Almost Everything You Need to Know About Comedy Writer Bill Persky

…And in case you’re wondering why we think an awareness of this very funny and highly influential dood, it’s because as one of the most prominent voices behind THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE GIRL, WHO’S THE BOSS, THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW, and many more he has indeed been a very funny and highly influential, erm, writer.

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With a little help from Bill Persky, Marlo Thomas became one of the Great Emancipators of The American Woman

With a little help from Bill Persky, Marlo Thomas became one of the Great Emancipators of The American Woman. For reals.

by Reed Bunzel

Like many early comedy writers, Bill Persky found himself working with some of the great classic comics of radio and TV. After a stint as a cabana boy at the famed Grossinger’s Hotel in the Catskills, he became an assistant program director at WNEW New York in the mid-1950s. His first TV sale came when he and writing partner Don Rosenblit invented a character known as “the Pigloo,” a combination of a pig and an igloo that was picked up by the Howdy Doody Show as a regular character. Savoring that first taste of success, he moved to California and wrote for a variety of innovative programs, including The Steve Allen Show, The Andy Williams Show, The Julie Andrews Show, McHale’s Navy, and The Joey Bishop Show.

Persky got his big break from Carl Reiner, who recognized the young man’s comedic talent and ear for dialogue and hired him as a writer on The Dick Van Dyke Show. “The best thing that ever happened to me in my life is Carl,” Persky told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. “With Carl, you walk away with some of his DNA. You are enthused with his values and his fearlessness.”

Writers learn from an early age to “write what you know,” and nowhere was this clearer than The Dick Van Dyke Show. Persky says every episode of the series was based on something that happened to someone working on the show. Always pushing the envelope, Persky and company wrote an episode in which Rob Petrie (Van Dyke) became convinced that his baby son Richie had been switched at birth with a baby belonging to a couple called Mr. and Mrs. Peters. When it turned out the Peters were African American, the network balked, not wanting to offend blacks or whites in the audience. Reiner and Persky pushed back and the episode was a smash hit.

“It really did feel like we were throwing a hand grenade into the audience,” Persky told The Huffington Post in 2012. “You had to start with the truth with Carl, who’s my absolute favorite person in the world. We still talk once a week, and he reads me the stuff he’s writing.”

Somewhere in those early years Persky met Danny Thomas, whom he describes as funny, warm and very giving. It was a relationship that was to lead not only to a long friendship but also a turning point in the evolution of network TV programming. After three years (and two Emmys) with The Dick Van Dyke Show, Persky and his writing partner Sam Denoff were approached by Danny’s daughter Marlo, who talked them into taking a chance on a new show that initially was titled Miss Independence.

That was the name Danny called Marlo, but Persky believed the title was far too obvious for its own good. “Calling the show that was like waving a flag,” Persky said in a Huffington Post interview. “ButThat Girl was how my parents always referred to my sister. She was always doing amazing things and they’d say, ‘do you know what that girl did today?’ So we called it That Girl. It was groundbreaking at the time because no one wanted to do a show about a single career woman. But Marlo — I call her the velvet steamroller — is such a passionate person. She absolutely wanted to play a woman with aspirations of living on her own. No one else could have played that role or gotten that show on the air.”

The series featured Marlo as a struggling actress in New York who had a boyfriend but was in no great hurry to tie the knot. When the series finally was canceled some network execs thought the final episode should end with their wedding, but Persky and Thomas believed that outcome would not be true to her character. “Marlo thought that the whole series would have been a lie if they’d gotten married at the end,” Persky said in the HuffPost interview. “That would have sent out a message that all girls want is to be married. She absolutely wouldn’t have it. We fought for that not to happen — and it didn’t.”

Today, That Girl is credited with helping to pave the way for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and subsequent series featuring independent single women. It also gave many baby-boomer women the courage and support they needed to declare their own independence in a changing society. “They say what a hero I am to them because I did the show,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “What’s interesting is that a lot of teenage girls are getting interested in it. Their grandmothers are buying their grandkids the DVDs — and they’re loving it.”…

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