For one year, Mork and Mindy was arguably the most successful science fiction TV show ever made. The comedy about an alien and his human best friend turned Robin Williams into a global sensation. How did this miracle happen, and why didn’t it last? To find out, I talked to the people who made the show.
I talked to six writers/producers of Mork and Mindy, plus the man who directed 59 of the show’s first 73 episodes, Howard Storm. Note: This is the full-length “oral history”version of this article. If you want to read the much shorter “tl;dr”version, click here. Also, these interviews have been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. In some cases, separate quotes have been combined.
The Birth of Mork
Originally, the spaceman Mork from Ork was just supposed to appear in a strange one-off episode of the 1950s-set sitcom Happy Days. In the original cut of the episode, Mork is just a weird dream that Richie Cunningham is having.
Brian Levant (Story Editor on Happy Days and executive producer of Mork and Mindy’s final season):
My first season on Happy Days was when we did the Mork episode. Garry Marshall walked in one morning, all peppy, and he goes, “Scotty had a great idea!” Scotty was his eight-year-old son. “Let’s put a spaceman on Happy Days!” He walked out of the room.
And we looked at each other like, “God, that’s the most horrible idea I’ve ever heard.” But he wants to do it, what do you do? So we drew straws to see who drew the short straw and had to write the script. And two actors quit within the first two days of rehearsal. It was just heading for disaster.
[The original Mork actor] was the Sheriff of Nottingham from Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood TV show. He quit. And then, they tried to get Dom DeLuise, and he wouldn’t do it. Then they thought they had somebody else, and he read the script and passed.
Ronny Hallin, who was associate producer and Garry Marshall’s older sister, had seen Robin [Williams] do a spaceman as part of his [stand-up comedy] act. They tracked him down, and he came in at noon on Wednesday. The show was shot on Fridays. And they called us down for the most amazing run-through in the world.
We were all there, and we saw one guy who embodied all three Marx Brothers, Chaplin, the Three Stooges, and William F. Buckley in the same body. There was an intellect—and so bright and so fast! But creative. And afterwards, [Happy Days star] Tom Bosley gave a speech about discovering a great comedic talent. Right after the Wednesday afternoon run-through.
The Happy Days cast, it should be said, were tremendously generous in ceding the stage. Remember, this was a former number one show, and still a top-three show. And they all just, you know, embraced this challenge, and provided a showcase for him.
[After the run-through], we went upstairs and [rewrote the pilot script.] We wrote a lot of stuff that became the basis for a lot of the “runners,” or repeated jokes [on Mork and Mindy]. We used a lot of what [Robin Williams had] created on the spot. You would say “Take a chair,” and he would sit with his head on it instead of his ass. Like, [Happy Days producer] Bob Brunner came up with [Mork] drinking with his finger. Everyone was firing on all cylinders that night, believe me.
It was quite an experience to see them try and shape it, and get it down into the time frame that we could air it in. It was immediately recognizable that it was just sensational. The guy was on fire. Very sweet and quiet and self-effacing.
Mork and Mindy had no pilot episode
What they did was, they took clips from that episode of Happy Days. And they did a split-screen with a pilot that Bob Brunner, the producer of Happy Days, had done called Sister Terri, that Pam Dawber had starred in as a contemporary nun. She was in civilian clothes.
And they gave it to them: “What happens when this wacky spaceman meets this down-to-Earth girl?” And that’s how they sold the show. They never wrote a formal pilot.
Pam and Robin met for the first time when they went to Boulder to shoot the main titles, before the series began. And as you know, it created a national sensation.
Garry Marshall really had one foot out the door of TV already, and was trying to pull the other one [out and go] into movies, which he did. But for the first eight episodes [of Mork and Mindy], he really shaped and guided those. And he was really careful in how he built the character and the relationship, so whatever manic, amazing stuff that was created for [Mork] was wrapped in this wonderful blanket of humanity. And that became the template for the show.
April Kelly (writer, seasons one and two):
He just cut together footage of both of them, sent it to ABC, and said, “You know, these people should be in a show together.” So there was no pilot. When I was hired, there was not a single script existing.
I started on a Monday, I pitched stories on a Tuesday. They countered with a story they’d been having problems with. I said, “Okay, I’ll write that if you want”, and I got approval on the [outline] on Wednesday, and I turned in the script on Friday. It was the first script that ever existed of Mork and Mindy.
What was Mork and Mindy about?
David Misch (writer, seasons one and two):
The character had appeared on Happy Days, so we had a general sense on the character. This show was going to have him start over and land on Earth [again] and everything.
I don’t think there were any thoughts beyond who the cast was going to be, who the characters were going to be, and the basic issue of his learning about life in Earth, and having a relationship with Mindy. And you know, the other characters were essentially there to give a grounding to it, to provide him something to play off and to discover new things about Earth each week. But there wasn’t, I think, a lot of thought given to larger issues.
Ed Scharlach (writer/producer,seasons one, two and three):
[Mork] came here to learn about Earth and the people who live here, and wound up learning about himself.
That makes it universal. That’s the journey that people go on in their lives, learning more and more about themselves. [Mr. Spock on Star Trek] was certainly an influence there, because that was the era that [Star Trek] was on. It certainly had an influence on what we were doing.
Dale McRaven, who was probably the main guy behind it [after Garry Marshall created the character] was a hands-on guy. And he had a tremendous interest in scifi. And so from the beginning he wanted to have elements of that, as much as possible. But in the event, it turned out we didn’t do that much [science fiction].
Basically, Mork had some magic powers, which were not clearly defined—probably because we would make up new ones if it served our purposes. He drank with his finger in the first episode. I think that may have been it, actually. He would point his finger and things would happen, but it wasn’t clearly explained what could happen, or the limits and range of his powers.
Other than that, the main science fiction aspect was simply that he came from outer space, and therefore was, literally, an alien to our culture. And that was where the comedy came from, of course.
Howard Storm (director of almost every episode in seasons one, two and three):
You know, when I read the script, it was very clear. He’s from another planet, and so he’s someone who [takes] everything literally. If you said to him, “Button it up!” He would look to button something up, you know? And [if you said] “Go jump in a lake!” He’d look for a lake to jump in. Those kinds of expressions, he took seriously, because he didn’t know any better.
I actually got to meet Robin before the show began, and we schmoozed about it a little. He was very ambitious, and he wanted it to be a hip show. He wanted it to reflect who he was.
He had actually done a few things at that point. He’d been on a revival of the TV series Laugh-In, which had lasted about six episodes. I think he’d been on some other shows, very briefly. Nothing successful. No one had really noticed him at that point.
He knew TV better than I did, probably—but something within me told me that I should tamp down his expectations, when we were talking, that time before the show started. I said, “You know, I’m not sure how much of the hip comedy that you love so much is going to get in the show. I’m sure you’ll be able to inject some, but it is going to be, for the most part, a standard sitcom.” And I think I was right. On the other hand, the little [that] he was able to inject is what made the show successful. He was entirely responsible for the show’s success.
This unprecedentedly brilliant person was dropped into [our] laps. And it was like a gift from heaven, and everyone knew it was. The minute he walked out on stage, you could see he was going to be a gigantic star. And basically, I think they just didn’t take advantage as much as [they] could have. And it was a conventional sitcom, with lines that we knew Robin could do better than anyone else. But that fact is, a lot of that show could have been done by other actors—the show would not have been successful, but they could have done it. It was Robin’s genius that separated it from being a conventional sitcom.
