Milwaukee-born writer Susan Silver shares insight into her long-running career as a comedy writer in Los Angeles and New York City.
One of the original writers of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Susan Silver charted a course through the Hollywood Hills at a time when many women were struggling to gain ground in the workplace. The Milwaukee native then went on to write for many other TV shows, including The Bob Newhart Show and The Partridge Family. And she currently teaches comedy writing at the Television Academy and the New School, in New York City.
On Tuesday, June 20, Silver visits Boswell Book Company to read from her memoir, Hot Pants in Hollywood: Sex, Secrets & Sitcoms. We spoke with her to find out what readers should expect from the book, and the event at Boswell.
Milwaukee is many miles away, geographically and culturally, from Los Angeles. What was your move from Wisconsin to California like?
Milwaukee is a great place to be born and a great place to get a dose of those good Midwestern values, which came in handy when I moved to Hollywood.
In those days we could get jobs from the newspapers, if you can believe it. I got a job working at a small television station, working in their PR department. Then I took a job as the assistant to the associate producer of a talk show, The Mort Sahl Show. And within five weeks everyone further up the chain had been fired and I was suddenly a producer.
I wanted to write, but they wouldn’t let women write for the show. So I used to write in my office over my lunch hour, working on scripts.
What was it like working on The Mary Tyler Moore Show?
It was unlike every other show I worked on. They made a conscious decision to hire female writers because they wanted the show to reflect real women’s experiences. When I got my start, in 1971, there were about three other women in the business, period. By the end of the show, there were many, many more.
Even today, women – of all ages – still tell me how much the show has influenced them.
Some people, unfortunately, still claim that women aren’t funny. How do you respond to them?
It’s so bizarre. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling all have their own shows now. And they’re funny. The people who say otherwise are probably men with a bad sense of humor. But they’re wrong.
What advice would you give young women, struggling to “make it after all,” à la Mary Tyler Moore, when writers’ rooms and C-suites still skew overwhelmingly male?
It’s both harder and easier now. It’s harder because there are fewer shows coming out and they have smaller writers’ rooms. But it’s easier too, because the internet gives you more ways to get your material out there, more venues and more people to connect with.
At the end of the day, if you want to write, you just have to keep writing – and keep submitting your work.
Why did you decide to write this book? What was the process like?
A couple of years ago I was at a party, sitting with the editor of Vanity Fair, telling her that I went to school with Jim Morrison (he wasn’t the Morrison we knew then, though – he was a quiet, poetic boy), that I’ve met most of the icons of my generation at one point or the other. And she said that that could make for a great article. So I started writing what I thought would be an article, but it kept expanding and expanding, and eventually I figured that maybe it should be a book instead.
It took me two years to finish. It was hard but it was fun too, and it ended up working out well.
Which passages or chapters do you think will resonate most with Wisconsinites?
I think the early stuff will resonate a lot with people here. And there are passages, toward the end, that I hope will resonate with everyone. I write about taking care of my parents, about issues that I think a lot of baby boomers have gone through: divorce, reinventing yourself, creating a family, overcoming illness. People have told me that reading about my experiences helped them with their own.
It’s incredibly rewarding to hear people say that my story touched them, that they could relate to it too.
What should fans expect from the June 20 event at Boswell Books?
Well, I hate when writers stand up and just read. So I won’t do that. I may read a short passage that I think the audience here will like, but then I’ll take a lot of questions. And there’ll be a signing afterward.