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December 18, 2014

Spotlight: Writer Winifred Hervey

Writer Winifred Hervey blazed a trail for women, African-Americans and other young writers.

Amy Harrington

As a young writer in Hollywood, Winifred Hervey found success early on. But she found few other women or African Americans in those writers’ rooms.

“When I started, there were hardly any other women on staff,” she recalls. “I could hang around with the guys, but it would have been nice to have some other women around.

Still, she was comfortable in a roomful of men because she had grown up playing sports with three rough-and-tumble brothers. With a father in the U.S. Air Force — the family lived in Lompoc, California, near Vandenberg Air Force base — she knew discipline. She loved reading and was funny, to boot.

As a student at Loyola Marymount University, Hervey wasn’t sure what career to pursue; her history prof suggested law, while her communications arts teacher championed entertainment.

The latter won out when that instructor recommended Hervey for the Television Academy internship program. The confident young woman (who had also considered a career in medicine) soon found herself interning on the MTM sitcom Rhoda.

She went on to forge a career as a writer and producer on a wide array of primetime shows, from Laverne & Shirley to Mork & Mindy , Benson , The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls and was the creator and executive producer of The Steve Harvey Show. She won an Emmy in 1987 when The Golden Girls was named outstanding comedy series; Hervey was then a coproducer.

Hervey was interviewed in August 2013 by Amy Harrington for the Television Academy Foundation’s Archive of American Television. The following is an edited excerpt of that interview; the entire interview can be viewed at EmmyTVLegends.org.

Q: Did you write when you were a kid?

A: I did. I remember in seventh grade we had to write a paper about what we could invent — mine was about a pill you could take so you could wake up skinny, because I was a fat kid. That was the first time I realized I was funny.

Q: How did you get your start in the industry?

A: A teacher asked me if I would go to an interview for a Television Academy internship. I remember a long table with people from all different aspects of television. I don’t really remember what I said, but I do remember that I had the table laughing. Then I said I wanted to be a comedy writer, so I was assigned to Rhoda at MTM.

Q: What did you learn there?

A: I was there for all the run-throughs, so I could see how the script would change from day to day. I could see how the director and the executive producer would watch the run-throughs and make adjustments. They shot two shows, so I saw the difference between the performances and how things were cut together.

Q: Didn’t you also participate in a Warner Bros. workshop?

A: It was the minority and women’s workshop. We would meet every Saturday morning. We were taught to pitch a story, how to write the outline, how to go from the outline to the script.

Then we would all read each other’s scripts and give notes. It was a real education.

Q: From there, where did you go?

A: I got an internship with the Garry Marshall Company and worked on Laverne & Shirley. Gary Menteer and Marty Nadler were executive producers. I remember they told me, “You will either become a writer or you will be getting us coffee.” That was when staffs were huge — there were probably 13 people on that staff, and I was the lowest person.

Another intern and I would do the “button patrol.” The end of each scene always ended with a joke called the button, and they would ask the interns to come back with, like, 50 jokes. They would read them off, and it was a lot of fun. I did that for a while, and then the writers’ strike started. The other intern and I were the first two to be kicked off the lot. After the strike, they invited me back to the show as a staff writer.

Q: Did you work directly with Garry Marshall?

A: Yes, Garry was really involved with all of his shows. I believe he had five running at that time. Everybody knew everybody.

We used to have a gathering at the beginning of every season called Camp Marshall Mount. The writers from each show would write a skit, we would eat Jell-O and Garry would bring in all these great comedy writers — Jerry Belson, Harvey Miller — and they would do skits for us, too. Then Garry would give a speech about us eating too much candy and missing work because we had to go to the dentist. And he’d say, “Please don’t ask me to hire your girlfriends.”

There was a great sense of camaraderie between all the shows’ staffs because sometimes the writers would jump, as I did, from show to show. It was a very supportive, fun place to be. He was very much responsible for that.

Q: And after Laverne & Shirley, came Mork & Mindy.

A: I’m not sure why they moved me over, but I was glad they did. Brian Levant was one of the producers, and he took me under his wing. That’s where I got to write my first script all by myself, “Present Tense.” It was about Mork and Mindy [Robin Williams and Pam Dawber] having some arguments in their relationship.

The year that I went to the show, Mork and Mindy got married. They had a baby, who was played by Jonathan Winters. In my episode, Mork and Mindy did a dance number to “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and it had a series of very funny vignettes. At the end, Mork had to give his report and Orson [in a voiceover by Ralph James] said, “You’ve earned your stripes.”

I had written that when Orson said that, a zebra would appear in Mork’s arms. I didn’t think they were going to get a zebra, but they got one! There was Robin Williams, holding this baby zebra. I remember that feeling of power I had as a writer, that I could write something and they would make it happen. That was very heady.

Q: In 1983 you became a story editor on Benson.

A: I got a call from [the production company] Witt/Thomas/Harris. They asked if I would come and meet Robert Guillaume [then starring in ABC’s Benson , a spinoff of Soap ]. I met Paul Witt and Tony Thomas first, and then I went to lunch with Robert and we had a long conversation.

Robert was very unhappy with certain aspects of his character and wanted to have more diversity in the writing staff. The company was great about trying to do that for him. We hit it off, and they decided to hire me.

But that was a big tonal change for me, because all the work I had done before was on Garry Marshall shows, which were a bit broader, a little bit jokier and much more physical. It was a real change in writing style, in terms of how you approached stories and the kind of stories you could do.

Q: Then came an offer to join The Cosby Show.

A: It shot in New York, which was a great opportunity. It was produced by Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, who were extremely successful. And, of course, it starred Bill Cosby — I had grown up listening to all his albums. That was the first time I was on a show that was so star-generated. It was all Bill Cosby, all the time.

