I thought it might be fun to look at some unique aspects of writing for sitcoms in this blog series. This month we’ll take a look at a variety of writing subjects.
To begin this series, I wanted to learn a bit about a classic sitcom writer, and Jay Sommers came to mind immediately. He wrote more than 400 scripts.
Sommers was born in 1917 in New York City. Before veering into comedy, he attended the City College of New York and studied the not-so-funny topic of chemistry. Apparently, he had good chemistry with his girlfriend’s father who thought he was pretty funny. The dad was an executive with Bristol Myers and the company sponsored many radio shows.
In 1940 his relationship with his then girlfriend’s dad led to Sommers receiving an offer to write for Milton Berle’s radio show. Jay did not keep the girl, but he kept the career. He would go on to write for a variety of radio shows including The Alan Young Show, Eddie Cantor, Spike Jones, Lum and Abner, and Red Skelton.
In 1950 he became the producer, director, and writer for a show called Granby’s Green Acres. It only ran for two months, but it would inspire him to create Green Acres for television a decade later. The show was based on a book by S.J. Perelman titled Acres and Pains. The premise of the show was that a wealthy banker wants to become a farmer, so he and his wife move to the country. The banker was played by Gale Gordon and his wife was Bea Benardaret.
Sommers’ first job as a writer on television was for The Peter Lind Hayes Show in 1950; the episode starred Gloria Swanson. In 1951 he wrote for the Colgate Comedy Hour, along with an episode of the Buster Keaton Show.
1953 brought him recognition for an episode of Our Miss Brooks (“Clay City Chaperone”). He became busier in 1954 writing for My Friend Irma, The Red Skelton Hour, and The Great Gildersleeve.
In the late fifties, he contributed to Blondie, Bachelor Father, and The Donna Reed Show.
Sommers really came into his own as a writer in the sixties. Along with a few screenplays, he wrote for The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Jim Backus Show, Dennis the Menace, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Grindl.
Sommers enjoyed the most lucrative part of his career from 1964 to 1970, working on Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Paul Henning had created The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction for CBS. In 1965, the network asked Henning to come up with a new sitcom and said he did not have to film a pilot or give a pitch; they trusted him to develop whatever he wanted. Sommers suggested a television version of his old radio show, Granby’s Green Acres. With Gale Gordon and Bea Benardaret already committed to other shows, the hunt began for two new stars for Green Acres.
In the television show starring Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert, the banker is replaced by an attorney. Oliver Wendell Douglas and his wife Lisa leave glamorous Manhattan and move to a run-down farm in Hooterville. Lisa considers their handyman Eb their son and they bond with all the neighbors including Fred and Doris Ziffel and their pet pig Arnold, general store owner and postmaster Sam Drucker, and the folks from Petticoat Junction.
During an interview with the Television Academy, Paul Henning said his contribution was casting, and he let Jay do most of the writing and producing. The show resulted in 170 episodes and was canceled in 1971 when CBS decided to do a “rural purge” and get rid of any shows that fit that theme.
In another Television Academy interview with Richard L. Bare, who directed Green Acres, he said that he was the only director, Jay was the only producer, and that Jay and Dick Chevillat did all the writing. He said that the only other person on staff was a secretary. And, he said things worked out great. He said today there are way too many people on the set and it gets confusing.
Jay continued writing in the seventies, but he did not write a lot. His shows that decade included Hot L Baltimore, Good Times, Ball Four, Alice, and Hello Larry.
Jay passed away in 1985 in Los Angeles from a heart ailment. It was very hard to find much personal information about Jay and no photos. I do know that at some point he married Barbara and they had several children. So sad that we don’t know a lot about some of the people who contributed so much to the golden age of television.
Jay Sommers left us much too early. He came out of a chemistry background, proving you don’t have to teach someone to be funny. He wrote for some of my favorite shows including The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, and Bachelor Father.
Sommers worked on three of the most iconic television sitcoms in the 1960s: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. If you have been with me for a while, you know I never really cared for The Beverly Hillbillies. I really enjoy Petticoat Junction and I think it’s well written, but I think Green Acres was one of the best-written sitcoms on television. It’s not easy to write about quirky characters without them seeming unbelievable, but Jay did it. He created characters we fell in love with and truly liked. He produced and wrote brilliant scripts week after week for more than five years. They were clever, witty, and sophisticated without being over the top. His grave marker sums it up, “WRITER.” Thank you, Jay Sommers for introducing us to the good folks in Hooterville.