The fabled “boys club” atmosphere of Saturday Night Live has discouraged or defeated more than a few female writers and performers, but Anne Beatts—one of three women on the show’s original writing staff—cut through the testosterone like an elegantly wielded stiletto. Armed with nerve, drive, and a wicked comedic talent, she (with writing partner Rosie Shuster) developed much of the show’s classic early material, including sketches featuring the nerds Todd and Lisa, creepy Uncle Roy, and the immortal Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute. Her efforts yielded two Emmy Awards. Beatts was no stranger to the chauvinistic realities of the comedy business; before her tenure on SNL, she was the first female editor of the august National Lampoon, one of the principal axes (the other being Chicago’s Second City) of American humor at that time. After SNL, Beatts became one of the few female producers to create and run her own television show: the beloved cult classic Square Pegs, based on her own unhappy high school experiences. The show was hip, offbeat, original in tone, and often painfully funny. The writing staff was, unusually and not coincidentally, predominantly female. Beatts once observed, “My parents were basically beatniks. The best gift they ever gave me was to make me aware from an early age that I had a lot of options in living.” She has chosen some of the more interesting ones.
After a peripatetic childhood, Anne Beatts settled into an unhappy high school existence in Somers, New York, where, as she remembers, life was “a constant struggle . . . I just wanted to fit in as a teenager, but it was hopeless.” Call it research. Things improved at McGill University, where the “misfit” Beatts fell in with a like-minded crowd and was so taken by the funny/tragic literary output of such Jewish writers as J. D. Salinger, Philip Roth, and Bruce Jay Friedman that she converted to Judaism. After graduating, Beatts moved in with writer Michel Choquette of the National Lampoon (the fledgling outgrowth of the Harvard Lampoon that would soon define a new era of smart, irreverent American comedy). Through sheer chutzpah and ability, she became the sole female member of the publication’s writing staff, and was soon named the magazine’s first female contributing editor. Beatts recalls breaking the gender barrier: “It was like being a black voter in the South. Everyone else has to spell ‘cat,’ and you had to say when the Edict of Nantes was revoked.” Beatts’s audaciousness was already in evidence; she wrote an infamous ad parody showing a capsized Volkswagen with the headline, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” Volkswagen sued. Life was good.
Beatts’s aggressive, dark sensibility found a kindred spirit in the Lampoon’s resident enfant terrible, Michael O’Donoghue, an uncompromising nihilist who admired mass murderers and enjoyed a reputation as a withering, gimlet-eyed wit. The pair would live together as a couple for three years. In 1975, a young producer named Lorne Michaels asked the couple to join the writing staff of an innovative, new late-night comedy show he was putting together, to be called NBC’s Saturday Night. (The program was soon renamed Saturday Night Live.) Beatts would there partner with Rosie Shuster to create classic characters, including the “nerds” Todd and Lisa, unforgettably played by Bill Murray and Gilda Radner; Buck Henry’s perverted Uncle Roy; and two reliable vehicles for Dan Aykroyd, the sleazy entrepreneur Irwin Mainway and the gross-but-confident Fred Garvin, Male Prostitute. During her five-year stint at SNL, Beatts received six Emmy Award nominations for writing, winning twice. She also had a mechanized hospital bed installed in her office to aid her in arduous all-night writing sessions—and to demonstrate that her demands were to be taken as seriously as those of her male colleagues.
After leaving SNL in 1980, Beatts secured a development deal with CBS, for which she created and produced the situation comedy Square Pegs, a quirky look at high school life as seen through the eyes of Patty and Lauren, two bright, funny, socially maladroit girls. The more serious of the pair, Patty—a bespectacled, less-than-curvaceous wallflower blessed with a rapier wit—was based on Beatts herself. (Patty was memorably played by a young Sarah Jessica Parker, who would break type to star as bombshell sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City.) The show’s writing staff was made up primarily of women, and its comedy was subtler, more personal, and had an unusually easygoing rhythm compared with the standard rat-a-tat-tat set up/punch line dynamic that characterized most other sitcoms on the air. Time called Square Pegs “the sweetest surprise of the season,” and the Washington Post praised its “bright dialogue, off-beat characters and jauntily sardonic attitude.” The show attracted a fervent cult, but low ratings ended the series after a single season in 1983.
Beatts returned to television in 1987 to executive produce and revamp the ailing A Different World, a spin-off of The Cosby Show set at a predominantly black university. The pilot was an unmitigated disaster, lacking in laughs and personality, and NBC head Brandon Tartikoff and Bill Cosby himself made their displeasure known. Enter Beatts, who concentrated on character development and added two new personalities to the mix: shrewish southern belle Whitley (Jasmine Guy) and affable goof Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison). Under this new paradigm, the show flourished and ran for six seasons, with Dwayne and Whitley’s tortured romance a key component of the show’s success.
Away from the small screen, Beatts has enjoyed a successful career as a writer for the printed page, coediting the women’s comedy anthologies Titters (1976) and Titters 101 (1984), contributing to The Mom Book (1986), and penning a humor column for the Los Angeles Times from 1997 to 1998. She also wrote the book for the Broadway musical Leader of the Pack (1985), and executive produced the syndicated talker The Stephanie Miller Show in 1995. In 1999, Beatts was a writer and creative consultant for the Emmy-winning Saturday Night Live twenty-fifth anniversary special, for which she won a WGA Award.
Beatts now teaches classes in sketch comedy writing and is an adjunct professor in the writing division of the School of Cinema and Television at the University of Southern California. Square peg no more.