Jay Sandrich was the director. My training had always been that the director was king, and you didn’t question him. Bill Cosby did question the director — he would even move things around. I couldn’t believe he was doing that. But Jay thought he was a genius, so he didn’t mind it at all.

Bill would go off script. We would be shooting, and suddenly it was just like doing live television. He would start going someplace that wasn’t blocked. And Jay would take it from there — everybody would be working off the cuff. Then Bill would find his way back in, and you would never know the difference because the cast would just find a way back in and continue.

Q: You were the only woman on the writing staff. How were you treated by the other writers?

A: That was another revolving-door show.

They had a lot of writers. I think everybody was a little shell-shocked a lot of the time — they were guarding their territory.

When I first got there, I wasn’t allowed in the writers’ room. Finally I said, “Hey, I’m a writer here. I need to be in the room.”

Then I was caught in a political thing. Even though Tom and Marcy were the executive producers, they weren’t there day to day. Elliot Shoenman and John Markus were running the show. I think they were not that happy that I was there because they didn’t hire me and they didn’t know me. That was a difficult way to come in. There was a little resistance at the beginning, but we worked through it.

Q: Why did you leave?

A: That’s the only show I was fired from. I just didn’t fit into that Bill Cosby world. I couldn’t march to those marching orders and live my life that way. I was not asked back. I did feel that I was mistreated. I felt like I was kind of treated like a bimbo. I felt that I was ignored. I said something about it, and I did it in a very tactful way. But I don’t think they enjoyed hearing it.

After that, I went back to Witt/Thomas/Harris, to work on Golden Girls , and that was fantastic. They showed me the pilot, and I thought it was brilliant. I loved those women. It was like coming home because I felt appreciated.

Q: Did you feel that you had more creative freedom there?

A: Absolutely. I love writing jokes — I’m a joke writer. I love character humor as well. I knew what was expected of me, and it was also great to write for those women. It also meant knowing when not to write — when to let Bea [Arthur] lift her eyebrow or let a gesture work. It was a much more subtle physicality, but there was still a lot of physical humor. They used every part of their bodies in their humor.

Q: Why did you end up leaving?

A: Because I felt like I was always going to be “the kid.” They used to call me the kid. I was the only person who wasn’t in a team, and I felt like I fell between the cracks.

I needed to go someplace where people would think of me differently. That was one of the reasons I left. Also, I married during that time and had a child.

Q: You went on to another hit when you became an executive producer of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air during its second season.

A: Will Smith, of course, was the star of the show, which had a lot of personal importance to [executive producer] Benny Medina — he considered it a bit of his life story [As a teen, Medina had lived with the family of music mogul Berry Gordy; in the show, Smith’s character moves in with wealthy relatives].

It was Will’s first experience doing a television show. He came from the music industry. In music he could do whatever he wanted. He didn’t really like some lady telling him what to do. But as he gained confidence in the material — even though it was a difficult process — we made a really good team.

Q: In 1995 you moved on to In the House.

A: That came about through my NBC deal. Fresh Prince was produced by Quincy Jones’s company; they had a deal with LL Cool J and a format that they wanted to do [the rapper starred as a former NFL player who rents out rooms in his house to a single mother and her kids].

We talked about Debbie Allen as the leading lady. I was writing the script, and they kept calling and saying Debbie wanted to read the script. I said, “No, she can’t read the script until it’s done. Tell her it has to be finished.”

Finally I thought, “Oh, boy, this is going to be a battle.” She read the script, and they called me for the notes meeting. But she said, “I have no notes.” That was so fantastic. We laughed and said, “They’re waiting for the two black ladies to claw each other to death, and we’re not going to do that.”

Q: What was your experience on that show?

A: Debbie comes from the theater and is a director and a dancer. She’s very disciplined. We got along great. To me, she was kind of the mother of the show.

And LL Cool J was fantastic. I had not met him before I wrote the script, so while I knew he was attached, I wrote from the concept. I didn’t really write for him. Then I met him, and it just clicked.

After coming from Fresh Prince, where I felt beat up all the time, it was great to work with two people who were so gentle and nurturing and really loved the work.

I think I did 22 episodes, but I wasn’t asked back — I was too bossy and opinionated.

Q: In 1996 you created and executive–produced The Steve Harvey Show.

A: I had been approached about Steve Harvey before, but I didn’t feel like he was quite my cup of tea. I had not worked with many stand-ups. But Stan Lathan came to me, and he’s somebody I’d known for a long time and respect very much.

Stan knew how to work with these comedians because he had [helped create HBO’s] Def Comedy Jam . He gave me insight into how to work with them.

Steve was a traditional kind of a guy, so dealing with a woman was a little different for him. It was an interesting learning curve for me, because it was a very male set. Stan had his group of guys that he worked with, and I was pretty full of myself as well, so it took a little transition to get everybody on the same page.

Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the business?

A: Being a minority and a female. Many times I was the only minority on the staff.

I remember one time somebody asked me a question as if I was the black almanac or something. I said, “Well, I’ll bring that up at the meeting with all the black people next time.”

You get forgotten, or people think you can only do certain things — that you can only write about other African Americans or that you can only write for women. You get pigeonholed. They should just look at the writing and say, “This is a good writer; this is somebody who could bring something to this project.”

Television has gotten very segregated,and maybe cable hasn’t helped. Now it’s like, “Well, they can go over and be on that channel and have their little niche,” instead of being more broad-minded.

Q: What advice would you give aspiring writers and producers?

A: You have to be educated. Read, go to plays, learn how film production works. Live, get out in the world and have something to write about. Your life is what gives you your material.

And don’t try to be the boss the first day. Realize that you have to pay your dues and work your way up — there’s a benefit to that. There are so many things that you learn along the way. So, listen. Don’t always talk.

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