In a recent effort to escape the
21st century and to retreat to my own personal safety net of
the 1970s, I borrowed the complete set of The Bob Newhart Show
from my local library system. And boy, does watching this show take me
back in time, in more ways than one. I still love the characters.
They’re still funny, and I still laugh out loud at their escapades. But
seeing the show also brings back one of the old stories in my life: the
legend of Patchett and Tarses. I hadn’t thought of these guys in a
while. I had temporarily forgotten what an influence they were on me.
And really, they were just names on a TV screen. I never met these men
or ever saw them in person.
You see, I wanted to be a writer. Well, first of all, I wanted to be a librarian. I made this decision in fourth grade because I loved being around all of the books in our elementary school library. But once I hit fifth grade and starting creating mouse stories out of our weekly lists of spelling words, I got the idea to become a writer instead. The trouble was that I didn’t know any writers. No one in our family or in our neighborhood knew any writers. We lived in a suburban township on the western side of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s and 1970s. As far as we knew, no writers lived around here. And no writers made appearances here, either. Eventually we got a Walden Books at the big new shopping mall. And the only public library we had, the one in the city of Lancaster, was sizable. But writers didn’t come to these places. If any authors were traveling out and about, they must have just hit bigger cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. They ignored the in-between landscape. So did rock groups. (Which is a rant for another day.)
Really, the only writers I ever saw were on television. The first one may have been Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple, as played by Jack Klugman. I liked the fact that he was a sports writer who worked from home. I liked the fact that he had a solid desk and a nice writing space in the apartment, with book shelves nearby. He typed with confidence and deliberation. (With just two fingers, but still.) And I could take heart that even though I was naturally a mess-maker too, my bedroom didn’t look half as bad as Oscar’s did. For one thing, I never brought food into mine. I probably wasn’t allowed to.
Then there were the writers on The Tonight Show. I’m not talking about the staff who helped to write the jokes for Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. I’m talking about the guests. Whenever I somehow got the chance to stay up late enough to watch The Tonight Show, I focused on the opening list of guests. I was ecstatic if the author of a new book was one of them. The trouble was that the writers were always put off until the tail end of the show. And often enough, Johnny spent so much time chatting with the other guests that the author had to be held over until the next night. Or he or she was cancelled all together. Nevertheless, whether or not they made it onto the show, I knew that this was what I wanted to be, most of all. I had no idea what it was that I wanted to write about. But I wanted to be the last guest of the night to be interviewed by Johnny Carson. I wanted to be one of those kinds of writers.
As I remember it, I told my father of my dream to appear at the end of The Tonight Show. To joke around with Johnny and Ed. To promote my new book. And Daddy shook his head and said that the life of a writer was a pretty tough one. As if he knew! As I mentioned earlier, we didn’t know any writers firsthand. My father was a research chemist and my mother was a nurse. They both wrote letters to the local newspaper editor whenever they felt passionate about certain issues. They typed them up on my father’s steel-gray Royal typewriter (which I would use for my research papers for school, too). And some of their letters made the paper. But other than this, and other than being avid readers of books and magazines, we had no writing examples to follow in our house. And I knew that I was not a tough person. If a writer’s life was tough, then it probably wasn’t the right work for me. I was crestfallen. But I still had the idea of being a librarian to fall back on. I could still surround myself with books.
Then one day in the early 1970s, when I was in high school, my father came home from work with a miraculous tale. He was normally an introvert, like me, and he rarely engaged in gossip. But this story was too juicy and too unbelievable for even him to ignore. Two guys who used to work for the same company that my father did – Armstrong Cork Company in Lancaster – were somehow starting to “make it big” in Hollywood. They had once done advertising work for Armstrong, just a few miles away from our house. But now they were writing sitcoms for television. Sitcoms! Like the ones we watched in our very own living room! Their names were Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses. Or, just Patchett and Tarses, for short. This match-up had a certain magical and writer-ly ring to my ears. Or maybe I envisioned a duo of do-gooders riding off together into the western sunset. Patchett and Tarses. Yeah. Like another pair from our region who would surface a few years later: Hall and Oates.
