How the ‘Head of the Class’ Co-Creators Built a Healthy Space for Female Writers Back in the ’80s | PRO Insight

When people excuse behavior toward women on shows from the ’80s and ’90s, saying, “It was a different time,” I say, “Not for everyone,” Lisa Rosenthal writes

head of the class
(inset) Richard Eustis; "Head of the Class" (ABC)

I never worked on a TV show where a male writer declared it “rape day” or groped me or watched porn in the writers room, some of the actions attributed to Eric Weinberg. This was, as one female writer was quoted, “The worst of the worst.” This is the big stuff.

But in my nearly 20 years as a sitcom writer, I experienced plenty of medium to small stuff. Everything from a showrunner’s hanging women’s underpants on his lamp, to being told women aren’t funny, to being asked if my contribution to a script was making the coffee, to innumerable jokes about my breasts (using what they felt were hilarious euphemisms, usually vehicles or animals). Each time I’d laugh and blow it off. Yes, it wore me down. But I wanted to work. And it had happened on every show.

Except one.  On that show, nothing like that happened. Ever.

When Michael Elias contacted me recently about the passing of Rich Eustis, it brought back my exceptional experience working for them on “Head of the Class.” It was a hit and critically acclaimed sitcom about gifted teens that ran from 1986 to 1991.

That was my first job on a show. I didn’t realize until much later just how exceptional it was. 

But had it really been all I remembered? I checked with Valri Bromfield, the other female writer at the time. It was far from her first show. She’d come up through Second City, been on “SNL” and worked on numerous sitcoms. She agreed.

“First,” she said, “there were two of us. That was back when there were no women on most staffs. Rich and Michael just wanted people who could write.”

That was true from the first time I met them. I walked in off the street with a spec “Head of the Class.”  They didn’t care that I was a woman or didn’t have an agent or credits. They read my script and liked it. We discussed stories for three days in a row. My gender and related body parts were never part of the discussion. After I was on staff, that didn’t change.

“We were equal players,” Val said. “The fact that I could make fun of the men, I don’t know if that was allowed other places. I remember when Mike Tyson came to the set to see Robin [Givens]. The guys were breathless with excitement. I gave them a hard time. ‘Are those the pants you’re going to wear?  I’d buy another shirt. Two shirts!’ They laughed. We were a team.”

Val felt that attitude came from the top. “With Rich and Michael, you knew there was an ethical line. No one picked on the weak or vulnerable. A lot of guys have this whole different big cheese persona at work. Not them.”

head of the class
The cast and crew of “Head of the Class” in 1987; Lisa Rosenthal circled (Courtesy of Lisa Rosenthal)

Was it also different for the male writers?

“It was a lot smarter than most shows,” Larry Spencer told me. He, like Val, worked on numerous staffs, from “The Hogan Family” to “227.” “Other shows, if you didn’t have three jokes per page, you’d get fired. On ‘Head of the Class,’ the comedy came from character. And we respected women’s input on that.”

I remembered that, in the writers room and in the scripts, there were never jokes making fun of women. Or ethnicity. Or violence. Or body size. 

Larry said, “Personally, I thought I was smarter than doing that cheap stuff.”

There’s been a lot said about how comedy writers shouldn’t be stifled. Some insist writers should be able to say whatever they want in the room. Even if the “whatever they want” is the racist, the homophobic, the sexist.

Larry’s response: “Bulls—.”

He said sometimes things get an immediate laugh that aren’t actually funny. 

“I’ve been on shows where you were there till 3, 4 in the morning. Someone pitches something at 6 at night, everyone says it’s awful. They pitch it again at 4 the next morning, everyone says, ‘Perfect! Put it in!’”

We weren’t prudes. Far from it. We joked about sex. It was, after all, a comedy writers room, not a corporate board room. But the joking was good-natured, often self-effacing, and equal. 

Larry agreed with Val about who set the tone. “Rich and Michael created a show with stories and dialogue that weren’t sitcommy. And they dealt with some serious issues. That sensibility filtered down.”

But I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what they’d done, on a daily basis, that made things different. They certainly never made a big, impassioned speech about female equality. In fact, it was never brought up.

Then I realized it was what they didn’t do.

They didn’t comment on my appearance or the appearance of other women on the show.

They didn’t talk over me or ignore me.

They didn’t turn everything I said into a sleazy double entendre.

They didn’t start a sentence with “Women are/aren’t…” (are too sensitive, aren’t funny, etc.).

They didn’t hire sexist writers with sophomoric sensibilities, calling it “edgy.”

They didn’t ever say, “It’s just a joke.”

When people excuse the behavior toward women on shows from the ’80s and ’90s, saying, “It was a different time,” I say, “Not for everyone.”

Before becoming TV writers, Rich had been a journalist, and Michael had been, among other things, a political activist who was arrested for being in an antiwar play. Their ethical awareness makes sense.

But you shouldn’t have to have been jailed for your beliefs to know to treat people with respect.  Working on “Head of the Class” was exceptional. But it shouldn’t have been.

“We had women directors, producers, network execs and writers,” Michael said. “And I think we listened. The idea that there might be bullying and misogyny on our show would have been abhorrent to Rich and me. I do not believe that comedy is a sacred undertaking and that comedians and comedy writers are immune from criticism or are not to be held responsible.

“But the most important thing,” he said, “is we hired writers who weren’t assholes and jerks.”

All of this was a rare attitude at the time. I’ve read that things have changed for women writers. I spoke to a female writer on a top-rated show, who asked to remain anonymous.

“I think that sexism used to be more obvious, more out loud,” she said. “Now it’s more systemic in the content of the show. They [male writers] talk about the female characters as sluts, bitches and the c-word. 

“What ends up on the screen, that vision of women, that’s what’s most disheartening. I can try to fight against it, but it’s so rare you get those wins.”

We have a long way to go. I wish every show had a Rich Eustis and Michael Elias to lead the way.

You are reading a WrapPRO exclusive article that has been made available (for free) today. If you would like to have access to all of our member-only stories and virtual events, please CLICK HERE to receive 7 free days of WrapPRO –> The Essential Source for Entertainment Insiders.

THUMBNAIL: lisa rosenthal
Lisa Rosenthal has written on shows including “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Married…with Children,” “Martin” and “Head of the Class.” Rosenthal has been a writer/producer on shows for a variety of networks and studios, including HBO, CBS, NBC, Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Co.