Mel Tolkin, né Shmuel Tolchinsky(August 3, 1913 – November 26, 2007), was a television comedy writer best known as head writer of the seminal live TV sketch comedy series Your Show of Shows (NBC, 1950–1954) during the Golden Age of Television. There he presided over a storied staff that at times included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, and Larry Gelbart. The writers' room inspired the film My Favorite Year (1982), produced by Brooks, and the Broadway play Laughter on the 23rd Floor (1993), written by Neil Simon.
Early life and career
Mel Tolkin was born Shmuel Tolchinsky  (Russian: Тол(ь)чинский, cog. Тульчинский, Ukrainian: Толчинський, Polish: Tolczyński, cog. Tulczyński, means "from Tuľčyn") in a Jewish shtetl near Odessa, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. This background of anti-Semitic pogroms, shared by other comedy writers of his generation, he noted in 1992, "I’m not happy to have to say ... created the condition where humor becomes anger made acceptable with a joke".
His family moved to Montreal, Canada in 1926, where Tolkin became known as Samuel. He studied accounting after graduating from high school, and surreptitiously entered show business by composing songs and sketches for local revues and playing piano in jazz clubs. Fearing his parents would disapprove of what they would see as an impractical career choice, he began using the pseudonym Mel Tolkin.
During World War II, and specifically in early 1942, he wrote sketches and songs for a Broadway revue called "Of V We Sing", performed at the Concert Theater in New York, produced by the American Youth Theater and Alexander H. Cohen, which featured the young Betty Garrett in her Broadway debut, and also the fledgling Newburgh NY architect-to-be, John Flemming, in the chorus. Tolkin did military service in the Canadian Army, playing the glockenspiel in a military orchestra. He moved to New York City, New York, in 1946, and married Edith Leibovitch that year. He teamed with longtime writing partner Lucille Kallen and began concocting comedy for performers at the Poconos resort Camp Tamiment. In 1949, the duo became the sole writing staff of the NBC television network variety show The Admiral Broadway Revue. By the following year, that series, starring the eventually legendary Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, had evolved in Your Show of Shows.
Your Show of Shows
Considered by TV historians as a classic of the medium, with Ronald C. Simon, television curator of The Paley Center for Media calling it "a pinnacle of television history", the series presented 90 minutes of comedy live each week for 39 weeks a year, for a total of 160 shows airing February 25, 1950, to June 5, 1954. From its sixth-floor office on West 56th Street in Manhattan, writers including Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Danny Simon, Larry Gelbart, Lucille Kallen and head writer Tolkin, famously fought, argued, quipped, crafted, "paced, muttered, swore, occasionally typed and more than occasionally threw things: crumpled paper cups, cigars (lighted) and much else. The acoustical-tile ceiling was fringed with pencils, which had been flung aloft in a rage and stuck fast; Mr. Tolkin once counted 39 of them suspended there".
The series quickly settled into a starring quartet of Caesar, Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard Morris. Many of its sketches became classics that found a new audience beginning in 1973, when the show's producer-director, Max Liebman, compiled the theatrical film release 10 From Your Show of Shows. Tolkin continued writing on an acclaimed successor series, Caesar's Hour, which ran September 27, 1954 through 1957. He also wrote the theme song for Your Show of Shows, "Stars Over Broadway".
Later life and career
For six years in the 1970s, Tolkin was a story editor on the landmark CBS sitcom All in the Family, writing several of its scripts. He also wrote for the sequel series Archie Bunker's Place, and for the Tony Randall sitcom Love, Sidney.
Tolkin died of heart failure at age 94, at his home in Century City, California. Aside from children and grandchildren, he was survived by his wife, Edith, and by a brother, Sol Tolchinsky. He was interred at Hillside Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, California.
Tolkin and co-writers Sam Denoff, Bill Persky, and Carl Reiner shared the 1967 "Outstanding Writing Achievement in Variety" Emmy Award, for The Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris Special.
Tolkin also received the following Emmy nominations:
- Best Comedy Writing - 1956
- Best Comedy Writing - Variety Or Situation Comedy - 1957
- Best Comedy Writing - 1958
- for Caesar's Hour (NBC), shared with Gary Belkin, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart,Sheldon Keller, Neil Simon, and Mike Stewart
- Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy or Variety - 1964
- Fox, Margalit (November 27, 2007). "Mel Tolkin, Lead Writer for 'Show of Shows,' Dies at 94"". The New York Times.
- "Mel Tolkin, 94, TV writer: Won an Emmy for 'Your Show of Shows'", Variety, November 26, 2007. WebCitation archive.
- Los Angeles Times interview, 1992, quoted in The New York Times, 2007, above
- "Writer Mel Tolkin Dies at 94". Associated Press via FoxNews.com. November 27, 2007. Archived from the original on December 31, 2007. Additional WebCitation archive.
- Williams, Mark. "Sid Caesar" (biographical entry), The Museum of Broadcast Communications, n.d. WebCitation archive.
- "Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting", The Jewish Museum, 2003, n.d. WebCitation archive.
- The New York Times (November 14, 2000): "Mother Lode of TV Comedy Is Found in Forgotten Closet", by Glenn Collins
- Mel Tolkin Emmy Awards and nominations at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.WebCitation archive.