I wrote one show, and I remember the intro, because I used it for writing classes a couple times. Mork walks into Mindy’s house and her father is there. Mork’s carrying a picnic basket, and the father says, “Hi Mork, what are you and Mindy going to do today?” He says, “Mindy and I are going nit-picking”. And so the father says, “I think you mean picnicking.” And Mork says, “Now who’s nit-picking?”
So it’s like, is he an idiot because he says “nit-picking,” or does he know exactly what it is?
It was wonderful, because you had this child-like being, with a superior intelligence that didn’t always show. And that’s why Mork could come in with no shoes on, and Mindy said, “What happened to your shoes?” and he said, “They were eaten by the soft sidewalk.” You know, he walked through wet cement.
For a comedy writer like me, it was great, because I could put anything I wanted down on the paper. Anything. And even if Robin didn’t understand it, you could explain it to him.
The first time I wrote, “Mork says ‘heavy sigh’”—which normally you would see that as a stage direction, on a three-camera script: “parentheses, bold caps, “heavy sigh”, close parentheses.” It’s a note to the actor that you’re supposed to go [makes a sighing noise] before that line. But I wrote it as Mork saying [aloud],“looking sad, heavy sigh,” and then keep talking. And it worked! It got a laugh. So that became something he would do. He would say things that you would normally think of as stage directions.
The Black Box
Anyone who ever saw the show remembers the end of the show, which we called “The Black Box”—because we shot it in a velvet-lined black box. And that’s where Mork talks to his home planet.
Originally, it was going to be at the start of the show. But then, very quickly, we realized in the room, it’s pretty stupid, because it’s in isolation. Whereas, if you put it at the end, the entire show can be a setup for that final joke.
One of them had Mork reporting back, about prisons on Earth.And so, he was explaining it to Orson: “This is a place where they give you food, they give you clothes, and they give you housing.” And from his point of view, being in a prison sounds like a pretty damn good deal. So, of course, from his home planet [comes the question], “This doesn’t sound like punishment. What do they do for pleasure on that planet?” And for pleasure, he described cigarette-smoking, which makes you sick, makes you smell bad, and makes you cough. So it sounded like Mork was reporting [to Orson] ass-backwards.
We never shot the Black Box the same day we shot the show. The show was shot on a Friday night, and the following Tuesday, we shot the Black Box without an audience. And that was something that started out as a theory that you’d do it up front [at the start of the episode].
Jeff Reno (writer, season three):
Often, especially in that era, in the 70’s and early 80’s, a lot of the sitcoms had sort of moral points [or] group-hug points [at the end of every episode.] You always kind of aimed your story at something to be learned by the characters. And so it was not that difficult to think of stories in the terms of, “What does Mork learn at the end of this?” We just happened to put it into words.
The fact is, that’s how TV worked in those days, and it worked for not just our show but many shows. The difference was that on our show, it was neatly summed up at the end of the [episode], where Mork would talk to his boss on the planet Ork, Orson. And Orson would say, “What did you learn this week?” and Mork would answer. And that either came naturally out of the episode, or we would have to cram it in.
But I think for the most part, we were just trying to think of interesting plots, and figured since he was naive and would learn something each week about how Earth worked, it would be pretty simple to do our one-minute summary at the end.
[Later, Jeff Reno] and I worked on another show called Duckman. It was an animated show, and at the end of one episode, Duckman’s wife says, “Do you think we’ve learned anything from this?” And he says, “Yep! I thought very carefully about the mistakes I’ve made, and I’m pretty sure I can make them all again inexactly the same way.” So we, like many people, [got sick of learning lessons at the end of every episode.] And of course, Larry David, very famously [said that] “No hugs, no lessons” was his model for Seinfeld.
What was the writing room like?
We sat in the room [and] came up with ideas together. And usually, one person or one team would go off to write a script, when the outline was ready. Then there was a lot of rewriting that went on. And then the week of production, you would rewrite as the week went on, too. And that was always in the room, everyone gathered together.
Some of the “breaking” of any individual story might have happened a little bit more with the writers who were gonna write the script, and then you’d run it by the people there. There was no board—you would never put anything up on the board [and] outline it together, or things like that. But, you know, [it was] typical of most half-hour comedies at the time: You’d talk things out, and then send the writers off. And then everyone would get back together, when the draft came in.
[The room] was actually a little bit discouraging to me, cause I had just started, and I was hoping for something a bit more cutting-edge. With the exception of one other writer, April Kelly—and even she’d worked on conventional sitcoms—everyone in there was a conventional sitcom writer.
We worked incredible hours, and we’d get there at ten and work till four. That’s rough—and then you gotta go home and take a shower, then come back the next morning. So we were all pretty exhausted. And Robin kept up a busy schedule as well. He would play two, three, four comedy clubs every night,after putting in a full day of rehearsals. So everyone was sort of operating on fumes.
Luckily, they had a miracle drug back then—I believe its trade name was “cocaine”—and a number of people in show business availed themselves. I myself did not partake of that, but as an alternative to cocaine, I ate vast amounts of sugar. So I got fat and energized.
But in any case, yeah, there were really long hours and tremendous agony over storylines. And like many shows of that time and some of this time, at the end of the writing process, you would go over the script line-by-line—the entire script—with everyone. Eight, nine, ten, twelve people in the room, trying to think of funnier lines for every line in the script. So it was a tiring process. But I think it was the way pretty much all shows were run back then.
My nickname from the two exec producers was the Queen of Ticker. Because whenever a show needed some little “heart moment”, or something, they’d say, “Hey, could you throw some lines in here that sound like people should give a shit?” And I was would say, “Okay, I’ll try.”
It pissed me off. I always associated that with [the idea] that, “Oh, the girl writes that.” And I know they didn’t mean that, they just knew I could usually tap-dance and come up with something that sounded, you know, human. I could maybe access humanity a little better than them, or something.
You know, it was just a bunch of guys. It was probably another ten years before I was on a staff with another female, and I hired her. So you’re in a room with a bunch of scratching, farting guys, and learning more about men than probably any woman should ever know.
The filming process
It’s a tough biz—you’re essentially putting on a half-hour play every week, and it requires a lot of work. The pace was just relentless.
[But] you didn’t put out a show every week—you would do three or four episodes, and then you’d have a week off. But what that “week off” consisted of was, working desperately to get caught up, so that you wouldn’t have to write a show a week. And the whole idea was to have these shows done weeks ahead of time, so that they’re all prepped and ready, when you actually start shooting. And the week you’re shooting your show, you’re actually in your office, working on your shows for future weeks. And we were just getting closer and closer to not being able to get a show on the air. There were a number of weeks where it looked iffy.
[There were four cameras, and four main sets]. Originally, it was the living room, the music store, and also the attic where [Mork] lived. And we had a “swing” set, where necessary.
“Pam Dawber never got her due”
April Kelly and I proposed an episode in the first season,where Mindy was sort of agonizing over what she would do with her life. And we got the word from on high. They said, “No, no. Mindy’s got to be the normal American girl, ‘cause that’s how Mork can play off her.”
And we were thinking: She’s the alien. She has no job, she has no ambition, she has no friends, she evidently never thinks about sex—or anything, other than saying the line,“Mork, what are you doing?”
We thought, if we give her an actual character with neuroses and things like that, that would be more fun for Robin to play off. But they didn’t think so. Anyway, Pam Dawber was so attractive a human being, just as a person, and was so clearly delighted by Robin in every way, that she was just a winning character. And their chemistry was fantastic, even though no one took our advice on how to change her.
