Herb Sargent: He Knew from Funny

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Herb Sargent, a lead writer and producer on Saturday Night Live from the program's earliest days, has died at 81. He helped shape the long-running show after learning his craft during the infancy of TV comedy. Jennifer Ludden offers an appreciation.

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Unidentified Woman: What's all this fuss I keep hearing about violins on television?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Now why don't parents want their children to see violins on television?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: Why, I thought the Leonard Bernstein concerts were just lovely. Now...


It would be hard to say for certain whether comedy writer Herb Sargent had a hand in this "Saturday Night Live" bit. The work of comedy writers is often invisible to the audience, but Herb Sargent had a hand in much of what aired on "SNL." He was a lead writer and producer on the program from the beginning. Herb Sargent died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 81 years old.

"Saturday Night Live" may be what he's best known for today, but Sargent's career as a comedy writer began in radio in the 1940s. He moved on to television when the medium was in its infancy and wrote for so many of its biggest names: Fred Allen, Victor Borge, Milton Berle, Alan King, Perry Como, Steve Allen, Johnny Carson, Bing Crosby and Sammy Davis Jr. to name a few. When he was hired to help the fledgling "Saturday Night Live," most of the writers and performers had little experience in television. Herb Sargent became their mentor and their guide.

Ms. JANE CURTIN ("Saturday Night Live"): He was capable of making you feel as though there was nothing you could not do.

LUDDEN: Jane Curtin was an original member of the "Saturday Night Live" crew, the not-ready-for-prime-time players, a name, by the way, that Sargent coined.

Ms. CURTIN: If Herb trusted you, there was nothing you could not do. He gave you such confidence just by the mere fact that he asked you to do something.

LUDDEN: And Curtin says he had a unique sense of humor, political, worldly and completely out of the mainstream.

Ms. CURTIN: Oh, just brilliantly funny. But it was a quiet funny. It was something that you really had to pay attention because his--you know, he spoke in a barely audible voice. And so I think that sort of forced you to listen more intently. But what he said generally was just hysterically funny and so on point. And what a treasure, what a treasure that man was.

LUDDEN: One of Herb Sargent's greatest legacies from his 20 years on "Saturday Night Live" is "Weekend Update," the news parody that's always been a centerpiece of the show and continues today. Sargent helped create the segment and worked closely with whoever sat in the "Weekend Update" anchor's chair, including Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd.

(Soundbite of "Saturday Night Live")

Ms. CURTIN: Dan, there's an old saying, `Behind every successful man, there's a woman, a loving, giving, caring woman.' But you wouldn't know about that, Dan, because there's no old saying about what's behind a miserable failure.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Mr. DAN AYKROYD: Jane, you ignorant slut.

(Soundbite of laughter and clapping)

LUDDEN: Jane Curtin says although she continued to collaborate with Herb Sargent even after they both left "Saturday Night Live," she has trouble recalling a favorite joke or line he gave her.

Ms. CURTIN: It's hard to remember Herb's pieces because he was so good at integrating his stuff into other people's stuff and letting them take the credit for it.

LUDDEN: Comedy writer, producer and mentor Herb Sargent died yesterday in New York. He was 81.

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