PART ONE: Three time Emmy-winning comedy writer Bill Richmond talks with Justin Bozung for TV STORE ONLINE about his start with Frank Sinatra, working with Jerry Lewis as his writing partner on such films as THE NUTTY PROFESSOR, THE LADIES' MAN and THE PATSY as well as his work on such classic television series as Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The Carol Burnett Show, Three's Company and Welcome Back, Kotter.
PART TWO of this interview is here.
Jerry Lewis & Bill Richmond 1968
Photo Courtesy: Bill Richmond
What you don't know about the career of comedy writer Bill Richmond could fill the Grand Canyon many times over. When you begin to research the work of a man that has been working in film and television for over fifty years--it becomes a bit overwhelming. It would be like if one tried to ingest the eye of the storm while sitting smack in the center of a comedy tornado. Bill Richmond is a force of comedy nature, and to call this three time Emmy winner prolific--would be a major understatement. Even after his retirement from the industry ten years ago in 1995 at the age of 74 years old.
So where does one began when looking back at the career of a comedy god? Do you start at his birth? His earlier days coming-of-age in Illinois? Or do you start with his work co-writing such classic films as THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963) or THE LADIES' MAN (1961) with his former writing partner Jerry Lewis? Maybe you first examine his years writing on the greatest sketch comedy series in the history of television, The Carol Burnett Show? Or maybe you start with his time pulling double duties as producer and lead writer on the television series Welcome Back, Kotter?
The career of Bill Richmond becomes even more of a whirlwind in your mind when you step back and realize that when he first started writing movies and television sitcoms back in 1960 he had already had two careers before the fact.
Bill Richmond comes from the land of Lincoln, but was born in Kentucky. His father, a railroad man, moved the family west to Rockford, Illinois, where Richmond took an interest in jazz music. By junior high, he had started playing drums in the school band and continued through high school. Richmond attended the University of Illinois before enlisting in the service, where he became a U.S. Marine Corps fighter pilot.
|Bill Richmond: WWII Marine Pilot
Unable to cure the music bug, Richmond continued to play drums semi-professionally while in the military. Discharged in 1946, Richmond briefly returned to Rockford before setting out to become a professional jazz musician in Los Angeles.
A real life Zelig of sorts, Richmond quickly became the drummer of choice for the big band music elite of the Pre-Rock 'n 'Roll era. Richmond began touring with bandleaders Harry James, Les Brown, Charlie Barnett and Ray Anthony, working later with Nelson Riddle and Billy May. As a session musician for hire, Richmond played on several of the studio recordings of Dean Martin and Peggy Lee.
Richmond played on the soundtrack of the now obscure 1952 Peggy Lee and Danny Thomas film remake of THE JAZZ SINGER. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film's score would be nominated the year following for an Academy Award. Richmond also played drums on the score of the classic Walt Disney film, LADY AND THE TRAMP (1955).
Throughout the '50s in the middle of a successful second career as a musician, Richmond became a spokesman for several drum companies. He played drums for Lenny Bruce. He was the featured drummer on the now essential Ella Fitzgerald Sings George and Ira Gershwin Song Book LP released to critical acclaim in 1959. He became Frank Sinatra's drummer, not only touring around the country with Sinatra but also playing on such classic Frank Sinatra Capitol albums as Only The Lonely, Come Dance With Me as well as several others.
|Bill Richmond: Hollywood Studio Session Drummer
Richmond also played drums on the 1958 Dean Martin-sung-Frank Sinatra-produced LP, Sleep Warm
. He played on Sinatra sides such as 'To Love And Be Loved' and 'I Couldn't Care Less'--the first being featured in the 1958 Vincente Minnelli film, SOME CAME RUNNING and the later appearing in another film released that same year starring Bing Crosby--SAY ONE FOR ME. Richmond would also play the drums at the 1959 Academy Awards.
Between touring and recording dates in the mid-'50s, Richmond played drums on live TV variety programs as well. These included: The Ray Anthony Show (1954), The Frank Sinatra Show (ABC;1957) and The Morey Amsterdam Show (KTLA circa 1955; not the 1948-1950 sitcom). After appearing in many comedy bits and gags on Anthony's prior, Amsterdam's short-lived local series marked the first time that Richmond wrote and acted in a full length sketch.