Pam Dawber, as far as I’m concerned, never, ever got her due. She never got the respect, or the understanding of how important she was to that show. Because she was able to wait Robin out, when he went on some kind of tantrum, and do his thing. She would just wait it out, and when she found enough room to get in there, she’d feed him the next line. You know? And to me, she was the life of the show. I mean without her, Robin had no one to work off of.
Pam was a very solid actress, and we would talk about how she was dealing with this strange person that was in her home. She loved him, she adored him—[but had to wonder] how she was going to deal with the outside world.
So basically, she was always finding a way to make sure [Mork] didn’t do the wrong thing—to protect him from the outside world, and to try and make him understand what life was really about. And take away some of his naivete. The character was very child-like, so basically she was taking care of a child.
She wasn’t naturally funny to begin with. She was a pretty girl. She was a model. She’d done a TV commercial—I think she was a waitress on roller skates for 7-UP or Pepsi, or something.
So sometimes, you had to persuade her that looking foolish doesn’t make people hate you. We had a show where Mork walks in and Mindy has like a mudpack on her face and her hair in a towel. So, Mork walks in and goes, “Nyaaah!” And she was very reluctant to do that. She thought she’d be in a ratty old bathrobe with her hair in a towel and a mudpack on her face. And that’s going to make her look unattractive. And when you make your living by being pretty instead of being funny, then it’s risky to look like that.
I said to Pam, “You don’t have to worry about how you look. If they love you, they will be on your side.” Like I say, comedy ain’t pretty. So it was a bit of a transition, but she got where she could hold her own in the scenes with him. She was always going to be the straight man, no matter what. But, she did very well. I’m very impressed with how she picked it up so quickly.
Once she saw that nobody was saying, “Wow, you didn’t look very attractive there,” she would throw herself into it. That’s one thing: If you hold back, if you don’t really go balls-to-the-wall, then people aren’t sure what you mean.
And there was one [episode], where she had just polished her nails. So she’s just flapping her hands, to dry her nails, and Mork walks in. He thinks she’s trying to fly, trying to lift off. So he runs up behind her, picks her up by her waist and said, “Fly, Mindy, be free.” And she laughs, and he puts her down, and she says, “No, I’m trying to dry my nails.” He picks up a towel and tries to help her dry her nails, and basically just ruins the manicure. But she played it completely real—and that’s what worked. That’s what set him up, and made you like her.
He was a comedy giant, and nobody else is going to be able to match that. I think the closest you came was Jonathan Winters, and that’s because Robin idolized him. But being a straight man—look at Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. He played that [role], but everyone loved him, he was the central point, everything else revolves around him. You look at that, and say, “That’s a thankless role.” But he did it, he committed to it, and they even wrote a show one time where Richie was afraid he was a dull guy. And he was wonderful. And everybody loved him.
I thought she was very strong, she got to be a good female character and independent—and [she] just happened to have an alien living in her house.
Did Robin Williams just ad-lib all his lines?
If you want to make one of the writers of Mork and Mindy mad, just bring up this myth.
One of our lines when people asked about ad libs [was that] we’d say, “We’re up till four in the morning writing Robin’s ad libs”.
He didn’t do extended ad libs, but what he did that would be so brilliant were these little things—a line here and there, a word here or there, a face, a voice—those were the things that blew people’s minds. And they may seem very tame now, but at the time, nobody was doing that on TV. Everyone just did the script as written. And he mostly did, [but] he would throw in little things here and there.
And the other thing is, we stole from him. He stole from many people himself. And we would go see his act, and we would throw in things to the character that were things he loved doing from his act. He never objected, he loved doing things like that. So, you know, there was give and take all the way through.
There were articles saying that the writers would just write, “Robin does his thing,” and then Robin would just ad-lib for 22 minutes. Which is ludicrous. There was no way that could happen. The writers were writing great stuff for him.
The advantage I had was that I was an actor, I was a stand-up, and I was an improviser. So I had the same background as [Robin] did. Only I wasn’t as good at it as he was—but having all that background, I knew where he was coming from. I understood that in rehearsals, he would climb the walls sometimes. I knew enough, coming in, not to try to hold Robin down.
I said, “Look, Robin. I’ll let you go for a couple days. But at some point, I have to start to peel back. And I have to actually do the play [as written].” And you know, he was okay with that.
I remember the first week [we were making the show]—Thursday night, I was panicked that he wouldn’t know a word of the show. And Friday morning, he walked in, he knew all his marks, he got to his marks, and he knew the script. Robin could read the script once, and just about swallow it. He had that kind of a mind. And so I allowed him, each week, to have fun and do what he wanted to do, until we had to get to the show.
[Sometimes] during rehearsals, we would find things, andthen call the writers and ask them to take a look at this. A perfect example is, they wrote a scene where Robin is playing poker, and there are four other players. And Robin is playing all five characters. As we rehearsed it, I realized that in the two minutes of that scene, it was a little difficult to understand which character [was which]. The characters kind of melded, because of the short time we had to do it in.
And I suggested to Robin, “Why not do an old Jew and an old WASP playing chess?” And he liked that idea, and we played it a little bit, and then we called the writers, and said the poker game was a little difficult for us to make it work, but we thought it’d be fun if we did a chess game with the two characters, the Jewish guy and the [WASP]. And they came down and took a look at what we thought we’d do, and they went back and wrote a wonderful scene. And that’s basically the way we worked on the show.
Robin’s the only person I ever wrote for who could do anything. He didn’t always understand it on the paper, you know, so he’d ask us questions.
There was an episode where Mindy had, I think, appendicitis. I don’t know—anyway, she’s in the hospital. Her last name is very similar to someone who’s about to go into brain surgery, okay? You see what’s going to happen. And so Mork figures it out before the hospital does. Mindy’s been prepped for surgery, so she’s shot full of drugs. Cue Pam Dawber being able to stagger and slur and do drunk comedy. And he’s trying to save her, because he’s figured it out. So, Mork has gone in her room, and when the doctors try to go in and try to get her, he gets her on a ledge. She’s in a stupor, and she’s going to fall, so the doctors are trying to talk them down. And it’s a nice little comedy scene there. So I wrote, when the doctors are kind of closing in, Robin strikes a martial arts pose and just leaps into the room, screaming: “Bruce Lee lives!”
[But] Robin didn’t know who Bruce Lee was. So he said to me, “What is this joke?” I said, “Trust me, the audience are going to piss themselves.” And he said, “I don’t know, I don’t know who he is.” I said, “Do it for the dress rehearsal. If it doesn’t work, I’ll give you five bucks. If it does work, you do it in the night show.” And so he gave it his all, he flew at those guys with his hands up, like this, and yells, “Bruce Lee lives!” And the audience just fell apart laughing. He turns to me and says, “Jesus, everybody knows who this guy is.” I said, “Yeah, you’re the only person on the planet who doesn’t know who Bruce Lee is”. The thing is, once I assured him that there was a Bruce Lee, and the audience would know who that was, instead of holding back or giving it a half-assed toss, he went balls-to-the-wall, and he sold it.
And if it had died, I would have apologized, I would have given the five dollars, and I would have written him a better joke that night. But the fact is, it worked.
