Home


 

I interview director-producer John Moffitt at his office at Sunset-Gower studios on August 27, 2002.

We talk about the comedy troup Monty Python and why they haven't done any movies together in 15 years.

John: "There's always been a schism there, a quiet kind of hostility between the factions. Nothing outwardly upsetting but all very British and under the skin.

"Not Necessarily The News ran for nine years. It was difficult to acquire news footage. We took the proposed show to Michael Fuchs at HBO and he ordered a pilot. As soon as they looked at it, they ordered six episodes. The next year they ordered eight episodes. They never found a slot for us. They put us all over the place. We won more ACE awards than any other show in the history of HBO. We got great reviews but nobody saw us. Now HBO knows how to block out programs.

"We got this wonderful tape of Jane Fonda and Ted Turner. We turned it into a sex interview. Ted saw it and we got cut off from using CNN footage."

From Catherine Seipp's Salon column 7/4/97: "Last week I heard from Hustler insiders that Larry Flynt is taking the high road about the highly entertaining home video the skinmag just received ... apparently from a disgruntled assistant, who sent the video to Hustler to get back at the boss. The video reportedly shows a major media mogul [Ted Turner] happily exclaiming, "My dick's as big as a house!" while being penetrated by his dildo-equipped wife [Jane Fonda]. A feather boa and another woman also participate in the scene. The star of this sexual scenario called the head of the Hustler empire and asked him as a favor, media mogul to media mogul, not to feature it in the magazine. Flynt, who is full of surprises these days -- he recently had a cordial meeting of the minds with former nemesis Jerry Falwell -- agreed."

John: "Not Necessarily The News was ahead of its time. There were no reality or hybrid shows at this time."

Luke: "Where did you grow up?"

John: "In New Rochelle, New York, where Howdy Doody was born. Where Carl Reiner lived and wrote the Dick Van Dyke show. It was a commuting town. My father commuted. He worked for Scribners [book publisher]. He took the train every day to Manhattan. My mother met him at the train station every evening and drove him home.

"I graduated from New Rochelle High School. I put on theatrical sketches every two weeks. I also had a once-a-week radio show on WGNR. We did school news, interviews with football players. I majored in English Drama at Dartmouth. I started out as premed because my family thought drama was not for us. When I switched majors after my freshman year, my family cut me off. I got three jobs and a partial scholarship and student loans. I graduated in 1955.

"Pat Weaver, a Dartmouth grad, was the head of NBC, which had a tradition of hiring someone from Dartmouth ever year into its training program. I was the only one applying for the 18-month program. They asked me about my draft status. I found it was within a year. When they found out, they rejected me.

"A neighbor was an assignment editor (Jim Burke) for CBS News. I used to hang out with him and talk to him about Edward R. Murrow. He got me a job in the CBS mailroom. Then I went into operations until I was drafted. I got into the Army's television branch, writing and directing training films. After the Army, I went back to CBS operations.

"In addition, I went to work for Joe Papp one summer at the New York Shakespeare Festival. I'd get about four hours of sleep a night. I worked off-Broadway.

"I got a job as a production assistant on the Ed Sullivan Show. I missed out on a job I really wanted - to be production manager on the NTA Play of the Week [a live telecast of a play on the predecessor to PBS]. But that was the last year for Play of the Week. I came at the end of the Golden Age of live television [1961].

"I directed the last three years of the Ed Sullivan Show. I was there when the Beatles came on. I was with Louis Armstrong when the Wall went up in Germany.

"Bernie Brillstein became my manager in 1967. I directed the first Muppet special (The Great Santa Claus Switch) for Jim Henson. I produced the Dr. Pepper Good Vibrations rock specials, the first rocknroll shows on primetime television. The first year we did it in Central Park. The next year in London, which was the first television/radio simulcast on NBC.

"I directed specials for Dick Clark including Chicago, Three Dog Night and Roberta Flack. I directed Dick Clark's first four American Music Awards. I directed Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve special for several years. That's how I met Bill Lee. We became good friends. We wanted to go into business together.

"During the bachelor party for my second wedding... It was held at a bowling alley. Each of my ex-girlfriend's had a team. Bernie Brillstein said, 'Hey kids, ride with me.' We did. He said, 'What if I could put you guys in business together?' We'd always wanted to do that but we had never had the nerve or the money to do it.

"Three months later, around 1978, Bernie said, 'We're going to ABC. We're going to have a meeting and we're going to put you in business.' We left with a million dollar deal. We had office space at the ABC complex in Century City. We produced the 1979 Emmys. We did a show called Fridays which ran for two-and-a-half seasons. We did 36 shows a year. Saturday Night Live never did more than 20.

"There was a famous incident on Fridays with Andy Kaufman. He was in the middle of a sketch. Then he said, 'I don't want to do this anymore. It's dumb. It's awful.' The producer came in. They started pushing each other around. A fight ensued. Then we cut to a commercial. It was all planned but everybody thought it was real."

Luke: "The incident appears in the Andy Kaufman bio pic Man on the Moon."