It was after a live performance supporting Frank Sinatra in Las Vegas in 1959 that Richmond met and befriended his comedy soul mate Jerry Lewis. Discovering a mutual love of the films of Laurel & Hardy, Lewis and Richmond hit it off off instantly becoming fast friends, and Lewis offered Richmond a drumming job. Fearing that Rock 'n' Roll would soon be eclipsing big band and jazz music, Richmond decided to take a leap of faith.
With the ability to make each other laugh, Richmond began traveling around the country with Jerry Lewis playing drums during his live concerts eventually ending up with Lewis in Florida for a series of live concerts. Richmond would remain in Florida for the long haul with Lewis providing comedy support as he began the filming of what would become his directorial debut, THE BELLBOY (1960), for Paramount.
Having kept the comedy spark lit in Florida, Richmond was offered a new job by Jerry Lewis once the pair returned home to Hollywood.
Lewis would put Richmond to the task of writing his next film, THE LADIES' MAN (1961).
Having never written a screenplay before, Richmond took a crash course in screenplay writing. He quickly studied screenplays in the Paramount archives, and then took inspiration from his experiences as a young musician living in Hollywood years earlier. Richmond had dating women who resided in a communal house for actresses--The Hollywood Studio Club. Founded by Cecil B. Demille's wife years earlier, The Hollywood Studio Club was a home away from home for fresh-faced and aspiring actresses working in Hollywood including, at one time, Ms. Marilyn Monroe.
Written by Bill Richmond and Jerry Lewis, THE LADIES' MAN was a major financial success for Paramount Studios in 1961. The film, while being a box office success with the pre-flower children of the '60s, would offer a rebirth of a certain surreal aesthetic in comedy that had not been seen in over thirty years.
By bringing Richmond on board to write THE LADIES' MAN, Lewis had lit the fuse that would not only trigger Richmond's third career: that of Bill Richmond Marine turned studio session drummer--now screenwriter. Lewis's invitation to Richmond would cause a much needed big-bang in the film comedy zeitgeist of the early '60s. Prior to the Lewis and Richmond team, Hollywood had been turning out a gorge of unfunny musicals and goofy romantic comedies starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Not only did Lewis and Richmond bring back the slapstick of Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, but they introduced it to an entirely new generation of movie-goers. Richmond and Lewis took the pratfall hijinks of the silent area of film comedy and transcended it to also include elements of surrealism, a painterly visual aesthetic, and much-needed pathos. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton had incorporated some of those ideas into their films of the '30s and '40s--but Richmond and Lewis did it better in the years to follow.
There would be a continued kismet that Lewis and Richmond would act on to create some of the most rewarding film experiences in motion picture history together. From 1961 to 1967, the duo would produce seven films, and then collaborate again in the early '80s before parting ways.
THE LADIES' MAN (1961), THE NUTTY PROFESSOR (1963), THE PATSY (1964), THE ERRAND BOY (1961), THE FAMILY JEWELS (1965) and THE BIG MOUTH (1967) would not only give Richmond the work experience that he would need and eventually call upon years later going into the record books as the longest working writer in the history of television, but alongside Jerry Lewis, their combined film work would secure them both a place near the top next to the greats in the film comedy Pantheon.
To call Jerry Lewis a genius is to call Bill Richmond a genius, as neither of the two men could exist without one another in this period. Whereas, if Jerry Lewis made the career of Bill Richmond the writer, Bill Richmond made the career of Jerry Lewis the film auteur.
Deconstructing the films of Lewis and Richmond, it's easy for one somewhat familiar with both men's careers to decipher the contributions of each to the finished work. THE LADIES' MAN, while a masterpiece of episodic comedy which runs a gambit of surreal sight gag after sight gag features Bill Richmond's particular brand of comic insanity, set-up and satire, whereas the Lewisian touches on the film include character pathos, as well as the use of supremely rich vibrant colors, innovative direction and spatial disorientation as well as masterly technical perfection contained within the mise-en-scène.
Calling to the front these separate contributions across the Lewis and Richmond seven film collaboration, it becomes fairly easy to see where the work of Bill Richmond ends and that of Jerry Lewis begins. There's a reason why the films that Jerry Lewis made with Bill Richmond work so successfully and those that Lewis made without Richmond don't.
The films that Lewis made without Richmond are not without their merit, but the work the two created together is what will stand the test of comedy time and always be cherished by old and new fans alike.
