Suppose you were given a choice of two activities and you absolutely, positively had to do one of them. Which of these would you
One activity is to breakdance barefoot across a field strewn with shards of broken glass. The other activity is to write a
network variety show.
For me, it's No Contest. I've written network variety shows and give me the broken glass, anytime. To explain why, I have
only to tell The Cesar Romero Story.
Years ago, there was a five-week Summer variety series on ABC called The Half-Hour Comedy Hour which you probably didn't
see. Odds are, you were watching The "A" Team on NBC, along with most of America.
The producers hired a terrific cast of then-unknowns, including Arsenio Hall, Jan Hooks, and Victoria Jackson and a large writing
staff, myself included. They felt I was a handy guy to have around when something had to be written at the last minute...which, on a variety
show, is the only way things are ever written.
After having head-written variety shows for several years, I had given up the vineyard for reasons that will become apparent.
Still, the cast and crew of this show looked like they would be fun to work with...so I said yes. Fortunately for my health and sanity —
what little I had left of each — I was not going to head-write. That task was left to a wickedly witty gent named Phil Hahn.
Phil got his start writing greeting cards for the Hallmark folks in Kansas City. He teamed up with a friend named Jack Hanrahan
and they began writing for Mad Magazine. They also helped one of Hallmark's star artists, Paul Coker, become a regular illustrator for
Later, Hahn and Hanrahan migrated to Hollywood where they quickly became one of the hottest comedy-writing teams in town, working on
Get Smart, the original Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In, Sonny & Cher and many more. They also wrote for a number of
Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the late-60's. There was a period where their credits could be seen on almost every show I watched.
They'd gone their separate ways, with Phil heading off to Utah for a time to produce various TV shows starring various people named
Osmond. Now, he was back and doing a fine job organizing the scripting of an utterly chaotic enterprise.
Here's a true story —
Actually, everything I'm telling you here is true but I have to emphasize that this one is true because it's so incredible.
One day while I was working on the show, my friend Russell Myers happened to be in L.A., visiting from outta-town, and he came by so we
could go to lunch. Russell is, of course, the acclaimed cartoonist behind the wonderful newspaper strip, Broom-Hilda.
As we were heading out for a bite, he happened to glimpse Phil Hahn sitting behind a desk in his office with the door open.
Russell took three steps past, stopped and said, "I know that man."
I took him in and introduced him to Phil who said, "I know you from somewhere, too." It took them maybe thirty seconds to figure
Twenty years earlier, Russell Myers had worked in the Hallmark building in Kansas City, designing cards. Phil Hahn had the office
across the hall.
Little, tiny world.
Near the start of production on The Half-Hour Comedy Hour, the producers went into Phil's office and asked him to have us (the
writing staff) start whipping up cameo spots for certain guest stars they hoped to procure. One of them listed the prospective guests for Phil:
Burt Reynolds, Stevie Wonder, James Coburn, Donna Summer.
Phil pulled out a legal pad and wrote on it, "Four Cesar Romero spots."
They said, "No, no. Cesar Romero isn't going to be on the show. We're going to get Burt Reynolds, Stevie Wonder,
Phil just leaned back in his chair and said, "I've done a lot of variety shows and the producers always come in the first day and say
they're getting Burt Reynolds, and it always winds up being Cesar Romero. He's always available. No matter who they say they're going to
book, they always wind up with Cesar Romero. So we'll just write the spots for Cesar and it'll save us a lot of work later, switching them
But the producers insisted — "We're getting Burt Reynolds!" — and told Phil to write sketches for the names they'd
named. Phil complied but he had us write them like this...
BURT REYNOLDS SPOT (Cesar Romero)
BURT (Cesar) ENTERS, SITS DOWN NEXT TO A BEAUTIFUL GIRL.
Oh, Mr. Reynolds! (Mr. Romero), I've seen all your movies...
Oh, thank you...
I especially loved you in "Deliverance." (on the "Batman" TV show.)
