Earl Pomerantz gave Ted Baxter a heart attack on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and had Sam tell Diane that he loved her on Cheers. (Sam didn’t mean it. He was just happy to get tickets to a boxing match.)
Mr. Pomerantz, who has died in Los Angeles at 75, excelled at conjuring punchlines and witty repartee in telling a comic story in the 22-minute format of a television situation comedy.
If you laughed at a sitcom 30 or 40 years ago, it is likely your funny bone was tickled at some point by Mr. Pomerantz.
His credits include many top shows of the 1970s, including Taxi, Sanford and Son, The Tony Randall Show and The Bob Newhart Show, as well as the Mary Tyler Moore spinoffs Rhoda and Phyllis. In the 1980s, he was the original co-executive producer and showrunner for The Cosby Show, a big hit, and the developer of Major Dad.
The Toronto-born writer was nominated six times for an Emmy Award, winning twice.
He was a lesser-known figure among the many comedians and humorists who got their start in Canada before heading to Hollywood. Al Franken, who worked with the writer on the failed sitcom LateLine, eulogized him as a “brilliant collaborator” who was “effortlessly funny.”
Mr. Pomerantz displayed a light, deft touch, as he eschewed insults and gross-out jokes in favour of lighthearted banter and clever asides. He was an astute observer of life’s absurdities.
A recurring theme in his writing was the ideal father. The sweater-wearing Dr. Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show was a witty and wholesome dad, while John D. (Mac) MacGillis on Major Dad was a by-the-book Marine officer who coped with a chaotic household after marrying a widowed liberal journalist with three daughters.
The TV dads stand in contrast to the absence of a father of his own.
Earl Raymond Pomerantz was born in Toronto on Feb. 4, 1945, a second son for the former Gertrude Brown and William Pomerantz, who at the time of Earl’s birth was a jobber in the family’s wholesale dry-goods business. The baby was only five months old when the death of his paternal grandfather, Joseph, a Jewish immigrant from Czarist Russia, left William in charge of the business, which included the Acme Suspender Co., as well as distribution for Penmans underwear.
“We got free sweat socks and T-shirts,” older brother Hart Pomerantz said recently. “Under our clothes, we were well dressed. Unfortunately, we didn’t also have a grandfather in the outerwear business.”
Earl was six when his father died in 1951, the result of kidney damage from a childhood disease. The boys were raised in a single-parent home, a happy one but an oddity in the conformist 1950s.
Earl attended Toronto Hebrew Day School, Ledbury Park Junior High and Bathurst Heights Collegiate. He maintained an afternoon paper route and, his brother remembers, watched a lot of television, favouring shows with cowboys and gunslingers. As an adult, Earl would entertain live studio audiences during set changes by singing the theme song from any Western on demand.
Earl was keen to follow his brother’s early stage success as a comic monologist. “We had a scribbling rivalry,” Hart quips. Earl auditioned for a spot in the Follies, the annual musical sketch-comedy revue put on by students at University College, one of the colleges that comprise the University of Toronto.
(“And by the way,” Earl once wrote, “what kind of name is ‘University College’? Isn’t that just ‘university’ twice? This ‘double-up’ is not surprising I suppose in a city one of whose primary thoroughfares is Avenue Road.”)
Earl’s reading of a script bombed at the tryout, so he walked across the stage and ad-libbed, “Maybe I’ll be funnier over here.” That got a laugh. When his scripted lines again failed to generate guffaws, he said, with an air of dejection, “I guess not.”
He was distraught at not making the cut. Meanwhile, Lorne Lipowitz, the Follies’ writer and producer, called Hart seeking material to fill out the show. As it happened, Hart had a sketch titled “Blind Date,” which Mr. Lipowitz was welcome to use as long as Earl got to play the part.
The bit involved a shy, nerdy man – not a stretch for the younger Mr. Pomerantz, who was born with cataracts and wore thick glasses – so desperate for a date he resorts to telephone cold calls. When the guy inadvertently gets a nun on the telephone, he ends the call with the plea, “Sister, do you have a sister?” The routine got uproarious laughs during the three-day run of the successful 1965 Follies.
Mr. Lipowitz soon after changed his surname to Michaels, later becoming the creator of Saturday Night Live and other landmark television shows.
Mr. Pomerantz took a summer acting course in California, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for a performance in a student production of Bertolt Brecht. When he asked a professor about pursuing a master’s degree in theatre, the teacher responded: “You have a ‘certain quality.’ But I would not call it acting.”