At the end of 1967, the Lewis and Richmond collaboration was nearly over. Hollywood was in the middle of a drastic change. The studios were shifting, and no longer was the ticket buying audience interested in the man-in-trouble slapstick of Bill Richmond and Jerry Lewis. Movie-goers were interested in the darker war era of thought-provoking message films like: THE GRADUATE (1967), EASY RIDER (1969) and BONNIE & CLYDE (1967). The films of Jerry Lewis and Bill Richmond were considered un-hip and without social message.
With the medium of television becoming the preferred entertainment of Americans, Lewis and Richmond took to the television airwaves. NBC's The Jerry Lewis Show (1967-68) ran for two seasons with Richmond as writer. The show bombed critically and had little to report ratings wise.
In 1969, Richmond was offered a writing job on the hottest television show of the era, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Finding success at Laugh-In, Richmond began another phase of his career: television writer. From 1970 to 1993 Richmond would write for the best or critically acclaimed television series and sitcoms of their respective eras. Writing for the ground-breaking sketch comedy series The Carol Burnett Show, Richmond would write such now classic sketches series as "The Hollow Hero" and the unforgettable "No Frills Airline" sketch which finds the brilliant Tim Conway flying up and down violently in the "cheap seats" on an airline.
Richmond would win three Emmy awards for his work over five years on Burnett, and writing for television star Flip Wilson would also earn Richmond a prestigious Writer's Guild award in the mid/late '70s as well.
Richmond would write and produce for such memorable series later as Welcome Back, Kotter, Three's Company, What's Happening, All In The Family and Blossom. He would also write several television specials as well; these included a handful based around Tim Conway, John Ritter and legendary filmmaker John Ford.
In the early '80s Richmond would attempt a return to slapstick by teaming up again with Jerry Lewis. The two would write SMORGASBORD (1983) aka CRACKING UP. Returning to their episodic comedy formula, CRACKING UP finds Jerry Lewis playing "Warren Nefron" a suicidal man who can't commit suicide no matter how hard he tries. The screenplay for CRACKING UP is soaked with Richmond surrealist satire--the film is currently available through the Warner Archives DVD label.
Richmond and Lewis would work together one more time only in the '80s--on Jerry Lewis's ill-fated Fox talk show which was canceled after only a handful of episodes.
In 1983, Richmond would write the short-lived but ground-breaking fantasy/comedy television series for CBS, Wizards and Warriors. The show, rumored to have been inspired by the 1973 William Goldman novel, The Princess Bride, would later be turned into a mega successful cult movie by actor/director Rob Reiner. Richmond's Wizards and Warriors was canceled after just eight episodes as an ahead-of-it's-time series that no-one "got" at home.
Wizards featured actors Jeff Conway and Julia Duffy. Duffy's character on the series, "Princess Ariel" bears a striking resemblance to the character Duffy would make famous on the now influential CBS series The Bob Newhart Show (1983-1990), "Stephanie Vanderkellen." Could Richmond be responsible for the creation of the character originally on Wizards and Warriors?
|Jerry Lewis & Bill Richmond in 1980's
In the internet age, Richmond is noticeably missing. Journalists are flooding the internet with Top Ten lists and articles from "the greatest comedy writing rooms ever," to "the most influential comedy writer of all time" and Richmond's name and work is shockingly missing. In a world that sees mentions of great television writers like: Carol Reiner, Larry Gelbart, Gary Marshall, Mason Williams, Bob Odenkirk, Bonnie and Terry Turner, Norman Lear, Larry David and Anne Beatts--Richmond's name needs to be included. He is truly a king of comedy.
Because Richmond is a writer and not an actor or director, you may not know directly if he has made you laugh at any point in your life or not, but if you're a comedy fan between the ages of thirty and sixty there's a big guarantee that he has in one way or another and in some format, albeit, film or television sitcom, and that's the definition of someone that's been truly prolific in comedy.
Now 92 years old, Richmond is enjoying his retirement. He doesn't miss Hollywood. He doesn't miss television. Bill Richmond loves his golf now more than anything, but he still enjoys a good joke, playing the drums, and he still enjoys talking about the films he made with Jerry Lewis and his television work over the last fifty years.
|Bill Richmond 2012
TV STORE ONLINE: So my first question for you Bill is: How does a guy like you, who grew up in Illinois end up out in Hollywood as a jazz drummer whose played with a variable whose who of crooners and big band leaders?
BILL RICHMOND: If you could answer that I'd give you a thousand dollars...laughing No, I can answer that question for you, but first before I do, I want to just mention something to you about partnerships. Comedy writing partnerships especially. And this is something that comes up often when I'm discussing working with Jerry Lewis. I get asked often about if I wrote this or that during my years working with Jerry.