Ed Scharlach (writer/producer,seasons 1-3):
[The supporting cast in season one] was her father and grandmother, [Fred and Cora]. Her mother had passed away before the series began. And her mother was referred to in one of the episodes that [Tom Tenowich and I] wrote, where Mork channeled her mother, to be able to talk to her and say what she never got a chance to tell [Mindy] when she was alive, through the medium of Mork. That was one of the more touching episodes.
We did a show that was written by April [Kelly] called, “Old Fears.” I thought it was a wonderful idea, and a wonderful show. It was based on the idea that Elizabeth Kerr, [who played] Mindy’s grandmother, was complaining about the fact that all her friends were dying. And she was starting to feel lonely, you know? And Robin decides to make himself into an old man and date her, so that she has someone to talk to. And his “old man” was sensational.
And there’s one moment where she, at the end of the show, tells [Mork] she knew it was him all the time. And they have a wonderful chat, the two of them. And I thought it was really, really good work, and a well-written script. Almost all of those scripts were well-written in the first year or so.
The show becomes a hit
I got a $500 bet going on with the producer of the show, Bruce Johnson. You know, I’d been around comedy for a few years, and I thought,“This is lightning in a bottle.” So I made a bet with him that we’d be number one in the Nielsens within the first six weeks on the air or so. And he laughed, because it was impossible. It was an eight or eight-thirty show,and shows in that timeslot, there wasn’t enough of an audience to watch. So it was impossible to beat nine [PM] or ten [PM] shows. But four weeks after we went on the air, we were one-quarter of a ratings point out of number one in the country, and Bruce wouldn’t take my money.
So what happened was, you had slapstick comedy: eggs breaking, pants falling down, goofy things. Those were there for the kids. [But] I did a recombinant DNA pun. You knew you were appealing to the college kids, because they’d write letters. And you know, every time I’d go out for dinner in LA, I’d hear people in the next booth talking about the show.
Buddy Hackett, a famous comedian at the time, was on the Tonight Show. And he told the story that he was traveling in China. And he went to shake hands with a Chinese person and they put out their hand and in the distinctive style, said, “Nanu Nanu”. Because they had seen Mork and Mindy, and they thought that was the way Americans shook hands.
That show was so hot that Friday nights [during filming], the place was jammed. It was like, you could sell tickets outside. You could make a fortune just if you had seven or eight tickets—you could sell them for fifty bucks a piece on the street.
One day, I got a call from the front office, asking if Ginger Rogers could come and watch a rehearsal. She came and sat in the bleachers and watched the rehearsal, and then she talked with Robin, and then he said, “I want to introduce myself.” And she said, “I know who you are. I watch the show every week.”
When you have to work with someone who is using drugs, you know, it’s not a pleasant work environment. And I tried to not work on shows where I had to deal with alcoholics or drug addicts. And sometimes that’s just Hollywood. It was there pretty early [with Robin Williams]. Read the John Belushi book. When you take a kid who’s done a year of comedy or two years of comedy, in the clubs in LA, and you start rolling that kind of money on them? It’s real easy for the Hollywood assholes, the sycophants, the “yes” people, the suppliers of drugs [to move in]. You get a lot of people who are willing to tell you you’re wonderful, blow smoke up your skirt,and provide you with whatever it is you think might make your life a little better. So that is an issue.
“There was a war going on between the writing staff and the censors”
In those days, you had to deal with the censors. Oh god, I hate censors. [Nowadays] you hear “penis” and “vagina” on the air, every single night—you can’t turn on a sitcom without hearing both of those, any given night of the week. It seems so silly, some of the stuff they wouldn’t let us do.
A lot of the censorship battles were over words, or lines that they thought were too sexy, or too political, or too cutting edge in some way, and we would have to pull back. But we did okay.
April Kelly and I wrote a show where a con-woman, played by the actress Morgan Fairchild, says, “Mork, I’m pregnant.” And the network says, “You can’t say that. We don’t allow the word ‘pregnant.’” So [this was changed to] “Mork, I’m having a baby.” And my interpretation of that is: Being pregnant means you’ve had sex, but having a baby is adorable.
And [in another episode], a character was going to die of a heart attack. And Mork was going to learn about death. So we got the note from the network that the character can’t die. They said, “Couldn’t he have a heart attack and be very sick?” The whole point of the show is not to learn about heart attacks, it’s to learn about death.
Robin was [very upset]. We try not to involve the star too much [in these disputes], because it can get very messy, and that’s not really good for the show, the network, or the star, to be involved in battles like that. But in this case, [Robin] heard about it. And he came to our defense. He said, “There’s no such thing as gray comedy. You can have black comedy,where you fool around with death, or you can have innocent comedy, where the subject doesn’t come up. But you can’t do it halfway. Halfway’s just going to be terrible.” So we got our way, thanks to him.
There was a bit of a war going on between the writing staff and the various censors assigned to us, who we burned up over a couple years. One time, I named a character “Arnold Wanker”—and “wanker,” of course, is a British term for jacking off. I thought, “Well, if somebody doesn’t like it, they’ll take it out.” But nobody ever caught it, and the censor didn’t know, and it got on the air. Arnold Wanker is in the show. And it was after it was on the air that the network started getting letters.
Of course, Bruce Johnson comes to me and says, “Jesus, next time you do something like that, at least let us in on it, so we know.” And so at one point, we named a character “Scheisskopf,” which is German for “shithead.” But we were afraid the censor would lose his job, so at the last minute we changed it and we said, “You know ‘scheisse’ is shit in German, right?” And I thought the guy was going to faint. Because he knew if that had got on the air, he would have lost his job.
So we got creative in how we put dirty stuff in. I got one past the censors—probably the filthiest thing ever on Mork and Mindy. I referred to this annual ball given by the Benoit sisters—and I spelled it like the French word, B-E-N-O-I-T, which would be pronounced “Ben-Wa.” But I said they threw their annual ball, and referred to “the Ben-Wa balls.”
So whenever they they’d piss us off—and they’d piss us off pretty regularly, in 78, 79, [when] you couldn’t say “crap” on the air—it became a little bit of a game to see what you could get by, and I was pretty proud of getting “Ben-Wa balls” on the air.
There was a show that April thought of, where Mork gets a job as a security guard at a nuclear plant, and it was an anti-nuke show. ABC canceled [that episode] on a Friday. Our week began on Monday with a table read, and then we shot the episode on Friday. So Friday, after our last show, we got a call from ABC saying they would not allow that show to go forward, because it was too political. Their specific reason was, “There’s no evidence nuclear power plants are unsafe.”
Actually, I think Three Mile Island happened later that year.
I got on the phone over that weekend with some political friends in New York, and said, “I need evidence that nuclear power plants can be unsafe.” And there was no internet, so they had to do the research,and physically get the information to me by fax before Monday morning. And thank God, the network relented and we were able to do the show, with some changes. But if that show had been canceled, we would have had nothing on the air. There was no other show in reserve.
Mork’s Mixed Emotions
The most famous episode, which very much was cutting-edge, and I think made the 100 greatest episodes of TV ever, was Ed [Scharlach] and Tom [Tenowich]’s episode, “Mork’s Mixed Emotions.” He gets sick, and all his emotions come to the fore and express themselves individually, and that allowed Robin to do these split-second changes between stereotypical anger and lust and fear and jealousy. Each one with a different voice.
[Tom Tenowich] thought that since Mork—since Robin—could do so many characters, why not? And the idea of the character was, on his planet, they hadn’t invented emotions. People don’t have emotions on his planet—a little bit like Mr. Spock, I guess. But because he was treated so wonderfully by this lovely girl he’s living with, then a thing happened. Emotions emerged, as somebody living on Earth who has someone who loves him. And of course, the idea that came from the fact that it would be really fun to see Robin play, you know, twenty different emotions. And he did, beautifully.
