Mr. Saturday Night's Writers: Funny All Week
I HAD 200 EXTRAS AND A TIGER, STAGING a very elaborate scene,” recalls Billy Crystal of a moment during filming of his new comedy, Mr. Saturday Night. “All this action is swirling around, and the two of them are buried in books. Co-scriptwriter Lowell Ganz was deep into Dickens’s Little Dorrit. His partner, Babaloo Mandel, was reading a biography, Billy Wilder in Hollywood. And then, Crystal says, “Lowell comes up and says, ‘This is so exciting to be here.’ ”
For Ganz and Mandel, making Billy Crystal laugh is no big deal. As Hollywood’s hottest comedy-writing team, the low-key pair have demonstrated their ability to work America—a very tough room, ladies and gentlemen—since their first collaboration 11 years ago. “They have had three $100 million movies in a row—Parenthood, City Slickers and A League of Their Own” says Parenthood producer Brian Grazer, who also did Night Shift and Splash with the pair’s scripts. “If any director wants a really funny movie, it’s an automatic call: 911-COMEDY.”
Ah, top Hollywood scripters. Surely they’ve got hillside mansions and reserved tables at Spago. Nope. Like their movie plots, Ganz and Mandel put a welcome reverse spin on the expected. Although they have together raked in millions for their services, every weekday they drive themselves from their suburban homes in the San Hernando Valley to their cramped L.A. office.
By 10:30 A.M. they begin lobbing one-liners. The 6’1″ bespectacled Ganz, 44, is known as the motor-mouth master of structure who can talk out a whole screenplay before lunch. The subdued Mandel, 43, is more of a serene Buddha of comedy. “Sometimes, Babaloo sits on the floor Indian-style,” says Crystal, “and waits and waits until something just pops out. I think he only talks once a day, but it’s great.”
Forget the overdrive hours of the film business. By 4:30 the writers are beating the rush-hour traffic. “We’re the home-by-5 boys,” says Ganz. Several times a week, Ganz gives wife Jeanne, 43, a break from the kids. Leaving her at their four-bedroom Sherman Oaks home, he takes Scott, 14, Allison, 11, and Simon, 8, to Pizza Hut or “anyplace where they don’t yell if kids stand up in the booth,” he says. For the Mandel six-pack in Woodland Hills, there is little choice. Joshua, 14, Jesse, 11, Jason, 8, and 4-year-old triplets Jake, Jamie and Julie eat at home with Babaloo and Mom, Denise, 40.
Ganz and Mandel each bring particular gifts to the partnership. The son of an art-supply-company executive and “classic-mom,” Ganz grew up in New York City’s borough of Queens so in love with movies and TV that it was hard to study. He was, he says, “a floundering underachiever.”
Along with Queens College buddy Mark Rothman, Ganz began writing comedy skits for college variety shows in 1969. Through Rothman’s limo-driver father, the kids managed to get a hastily written script for The Odd Couple into the hands of Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. They liked it, and soon Odd Couple profiteer Garry Marshall offered them a writer’s tryout. It clicked. By age 23, Ganz was an Odd Couple staffer in Hollywood. (Rothman went on to write for TV and stage.)
Meantime, Marc Mandel, son of a Bronx cabdriver and a homemaker mom, started scribbling jokes at age 8 in emulation of his hero, Groucho Marx. The habit continued through his days at New York Institute of Technology, and in 1972, Mandel loaded up his car and left for Hollywood. “A voice said, ‘Get out of the room and go,’ ” he recalls.
Meeting Ganz later that year at the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard (where Mandel briefly did a stand-up act) marked the beginning of a new era—and a new name. Ganz remembered that Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint has a character named Babaloo Mandel. He promptly slapped that moniker on Marc, who has answered to it ever since.
More than two years passed, though, before the pair hooked up professionally. While Ganz worked long hours in TV, including a stint as supervising producer of the megahit Happy Days, Mandel fitfully supported himself shopping movie scripts to studios. That ended in 1974 when Mandel married high school sweetheart Denise Horn, who had moved to L.A. (“At my sweet 16 party,” she recalls, “he was in the other room entertaining my mother with stories.”) Denise quickly explained that she wanted a real home and a husband with a regular paycheck. So, says Mandel, he called Ganz for a TV gig. He subsequently worked as a Happy Days creative consultant. (In 1976, Ganz married Jeanne Russo, then a secretary on The Odd Couple staff.)
By the time their first children came along in 1978, both men were ready to slow down and focus their energy. They got the chance in 1981 when Happy Days‘ Howard and producer Grazer offered them Night Shift. The rest has been a hoot.
Over the course of their collaboration, Ganz and Mandel have developed their own odd-couple rapport. “Babaloo actually waits for bad things to happen,” says Ganz. “But why not worry ahead of time? When something bad happens, I’ve already got half of it done.”
The writers, however, don’t bring the show business home. Sports nut Ganz takes his kids to see the Lakers and Dodgers and attends all of their school games. The Mandels often pack into a van called the Babaloomobile. “We go from town to town pretending we’re a circus,” says Mandel.
Agents often urge Ganz and Mandel to extend their reach into directing and producing. The pair, who are currently adapting Broadway’s Into the Woods for film, won’t even consider kicking themselves upstairs. “All that attention…we’ll trade it for a little less pressure and more control over our lives,” says Ganz. His wife, Jeanne, thinks more glamor would be a waste. “If you gave him a thousand dollars and told Lowell to buy something for himself, he’d really find it hard,” she says. Denise Mandel agrees. “If you give Babaloo money, or a map, he’s lost,” she says. “Everything he has is creative.”
NANCY MATSUMOTO in Los Angeles