Friday, October 6, 2017

David Geffen, Elias Davis, and the Rise of the House of Usher

This week the front page of the Los Angeles Times was splashed with a rare happy story. Music industry mogul David Geffen had just pledged $150 million for the renovation of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It was hardly Geffen’s first grand philanthropic gesture: he has enriched the coffers of theatres, museums, and concert halls on both coasts. And UCLA’s prestigious School of Medicine was renamed in his honor following a $400 million donation.

So David Geffen’s an impressive guy. But some forty years ago, he was just a young drudge working a lowly job at CBS. One fine day, kibitzing with his supervisor, he mentioned his plan to find a hot literary property, buy the rights, and make a film. That supervisor, Elias Davis, was hardly impressed with his youthful optimism. He pointed out that the kid was merely an (expletive deleted) usher.

How times have changed! Today Geffen is one of the world’s wealthiest men. But that supervisor—officially the assistant usher supervisor—has not done so badly himself. Elias Davis, who was interested in cinematography but somehow became a writer of sitcoms and film comedies, now owns an Emmy and a house in Malibu. For his work on such landmark TV as M*AS*H, Frasier, and The Carol Burnett Show, he and co-writer David Pollock have racked up a slew of nifty award nominations.

I’m not sure why, but writers of stage and screen comedies often come in pairs. One advantage of writing as a team is the opportunity to bounce ideas off a like-minded partner. Sometimes these duos get along famously; sometimes not. Elias cited for me a passage in Moss Hart’s Broadway memoir, Act One, in which Hart reminisced about his collaborations with George S. Kaufman. The two spun such farces as You Can’t Take It With You into comic gold.. But at every work session, Kaufman obsessively picked lint from carpets and furniture before he could settle down to make theatrical magic. Working “head to head,” Elias and Pollock apparently struggled with no such quirks. Of course there was the time that Pollock came into the office one morning with a cold opening that struck an awed Elias as “just perfect.” He never shared with his partner his secret anxiety that perhaps he himself was not really needed.

Today those who aspire to break into TV comedy talk knowledgeably about show runners and writers’ rooms. Elias remembers a much different era, when a show’s producer would hire one staff writer, and freelancers would carry much of the load. Gradually, though, writing staffs became enlarged. Elias counts among his favorite memories his years on the staff of M*AS*H, where he felt among both cast and staff a sense of camaraderie and pride he’s never experienced on any other show. Another special opportunity involved being chosen by the great Paddy Chayefsky to collaborate on a comic pilot called Your Place or Mine. The show flopped, but he cherished the opportunity to learn from a master.

Today Elias devotes himself to making music in various ensembles (he’s graduated from trombone to recorder). But he can imagine himself writing for a contemporary satirical comedy like Veep. He’s amused to recall that in the early days of Showtime, he and David Pollock were hired to wring a sitcom from a quirky Bruce Jay Friedman play in which God is a Puerto Rican steambath attendant. Their resulting Steambath, though, proved too boldly satiric for Showtime, which aspired in those days to be just like the networks. Times certainly have changed. Says, Elias, with a shrug, “It might work now.”

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