And so on. Perhaps feeling challenged by Phil's attitude, they set to work and managed to land, for cameo guest appearances, not
only Burt, Stevie, James, and Donna, but also Lindsay Wagner, Richard Pryor, Robert Guillaume, Anson Williams, Henny Youngman, Tony Danza, Dick
Clark, Bob Eubanks, David Horowitz, several others I'm forgetting and, yes, even Pia Zadora. Pia Zadora, by the way, is about eight inches
These were cameo spots, meaning that the star came in, taped a bit or two and left. Generally speaking, this took from 30 minutes
to two hours.
Usually, they had not seen the material in advance. They'd arrive and the producer would round up a couple of writers to
demonstrate what had been written. We'd act out the bit for the guest and, if they had problems with it, do a fast rewrite to suit.
One day, I was sitting on the set with another writer — a clever gent named Mert Rich — when a frantic production assistant
ran up to us. "You're needed backstage," she yelled. "Joan Collins is here!"
Mert and/or I muttered something about being fed up with guest stars who insist on having sex with the writers. The P.A. didn't
get that we were kidding and said, "No, no! You have to act out the sketch for her."
We did. We went back to her dressing room and Ms. Collins watched in ice-encrusted silence as Mert and I performed a couple of
short comedy bits. When we were done, we waited for her to say something — "I like it" or "I hate it" or anything. Instead, after a
very long pause, she turned to Mert and said, "Get me a tissue."
She pronounced it very British with no "h" sound in it: Tiss-you. As if it rhymed with "miss you" or "kiss you."
Mert was baffled. He was a writer on the show — a good one, too — not an errand boy. Ms. Collins, however, was
a very special guest star and it would not help matters if she got irate and stormed out. Obligingly, he went over to the Make-Up Room and
fetched what she'd asked him to fetch.
She didn't say "thank you." In fact, I don't think she ever said anything to either of us. But she did go out and tape the
spots we'd demonstrated and then she departed.
A little later that day, John Davidson was in to tape a spot. He was right in the middle of it when he suddenly stopped and
called out, "Hold it! Is Mert Rich here? Mert Rich?"
Mert was backstage but he heard John Davidson (whom he had never met) yelling his name and ran out. "You wanted me?"
"Yes, Mert," John announced. "Get me a tiss-you!"
The whole crew broke up and Mert realized he'd been had. Someone — I wonder who — had briefed Davidson to ask
Thereafter, almost every single guest star on the show asked Mert for a tiss-you. Everyone on the crew asked, too. Mert
would walk through the halls of NBC and total strangers would ask him for a tiss-you. He took to carrying a box of Kleenex around at all times
and dispensing them to everyone who asked...and even a few who didn't.
The other cameo stars were all wonderful, especially Ricardo Montalban, who was just as nice as you'd want Ricardo Montalban to
be. He actually did not care for the piece that had been written for him — not that it wasn't funny but we had him playing himself and
flirting with a cute blonde. That was a problem.
He graciously explained he had been married a long time to a very well-known actress. He had also worked for much of his career
to improve the image of Hispanic characters in film, particularly to counter the stereotype of the "Latin Lover." We could ridicule him in any
other way we liked, he said, but he would prefer not to suggest that he would ever cheat on his spouse.
Ordinarily, when a star says he won't do what you've written, what you want to say is, "Shut up and read the cue cards, you overpaid
ex-waiter." You can't always say that, of course, but the thought does come to mind.
But Señor Montalban was so charming, we fell over ourselves to rewrite until he was satisfied. He was the politest actor
I've ever met in my life. He didn't even ask Mert to get him a tiss-you.
Meanwhile, throughout weeks of taping, Phil Hahn was wandering around the stage, puzzled, muttering, "Where's Cesar? Why isn't
Cesar here? He always shows up, sooner or later..." When the daily Call Time sheets were distributed, Phil would snatch them up and
search for Cesar Romero, worrying that maybe he was ill or something...
Hahn was baffled because booking guests on a variety show is usually the killer headache. The ones the network likes are never
available. The ones that are available, the network can't stand. Any guests who are available and acceptable to the network want more
money than you can possibly afford to pay them, plus they won't rehearse. They want to show up, tape, and be gone in an hour, plus they want to
read the material before they'll commit.
The last demand is the killer for writers. I don't know how many times I've been sitting there and the producer runs in and says,
"We've got a shot at getting William Shatner if he likes the material and if we'll let him sing. Write something up!"
So I, dutiful Head Writer that I am, work with the staff and cobble up a sketch in which Bill gets to sing, gets to squeeze some pretty
ladies, and gets all the laughs...but before it's even done, in rushes the producer who says, "Shatner's just left to do a film in Europe, but I
think we have a shot at getting Fran Drescher if she likes the material. Switch the Shatner bit."
— to which I protest, it can't be done: We have Star Trek jokes in there, T.J. Hooker jokes, Rescue
911 jokes...and the producer says, "Look, I promised Drescher's agent I'd have some pages over there, this afternoon. Write something."
You think I'm exaggerating? I swear this is true: On one show I did, the network wanted us to get Penny Marshall and her
then-hubby, Rob Reiner, to guest. We wrote a sketch for the both of them — a very funny sketch, I thought. Then Rob decided he
wasn't available so we rewrote it for Penny alone. Okay, fine. Then Penny wanted too much money but, luckily, Sally Struthers was
available. Okay: Out Penny, in Sally.
We rewrote the sketch again for Sally (not a huge change) and Sally actually showed up to rehearse for about an hour. Then she
got a TV-movie to do so good-bye, Sally. Now, who could we get? How about Erik Estrada? Fine. Out Sally, in Erik. We had
to rewrite the sketch from Sally to Erik who is, after all, almost the exact same type (?). Then the network called and said they wanted Penny
in the show so much, they'd chip in for her fee. So then we went back and rewrote the Erik sketch so it was Erik and Penny, both.
Done? Nope. Penny then decided she didn't want to be in the same sketch with Erik. She wanted her own sketch.
So we put the Erik sketch back the way it was, wrote a whole new sketch for Penny and trimmed everything else in the show to make room for the Penny
I don't know how many times we rewrote that sketch. A secretary told me it was 32 and it may have been. And remember that
every rewrite involved costumes and sets and props and music cues and cast approvals and censors and migraines galore.
It's like that on every show, night through day and back again. We stay up 'til all hours, trying to switch the Erik Estrada
material to Sherman Hemsley without changing much because we tape in ten hours and there's no time to build new sets or costumes or change music
that's already recorded.
The Estrada/Hemsley conversion is a true example and one of the easier ones I had to make. Another time, it was changing a part
conceived for Buddy Ebsen to Florence Henderson. Yet another time, Leonard Nimoy cancelled and the producer said he'd find a replacement who
was similar so we could use what was already written. He got Jerry Lewis. Now, are you beginning to understand why I stopped writing
There are two Post Scripts to this tale. One is that The Half-Hour Comedy Hour did okay, given its competition, but not okay
enough to warrant more episodes. Still, it helped Jan Hooks and Victoria Jackson get "discovered" for Saturday Night Live...and Arsenio
Hall has done pretty well for himself, as have most of the other cast members and writers.
Post Script Number Two is a call I got a few months later from Phil Hahn. He was writing a variety show for someone and they told
him, "Hey, we're getting Bette Midler! Write something for her." Phil forgot and actually wrote something for Bette Midler.
Weeping over the phone, he told me, "They just came in and told me they couldn't get Bette and I had to switch the sketch around to the
star they could get. You'll never guess who it is..."
Yes, it was him. He's always available.
P.S. I wrote the above article in '84. Since then, Mr. Romero has passed away. This has only slightly cut down on his