Mr. Pomerantz wound up a substitute teacher in England at the St. John’s Church of England Infants School in the London suburb of Kilburn. He also attended three lessons each week at The Actors’ Workshop, a Method acting school in a land renowned for character acting.
“Studying the Method in England,” he wrote years later, “was like learning to play ice hockey in Hawaii.”
He was employed briefly one Yuletide as a toy wrapper at Harrods, the luxury department store, where he had an unintentionally comic encounter with a customer. Having done an admittedly poor job of wrapping gifts, he assuaged the complainant by inviting her to join him in his windowless workplace, where he invited her to sit atop the airless room’s only seat-like surface, a rolled bundle of cardboard. The parcels carefully redone in Harrods trademark green paper, he asked the customer to place her finger atop the crossed twine, so he might complete a bow. When she offered a 5-pound tip, a substantial sum at the time and the equivalent of a fortnight’s rent for his unheated room, he curtly refused. Only later did he discover he might have insulted a member of the Grand Ducal Family of Luxembourg, as nervous management belatedly informed him the customer was Her Royal Highness Princess Joan.
Mr. Pomerantz returned to Toronto, where for two years he wrote a column for teenagers in the Toronto Telegram called “Where It’s Near,” the title a play on “where it’s at,” implying his opinions were less than fashionable.
In 1970, his brother and Mr. Michaels returned to Canada after having written for the wildly successful Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The pair devised a successful hour-long variety program for the CBC combining sketch comedy with musical guests on The Hart & Lorne Terrific Hour! The younger brother contributed gags.
A rare headlining gig came in 1973 when CBC Radio aired Earl Pomerantz 57 Minutes as part of The Entertainers program.
The next year, Mr. Michaels lured him to Los Angeles to help write a comedy special for Lily Tomlin, a former Laugh-In regular. This led to his first Emmy nomination in 1975 and a win for another special featuring Ms. Tomlin in 1976. Mr. Pomerantz also won an Emmy in 1985 for outstanding comedy series as part of the team responsible for The Cosby Show. He had nominations for writing for The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1977) and The Cosby Show (1985). He was a creative consultant for The Larry Sanders Show, which was nominated for outstanding comedy series in 1997.
In 1977, he won a $10,000 Humanitas Prize for lending dignity to the human spirit with a seriocomic script for an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show titled “Ted’s Change of Heart.” The vain and pompous newscaster Ted Baxter, portrayed by Ted Knight, finds renewed joy in life after suffering an on-air heart attack. On accepting the award, beating out an episode of All in the Family and a M*A*S*H script by Alan Alda, Mr. Pomerantz thanked “whoever made this much money to give it away.”
Not all of his humour found an audience. A sitcom based on his own life, Family Man, lasted a single season, while his lampooning homage to Westerns, Best of the West, died after 22 episodes, though it won a cult following among aficionados.
In this century, a half-dozen lighthearted takes on such topics as summer camp and Martha Stewart aired as commentaries on National Public Radio’s popular All Things Considered.
He became a naturalized American after living in California for 20 years. He did so with mixed feelings.
“To Canadians, Americans are the neighbours whose parties are too loud,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Americans behave like there was a contest for Best Country and they retired the award in 1945.”
Mr. Pomerantz, who died March 7 of an aneurysm at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, was a resident of Santa Monica. He leaves his wife, the former Myra Yoelin; daughters Anna Pomerantz and Rachel Braude; three grandchildren; and, his brother, Hart Pomerantz, of Toronto.
As an actor, Mr. Pomerantz appeared in sketches he wrote for The Bobbie Gentry Show, a 1974 summertime replacement featuring the singer of the hit song Ode to Billie Joe. He also appeared in a 1983 episode of the sitcom Buffalo Bill, portraying Crazy Eddie Finsek, the Human Salmon, a daredevil preparing to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. He had a single line of dialogue, delivered in a wetsuit, which he confessed took several takes.
His sole movie acting credit is as Third Victim in Cannibal Girls, an improvised 1973 comedy-horror production filmed in small-town Ontario and directed by Ivan Reitman with comic actors Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin. Mr. Pomerantz is eaten alive by three sexy man-eaters while handcuffed to a bed. Lest he be accused of scenery chewing, he let it be known his death screams were dubbed by another actor. He claimed to have never watched the movie in its entirety and advised others to do the same.