There's a situation where two guys become writing partners. They go into an office with a typewriter. They close the door, and they come out six months to a year later with a screenplay, or two weeks later with an episode of a sitcom, or a treatment. Or whatever it is. Nobody knows what goes on in that room, okay?
Now, some people assume that one of the writers is the funny guy, and the other is the serious guy. One of the guys sits at a typewriter, and the other guy paces the room. There's an unspoken rule that is instantly put into place in a comedy writing partnership. And it's only to protect the egos of both the comedy writers. You never tell anyone what joke you wrote, and you never tell anyone what jokes your partner wrote. For example: Two guys go into see a producer to pitch their script. He looks it over and says, "I don't like that joke on page 13." One of the writer's quickly speaks up, "That's the best joke in the script!" Now you know right away that he's giving away who wrote what. So you're really sworn to secrecy in a comedy writing partnership.
So with being said, Jerry and I, we were a comedy writing team who wrote movies. But when that all ended and we went our separate ways people would say to Jerry, "I understand that you wrote, starred, produced and directed THE NUTTY PROFESSOR" Jerry would respond, "That's right." Jerry doesn't bother to say: "Bill Richmond helped me and we were partners..."
When I took my first job on television as a writer on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (1968-73) I was introduced around NBC as, "Bill's the guy that wrote all of those funny Jerry Lewis movies." But I remained silent. I never said to anyone, "No, I helped Jerry. We wrote them together." This kind of thing goes on and on and on. What it comes down to is that I wrote a lot of movies with or without Jerry's help. Whenever anyone introduces me today and says, "Bill wrote THE NUTTY PROFESSOR." I never bother to correct them. When Jerry is interviewed today, he never corrects them. Our partnership just exists good or bad. So I just want to clear the air on that before we get started.
TV STORE ONLINE: Okay. I understand. So let's get back to your days of being a professional drummer. You had an entire career as a session and live drummer prior to your career as a comedy writer. How did that all start for you?
BILL RICHMOND: Well, it was no different then as it is today. But instead of hearing The Beatles for example for the first time on the radio, I heard Benny Goodman. When I heard Benny Goodman on the radio for the first time, I thought that it was the greatest thing I had ever heard in my life, and I knew that it was something I wanted to do. So I joined the school band when I started junior high school and learned to play the drums, and not long after that I started to play jazz. I even had a little band I played in outside of school there in Rockford, Illinois by the time I was either 16 or 17-years old. Incidentally, I got thrown out of the band in high school for playing jazz, cause back then it was completely immoral to play that kind of music. I was absolutely in love with playing jazz though.
I went onto college and played the drums, and even after college when I joined the Marines I would go and sit in with bands wherever I was stationed. When I got out of the Marines in 1946 I went back home to Rockford and I got a valuable piece of advice. A person said to me, "If you love what you're doing, and if it's something you'd do for free, then have a go at it." So I packed my drums into my car and headed off to California. When I got to California I was lucky enough to become a very success studio musician.
|Jerry Lewis: Jerry Just Sings (1959; Decca Records)
TV STORE ONLINE: My God, the list of people you've played with and the stuff you've played on!
BILL RICHMOND: I know. I was very lucky. I had such a great run. I just loved it. The crazy part of it was that I was at the peak of my career as a drummer when I met Jerry Lewis for the first time.
TV STORE ONLINE: Right, and how did that meeting with Jerry Lewis happen?
BILL RICHMOND: Well, I was playing drums for Frank Sinatra. I played with Sinatra on television, and on his classic Capitol records. At the time I met Jerry Lewis I was playing with Sinatra at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Jerry Lewis came in one night and saw the show, and he introduced himself to me afterwards. We talked and I gave him my phone number. He called me a couple days later, and asked me if I'd like to come and work for him.
I thought going to work for Jerry Lewis was a crazy idea. I thought I was going nuts because I was considering leaving a job with Frank Sinatra. I thought that if I left Sinatra I'd be going from playing all this really great music to playing "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby" every night. But on the other hand, Rock 'n' Roll was coming into popularity at the time and I really disliked it. There was no way that I was going to be playing that type of music. So I thought that working with Jerry might be a really great move for me.
Jerry offered me a yearly salary and all I had to do for it was just to be available to play the drums for him whenever he performed. So, I just took the job on instinct.
