A comedy writer in our midst

“Laugh-In,” “SNL” writer visits Sorensen to discuss writing and the biz

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Sorensen Elementary School students who staff “The Observer: A Literary Magazine” listen intently to comedic writer Harvey Pepper on Monday as he discusses his career writing for “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In,” “Saturday Night Live,” George Carlin, and others.

COEUR d’ALENE — Harvey Pepper remembers the turning point in American comedy television.

He wasn't just present for it. He helped write it.

"None of us had any idea that we were steeped in history that was about to happen," Pepper said Monday morning.

Pepper, who grew up in Los Angeles, spent 17 years writing for the iconic TV shows "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" and "Saturday Night Live." He actually wrote the idea and the pilot for "Laugh-In." His friend's dad was a producer and approached him about creating a different kind of comedy program. The year was 1968.

"It ended up taking off," he said of "Laugh-In." "Anybody that was anybody was on that show. It was once a week. We had people who were larger than life. I went right from college to doing the No. 1 show in the country; it was pretty abstract. It took me a while to get used to that."

Pepper's time with "Laugh-In" led him to befriend and write for the late George Carlin, a master comedian and modern-day philosopher who back then was just starting out.

"He turned out to be one of the most iconic comedy people in history," Pepper said. "I'm honored to have spent 25 years with this man."

Pepper's time in show business all sprouted from his ability to understand humor and his love of writing at an early age, which is what he shared with students at Sorensen Magnet School of the Arts and Humanities on Monday morning. He visited with the staff of the school's literary magazine, The Observer, to discuss comedy writing and the creative process.

"You think writing comedy is just sitting down and being funny, but the sequence of things is very important," said Pepper, who now lives in Coeur d'Alene. "The editing is critical to whether the audience will laugh."

After sitting down with Observer staff members, Pepper answered questions and discussed his career with more than 100 kindergarten, third-grade and fifth-grade students in the gymnasium.

"What's the hardest part of being a comedian? Being funny," Pepper said with a huge smile, causing the youngsters to giggle.

Pepper, 67, shared his experiences of working in the early days of "Saturday Night Live." He lived in L.A. but worked in New York City, which meant a redeye flight to NYC every Sunday and a flight home each Thursday. He worked as a staff writer for nine years and a story editor for two. He has fond memories of huge stars who are gone now, like Gilda Radner, John Belushi and Robin Williams.

"He was so fast with his comedy that it took three of us to record it," he said of Williams.

One thing Pepper reiterated in his interactions with the children was when it comes to writing, you can't be afraid of making mistakes.

"The one thing that is really important, which is kind of a metaphor or important in anything in life, is you learn from your mistakes," he said. "That's your fuel. If you can't learn from your mistakes, you're always playing catch-up."

Fifth-grader Emma Sharon, who will be the editor-in-chief of The Observer’s next issue, said listening to Pepper helped her understand how much work goes into something like "Saturday Night Live."

"Doing this is not as easy as it seems," she said. "It has a lot of process and work into it, it's not like, 'Oh this is funny, let's put it in,' it's like, 'What's funny? Now let's see if that works.' It's really cool."

Sorensen parent volunteer and Observer adviser Blair Williams said she met Pepper at the Art Spirit Gallery about a year ago and invited him to share a few words of wisdom with the students to demonstrate how varied and entertaining writing can be.

"My goal was to bring in different types of writers, and I thought, ‘Harvey is clearly the best one to open with,’ because I want them to go, ‘Oh you can write about funny stuff,’ or, ‘You can be the snarky one if you channel it correctly,'" she said. "Regardless of our community size, we have people with these skillsets and all we have to do is ask them, and they love to come. Out of that group of kids, if we even get one student who's motivated, it's a win for us."

Pepper confirmed HBO recently picked up a show he pitched that examines America's history, so he'll soon be heading back to Hollywood to get the project in motion. While this series is not comedy, the craft of comedy writing is very dear to Pepper's heart.

"It's very intense, especially when you have a schedule," he said. "I love it. It's a lot of hard work, but it would be really hard if I didn't love it."

Comedy writer Harvey Pepper laughs as he answers questions posed by Sorensen Elementary School students on Monday about his career. Sitting beside Pepper is Blair Williams, advisor for the student publication, "The Observer: A Literary Magazine."

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