I interviewed my pal, Emmy nominated TV writer, Billy Van Zandt
A wee bit about Billy
I met Billy seven years ago when he started dating one of my good friends, Teresa Ganzel. Not only is Billy an all-around great guy, his Hollywood resume is gold. Gold, I tell ya! For starters, he and his writing partner, Jane Milmore, wrote and produced a TON of television comedies. He’s worked with an array of talented actors, like, Jamie Lee Curtis, Olympia Dukakis, Brooke Shields, Micahel McKeon and The Wayans Brothers. Billy and Jane received Emmy nominations for their CBS special I Love Lucy: The Very First Show which unveiled I Love Lucy’s pilot episode. It was the highest-rated program on network television that season.
Billy and Jane are also playwrights with 25 produced plays. As an actor, Billy has appeared on tons of TV shows as well as the movies, Jaws 2 and Taps. Billy’s new book, Jane, Get in the Car!, chronicles much of his Hollywood adventures.
What did I tell ya? GOLD!
The Qs & The As
Q: What was the moment when you felt you arrived as a writer? And let us imagine you are not permitted to say, “I’m still waiting for it.”
A: Having my first play published (Love, Sex, and the IRS). And seeing my first script on TV (Newhart).
Q: How long had you been at it before that happened?
A: I’d been writing since I learned how to write. Wrote plays for Grammar school, junior high, and high school. Wrote the shows and directed them for a children’s theater company at a local theater all through junior high and high school, too. Plays, screenplays, short stories. “Love Sex and the IRS” was the first full-length attempt at a professional show. I was nineteen.
Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?
A: After we’d been a hit with great reviews and an extended run, I put all the reviews together with a letter from the producers and cold-called Samuel French, the biggest play publishers in the world. They published Neil Simon so who else would I go to? They accepted the show for publication (this was a rarity, back when they’d only publish about 30 plays a year including whatever was on Broadway). And the contract said they’d take our next two plays as well. So we Immediately started writing two more plays. Then the plays took off with a life of their own.
Q: Did you get your script to Newhart via your agent or was it through other connections?
A: The plays got me an agent in California. The California agent forced us to write a spec script because “no one out here cares about your plays” and the spec script got us to Newhart.
Q: That must have been such a great feeling. I loved Newhart! What was your favorite TV show growing up?
A: I Love Lucy. It’s always been Lucy.
Q: Lucy was one of my all-time fav women in show biz. I would have loved to have met her, let alone work with her. I can only imagine how great that must have been. What’s a favorite memory you have of the time you worked with Lucille Ball?
A: Every second of it. But I guess if I have to pick one thing it would be when the director asked me to change something I was doing and Lucy yelled out: “Leave him alone. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a talented comedian.” Nothing better than that.
Q: Is there a sentence, maybe a joke, that you wrote that you are especially proud of?
A: No. I’d just rewrite it to try and make it better.
Q: What makes you laugh?
A: My girlfriend Teresa Ganzel. All the time. And people getting hit with something or falling down.
Q: Teresa is freakin’ hilarious! What TV show would you have loved to work on?
A: Lucy, Green Acres, Get Smart, Seinfeld, Veep, Dick Van Dyke, Schitt's Creek.
Q: Great list. I like how it’s a mix of classic and current. I love (and miss) TV theme songs! I loved All in the Family and Laverne and Shirley and The Jeffersons theme songs. You?
A: Green Acres and Phyllis Diller singing the theme to The Pruitts of South Hampton.
Q: Were you a big reader as a kid? What was your favorite book? Favorite play?
A: Yes, I read a lot. Mostly autobiographies, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Dickens, Neil Simon plays, and all the Agatha Christie mysteries. My favorite? Usually the next one I’m about to read or see.
Q: I love that your favorite is in the future. The first thing you performed in? Did you love it immediately?
A: Backyard improv-ed “shows” for the neighborhood kids. Joanie Boesch (my back door neighbor) and I would do these “shows” as the big finale to the MDA carnivals we’d throw yearly to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. More like Three Stooges-Punch & Judy skits than actual shows. Yes, Loved every second of it.
Q: You did fundraisers as a kid! Impressive. I know your lifelong writing partner and friend, Jane Milmore, passed away recently and I can only imagine how losing your best friend and your writing partner at the same time, must feel like. Have you written something solo since her passing and do you find yourself thinking, “what would Jane think?”
A: She’s still with me. And always will be.
Q: How did you and Jane first decide to write together and what was the first thing you wrote together? I’ve mostly written solo, I’m curious what the process was like for you, writing with a partner.
A: Auditions were few and far between as an actor, despite some great movie credits. So we wrote plays to star ourselves. “Love, Sex, and the IRS” was our first. Good chapter on writing as a team in my book. It’s a different animal than writing alone –there is a lot of fighting which is not really fighting. The key to a good team is both parties thinking the other one is funnier than you are and trying to make them laugh.
Q: When you were working on the book, what did your daily writing routine look like? What kind of writing environment do you prefer?
A: Whenever I write, I usually wake up and go straight to the computer. I need a completely clean desk (all other work finished and put away before I start.) Most of the time, I’ll play music as I work: ’60s rock and roll, Bruce and my brother (Steven Van Zandt), Sinatra, Broadway — depends on the piece I’m writing. Whether it’s working on the book or a script I usually work from 9 am to 3 pm (with time off for lunch) and I end my workday with a hike.
Q: Is there a piece of advice someone gave you about writing/acting/showbiz that you found helpful, funny, or unbelievably stupid?
A: What I’ve learned through the years is that no one really knows anything. Except the audience. Listen to them. The only helpful advice I got in television came from playwright/TV writer Sam Bobrick who sat me down day one of a TV job and said “You’re a playwright, right? That means you’re used to being top of the pyramid. Everyone (actors, directors, etc) are all there to please you. Welcome to television — you are nothing but a blueprint, and people will do whatever they want with your script. The sooner you accept that, the easier your life will be.” He wasn’t wrong.
Q: If you could give your younger writing self advice, what would it be?
A: Get everything you’re promised in writing. And turn down the Witt-Thomas job when it’s offered.
Q: I guess we will have to get the book to learn more about that.
“Extremely funny! A fascinating look at the world of being a writer for television.”
-Gary Wien, NJ Stage
Get the book! → Get in the Car Jane! Adventures in the TV Wasteland