TV STORE ONLINE: So how did the relationship with Jerry work in those early days?
BILL RICHMOND: After about six months of working together I found myself wanting to make him laugh, and he was making me laugh hysterically. We'd tell each other jokes all the time, and it went from there. Jerry started shooting his first movie THE BELLBOY (1960) and he put me in that. THE BELLBOY was shot in Florida. Jerry directed it, and he wrote THE BELLBOY by himself. He did use a few lines and jokes that I had given him in THE BELLBOY though. I also had a small part in his The Jazz Singer (1959) that aired on NBC television the year before he started working on THE BELLBOY as well. Once shooting wrapped on THE BELLBOY we returned to California, and not long after that he asked me if I'd be interested in writing his next movie.
TV STORE ONLINE: Which of course was THE LADIES' MAN (1961).
BILL RICHMOND: Right. Jerry put me in an office at Paramount with Mel Brooks. He had already hired Mel to write the film with him. So he added me.
TV STORE ONLINE: What was your experience working with Mel Brooks?
BILL RICHMOND: Well, I had already knew Mel from my musician days. Mel was a drummer too, and he loved musicians. He used to tag along with me to recording sessions. Mel had a huge ego, and when he'd come with me to a session he'd go around to all the musicians in the studio and say, "Hello, I'm Mel Brooks and I wrote the Sid Caesar Show." That's the kind of guy he was. But Mel and I became good buddies from all of that.
TV STORE ONLINE: How well did the two of you work together writing THE LADIES' MAN?
BILL RICHMOND: Mel and I only worked together on the script for THE LADIES' MAN for about two weeks. Mel and I would pitch ideas back and forth to each other. Once we had a good idea Mel would say, "Let's run it by Jerry and see if he likes it." So we'd call Jerry, and Jerry would say, "I can't talk right now, but let me get back to you." Now if anybody had a bigger ego than Jerry Lewis, it was Mel Brooks. Jerry did this to Mel about four times, so finally Mel literally just said, "Fuck this, I quit." So that left me to write the movie.
|Jerry Lewis & Mel Brooks on THE LADIES' MAN
TV STORE ONLINE: Did you play drums on Jerry's 1959 Decca album Jerry Just Sings?
BILL RICHMOND: I did. But, I can't remember now exactly on what songs though. But I did play on a couple. The best thing that came from this was that I got to play with Count Basie. One day I came to work when Jerry was finishing up CINDERFELLA (1960). Jerry had Count Basie's band on the film. They recorded a song called "Cute." If you remember Jerry did a pantomime to "Cute" in the kitchen scene in CINDERFELLA. Count Basie's drummer Sonny Payne, who was a great drummer that couldn't read music--they needed someone who could read music to play with them to record the score for the movie. So I did that, and that actually turned out to be the last time I played drums.
TV STORE ONLINE: I just can't believe all of the incredible people that you played with over those early years.
BILL RICHMOND: I loved every minute of it. The best part of those years was playing with all of those big bands. I played with Harry James, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Anthony, Peggy Lee. I was Shirley McLaine's rehearsal drummer when she was a "hoofer" early on in her career.
TV STORE ONLINE: You played drums on Sinatra's Come Dance With Me (1959) album but for some reason Frank Sinatra decided to re-record the music for that one after everything was finished, or so I've read.
BILL RICHMOND: Oh yeah, that's right. I forgot all about that. It was a long time ago, and I can't remember why now.
TV STORE ONLINE: So where do you think your sense of humor comes from?
BILL RICHMOND: Well, most comedy writers that I know have one thing in common. What we all have in common is that growing up in school we were always getting in trouble. I once got sent home from school with a note for my father that said, "Billy is being sent home because he's making the kids laugh during class." My father, God love him, marched off to my school and stormed in there and said, "You're kicking my kid out of class for making people laugh, what's a matter with you!" My dad had a great sense of humor, and he was a great story teller. He loved to laugh, so I think I got it all from him.
TV STORE ONLINE: Growing up you also loved Laurel & Hardy as well, right?
BILL RICHMOND: Huge fan. Looking back now to the early '30s when I first saw Laurel & Hardy, it seemed like the comedy world was divided. I mean, you were either a Laurel & Hardy fan or a Marx Brothers fan, and I was a Laurel & Hardy fan. Laurel & Hardy were a physical act, whereas Groucho Marx was the king of the quotable one-liners.
