My very first job in this insane business was as a writer on what’s become a cult favorite: The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. That’s right, The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, starring Florence Henderson, Robert Reed and a cast of thousands in the pool.
My agent set me up for the interview; he didn’t tell me what it was for because he knew I wouldn’t go if he even mentioned The Brady Bunch. I NEVER watched The Brady Bunch. Who could relate to that? I came from a divorced home. The Brady Bunch? Lost World would have been more like it. I walk into the office, I’m meeting with Carl Klein Schmidt and Ronnie Graham (he played Dirt in that famous gasoline commercial). We’re talking and joking and they look at a video of my stand-up and it’s all good. Then I ask, “So what’s the show?”
Carl says, The Brady Bunch Variety Hour.
At that very second a tiny gnat flew right in front of me. As a joke I tried to grab for it. Carl thinks I’m making a comment on the show by making some Three Stooges take; what I was really doing was trying to kill a bug. But because Carl thought I was putting down the show, I got hired. He was looking for a group of writers who were hip and could write tongue in cheek. That’s the insanity of my business; I had no credits, I had no experience, I couldn’t relate to the show; but because I was perceived as sarcastic, I got hired.
It turned out to be the best experience of my life. The other writers included Bruce Vilanch and Terry Hart. Terry was an advertising executive who had gotten into writing for television; Bruce was the genius who created Bette Midler’s attitude. Carl had a list of credits as long as his arm. Ronnie was a veteran of show business going back to the 1950s, and me, Mr. “I don’t deserve to be here.”
Carl became my mentor telling me things like, “There is no time clock on creativity.” Meaning, if I wasn’t funny from 9 to 5, it might happen at 11 p.m., and I should be writing then.
Those words stayed with me my entire career and through every show I ever wrote on. It saved my a** on several occasions. To give you an idea of how good Carl was to me, right in the middle of production I walked into his office and said, “I’m having my nose fixed on Wednesday, I’ll be out a couple of days.” He said, “Cool.” I had the operation and came back to work black and blue and all bandaged. On the tape above my nose I wrote “UNDER CONSTRUCTION.” When I walked in, Carl was the first one to laugh and laugh the hardest (the nose turned out well).
The producers of the show were Sid and Marty Krofft. They were the wunderkind of television. Sid was the creative one; Marty was the business one. Sid was, shall we say, odd. His mind thought in ways others didn’t. He was in his own Puff ‘n’ Stuff world and welcome to it, but he created an empire, which still lasts today.
I got to work with many stars on the show: Tina Turner, Lee Majors, Farah Fawcett, Rip Taylor, Rick Dees (this is where our friendship began), Vincent Price, Tony Randall, Milton Berle and many more. Of all the stories, my experience with Milton is the best.
One additional writer, whose name will remain anonymous, was an incredible pothead. He was stoned the entire time we were in production and had his own office away from the set so he could smoke his evil weed. We were working under a deadline and Carl asked me to go up to this writer’s office to work on a scene with him. I wasn’t there six minutes when out came the pot. This was the 1970s and everyone was smoking pot, myself no exception.
It was a time when we all felt invincible; we have since learned otherwise. I was young and invincible and I partook and partook and partook. I think he flew it in from Hawaii. I was flying higher than the plane that brought this crap in. We were writing this hilarious scene, or so we thought, when the phone rings. It’s my secretary, “They need you down on the set.” I could barely stand. In my drug-induced stupor, I thought, I can do this. No one will notice, and I put on a pair of sunglasses and left for the set stopping only to buy candy bars at the roach coach.
I walk into the sound stage and everyone is there. Florence, Robert, most of the kids, the network executives, the production staff and Milton Berle. Bobby is missing, however, and Jack Regas, the director, says to me, “Steve, will you read Bobby’s part?”
Panic City! “Sure.”
It’s a scene where Milton introduces himself to Bobby. “Hello, Bobby, I’m Milton Berle.”
I’m supposed to say, “Hi, Mr. Berle.” Instead I say “Hi Mr. Berle, I’m Steve Bluestein, one of the writers.”
Berle breaks character and turns to Carl, “Look at that, I’m such a good actor the kid thinks I’m talking to him.” Everyone laughs; I want to die. My heart drops about six feet. I am scared I am going to get in trouble. I look for a friendly face… ah! Carl.
I turn to Carl and raise the sunglasses to show him my eyes. He knows I’ve been working with Mr. El Stone-o and knows instantly I’m about to audition for a Cheech and Chong movie. He rolls off the chair and is so convulsed with laughter he has to leave the stage. That is the irony of The Brady Bunch Variety Hour. This wholesome, all-American, family entertainment show was written by stoned freaks who were the hippest writers of that time. See, show business is all bull, but I would not change a minute of that experience. Florence Henderson was a joy to work with. Robert Reed, although totally out of his element on this show, was a professional. The kids were great! I loved my fellow writers. I got to meet Witchy-poo and all the Kraft characters. What could be so bad?
Oh! I think it was last year that TV Guide voted The Brady Bunch Variety Hour as the fourth worst show in the history of television. Thank you. It was my pleasure.
— Steve Bluestein
Steve Bluestein is a stand-up comedian, sitcom writer and playwright who just published Memoir of a Nobody, a collection of short stories about life, love, comedy, show business and overcoming a difficult childhood. This piece is an excerpt from that book.