He was very sick that week, and the day he shot that show, I believe he had a 102 temperature. And he collapsed right afterwards. It was the most exhausting show imaginable—he had to do all these lines, very quickly. Each one was a different voice and character. And he pulled it off brilliantly.
“I was told this was what we had”
In season two, Mindy’s father Fred and maternal grandmother Cora were gone, along with Fred’s music store—they were replaced by the siblings Jeannie and Remo, who were trying to open a deli.
ABC decided they didn’t like the idea of the music store, and brought in a little coffee shop. And they brought in Jay Thomas (Remo) and Gina Hecht (Jeannie), who were wonderful. But, I thought the music store was so interesting, because it was unlike any other sitcom. Almost every sitcom has a coffee shop. I mean, look at Seinfeld, look at Happy Days, look at all the 70s sitcoms. There’s always a coffee shop. And here we had something so different: a music store.
And Conrad Janis was a wonderful actor and a wonderful trombone player. Conrad was gone for one season, the second season. Elizabeth Kerr (Cora) was gone, period. Why, I don’t know. And they also got rid of [Eugene], the little boy—who, every time he made an entrance, Robin had this wonderful little handshake. Robin would go, “My main munchkin,” and then they would do the handshake, twirl around and bump fists, and a whole thing that the audience just loved. It was worth it just for that alone, to keep the kid.
I don’t know what they were thinking. I just thought it was total madness.
Robin was very bothered by the changes—he didn’t dislike the [new] actors. He and Jay got along, and so did [he and] Gina. He just didn’t like the idea that they just pulled out the music store, put in a coffee shop, and got rid of three characters that he was comfortable with.
And no one discussed it with him. You know? That was another mistake. No one came to Robin and said, “Look, we think the grandmother doesn’t work, the father doesn’t work, and the little boy doesn’t work.” Knowing Robin, Robin would have fought for them.
And no-one discussed it with me. I came back, and was told this is what we had.
Garry [Marshall] and Dale [McRaven] and the other showrunner, Bruce Johnson, decided that the [supporting] cast [in season one] was weak.
The cast was weak, but I don’t think it was their fault. I really don’t think we wrote very well for them. We were putting all our energy into writing for the character of Mork, and the characters of [Mindy’s] father and grandmother were sort of sterotypical [and] one-dimensional, and there wasn’t much you could do with them. And we didn’t do much. The actors, I think, were constrained by the superficiality of their characters.
I think the void [in the supporting cast] played a role in Robin essentially being a one-man band, and no one wanted that. Robin didn’t want that. You want things to play off. So, [in the] second season, the belief at the top was that the [supporting] cast was not helping Robin enough, and we would bring in new characters. But my feeling was that the new characters weren’t that much an improvement.
Again, no negativity towards the actors. Gina Hecht, who played the girl in the second season, is a friend of mine. Jay Thomas was this tremendously funny radio broadcaster and funny guy, who’d been acting in plays and other TV shows. They had chops. Everyone had chops. The problem was that the characters—again, I felt—were a bit one dimensional. So the idea was that the cast was holding [the show] back, and the new cast would be better. I don’t think that happened.
It was worth a try, because the show did have flaws, and they were trying to be proactive, and not let those flaws kill the show. But of course, the exact opposite happened. The whole second season was less successful. Ratings went down significantly.
The best character that was brought in was [when] Tom Poston played a character named Mr. Bickley. He’s one of the greatest actor-comedians in TV history. We were so lucky to have him as part of our cast. He was a regular on the show, and played a curmudgeon.
[The network also] switched us to Sunday night, to go against All in the Family, which, to me, was just crazy! First of all, All in the Family’s audience was a much more sophisticated audience than we were gonna get. We basically had a younger audience. And our audience was not going to go to All in the Family, but All in the Family’s audience was not going to go to us. But what happened was, we split the share of young people watching. When we did our show on Thursday, we had forty million people.
In the second season, I thought that we’d lost what we had [due to the] changes that ABC had made. You know, they took a hit show [and ruined it.] When this show was on Thursday night, every fraternity and sorority in the country had “Mork and Mindy night.” It was a phenomenon. And they lost that when they moved to Sunday.
“Morko the Pin-Headed Boy”
Robin did not want to play that character any more. He said to me that he felt the character should grow. And I said, “Robin, if Archie Bunker grows, then there’s no show.” It’s that simple. And Robin was tired of saying “nanu nanu” and “shazbot.” He started to refuse to do that.
I kept trying to talk to him about why it was neccessary, and the conversation I had with him was, “Look, in reality, if you came from Italy, and Italian was your first language, you would use it when you got excited or frightened, and would also be comfortable using it around Mindy, who knows where you came from.” And he wouldn’t buy that.
Robin was losing faith in the character, and was afraid it made him look stupid. He started to have real insecurities, and he started thinking that instead of being child-like, Mork was childish. And he resented it. Because Robin thought he was intelligent, and thought he should be doing other things. And so, when you start hating the character you’re playing, or second-guessing it, the role suffers.
He referred to Mork, in rooms where I was, often enough, as “Morko the Pin-Headed Boy.” He had no respect for the character by then. But, you know, when you’re making a fortune playing something, you gotta be careful what you say, because you don’t want to lose the gig.
The basic premise of a naive alien who didn’t know anything about Earth, and had to gradually learn became tiresome to [Robin Williams], because he wanted to do that hip humor, and wanted the character to reflect who he was—which was anything but naive.
And what he would say, especially in the second season, was, “You know, in the first year, it’s naive. In the second year, it’s stupid.” But our response to that was, “You may be right—but if Mork learns about sex, there’s no show. If Mork knows what Earth is like, we got nothing. Then it’s just you being goofy, and there’s no context for it.”
And Robin, I think, understood that intellectually, but viscerally, he did not like it, because it tamped him in. And I was there at the taping of his first HBO special, and the sense of liberation from the character of Mork—you know, he just swore up a blue streak, and grabbed his crotch, and did all the things he enjoyed doing. He just loved that freedom. And he just would have moments of freedom in Mork, where he would go a little crazy, and that reflected who he really was.
He was being stifled. He was this brilliant comic actor, and he was being limited to one overall characterization, which was “naive.”
His voice, in the first few episodes, was a fake voice, and he ended up using his own voice [after a while]. And his own voice was obviously wonderful. That fake voice was sort of like Andy Kaufman doing Latka on Taxi, and things like that. It was a unique voice and a very inherently funny voice, and an alien voice. And when all those things were lost, it became a little more ordinary.
What I saw happening was, the show was becoming a thing about a stand-up comic snorting coke in Boulder and being political. I mean, Robin would try to sneak those things in, and he was playing it like a stand-up comic. Without the sweetness and the naive, child-like human being, it didn’t work.
We didn’t argue, we just discussed it. I’d try to sway him and explain to him why I felt he needed to do “shazbot” and “nanu nanu” once in a while—you know, those little Orkan things that he had, the handshakes and whatever—to keep the character alive. And he just was hellbent on not doing it. And it seemed like there was nobody else to talk about it. I knew Pam felt strongly about it, and I think she talked to him a couple times about it. But the Powers That Be were not doing that.