So when I found out that Jerry Lewis was also a Laurel & Hardy fan that really gave us a connection that we used to write those movies together with.
TV STORE ONLINE: Right. And on that note how big of an influence do you think Stan Laurel was on Jerry Lewis?
BILL RICHMOND: He was very influenced by Stan Laurel. Stan was his number one idol. I never heard him talk about any other comedians that he was influenced by. You have to remember something; the Martin & Lewis comedy team was arguably the greatest comedy team of all time. If not the greatest, at least in the top ten of the greatest teams ever. A lot of people now don't realize it because they weren't around yet when they hit the charts. Jerry was the funny guy. Dean was the straight guy. As it turned out Jerry was also the business man. From very earlier on, Jerry wanted to direct, produce, write the music, be the star, own the studio--and that's the same way Stan Laurel was. But Stan Laurel was a mean guy on the set. If something wasn't done to his liking, he'd say, "Do it my way or I'm outta here." He was threatening.
Jerry Lewis with Bill Richmond as "Stan Laurel" (1960)
in THE BELLBOY.
Oliver Hardy would go off to the golf course and say, "Stan, you can go off and do whatever, just call me when you need me." That's the way Dean Martin was too. Dean would say, "You wanna do all that shit, and try to be the ruler of the showbiz world, go right ahead. Call me when you need me." So Jerry and Stan had that in common.
TV STORE ONLINE: Going back quickly to the days where you were just playing drums for Jerry Lewis, didn't your rapport with him and your similar comic sensibilities develop more so while you were both out on the road working and touring together?
BILL RICHMOND: We just made each other laugh. On the road especially, we would sit and get going over something and just make each other laugh. We became very close friends out on the road. I say close friends, and I say that only in that we became as close of friends as you can with someone that is paying your salary. We loved each other, but all I had to do was say one wrong thing to him, and I could've been out of there. So I understood that, but we did become close friends, and still are today.
TV STORE ONLINE: So writing as many movies as you did with Jerry Lewis, how does the writing process evolve between the two of you?
BILL RICHMOND: Well, it really didn't work like that. When I first started out with Jerry I was put on a yearly salary. So that meant that whether I worked or not I still got paid. When I started as his drummer I was on a salary. When he made me his writer, I still remained on a salary but it quadrupled in money. For example, when we worked on THE LADIES' MAN--we would work together in pitch sessions. We never, at least, I can't remember ever sitting in a room with him like we were a regular writing team. I'd write something, then he'd look it over, and then he'd write a few lines, or he'd take what I had written and he'd go off and work on it on his own or vice versa. Then he'd ask me to move on to whatever else I was working on. That was kind of the pattern.
|Jerry Lewis directs on the set of THE LADIES' MAN
As time went on, I'd be sitting in my office doing nothing and I'd say to Jerry, "I have an idea for a movie." And Jerry would say, "Well, that's pretty good." So I'd just start writing out the idea. I'd say, "He hasn't said no, so I'll just go ahead and write it..." Next thing I know I would have forty pages done, and he'd look it over and say, "That's pretty good, where are you going with it?" Then I would finish it. That working method extended into the later pictures we did together to the point to where he was hardly involved in it at all. That was the main difference between our team and our writing relationship in comparison to those I would have later on in my career.
TV STORE ONLINE: So how long did it take to write THE LADIES' MAN?
BILL RICHMOND: Oh, not very long. Two or three months I think, nothing more than that. That included going through all the various changes and rewrites. It didn't take too long. It's never taken me too long to write anything as long as I've had a great story to go off of. Writing becomes pretty easy when you're getting paid up front. You don't have to worry about whether people are gonna buy it or if they're gonna hate what you're writing and that helps a lot.
TV STORE ONLINE: I've read other interviews with you in the past. In one particular interview recently that you gave--you said something that I was completely fascinating by. You said that you had always felt that as the writer of a screenplay or anything for that matter, it was your job to only get the performer up to a certain point in the script, where then, they could take it over.
BILL RICHMOND: That's right.
TV STORE ONLINE: When I think about that, it seems really innovative to me. As the writer, how do you manage to keep your ego in check if you're allowing every performer to do what they want with your written word?
Yeah, I have a big ego but not in that area. I know what the job is. If you write jokes for Bob Hope, you have to make them sound like they came right off the top of his head, and that's what you want. That's the way it worked with Carol Burnett for example. She was the queen of doing that. You write for Carol Burnett or for any of the others on The Carol Burnett Show
and they take it over like they invented it all.
