Don’t ask me what makes people laugh. You just have to try it and see what happens. I have a friend who helped design the Electra for Lockheed, and he’s afraid to go up in a plane. He says he still doesn’t understand how those things stay up there. Well, I feel the same way about what makes comedy work. —Sol Saks
Every once in awhile a cheesecake picture of Elizabeth Montgomery shows up in my Google Reader, courtesy of Tumblr and someone I know. All my friends in that particular feed are around 28-35—in other words, born after Bewitched went off the air. I suppose I have Nick at Nite to thank; it was one of my favorite shows as a kid.
What I hadn’t known, before he died this weekend at 100, was that Bewitched’s creator, Sol Saks, was a Chicago native, former newspaper reporter, and Medill alumnus; his responsibility for Bewitched and Walk, Don’t Run has to rank him among the school’s great alumni.
But Saks’s Hollywood success came comparatively late in life; he created the show (for which he wrote only the pilot) when he was in his mid-50s, after which he became a “comedy consultant” and “comedy supervisor” CBS; the latter “wasn’t my kind of work,” he told the Tribune’s Clifford Terry in 1966. “I’m not an executive. As a writer, for example, I can’t have a drink at lunch and then get something accomplished. As an executive, I couldn’t get thru the afternoon without one.” Like so many other people in the midcentury entertainment business, Saks got his start in radio; after working for a newspaper in Harvey, Illinois, he wrote for Lightning Jim, a WGN serial (“Marshall Lightning Jim Whipple on his horse Thunder, and his deputy, Whitey Larson, explore the history of the west through adventure"), later moving on to the great Duffy’s Tavern.
Saks’s family was in the paint business—Saxon Paint & Hardware, which would land Saks’s nephew and company CEO Alan Saks on Nixon’s enemies list for co-founding Business Executives Movement Against the War in Vietnam and his other social activism (which included the ongoing, Chicago-based public-interest-law center BPI). In 1989, the Reader’s Ben Joravsky went on an entertaining ride-along with Alan Saks through the South Side.
Saxon Paint & Hardware also landed Sol Saks in the pages of Chicago. In September of 1984, Saks wrote a funny, moving, discursive essay on his friend Sam Helfgot, who put his kids through college with the peanut vending machines in the Saxon stores:
The managers would get angry and ask to throw the machines out.
“The machines must stay,” Joe said. “Why?” asked the store managers. “The world is divided into shlemiels and shlimazls,” Joe answered. “The shlemiel is always dropping things, and the shlimazl picks them up and hands them back to him. Sam is a shlemiel and I’m a shlimazl, and I can’t break up the set.”
Here’s Saks talking about writing the pilot for Bewitched: