Burb's Eye View: A writer's TV work remains relevant

Irma Kalish had not seen her friend in years, yet here she was, thousands of miles from where they first met, telling Kalish all about the surgery that removed a cancerous tumor from her breast.

She mentioned to Kalish the recent episode of “All in the Family” that helped her through it — Edith Bunker found out she also had breast cancer, and the Bunkers get through it together.

Kalish had, indeed, known of the episode. She created it.

“Those shows we write aren’t just on paper — they go out there — they hit people and make an impact on people,” Kalish said this week.

“All in the Family” was what she calls a “relevant show,” where she could address more personal and topical stories. It was one of many sitcoms she scripted with her husband, Rocky Kalish, over 30 years.

Her resume reads like a “best of” edition of TV Guide. Kalish wrote or produced sitcoms including “Gidget,” “F Troop,” “My Three Sons,” “Maude,” “All in the Family,” “Good Times,” “The Facts of Life,” and others. She will talk about her career in a presentation on March 15 beginning at 2 p.m. at the Burbank Historical Society.

Though she led the way for female comedy writers in mainstream television, she laughs at the idea of being labeled a pioneer.

“I’m very proud that I was there — and if they want to call me a pioneer, I’ll put on a hoop skirt and bonnet and that’s fine,” she said.

Writing with her husband often took place at the kitchen table, on vacations and in the car. Irma Kalish would usually write the first draft of a script and Rocky would edit. If they couldn’t agree on a joke, they’d come up with a third option.

As with any marriage, compromise was key to their working relationship.

“We’re still a team. I’ve been married seven happy years — seven out of 65 isn’t bad,” IrmaKalish said.

She began her writing career fresh out of Syracuse University in a job as assistant editor at a pulp magazine. She began writing love stories (girl meets boy) and Westerns (girl meets horse) at a penny a word.

Once she and Rocky married, they came as a package deal for their writing work. In the 1960s and ’70s, she was told “women can make you cry, but they can’t make you laugh,” relegating most female writers to daytime soap operas.

“I hope I proved them wrong,” Irma Kalish said.

The Kalishes drew on their experience raising two children for their early comedies. Irma Kalish remembers bombarding the kids with questions after they came home from school — any funny stories could end up as the plot of a “Family Affair” episode.

Eventually, Rocky Kalish told his wife she had to “stop being Mrs. Rocky Kalish and start being Irma Kalish.” She joined several Hollywood leadership organizations including the Writers Guild of America, where she served as vice president.

The Kalishes shaped American television when there were far fewer programming choices for viewers. This put a wider spotlight on their work — on a Tuesday night in 1973 your choices were “Maude,” “Happy Days” or “Adam 12.” No cable, no Internet cat videos or movies on demand — the majority of U.S. households huddled around the TV set to see the latest work of writers like Irma and Rocky Kalish.

Irma Kalish says she doesn’t watch much television anymore. There are too many things vying for her attention, and the art she helped create has changed so much since her youth.

“I don’t know if I could write for any of those shows these days,” she said.

Kalish pauses for a few seconds.

“No, I think I probably could.”

The Burbank Historical Society program featuring Irma Kalish is free and will be held in the Cunningham Room of the museum, 115 Lomita St.

For information call (818) 841-6333 or visit www.burbankhistoricalsoc.org.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this column stated Irma Kalish was president of the Writer's Guild of America. This is incorrect. She served as vice president.


BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. He can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter: @818NewGuy.

Copyright © 2019, Burbank Leader
EDITION: California | U.S. & World