. We had to reshoot it. We were going to premiere in September, then delayed until Christmas. And our Christmas show was terrific. The show was a huge gamble and only got made because Fox was the "fourth network" and was willing to take the risk. People would say, "You're a family show," and we'd say, "No, we're an adult show that's animated." Kids can watch, but we never wanted to be "wholesome." There were few shows about families that weren't perfect. We were that, plus we had [producer] Jim Brooks, who imbued it with real warmth. I didn't know if it would be a hit, but I knew it'd get noticed.
David Milch — NYPD Blue outstanding drama, 1995
We initially couldn't get on the air because it was so controversial: the language, the amount of nudity. And finally the head of Cap Cities/ABC [Dan Burke] went to church, prayed and then decided to put it on the air. But even after, I remember going on The Phil Donahue Show and getting really kicked around a bit about the language. Everything in retrospect seems so tame, but it wasn't. We were in a fight for our lives.
Philip Rosenthal — Everybody Loves Raymond outstanding comedy, 2003, '05
If anything, Raymond was risky in how traditional it was. CBS asked us, "What's the hook? What's the gimmick?" The gimmick was that we were just trying to do a well-made, traditional, classic type of sitcom. We were told at the time by the studio that those were words we should be avoiding.
I could never write a show like Sex and the City. I wouldn't know how! I only knew how to try to emulate shows like All in the Family, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Roseanne. There are much more fantastical shows and shows where wild stuff happens that I didn't relate to. And if I didn't relate to it, I couldn't write it.
'King of the Hill'
Mike Judge — King of the Hill outstanding animated program, 1999
I got an overall deal with Fox and they were looking for something to air after The Simpsons. They'd tried a bunch of shows that didn't click. By then, I'd already done Beavis and Butt-head and Fox specifically did NOT want Beavis and Butt-head. I had this idea for Hank Hill, and they asked, "Does he have a family?" And I said, "Well, yeah, a wife and one son, but he's older. It took him a long time to have that one son."
The Simpsons paved the way, but I wanted King of the Hill to not be too crazy. I thought because of its Texas setting, a slower pace was better, which Fox wasn't crazy about. I also remember when I was in the writing stage of the pilot, an executive was very worried that Hank was an angry redneck. In one scene, Hank was scolding his son, Bobby, about something. And behind the executive on the wall, while we were talking, was a poster of Homer Simpson strangling Bart. (Laughs.) And I was like, "Wow, Hank's too mean because he's yelling at his son?"
Michael Patrick King — Sex and the City outstanding comedy, 2001
The thing I'm most proud of is that Sex and the City took the word "sex" into the spotlight -- and it was a pink spotlight and it was a funny spotlight and it was a feminine spotlight. Even now, I see the word "sex" written in pink on other things, and I think, "It used to be shameful and hidden and dark." I'm very proud of the edge we pushed, which is not just sex -- anybody can do sex -- but sex with a laugh. We never did a sexual scene unless there was a funny story in it. So that's what needed to happen. We needed to really pierce that balloon of "Ooh, sex."
David Kohan & Max Mutchnick — Will & Grace outstanding comedy, 2000
Kohan: NBC came to us and wanted to replace Mad About You. They wanted a romantic comedy. I had worked for Sydney Pollack, who said, "The thing about love stories is that they're only as good as the obstacles that prevent the two from getting together. Once the boy and girl kiss, it's kind of over -- or you have to have a different story." So we were looking for a love story with an insurmountable obstacle, one that would last eight seasons.
Mutchnick: I'm the gay one, but he was more comfortable with the subject matter. I thought, "No one wants to explore this world." I was afraid. The show had aspects that wouldn't make you blink now, like kisses between two men and two women. But we had to figure out creative ways of getting those into the story.
Aaron Sorkin — The West Wing outstanding drama, 2000, '01, '02, '03
They always said there was no way The West Wing was ever going to get on the air because it was about politics. Shows about Washington just didn't work. So I was pretty surprised when the pilot was ordered. Another strike against us was that the Monica Lewinsky scandal had just happened. Anything about the White House at that time was a punch line. So we waited a year. By the time we aired, I think there was a wish fulfillment in play. Our elected officials had been portrayed either as Machiavellian or as dolts. And I think seeing a very competent, very committed group of people -- whose politics you may not necessarily agree with, but their hearts were in the right place -- was a wish that we had as a culture.