TV STORE ONLINE: Speaking of The Carol Burnett Show, I was curious to see how that whole writing process worked considering how many writers worked on that show with you?
BILL RICHMOND: There was a staff of six or eight writers working on that show. Usually they wanted you to team up with someone on that show. Variety shows were notorious for wanting their writers to team up together. I mean, I was paired up with another when I was writing for Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In as well a couple years earlier.
I'll give you an example of how it worked on Carol Burnett. [Director] Barry Levinson was a writer on Burnett with me, and we were pretty good friends, and he had a partner also. One day he came into the office, and he was kind of late getting there. He came in, and starts to joke about about how he had just stopped for breakfast and had to wait because his waitress was a trainee. He tells me how much of a pain in the neck it was to have to sit there and wait on his waitress and her trainer.
So I got up and went into my office, and started to write a sketch about a trainee in a bank. Carol Burnett was the cashier in a bank. Vicki Lawrence was her trainee. Harvey Korman played a bank-robber who walks into the bank with Tim Conway who was his trainee...laughing. It was a hilarious sketch.
Harvey Korman prompts Tim Conway. So Conway says "Stick 'em up!" Harvey tells Tim Conway, "No, no you don't yell that in a bank! And in first place you don't even have your gun pulled out!" Carol starts laughing and saying "What a clown this guy is!" So the sketch went on like that, and the black-out for the sketch was that the cops come in and one of the cops yells, "Everybody put your hands on your head!" He is a trainee cop...laughing. Another cop tells him, "No, no that's not how you do it. First of all, you fire you gun in the air." From that moment on, Barry Levinson always called me "The Sketch Thief." But that's how it worked. You came in with an idea and then you went off into a room and developed it. Incidentally, I'm proud to say that with The Carol Burnett Show I had a sketch on every single show for the five years that I wrote for it.
TV STORE ONLINE: Do you have a total recall in the sense that all these years later you can remember every sketch that you wrote for that show? If I asked you if could remember what you wrote for Sammy Davis Jr. on the Ninth Season of The Carol Burnett Show could you tell me?
BILL RICHMOND: Well, I don't think I can remember what I did for him now to tell you the truth. But I can tell you that one of my very favorite sketches that I did was "The Hollow Hero" with Tim Conway. We did a whole series of those. Tim Conway played a hero in the British army who had swallowed a hand grenade to save his company...laughing The Queen was giving him a medal. So the Queen is delivering a speech about how he's a hero. Tim interrupts the Queen telling her that he doesn't want a medal. Harvey Korman who was playing the King--he asks Tim what he wanted instead and Tim says "I want a pony."
TV STORE ONLINE: I feel like it's very easy to pick out the sketches you wrote across all the seasons of The Carol Burnett Show that you worked on. For example, you had to have been the writer who wrote that sketch with Tim Conway and Harvey Korman on the airplane and...
BILL RICHMOND: Oh yeah, the "No Frills Airline" sketch. I did write that.
TV STORE ONLINE: I knew it! I knew it! That has got to be one of the top five comedy sketches in the history of television.
|"No Frills Airline" sketch from Carol Burnett Show
BILL RICHMOND: Tim is defending the fact that he's sitting in the back of the airplane in the cheap seats...laughing
TV STORE ONLINE: Right...laughing. That's a classic! Tim Conway puts that giant rope lasso around him to protect himself, and the seat starts flying up and down into the air...laughing
BILL RICHMOND: Right....laughing Tim says to Harvey "It's much safer back here, have you ever heard of an airplane backing into a mountain? That was a fun sketch.
TV STORE ONLINE: laughing....Yeah, that's so great. It's so surreal. Where do you think that sort of surrealist humor comes from inside of you? Because that element of the surreal not only runs through the films of Jerry Lewis, but it's also always present in the stuff you wrote for The Carol Burnett Show.
BILL RICHMOND: I don't know. I can only say that it's hard for me to take anything too seriously. There's always a joke somewhere in everything. I used to keep a collection of articles about famous deaths of all things. There was an article about a man who was England's leading expert in electronics or something like that and he took his electric lawnmower out to mow the lawn in the rain and he killed himself. He electrocuted himself, and I laughed at that when I read it...laughing
TV STORE ONLINE: laughing....You and I might be the only people that would laugh at that.
BILL RICHMOND: Yeah...laughing It was too crazy.
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung