Writer Fred Fox began his career when comedy was king in America. He boasts an impressively long list of credits, starting with the classic Fifties-set comedy Happy Days as well as its spin-off series, Joanie Loves Chachi. And if his name sounds familiar that’s because he is the son of Fred S. Fox, who wrote for comedy stalwarts Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and George Burns.
1. When did you first get the writing bug?
My father, Fred S. Fox, was a successful television writer when I was a young boy. He wrote for The Andy Griffith Show, Here‘s Lucy and many other legendary comedians and shows. He was very funny. When my twin sister Jan and I were growing up, our friends loved coming by the house, Dad would always crack them up. I thought that it was so cool that Dad was a writer. Even so, for whatever reason, it never entered my mind that I would follow in his footsteps. Dad rarely talked about his work and the writing process and looking back, I guess I never asked.
In 1974, I decided to take an extension class at UCLA in comedy writing. I enjoyed it. I hit it off with one of my classmates, we seemed to share a similar
sense of humour. A few weeks in, we decided to write a spec script for All In The Family. When we were writing, I never asked my father for suggestions. In retrospect, maybe I felt it was something I had to do on my own. When we finished, we then asked Dad to read it. He liked it and showed it to his agent, Sylvia Hirsch at William Morris. She was nice and submitted it to one of the All In The Family producers. A never-ending month later, we received a letter from the producer, he thought our script was very funny, but it was near the end of the season and all their script assignments were full. We hoped that was true but felt it may have been your standard rejection letter. But maybe it was the truth, as the gentleman I wrote it with was Garry Shandling. After writing that first spec script, I felt that writing was something I wanted to pursue.
How did you get your first break?
Late December 1975, I received a call from Cindy Williams, who co-starred in the now classic movie American Graffiti and the cult favourite The Conversation, with Gene Hackman. Cindy and I went to Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley and were good friends. She told me she was going to do a sitcom called Laverne & Shirley and wanted to know if I would be interested in being her “gopher” and an apprentice writer on the show. She warned me that the show could be cancelled at any time. Cindy said that she would get me a meeting with Garry Marshall, the very successful writer/producer and the creator of The Odd Couple for television based on the Neil Simon play and movie and Happy Days, a top-ten hit at the time and often number one. I was working at an advertising agency at the time but I was excited for the opportunity to have a chance of working in television with Cindy and Garry.
I couldn’t believe I was going to meet Garry. I walked into his office and the first thing out of Garry’s mouth was “So, you’re Freddy Fox’s kid.” He told me that when he and his partner Jerry Belson came to Hollywood from New York to become comedy writers, one of the first shows they were hired on was The Joey Bishop Show. Also on staff were my father and his partner at the time, Izzy Ellison. Garry told me that Dad was always supportive and encouraging. Garry said that he knew I wanted to be a writer but if hired, I was to devote my time to Cindy, to help her anyway I could so she could focus on the show. After she left for the day, I could spend time with the writers. I was thrilled and accepted the job.
Can you talk about working on Happy Days?
I could talk about the show forever. My first memory was when I was hired on staff. I was working on Laverne & Shirley and we were going to do an episode where Ron Howard and Anson Williams were going to guest star. We started to pitch some story areas and I remember one of the writers asking Lowell Ganz (the showrunner at the time), who was going to write the episode. He replied that they had someone in mind. The next day, I was asked if I wanted to write the episode. I was obviously overjoyed. I was very lucky – the script and the episode turned out well. A couple of weeks later, I was asked to join the Happy Days writing staff. I couldn’t believe it. I felt an obligation to Cindy Williams but she was happy for me and told me to go to for it.
Working on the show was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was on staff for seven years, starting as a story editor and ending up a supervising producer and co-showrunner with Brian Levant the last two seasons. I worked with some amazingly talented people. I learned so much about writing and producing and discovered that it’s always a learning process.
The writing staff at the time consisted of veteran writers and young rookies. Garry Marshall is known for giving young writers an opportunity to break into the business. There’s no real training, you’re thrown into the writer’s den and you’re on your own. You can’t imagine how intimidating it is to pitch a joke in a room full of successful and some award-winning writers. What helped tremendously was that Garry and the staff were so supportive. Most other shows you would have to fend for yourself and sometimes hear things like “You think that’s funny?” I was also responsible with coming up with story ideas. I found constructing the story and including all the characters challenging and fun.
I was fortunate to work with extremely talented writers and producers and a very funny and talented director Jerry Paris. After the show ended after eleven years, manycontinued their successful careers. Garry Marshall (Pretty Woman, Beaches, Georgia Rule), Ron Howard ( Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The Davinci Code) and Brian Levant (Beethoven, Snow Dogs, Are We There Yet?) went on to become extremely talented and successful film directors, Ron an Academy award winner, Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell, the same in screenwriting (Night Shift, League of Their Own,Parenthood). We shot the last episode of Happy Days almost 24 years ago and a lot of us stay in touch today.
How do you think the industry has changed since you started out? Do you think it‘s easier to enter the industry now?
There have been a plethora of changes in the industry since I started. When I began, there were only three networks – ABC, NBC and CBS, in addition to local stations. There were shows that would get huge audiences, sometimes getting a 50 per cent share. Today that is unheard of with the proliferation of network, cable and independent stations. We now have HBO, Showtime, CNN, FX, TNT, USA, Comedy Central, Hallmark, National Geographic and Fox to name a few. There are programs on everything – cooking, home improvement, education, shopping, gambling. When I started, it was pretty limited where a writer could pitch and only so many shows he or she could try to get on staff. The content was a lot different also. Networks were very strict about what was allowed in the areas of sexual innuendo and violence. Today those are blatant in several shows.
When I began writing, comedy and sitcoms were king. Shows like Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Three‘s Company, M.A.S.H., Barney Miller, All In The Family, Alice consistently ranked in the top 10 or top 25 in the weekly ratings. A few weeks ago, only five out of the top 50 shows were sitcoms. Dramas like the three Law and Order series and the three CSI series have taken over, not to mention the huge success of reality shows. They have taken over hours and hours of television time, eliminating spots for comedies.
Also, the advancing technology has changed the business dramatically. When I started out, I would handprint my scripts. Others would typewrite theirs. Now we have the computer and several software programs for writing, which saves a large amount of time. In addition, you can view television shows on DVDs, computers, iPods and even mobile phone. You can Tivo a show and watch it anytime you want.
I think that ageism is more prevalent today. It used to be an issue around the age of 50. A television director friend of mine once told me he heard a showrunner say he wouldn’t hire any writer over 30. I think that’s an extreme but the fact that someone actually said it is pretty frightening. I don’t think it happens as much in the feature world. If it’s a good script, it doesn’t matter what age the writer is. At one time, a writing partner and I had a script at a major studio, they were very enthusiastic about the project. We did a couple of rewrites and then they decided they would bring in “a hot young writer” to do a rewrite. We felt fine, if he could improve it and help it get made, great. Unfortunately, everyone, the producer and the studio executives felt he not only didn’t improve it, he made it incredibly worse. It died a quick death after we had it there for two years.
I think it’s always been hard to get into the entertainment industry. The increased amount of networks and cable stations has created a need for more product, but with more and more people trying to get into the business, it creates a great deal of competition, making it even harder to get an agent and break in.
What advice would you give anyone starting out today?
It seems obvious, but if you want to be a writer, write. Sometimes people say they want to write, but they never get around to write anything. For those who have tried, staring at a blank page is intimidating and overwhelming. They say they are scared. I tell them to write down anything, just write whatever you are thinking. Writing is a lot of rewriting, you’re never going to get it perfect the first time.
There are a great deal of books that discuss how to write, along with independent and college writing classes. Many are helpful and talk about the craft of both television and screenwriting. You can teach formats, story structure and how to write, but you can’t teach someone how to be funny.
Pick out a popular show that you love. Know the tone of the show and the kind of stories it tells. Know the characters and what they will and will not do, and how every one of then would react in all situations. Whether you are writing a sitcom or an hour drama, do your research. Know the script format and, again, this sounds obvious, know how the proper spelling of the characters. Also, this is embarrassing to even mention, but proofread diligently. Typos drive writers
and producers crazy. You can’t believe how many freelance scripts are submitted with a plethora of typos and character names spelled incorrectly. Most are tossed.
Again, I only mention this because it does happen. I have a friend who had been working on a script for a long time but never sent it out. Another friend said he could get it to an agent. Months went by and he never gave it to the friend. Finally, after encouraging words from his friend, he sent it in. I complimented him for handing it in and the first thing out of his mouth was “Yeah, but there were a lot of typos”. I was incredulous, why he would turn in a script with typos? He replied that he didn’t have money for a proof reader and that the people reading his script wouldn’t care. He was wrong.
When you finally hand in your script, make it the best it can be, it’s representing your talent and you want yours to stand out above the rest. If you can, besides having your friends read it, try to get some feedback from a professional. When Garry Shandling and I wrote our spec All In The Family, Ted Bergman, a writer-producer on Stanford & Son,read our draft and was very helpful.
If you want to write for the big screen, I would also suggest you write a spec script. I had an idea roaming my mind for ten years and finally decided to give it a shot. I wrote a spec script and it was optioned by Steve Stabler, who produced Kingpin and Dumb and Dumber. It also got me a lot of meetings with film executives.
What shows do you watch?
What is strange after writing and producing sitcoms for over 30 years, I find myself most watching hours shows – Law and Order, Boston Legal, Rescue Me, The Shield, 24, CSI and The Sopranos. I also watch Curb Your Enthusiasm and Entourage.
Do you think American comedy is in a healthy state?
Unfortunately, it is not. I think one problem with comedy is that it’s quite often similar. Once a show becomes a hit, all the networks try to strike lightening twice. How many shows tried to be like Friends or Sex In The City? It’s easy for writers and producers to criticize how imitative television is, we don’t have to put up the huge amount of money to produce the shows, but you wish the networks would set aside at least some money to try something original. That’s one of the appealing qualities of Curb Your Enthusiasm and My Name Is Earl. Todaymost top shows are drama or reality. Years ago “they” said sitcoms were dead but then The Cosby Show came along and brought them back. Hopefully, something like that will happen again, and soon.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Some of my ideas or stories come from lifetime experiences – a funny incident or a warm or poignant moment. Also causes I care about and issues that need to be explored. I wrote a screenplay about my first and only marriage. Sometimes I may want to express a certain theme, so I will incorporate it into an episode of a show I’m doing or write a feature to get it across. It’s not didactic. Hopefully, the story is expressed in a humorous or entertaining way.
I have a ten-year-old daughter, a lot of inspiration comes from her. She is extremely funny and has a heart of gold. When she was growing up, from the first time she spoke, I wrote down things she said that I felt were funny, charming, insightful and poignant. I published a book, Through Francesca‘s Eyes, which contain her quotes, along with photographs. It was truly a labour of love.
How do you make sure the phone keeps ringing?
Hopefully, your agent is a big part of that. Even so, you also have to try to get work on your own. You continuously have to come up with projects. You’re only as good as your latest project. When you’re over 30, an expression that keeps popping up is “You have to reinvent yourself”. Most of my experience has been in television. I was extremely lucky to have written and produced shows for 21 straight years. My streak ended in 1998 after co-executive producing Family Matters for eight years. Since then, I have written three features, two musicals, television pilots and two books. It is a never-ending process, both fun and challenging.