[Robin Williams would] put in a pop culture reference—and if you really wanted to agonize about it, you could say, “Well, Mindy had a TV, he may have seen that.” Or, “he may have heard that song.” Or something like that. It’s not impossible. And more to the point, no one really cares. You know, a thing here and there is no big deal.
It’s the larger things. Like, in that second season, he would do relatively innocent lines, and put a sort of sexual smirk to them. Which got a huge laugh from the audience, but undermined the character.
But you know, when you’re lucky enough to have someone like Robin Williams saying your lines, you just bless the lord every day. You don’t want to get in his way too much—you have to simultaneously serve him as much as possible, but also recognize there’s a show and a premise that have to keep going forward, and could get undermined by too much of that smirk.
The hour-long season two opener
[Dale McRaven’s ambitions to make the show more science-fictional] came out fully in the opening episodes of season two. Which was an hour-long science fiction episode. Mork is somehow on a planet where laughing is forbidden, or something like that.
And it was very scifi. It was shot scifi, and the whole plot was scifi, and it wasn’t the kind of standard sitcom thing. This episode, in my memory, was a disaster. It ended up, I think, not being fish or fowl. It wasn’t scifi in a way that a real scifi show would be, and the audience that came to it was expecting jokes. And there were very few standard jokes in it. So I think it was a noble experiment. And I know that it was key to Dale’s wanting to make it more of a scifi show—which was something I think we all supported—but that just didn’t work. And we quickly retreated.
More romance between Mork and Mindy in season two
In season two, the writers tried to play up the romance between the two leads a bit more.
There’s only so many lessons you can learn each week! You learned about violence, you learned about food, you went through all the lists. And then after a while, romance is the most interesting, and the one that is most provocative. Even though we knew we couldn’t go towards sex, there are all sorts of other elements of that that you can deal with. And plus the fact that Robin and Pam had such great chemistry. All those things made it pretty logical to do a little more of that in the second season.
[My early episode “Mork Runs Away”] was the first of the hints that something was going to be romantic. Because I remember when Mork left, he left her a note. She was dating somebody—I forget, some good-looking guy. And Mork didn’t understand what love is, [so] he wrote a note that went something like: “Dear Mindy, I wish I knew how to love, but I don’t know how to love. And if I did, we’d be lovelings.” All this stuff—and then it said, “Love, Mork”. You know? And she went looking for him, and she’s the one who found him when he was in that flophouse, with Exidor [Mork’s friend, the leader of the Sons of Venus]. So it was always going to be in the cards. I think Garry wouldn’t have put them together if he didn’t think there was going to be some chemistry between them.
The Raquel Welch episode
One of the show’s most famous episodes was an hour-long epic in which Raquel Welch played an evil alien who captures Mork.
Raquel Welch was the sexiest woman in the world, at that time. And ABC was promoting what everyone called “jiggle”. Essentially, sexy stuff. And they had her come on the show, purely for a ratings thing. And we were all deeply offended, [because] we thought they were compromising our art. How dare they? And then the script that came in from a freelancer [for this episode] was actually pretty terrible. It wasn’t funny. We rewrote it in two days.
We were really pushed up against the wall, time-wise, and we were all working desperately. We knew a lot of people would be watching, and we didn’t want to be humiliated. We didn’t want people to say, “Oh my God, that show was so stupid!” The sex was so obvious—so we tried to hide it by putting in the funniest stuff we could.
Raquel Welch was any director’s nightmare. She was just outrageous.
I’ll give you the opening story. We sat in the meeting, and there were two women who were playing her lieutenants. One of them was Vicki Fredericks, who was a Broadway dancer who had the lead in a Broadway show called, Dancin’, and she was quite lovely and a great dancer. And the other woman, was from Texas, she was the Playboy Bunny of the Year. They were both quite beautiful.
So we sat and read for at least an hour. And our usual routine was, we dismissed everybody but the star and the execs. Pam stayed, Robin stayed, and I stayed. And we would say to the guest star, “Do you have any questions or is there anything we can help you with?” And Raquel said, “Ah yes, who are the two girls that are going to play my lieutenants?” And I said, “The two women that were sitting on your right.” And she said, “Oh, I didn’t notice them.”
Then she said she had a problem with her entrance. Robin comes running into the apartment, says to Pam [that] the Nekrons, or whoever they were, are coming to kidnap him. And she says, “When are they coming?” He says, “They could be here any second!” And there’s an explosion. The doors to the apartment fly off, onto the couch. And in walks the first girl. Vicki Fredericks walks down stage left. The other girl comes down, walks down stage right, and they both pose with their hands on their hips. And then Raquel enters.
Raquel said, “You can’t have them come in before me.”
And we said to Raquel, “If they come in after you, they’re gonna distract. They’re going to pull the eye. What we’re doing here is, we’re setting it up. The audience sees this woman come down, ‘No, that’s not her.’ Then the next one, ‘No, that’s not her’—and then you enter! You know? And they frame you! It’s the perfect entrance.” But if someone comes in after her, the audience looks at the person coming in that’s moving.
She said, “I have an idea. Supposing they wear dog masks, and I lead them in on leashes.” So I knew immediately that she did not want to compete with these two very lovely women. And that never happened—we would not allow that, the dog masks.
What I said to her was, “Raquel, your character is too strong. You don’t need to have them in dog masks or leashes. All you need to do is snap your fingers. Those girls will drop to their knees.” And she said, “Oh, I like that.”
At one point, Robin was trying to talk around her idea about it not being good for them to come in first. And Robin was trying to explain it to her. Pam was standing there, and Pam said, “You know, Raquel, he’s right.” And Raquel said, “Honey, please.” And she stepped in front of Pam, blocking her, then went on to talk to Robin. Pam made a fist and made believe she was hitting [Raquel] in the back of the head, and walked away.
[After that], Pam would do that every time she came on stage. She’d sneak up behind Raquel, and make believe she was punching her in the head.
Also, she had her future husband there: Andre, a French director. He would stand behind me while I would talk to her, and I would see her look over my shoulder [to see him say] yes or no. She got me so angry. [At one point], I gave her a note: “Raquel, I need you stand a little closer to Robin for the two-shot.” She said, “OK.” And then I said, “That note I gave you is probably the most brilliant note a director has ever given an actress.” And she said, “What are you talking about?” And I said, “I know it’s brilliant, because Andre agreed with me.”
There was a scene which was incorporated into the original script, where Raquel Welch was to torture Mr. Williams. But the “joke” was that all her tortures were sexy. So the idea was that there was going to be a hot tub, and she was going to torture him by rubbing him. And you know, most of the show was set [based on the freelancer’s original script]. The hot tub was there. We [already] had it, it had to be used. We had no way to not do that scene. So we tried to write it funny, and I think we did.
But my main memory of that scene was not our hilarious lines, but that after the scene was over, everyone was [supposed] to get out of the hot tub and to move on to the next scene. And Robin said, “I’m afraid I’m not going to be getting out of the hot tub.” Because he had, uh, a piece of physical anatomy that had gotten not appropriate for the audience to see at that point. Raquel Welch had been rubbing him all over.
That was an anatomical issue with Robin in general. Robin was always “primed,” let’s just say that.
Mork learns about racism
The whole sense of the character, for me, was that he was very naive. One of the shows we did was a show where he comes home and he’s all excited, and tells Mindy that he just met a group of people who want to clean up Boulder. And he says, “They’ll get rid of the Spanish, the Jews, the blacks.” And she explains to him that that’s not a good group. In his naive way, he had no idea that that was wrong.