John: "The next week, I was on stage on a stool. I said, 'Andy Kaufman is here to tell you what really happened last week.' He starts talking like he's reading from a TelePrompTer. 'They want me to tell you that what happened last week was all planned. I can't do this.' And he walked off.

"Again, it looks like we're forcing him to say something that is not true. We got so much press out of that, the show got picked up again.

"Then Ted Koppel had a show called Nightline Monday through Thursday. The affiliates loved it because it was prestigious. They didn't like ours. They thought Friday was a dirty little show. It was too young for the affiliates. They convinced ABC to cancel us."

Luke: "What did you think of the movie Man on the Moon?"

John: "Jim Carrey did an incredible Andy Kaufman. I worked with Andy Kaufman on a lot of things. Carrey got something that's hard to capture - how Andy used his eyes.

"I remember we had a party after every Fridays show. One night Andy told us, 'I'm going to die. I'm going to disappear. Then maybe I will come back on Fridays.'

"So now Fridays has been canceled. I read that Andy's sick. Everyone thinks it's another Andy joke. A year after Andy died, there was a benefit at the Comedy Store where his alter-ego, Tony Clifton, was going to perform."

As Andy Kaufman's comedy writer, Bob Zmuda often posed as Kaufman's alter ego, "Tony Clifton", with Kaufman's approval. Many personal appearances where Kaufman was supposed to turn up as "Clifton" were actually Zmuda instead.

John: "Everyone's waiting to see if Andy will show up. Tony Clifton comes out. And after a moment or two, everyone knows it's Bob Zmuda. At the end of the movie, they show Tony Clifton coming out and then they cut to a shot of Bob Zmuda in the audience. That was artistic license. That was the most egregious lie in the film."

Luke: "Was Andy difficult to work with?"

John: "Not difficult. He played his part day and night. I worked with him on the short-lived series Van Dyke and Company [1976]. When I called Andy's manager George Shapiro, he'd say, 'What time do you want Andy?' I'd say, 'Around 9AM.' He'd say, 'Well, then, how about 7AM. He'll get there an hour late, that's 8AM. Then he needs an hour to meditate in his dressing room. He should be ready by 9AM.'

"Andy always wanted to do some esoteric thing. The producer would try to reason with him. Andy would say, in that voice, 'No, no, that's dumb.'

"This is how Andy was discovered. Rick Newman, who owned the club Catch a Rising Star, was accosted in the street by Andy. 'Is this the place where you do the open microphone where comedians can get up there and say something.' Rick thought he would be a hoot for the audience and he had him come to open night mike. Andy always did that character day and night."

Luke: "Is it true that most comics are misanthropes?"

John: "The most insecure people in the world are comics. You have to be up there all alone. There's not a comic that has never bombed. So many people get up there and are rejected by the audience. But they keep going back. And finally they learn what the audience likes. And the good ones make it through. Tim Allen came up with tool time. It lent itself to a sitcom. Roseanne Barr, with her domestic goddess, lent herself to a sitcom.

"On February 3, 1981, Bill Lee died of cancer. His wife Pat Lee was a William Morris agent. She got a leave of absence when Bill was in the hospital. I was in desperate trouble. I was directing the live show Fridays every week. Pat would come in from the hospital to help out. After Bill passed away, Pat came on as my new partner. So our company remained Moffitt-Lee. It's worked out great. She's the negotiator and I'm the production guy. Every year on February 3, I drive out to the cemetery to visit Bill's grave."

Luke: "What's your favorite part of your work?"

John: "I like to direct. When you produce as well, that's one less layer you, as a director, have to go through. I love working with great comedic talent like Monty Python, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, George Carlin. I got to sit in the dressing room with them as they just take off and riff. I wish I had a tape recorder with me because sometimes they never did it again."

Luke: "When you look back on your career, what are some of the smartest and dumbest decisions you made?"

John: "I had the chance to direct the original Saturday Night Live with Lorne Michaels. I wanted to do it. Bernie said you really can't do it because you're busy producing and directing specials. I always regretted that I missed out on that.

"The smartest thing I ever did was stick with my PA job on the Ed Sullivan Show rather than becoming production manager of the NTA Play of the Week. At the time, I thought I had made the wrong decision for my career but in the end, all good things happened to me by staying there. They gave me my first chance to direct.

"The next best thing was going into business together with Bill Lee. The two years we were together before Bill got sick were great fun."

Luke: "Are there things you have to do just for appearances? Be seen in certain restaurants?"

John: "No, no, no. That's the Hollywood bull----. It's mostly film producers who have to do that. If I had played the game more, I'm sure I could've had a more visible career and made more money. But we've always been hands on. When Dick Ebersol left, Brandon Tartikoff at NBC offered us Saturday Night Live on a Friday. We owned Not Necessarily The News. We told Michael Fuchs, head of HBO. He said, 'The reason that I love the show so much is that you guys are hands on. You do everything. If you're not going to be here, I don't know if I want to pick it up again."

"We wondered if we could be sandbagged by SNL. We didn't want to give up the one thing that was ours. So we called Brandon Tartikoff Monday morning and said we couldn't do it."