Before he started dreaming up soapy story lines for Desperate Housewives (and the upcoming Devious Maids), Marc Cherry cut his teeth as a Hollywood writer on the final three seasons of The Golden Girls, which today faced off against Friends in the latest installment of Vulture’s Sitcom Smackdown bracket. (Who won? Click here to find out.) Working with partner Jamie Wooten, Cherry got to write jokes for some of the funniest comedic actresses in TV history, while also working with the future creators of Arrested Development (Mitch Hurwitz) and Modern Family (Christopher Lloyd). Was the experience all chuckles and cheesecake? Or did Estelle Getty throw daily temper tantrums, providing Cherry valuable lessons in talent management he’d use once he arrived on Wisteria Lane? Okay, we’re not going to try to trick you: Working on Girls was just as awesome as you’d expect. Cherry took time out to share highlights of his experience, including how Rue McClanahan helped him shape one of the Housewives, why Bea Arthur wasn’t as tough as she seemed, and whether Betty White has any flaws at all (spoiler alert: She doesn’t).
So, which character was the hardest to write?
I’ve always thought Rose was the most difficult. It was such a fine line: Sometimes the writers could fall into the trap of just making her stupid. And as Betty White has always described it, Rose wasn’t stupid. She was naïve. She had a high emotional IQ and always understood emotions and feelings. But sometimes she didn’t understand sophisticated subjects. Her take on the world came from a place of confusion, as opposed to stupidity. So if you wrote Rose correctly, the character was at its most believable and funniest.
And your favorite?
For me, personally, my favorite character to write was Blanche. She was so self-involved and selfish and vain. And yet she had such a good heart. Rue McClanahan was so fantastic at being able to play an unlikable character with such a high degree of likability that you were really allowed to get away with stuff that you can’t get with normal characters. An interesting Desperate Housewives side note to this is that, somewhere in the first season, I actually started writing Gabrielle like Blanche. I figured out that Eva was good at being vain and self-involved, and yet you still liked it. I suddenly realized I had another Rue McClanahan on my hands. And that’s a rare gift. It became a guiding principle for writing the character for [the rest of the series].
Is Betty White as perfect as she seems?
I would actually say the answer to that is, She’s pretty darn perfect. I adore her. She’s just so great. I had the privilege of getting to know her a bit. People know she’s got a wicked sense of humor and that she’s super sweet. But Lord, is she smart. One of the biggest things I took away from the show was what a really intelligent women she is. And one of the reasons she’s so nice is that she really knows who she is. So yeah, she’s pretty darn perfect. I do know that Bea Arthur one time said, “Betty will die at work.” And that was not necessarily a compliment, as far as Bea was concerned. Bea wanted to do things other than act. That might be as close to a criticism of Betty that I’ve heard. I don’t necessarily share it.
I imagine read-throughs of episodes had to be fun on this show.
They could be rocking. If the writers had really done their job, the women were brilliant at read-throughs. One of the things that’s different at a Golden Girls read-through from other shows is, generally, if the joke was a good one, the women found a way to make it work the very first time they read it. You have a lot of table reads where the actors will mess it up because they don’t understand what the characters are doing, or they misinterpret. But the women were so uniformly brilliant at nailing it the first time. It made it easy for the writers because we knew what worked or didn’t work. There was very little, “Oh, I bet this will work on its feet.” Because we basically knew that if the women didn’t get it right the first time, the joke needed to be replaced.
Did the actors ever give notes on scripts?
They rarely, rarely said anything. They left us alone, because, generally, we delivered. There were some times we didn’t do as well as we could have, or didn’t come up to the standards of those four women, who were brilliant. But they were old-school. They didn’t call and complain.
Is there an episode of which you’re most proud?
The one where Blanche’s brother brings home a gay cop [“Sisters of the Bride”]. My writing partner and I wrote that one episode. We were young writers, and we got to say a little something about gay rights and how gay people see themselves. It was about two men getting married, which is something people at the time didn’t talk about. And it was a really funny episode. That was also the moment in our careers when we figured out we needed to get unlisted phone numbers. Some homophobic people found my writing partner’s number in the phone book and left the most hideous, hateful messages on his machine. And he was terribly upset.
Were there ever any story lines you remember not liking?
I was a baby writer. We worked our way up to producers on Golden Girls and I think supervising producers on Golden Palace [the comedy that everyone but Bea Arthur segued into after Golden Girls ended]. And that is the birthright of every lower-level writer, to bite their tongue while their executive producer “makes a choice.” And I say that very respectfully knowing that I’ve had some lower-level writers bite their tongue because I’ve “made choices.” That’s just how it works. One episode I did not care for was the one where they did the “sky is falling” musical [“Henny Penny– Straight No Chaser”]. I remember thinking it was kind of silly. One of our writers, who wrote the episode, had a past writing music. And he wanted to do something to haul out those talents. I just felt it wasn’t the tone of the show. Now, that writer [Tom Whedon] also did one of my favorite episodes, which was the murder mystery weekend episode [“The Case of the Libertine Belle”]. It came together magnificently. We all have ideas, and some episodes turn out better than others. That’s one time I remember biting my tongue.
You worked on the short-lived sequel to the show, Golden Palace. That must have been a big change, given the success of the original.
It was difficult. The truth of the matter is that, in any TV show, there’s a recipe that happens. And with Bea leaving, the chemistry was gone. Susan Harris gave it a shot, but ultimately I don’t think it worked. In retrospect, it might have been better to let Bea’s character get married and then replace her than come up with a whole new show. But they gave it a shot, and it didn’t work. And as a result, I got to work with a very young Don Cheadle!
What did working in the Golden Girls writers’ room teach you?
Hard joke writing. I worked with some tremendously funny men and women on Golden Girls, and they taught me the science of hard jokes. It’s not something I apply to a lot to my own writing. But because I have that tool in my own writing, it comes in handy. I learned how to take a good joke and spin it to be a very good joke, and sometimes a great joke. It was a competitive atmosphere. There was a lot of competition to get your words into the script.
So, what’s your lasting impression of the four women on the show?
Well, I told you what I think of Betty, which is that she’s so smart. With Bea, I just remember how vulnerable she was. She had this gruff exterior. But the truth is, if you told her a sad story, she could be reduced to tears, quickly. She had a lot of emotions inside. And her persona was one of someone strong and gruff. But that’s not who the woman inside was. And with Rue: She was just an actress, through and through. She tore into each script and just worked at it and took it very seriously. Jamie and I wrote the episode where she sings on the piano, “I Want to Be Loved by You.” I had the privilege of working with her to go over the movements on the piano and to find the funniest way to perform the song. And before the cameras rolled, she had that thing down. I mean, boy, she took it seriously. And that’s what I’ll always remember about her: how seriously she considered her craft. And Estelle was just like everyone’s grandmother. She was just the sweetest lady. She wasn’t full of herself, didn’t take herself seriously. And she loved all the gay writers like myself. She had a huge contingent of gay friends back in New York, and I would introduce her to my friends, and she would just be so lovely to them. The truth is, and I mean this most sincerely, they were the four most different women you’d ever want to meet, but I loved each and everyone of them. They were so wonderful to me and my writing partner.