[Then this group] has a big KKK meeting, and they’re all wearing hoods. And [Mork] zaps them with his special powers, and turns them all into blacks and [Native Americans] and Hispanics.
We had a lot of fun with it, because we had to figure out a way to do it with an audience there. So what I did was, I had all these people, I had the blacks and Hispanics and Chinese all waiting in costume with those same hoods. And I had Robin purposefully do something wrong [in the middle of the scene]—so I had to call “Cut,” so I could talk to Robin.
And meanwhile, the people in their hoods and all were milling around and moving. And two would walk out and two would come back in, but the two coming back in were people who were of color. You know, we kind of snuck those people in, as we got the other people out. And then, at the end of the show, they take off their hoods and they all find out [that they’ve been changed]. You know, the audience just gasped. Because they were all of color. It was a very strong statement, that show.
I have to say, we had a censor who played ball so well. I wrote an episode about prejudice. Mork hears someone use some racial epithet. And he comes home and he happens to use it in a conversation, and Mindy goes, “What? Where did you hear that?” She’s trying to teach him that words are what you start with, and then it’s actions, and then wars—and you can’t call people things.
So I needed to get racial slurs in the show. We didn’t tippy-toe around it. And at the time, our censor happened to be an African American man. And I said, “I need the most-offensive thing I can get away with, to call black people. And Hispanics, and Italians.” And so we negotiated the terminology. And I have to say, I was stunned, because he let us go with “Jungle Bunny,” which I was horrified by. I thought that was about the worst thing you could call a black person. And he said, “No, that wasn’t as bad as one of the other ones.” I gave him a bunch.
He was wonderful, because he saw how good the show could be. What a teachable moment this could be, watching this innocent hearing people use vile language about other people. And so it was very nice to work with him on that episode.
“The show’s going down in flames”
I told my manager that I’d stay to the end of the second season—they were paying me a lot of money. But when it got toward the end of the season, I said, “If they make an offer, don’t tell me the amount, because I’m afraid it’ll tempt me.” I wanted to walk away. I didn’t want to have a front-row seat for what we all know happened that final two years.
I didn’t trash the show, but I told people, “You know, I’ve written like sixteen, eighteen scripts. I’ve said all I can say about an alien. I need to move to another project.”
Because you don’t want to say, “He’s doing drugs. The show’s going down in flames. And I ain’t going to be here for the big fall.” That’s not a good thing to say if you’re trying to get work.
“Putting the Ork Back in Mork”
The show’s writers were trying to get it back on track. But unless Robin was willing to do that, they were hopeless.
The producers and the people who created the show had decided they sort of needed a rebirth. And they sort of were trying to go back to more of the innocence they had in the first season.
There were a lot of things about the season that were “back to basics”, and [trying to go] back to the first season. I think the first episode of the season, [”Putting the Ork Back in Mork”], we sort of introduced that idea that you age backwards on Ork. One of the elders from Ork, his planet, came [to visit], and he was actually a kid. But he was one of those wise men, one of the the elders from the planet. And [he] sort of gave Mork that kind of advice, sort of to “get back to the innocence” [that he had when he first came to Earth.]
Conrad Janis, who was her father, came back that year. [We were] getting it back to a grounded, more innocent place, and bringing family in. The idea was to get, you know, a little bit more of a family—not only Mindy’s actual family, but a little bit more of a family of people that was part of the show.
“I know you’re two people, and I don’t like the other guy.”
[Robin Williams] was shooting Popeye just before the third season [from January to May 1980]. And that was really the first thing he did, outside of the show—obviously, besides stand-up, and all his improv work. He’d become a really big star.
Pam Dawber had said to me [that] whenever I had to leave for a week or two and another director came in, there were problems. And she said the reason was that I was the only director who wasn’t intimidated by [Robin].
He respected me, I respected him, and we had one or two little [disagreements]. Actually, Robin avoided any kind of conflict. An example I can give you is, I was giving him a note, and he listened. And as he walked away, out of the side of his mouth, he would do, almost, like Popeye, [does Popeye voice] “Ehh, Bullshit note! What the Hell does that mean? I don’t know what the Hell he’s talkin’ about.” He’d just do that.
So, about the second time he did it, I said, “Robin, I know you’re two people. And I don’t like the other guy. So when I give you a note, if you’re going to talk out of the side of your mouth and walk away cursing, I’m not going to give you notes. You can either take the note, if you’re not happy with the note, then tell me and we’ll find another way, but I won’t allow that, it’s just not acceptable.” And he said, “Okay, Poppa, okay.” And that stopped.
You know, it was a normal note: “Robin, I think you have to do this a little louder.” “Give me a little more time before you answer her.” Or whatever.
I’m sure he did [the same thing] to the director who came in for a week or two, and they didn’t know how to cope with that. They give him a note, he’d accept it, you thought, and as he walked away, out of the side of his mouth, [Popeye voice] “Gehh, bullshit, what do they know?” When a director comes in for a week or two, he’s not going to start telling these people about their characters. He’s not going to make waves.
[One time] Robin was ad-libbing, and he did something that [Pam Dawber] felt was insulting to her. I don’t know exactly what it was. But they walked off, and Pam said to him, “If you ever do anything like that again to me, I will just slap you in the face,” or whatever. She was just furious at him.
And he melted. Cause he loved her. And she loved him. They were just such good friends. And had such respect for each other. You know?
Wendy Kout (writer, seasons three and four):
I adored him, and he was a very, very shy man. And his way of showing pleasure when he liked something [I had written], he would go over and give me a hug. But Robin kept to himself. He was very, very shy. He would speak to our director, who was mostly Howard Storm. Howard was very close to Robin, and Robin trusted him.
He definitely kept to himself, and he couldn’t really look you in the eye.
My first episode that I [wrote] was about [Mindy] trying to move forward in a career. So we started that third season with [Mindy’s career] being the storyline. So it was prominent: “Oh, so we’re paying attention to Mindy now.” That was good for the character, and I think it was also good for Pam, to have a little bit more to do [and] more direction of where her character could go.
Mork is worried she’ll become this big career girl and going to lose him. You know? Where does he fit in? That was fun, that was a good aspect to play. That comes from something real, you know? She’s focused on her career, and going up the ladder, and successful, and he’s going to be left behind.
It was just such a unique kind of character, that it wasn’t really ever supposed to be about them, you know, being real romantic in every episode. That wasn’t what it was about, I don’t think. I don’t think anybody felt like that was what it was supposed to be. There was a very, very unique male-female friendship. You know? Obviously it evolved, but I think that was more the way we were always thinking.
“The show was in trouble”
I came in five episodes into the third season. Garry [Marshall] brought me on [as a creative consultant] after the network had vetoed the next seven episodes and said, “You’re not shooting these.” The show was in trouble. When I got there, they were just all exhausted and beaten, and once in a while, they would put things in the script like “Robin picks up something and does business with it.”
Garry was hoping I could help them tell stories better.
Mork Has A Baby
The whole thing of getting a fourth season was built on them getting married, having a baby [played by] Jonathan Winters, and reinvigorating the show—which it did, for a short time. And I thought that the stuff between Robin and Pam leading up to the wedding was just wonderful. Honeymooning on Ork, you know? It didn’t ever come out exactly the way we wanted it to, but it was fun. It was different.
One of the beauties of the show was that it was very chaste, you know? And their relationship was chaste. You know what I mean? Even if you look at the movies, you never really saw Robin playing romantic leads, ever. He played very sympathetic people, but there wasn’t a lot of kissing. But you want Mork and Mindy to be together, and this was the next step.
