|Archival photos of IWF Idaho member Peggy Elliott Goldwyn during her days as a comedy writer.|
During the 2019 IWF World Leadership Conference in Toronto, we welcomed three hilarious women for a plenary session about women in comedy. Allana Harkin, Tumi Morake and Saskia Schuster discussed their journeys and insight on today’s entertainment industry.
To expand on this important conversation, we wanted to hear from an IWF member who has experience in the worlds of comedy and entertainment. IWF Idaho member Peggy Elliott Goldwyn began her career writing, directing and producing documentaries for syndicated television. She wrote television comedies for many years, including "That Girl," "The Odd Couple" and "Happy Days," as well as television movies and motion pictures. Today, she’s a novelist, activist and fierce woman’s advocate.
Below, Peggy describes what it was like being the only woman in the writer’s room at 23 years old, how social media is changing access to new audiences, and the trick to making comedy approachable today.
You have said that you always “felt at home” in the comedy writing world. What was it about the industry that attracted you and kept you involved?
I began writing skits, radio spoofs and less-than-sophomoric humor when I was in grade school in El Paso, Texas. I moved to Los Angeles as soon as I could. After a couple years in documentaries, in 1966 I found my home writing the debut season of “That Girl.” It was the first sitcom about a young, single woman, which was perfect for me and my writing partner Ed.
In those days, only variety shows were staff-written. Sitcoms had creators, writers and producers on staff, and the writing teams would be called in before the season to pitch storylines around a table – with lots of soda, tacos and four-letter words. I was the only woman, but I felt immediately accepted by the guys, all of whom were at least 15 years older than Ed and me; our bosses a lot more.
No one ever acted inappropriately toward me. Ed assured me they were simply just decent guys. Like most people in Hollywood then, people came to work early, worked hard, then went home to family and friends.
Ed and I loved writing about people our own age with “That Girl.” When “Love, American Style” came along, I felt like a kid in a candy store. I was the story person and Ed the joke master. He allowed me to take the lead with plots where women called the shots or guys realized it wasn’t all about them.
Since you started as a comedy writer in the 1960s, things have changed. Tell us about this shift.
I stopped writing sitcoms in the 1980s, when sitcoms were written as standalone episodes that could be switched around when sold to syndication. Today, it seems like shows are mostly staff-written and done serially. It’s a heavy burden for the showrunner to map out a full season in advance. There is also less wiggle room for individual writers to digress.
There is also much more diversity today. I was the youngest woman in the business when I started. It took only a couple years for more young women be hired, but many more to achieve some racial diversity. There was absolutely none the whole time I was working.
Because of the networks’ power and the sponsors they had to please, we were hindered with what we could say or show in the mid-1960s and 70s. Married couples slept in twin beds. If someone shut a door on their hand, they had to say “Drat!” In all the years of “That Girl,” Ann Marie and boyfriend Donald never exchanged more than a peck on the cheek. Dealing with social issues was not allowed. “Love, American Style,” with its sexual innuendos, was pushing the envelope at the time. Today it is easier to tell an honest story, but I also see more sloppy writing, like trying to get cheap laughs with swear words and sexual references.
Another change I don’t like is that those experienced writers in their 50s and 60s who taught me so much wouldn’t be hired today. Somewhere along the line, being in your 20s was the answer to everything. Having been 23 when I started, I arrived with only questions, but was given the opportunity to learn from experts. We understood the history of our profession, which is always a good place to start, and operated in an atmosphere of respect and civility.
You are also a novelist, having published “A Small Part of History” about women traveling the Oregon Trail in the United States. Why did you feel this was an important story to tell?
In the back of my mind, I always thought about writing prose. I dabbled in short stories, then considered larger fictional themes, but never dreamed I would become immersed in historical fiction. A member of my book club had selected a collection of journal writings from the Westward Movement. I have always loved research, and once I got more into it, I realized that the women who made the journey, largely because their fathers or husbands compelled them to, were much more than a small part of history. After years of writing for a visual medium, it took quite a few rewrites to write a story that was partially internal, instead of having everything spread out in front of a viewer’s eyes. I loved the experience, which helped me develop my second career as a woman’s advocate. I am working on a second novel now, also historical fiction about the West.
The Internet and social media have altered how entertainers access audiences. Do you see this platform benefitting women in entertainment? If so, how?
I am very excited by all the avenues open to artists of all kinds. There was only ABC, CBS and NBC when I started. When cable emerged, a whole new world opened, and with more freedom. Motion pictures are now being promoted inexpensively online and can be streamed, as well as seen in theatres. I have young friends today who have made a name for themselves by creating YouTube series in their apartments.
Social media has started a lot of careers, but social media can also be awful to women. Stand-up comics learn how to handle hecklers. Online, they deal with thousands of anonymous hecklers at once – the anonymity brings out a vicious side.
Comedy can be impactful for people of all backgrounds. What do you think is the trick to making comedy approachable in the current climate?
The real world is getting harder to face. I’ve been getting a lot of my news from Trevor Noah, John Oliver and Samantha Bee. I agree with them, but I also learn new things from watching their shows. In the current climate, I think these network nighttime shows are becoming more bitingly topical than ever before. I feel that we need to spend more time remembering where we came from, how we viewed the world when we were younger and didn’t know as much as we know now. Knowledge is everything.