Joel Surnow & Howard Gordon — 24 outstanding drama, 2006
Surnow: I'd always worked in 22-episodes-a-season TV and one day thought, "What if we did a show where an hour was in real time?" I called [co-creator] Bob Cochran and we decided to do a show about the 24 hours leading up to a wedding. Then that didn't work. It had to be something that was going keep you. It had to be a race against time. So what if some guy's daughter is missing? So we started there. We ended up getting a great lead actor in Kiefer Sutherland and were the last pilot picked up. Then 9/11 happened a week before we were supposed to air. We had a terrorist blowing up a plane in the pilot, so we cut out the shot of the plane blowing up. We premiered against NYPD Blue and Frasier and pretty much had our hat handed to us ratings-wise. But we started getting some nice reviews. It was a very weird time.
Gordon: We were shooting the fourth or fifth episode when the [World Trade Center] towers went down, and we thought, "Well, this is done. Who is going to want to watch this show?" I remember the networks putting out a mandate -- "blue-sky shows and comedies" -- and we thought, "This show was certainly not going to survive," and then the opposite happened. It became the lens through which a lot of the country looked at 9/11 in their own crazy way.
Mitchell Hurwitz — Arrested Development outstanding comedy, 2004
I got credit for doing something fresh with the show, but it's just because people forget about the stuff that came before it. When Arrested started, I remember thinking, "Everyone's going to just say it's The Larry Sanders Show." But it was about family hierarchy and power, though it was irresistible to not do all that Bush and Saddam Hussein stuff. It definitely did not help us with ratings! A lot of comedy comes from surprise and going into a new territory.
Damon Lindelof — Lost outstanding drama, 2005
[Then-ABC chairman] Lloyd Braun made the idea for Lost his big brainstorm. He essentially wanted to do Survivor as a drama series. But because it was a broadcast show, there were two big concerns: It was going to be serialized, and anything that was weird, supernatural or labeled "sci‑fi" was going to turn off viewers, particularly women. At the same time, the so-called "watercooler" shows, particularly The Sopranos, were becoming the biggest on TV. The main concern was that we couldn't do four episodes of Lost and then have two reruns and then come back. We said, "We don't have any other way to tell the story. They're on an island. You can't reset at the beginning of every week. You have to inherit what came before it."
Matthew Weiner — Mad Men outstanding drama, 2008, '09, '10, '11
You never missed an episode of All in the Family or Mary Tyler Moore. It's amazing for me to see Allan Burns here today. We were on staff together at The Naked Truth. Classic TV series really changed the culture. I remember an episode of Mad Men that referenced an episode of The Defenders, in which the word "abortion" was used many times. I used a real page of script from the show and a clip. When I sent it to AMC, they were like, "We can't do this." And I was like, "No, this was a real show. It won Emmys in the 1960s." They said, "We can't do that today."
Vince Gilligan — Breaking Bad outstanding drama, 2013
I definitely wasn't looking at the zeitgeist thinking, "Oh, Breaking Bad would fit in here." I really just had an idea. A good lesson I learned a while back was: pitch something you believe in. Even though it will be more heartbreaking when they say no, on the off chance they say yes, then you're stuck doing it. You might as well believe it when you're pitching. And then when the idea came along, I was really into it. So much so that I didn't think through the very real possibility that people might not want to do a show about a 50-year-old guy who sells meth. I haven't had a chance much to watch any new TV shows lately. More often than not, I go back to the classics, like All in the Family and Hill Street Blues -- my God, what great shows those were.
Steven Levitan & Christopher Lloyd — Modern Family outstanding comedy, 2010, '11, '12, '13
Levitan What I loved about Dick Van Dyke was that Carl [Reiner] was drawing from his life. That's been instrumental for Chris and me: taking stories from our lives. The challenge is always to remember to keep it as small, real and simple as the things that got you there in the first place.
Lloyd We've gotten credit for being different, but we've done just a couple things differently and hope we get compared to the best. These classic shows never stopped putting the comedy first. The minute you stop, everybody tunes you out.
Alex Gansa — Homeland outstanding drama, 2012
The show came of age a decade after 9/11 when we weren't in the hysteria of the post-bombing. We were really in a process of evaluating what we had done and how America had projected its power overseas. There was no other show on television that was talking about what was happening in terms of foreign policy, the war on terror and all that. So it was a confluence of luck and casting. And to have the President of the United States pimping for you is pretty good! We send President Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton advanced DVDs, so we're always writing little notes to them. I'm going to keep what we write to ourselves, although Damian Lewis had the best note of all to Obama: "From one Muslim to another."