It was kind of an obvious consensus that if the show was to continue, you had to advance their relationship.
And yes, that’s a great logline: “Mork & Mindy: Getting Married?” That was TV Guide, and that would get you an audience! “Mork’s Pregnant!” “Jonathan Winters joins the cast!” We had a national contest to name the baby. We named it [ourselves], and then waited until someone submitted that name.
Robin laying that giant egg—I remember we took publicity shots of him sitting on it, knitting. Kind of like a Warner Brothers cartoon, you know? It was great stuff!
It gave us a run of episodes, to take us through the sweeps with a good audience. We did get a bump. But eventually, you know, it started disappearing, and our stories were about raising the child.
My goal was to make the shows about something. To continue to learn and explore and discover. And a lot of times, we were successful, and sometimes not. But we tried to aim a little higher. We had a great start, and it was trying to make the show relevant to the viewers.
It was a lot of fun to work on a whole other part of Mork and Mindy’s relationship. They had fallen in love, they were getting married, and they had a baby. So it strengthened their relationship, and it took us in a new direction. And I’m sure there people who loved it, and people who didn’t love it. But I certainly enjoyed it.
So prior to Mearth coming aboard, the show really was about an alien entering Earth and exploring humanity. So now the premise changes a bit, and it’s now about a couple, an alien and a human, raising their child. Who’s both. So now you have more Orkan possibilities [and] more customs from Ork—because as a parent, he’s entitled to offer some [suggestions like], “well on Ork, we do it this way.”
[But] it gets complicated, because then Mindy can at times feel like she’s got two kids, [Mork and Mearth]. Mindy was always the adult, in every situation.
Jonathan Winters had terrible trouble, not just memorizing the lines, but staying in character. He was wonderful, and a unique talent and he was Robin’s hero. And depression was a serious issue in Jonathan’s life.
A New Executive Producer
Another guy came in to run it, a guy named Brian Levant. And the sensibilities just didn’t match [with the existing writing staff]. And so, [Ron Osborn and I] took off. We went off to do another show.
[Levant] was coming from the Laverne and Happy Days camp, and I think his sensibilities were probably a little broader, and a little more zany. A little more “sitcom.”
We were going for a certain kind of sensibility. Absolutely, humor was first—but we wanted a real warmth to the show, too. Mork dealt with a classroom full of kids for part of [season three, and we thought] things like that added a lot of appeal to it. And I believe somebody, whether it was Garry [Marshall] or the network, or whatever, just decided, “Let’s go broader.”
And so Brian came in at the end of the [third season], and it wasn’t a good mix of people on there, in terms of the kinds of shows we wanted to do. But he’s obviously got a good track record, and I’m sure is a good writer at that kind of stuff. But it was just a different approach.
I think it was broader in its comedy, and less nuanced. Less heartfelt. Comedy was his priority. Tom [Tenowich] and Ed [Scharlach] had different sensibilities than Brian, and that was reflected in the nature of the show. I don’t know why that change happened, and for me, it was a very disappointing change. It’s joke, joke, joke, without really [being] character-driven.
[I was unpopular because] I wasn’t one of them. I’m the guy who came in. I was brought in to quarterback somebody’s else’s team. And they had loyalties to other people. But they couldn’t handle the network. They couldn’t keep the show from declining. I couldn’t keep the show from declining either—but you know, Garry trusted me.
[After] Mork and Mindy, I went back to Happy Days as the showrunner—with a handsome new salary, I might add—as a result of getting Mork and Mindy into syndication. They were afraid they weren’t going to have enough episodes for syndication, [and] we saw them through the last season. [The other writers] were from a different organization and a different methodology. And yeah, I had to kick ass.
I think I tried to focus energy on something people could relate to, rather than doing shows about the “Incredible Shrinking Mork.” There was a point to it, and a reflection of things that mattered to the audience, filtered through a different sensibility.
Pee Wee Herman and William Shatner guest starred
My favorite thing to do was to go to the Roxy on Monday nights, and watch the original Pee-Wee Herman Show on stage—the one he actually pretty much revived just a few years ago. I loved him, and I brought him in [to Mork and Mindy].
And [as for] William Shatner, we had to beam the kids to school—so you know there was some trouble with the beam, and we beamed in Shatner. Shatner did it for a $2500 suit. That’s what we paid him. We couldn’t put him in an Enterprise uniform, so we put him in a bathrobe, holding a bottle of champagne. He was expecting to meet Lt. Uhura in the jacuzzi.
“Robin would get fun, get loosened up”
It was hard to write for that show. Robin didn’t like to repeat jokes. So you had to write a lot of material—the show ate up material, it ate up energy, it ate up time.
It was hard to shoot. It would constantly take an hour to shoot the first four-or-five page scene. Because Robin would get fun, loosened up. You know? He’d make mistakes, he’d talk to the crowd, he’d break up Pam. It took a while to get rolling, for him to really get in the groove.
Sometimes, the studio audience would be so exhausted from laughing so hard at Robin’s performance to the crowd, and having fun, that a lot of things in the episode itself never got the response that [they] should have, because people were literally worn out from laughing for two hours, before you got to the big scene.
There was this dark side that was always operating, you know? It’s like, well, yeah, he was up at three AM with John Belushi and Robert De Niro the night Belushi died, [and then] he’s entering the studio at nine AM for rehearsal. It was burning the candle at both ends.
At the final wrap party, he was there with Mick Jagger. He was a different person than we’d met on Happy Days. You should read the Rolling Stone interview about the end of Mork—he [asked], “Where am I going to get $42,000 a week from?” I think he found a way.
He was living it up. In hindsight, it’s pretty sad that everyone just kind of let it go, cause this was the 80’s. I guess that was expected behavior.
The final season of Mork and Mindy ends on a cliffhanger that was never resolved, in which Mork and Mindy travel through time and end up trapped in the prehistoric era. This was originally supposed to lead into a fifth season.
We even tried to get a fifth season. So here was the scenario: [Kalnik], another alien, became Mork’s buddy, and then [Mork] finds out he’s there to kill Mork for some reason. And so, to fend off this threat, they revealed themselves to the public [as an alien and his wife], and ultimately they had to run away through time to hide from [Kalnik].
It was going to be a semi-educational show, where Mork and Mindy traveling through time would meet with historical figures. We actually did a photo shoot for that, of [Mork and Mindy] standing with Abe Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin.
“It had such incredible promise, and we didn’t always deliver”
They were never able to keep it going at the same level, with the same enthusiasm, with the same innocence. And kind of the story of the series, to me, really is continuing to try and recreate that freshness and inventiveness that you saw the first time, every time. And really, you can’t do that.
I’m a little ambivalent today about Mork. It had such incredible promise, and we didn’t always deliver on that promise. We tried hard, but it was a gimmick show. Like Bewitched. Or Gilligan, or The Munsters or The Addams Family, you know? My Favorite Martian lasted three years. Gilligan’s Island, three years. The Munsters? Two.
No one had ever heard of Robin Williams before, and this guy was a skyrocket. He was doing things no one had ever done on TV. And I think by the second, third and fourth seasons, people sort of knew them. Robin was just as brilliant, but he wasn’t as new. And I think that level of excitement [was gone]. And I don’t think the show came up to support him in the ways it could have, and so it sort of drifted away.
Transcription by Gordon Jackson. Top image: Art by Jim Cooke.