My father was shocked, and not necessarily in a good way. That two men would have the audacity to leave a secure working environment like the one provided by Armstrong for the up-and-down and vastly uncertain world of Hollywood – well, this was just unthinkable behavior. (My father would spend more than 30 years with the company.) My mother agreed. And for these reasons alone, the rebel in me was hooked. And I interpreted the news in a vastly different way than my parents did. Patchett and Tarses had left Corporate America and Suburbia for the “tough life” of being writers. Good for them! They could be the role models I could follow someday. At the very least, their example proved to me that Escape was Possible.
Around this same time in school, I was starting to read the writings of American author Henry David Thoreau. And I believed him when he said that “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Ah-hah, but not Patchett and Tarses! They marched to the beat of the iconic different drummer. They advanced confidently in the direction of their dreams and met with a success unexpected in common hours. Unexpected, at least, in my parents’ eyes. These two writers, who I knew only by name and reputation, became my personal writing heroes.
And their friendship eventually led them to appear in the credits of The Bob Newhart Show, The Tony Randall Show, The Carol Burnett Show, and in many other small- and large-screen projects, both together and individually. And every time I saw their names, my spirit soared. Just as it did when Mary Tyler Moore tossed her hat into the air on that busy street in downtown Minneapolis. Independence! Magic! Go for it!
And then, Life happened. I got caught up in college and working in libraries. Marriage and divorce followed. Writing was unfortunately pushed aside for a good long while. And the only writers I saw on a regular basis were still the ones on television, although there were different examples in the 1980s and 1990s. I loved watching Jessica Fletcher type her pages and figure out mystery plots in the opener of each Murder, She Wrote. And I was impressed when Stephen J. Cannell typed furiously and tossed his page up into the air at the end of each one of his television productions. But Jessica Fletcher, like Oscar Madison, was a fictional character. And Stephen J. Cannell was a prolific big shot in California, writing and producing his own action-packed TV series and writing action-packed novels, too. They were both too unreal to be mentors to me. They weren’t like people who used to work for the same company that my father did. They weren’t people who had spent time in my hometown.
Eventually my chances to write increased, and eventually I took on in part the “tough life” that my father had once warned me about. I now have several books and a fair amount of other work to show for it. Ironically enough, in my father’s last memory-faltering year, whenever he talked to someone about my modest writing success, he quipped, “It’s all she ever wanted to do.” Well, if you knew this to be true, I wanted to retort, why the hell did you tell me that it would be tough? Why didn’t you encourage me back then? Tell me that I could do anything I put my mind to? But no. I merely smiled at his final realization that at last I was doing something I should have been doing all along. I was glad that this was one of his final impressions of me. I do have one regret, though. I wish I could have gotten into my writing rhythm sooner. I wish I could have sat down to talk for even a few minutes with Johnny and Ed.
Now, over the course of more than a month (thanks to the ability to renew the library loan), I am still in the midst of watching all 142 episodes of The Bob Newhart Show. I have caught up with and become re-addicted to the lives of Bob and Emily Hartley, along with Howard, Ellen, Jerry, Carol, and the rest of the crew, all over again. I watch each credit sequence, and I point and cheer whenever Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses are listed as writers, story consultants, or producers. In fact, on one of their earliest connections to the show, both men appeared as bit actors. If I saw this episode when it first aired, I had forgotten it. But now I have visions of these two young do-gooders who served as my early mentors.
I’ve looked up Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses online. Most of their public bios don’t mention their time at Armstrong in Lancaster. And this is okay. Their story takes on even more of a legend status with me. If posted sources are to be believed, then I know that both men are still turning out new work, into their late 70s. Tom has turned to playwrighting and had a major play premier on stage in Europe a few years ago. And Jay is the subject and sole actor in an online comedy series called Free Advice from an Old Guy. They are still creating. They can still influence me. Or anyone, really.
We have all now moved past the days of The Bob Newhart Show, and all of us – including me -- have had our own versions of writing success. But it still gives me a thrill and a chill to know that some “local” guys – these two writers, yet! -- did good, once upon a time. So here is a big and very belated THANK YOU, Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses. (More than forty years late, but still.) Thank you for inspiring the writer in me so long ago. Thank you for giving me hope that there was indeed Life after Lancaster. I did leave the place (twice!). I did leave Suburbia. My name does appear in the credits of a variety of print and online productions, of a certain sort. Your influence is something I can still feel today. And I surely hope that I’m not the only one who cheers when your names show up in the credits.
And thanks for stopping by, friends!