Confessions of a TV Addict #5: Aaron Ruben, Man Behind the Laughter

So what could a Jewish kid from Chicago possibly know about life among rural Southerners or the black experience in Watts? Probably not a whole heck of a lot, but if that kid’s name is Aaron Ruben, there’s one thing he  does know – funny! For Aaron Ruben was the producer/writer behind such classic sitcoms as THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and SANFORD AND SON, who used his comedic talents behind the scenes keep America laughing while glued to the boob tube for over forty years!

Milton Berle in his radio days

Ruben was born on Chicago’s West Side in 1914, and after service in WWII began his show biz career writing for comic Wally Brown on Dinah Shore’s radio show. He was soon hired by Burns & Allen for their program, and then wrote for Milton Berle alongside Nat Hiken, who would play an important role in Ruben’s later career. Berle brought Ruben on board for his smash TV series TEXACO STAR THEATER for the 1953-54 season, marking the writer’s first efforts on the small screen. They wouldn’t be his last!

(clockwise from top) Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Nanette Fabray, and Sid Caesar in “Caesar’s Hour”

Ruben’s next gig found him in heady comedy company indeed. Sid Caesar returned after his smash YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS in a new variety hour titled, appropriately enough, CAESAR’S HOUR, bringing back sidekicks Carl Reiner and Howard Morris along with newcomer Nanette Fabray (replacing Imogene Coca, who went out on her own). Aaron was added to a writing team that included Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Larry Gelbart, and Mel Tolkin, as well as Caesar, Reiner, and Morris, producing a live hour of mirth on a weekly basis! The show lasted three seasons, following which Ruben went to work for his old friend Hiken writing and directing THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW, subtitled YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH but better known to TV fans as SGT. BILKO.

Ruben with Don Knotts & Andy Griffith

In 1960, Ruben got in on the ground floor for a true comedy classic, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW. He was a producer/writer/director on the series set in the quaint little town of Mayberry, North Carolina, and did some of his finest work on the show. Among his many contributions are a few standouts: “Barney Mends a Broken Heart”, which introduced The Fun Girls from Mount Pilot (Joyce Jameson and Jeanne Carson), who returned in the Ruben-penned “The Fun Girls”. “Floyd, The Gay Deceiver” gave series regular Howard McNear a chance to shine. Ruben left the show after the final episode of 1964, but returned in 1968 with “Barney Hosts a Summit Meeting”, the improbable tale of Barney Fife trying to negotiate détente between the U.S. and Russia, which turned out to be Don Knott’s series swan song.

Frank Sutton and Jim Nabors in “Gomer Pyle USMC”

That last episode in ’64 was the pilot for GOMER PYLE, USMC (1964-69), a spin-off starring the late Jim Nabors as Mayberry’s hayseed gas station attendant, now in the Marine Corps, opposite apoplectic Frank Sutton as the beleaguered Sgt. Vince Carter. GOMER PYLE was Ruben’s baby all the way, played strictly for laughs despite the raging war in Vietnam at the time. The formula was simple; Gomer’s naivety constantly gets him in trouble, and Sgt. Carter usually takes the fall. GOMER was popular with both audiences and the Marines themselves, proving the Corps really does have a sense of humor. Semper Fi!

“The Comic” (1969) with Dick Van Dyke & Michele Lee

After GOMER’s run, Ruben cowrote the film THE COMIC (1969) with director (and former CAESAR’S HOUR cohort) Carl Reiner. This dramedy starred Dick Van Dyke (another TV icon) as a washed-up, alcoholic silent comedian, and costarred Mickey Rooney, Michele Lee, and Cornel Wilde. While it didn’t do well at the box office when first released, it’s well worth rediscovering for fans of classic comedy, of which Ruben was definitely one (he wrote some skits for the 1965 TV special A SALUTE TO STAN LAUREL, hosted by Van Dyke and featuring, among others, Lucille Ball, Danny Kaye, and the great Buster Keaton).

Ruben with Redd Foxx & Demond Wilson on the set of “Sanford & Son”

1972 found Ruben working for Norman Lear as producer/writer on a new sitcom, SANFORD & SON. The misadventures of junkyard proprietor Fred G. Sanford, played to perfection by cantankerous comedian Redd Foxx, and his hip son Lamont (Demond Wilson) was yet another feather in Ruben’s comedy cap, writing the first episode aired, “Crossed Swords” (with the Sanfords trying to raise the price of a porcelain piece they procured at an auction), and twenty others, including the classic “The Piano Movers”. Ruben stayed with the show for two seasons, and was a big part of its early success.

Aaron Ruben didn’t slow down, but the hits seemed to stop coming. His military sitcom CPO SHARKEY, starring Don Rickles , lasted two seasons (1976-78). Other attempts (THE STOCKARD CHANNING SHOW, TEACHER’S ONLY) failed to move the ratings meter. Old pal Andy Griffith hired Ruben as a creative consultant on his hit series MATLOCK, adding some comedy bits from 1990-92 to brighten things up. It was his last TV credit; soon Ruben settled into a comfortable retirement with his wife, actress Maureen Arthur. He was lauded for his work with abused children in the Los Angeles area, which he continued until his death from pneumonia in 2010 at the age of 95. Aaron Ruben will always be remembered by TV fans for his comedic talents, but it’s his work with children he was most proud of.  Most importantly, he helped put smiles on people’s faces, and when it’s all said and done, isn’t that what life’s all about? Thanks for the smiles, Aaron!

 

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