TV Club

Do Sopranos Writers Consult Former Wiseguys?

Dear Jerry and Terry (all we need now is Deney Terrio),

First of all, welcome back, Jerry, from wherever you were (Cayman Islands? Palermo?). Last week, I told George Anastasia that you were on an inspection tour of federal Witness Security Program resorts in Arizona (for Condé Nast Traveler, no less). I was joking, of course. But I got e-mail on it anyway. Apparently, there are people who believe that the federal government keeps all of its informers in one big group. But people will believe anything.

This is yet another very special episode of Jeff and Jerry Mouth Off About the Mob. We’re joined this week by Terry Winter, an executive producer of The Sopranos who wrote last night’s episode. Terry, in earlier incarnations, worked as a lawyer and then as a writer for Xena: Warrior Princess, which means that The Sopranos is a step down for him. I’m also pleased to report that Terry is a diversity hire for us. Unlike me, who spent my early years on Ocean Parkway, or Jerry, who grew up in Bensonhurst, Terry is from Marine Park, which is in a completely different part of Brooklyn.

Without sounding like a suck-up (I’ve got to warn you, Terry, Jerry has a powerful Suck-Up-O-Meter built into his hard drive), I will say that I thought last night’s episode was pretty damn good. Actually, I think it might represent the purest distillation so far of the Sopranos ethos: to relentlessly invert the most sacred principle of TV writing, which is “Do Not Discomfit the Viewer.” Making the viewers squirm, as David Chase, Terry’s boss, recently suggested, keeps them from going out and buying stuff, which is the point of television.

I mean, let me just run through it: Uncle Junior complimenting the “nice and spicy” chicken at the wake for a 7-year-old who drowned in a Jacuzzi; Tony’s father’s girlfriend mimicking—in the Sopranos’ most David Lynchian moment yet—Marilyn Monroe’s infamous “Happy Birthday” present to President Kennedy (thank you, Terry, for keeping Tony out of her bed, which would have been too much for me); a teenage Tony lying to his mother—as she recovers from a miscarriage—about his father’s infidelity; and, of course, Christopher’s beat-down of his AA buddy, the loser TV writer, for missing a payment on a gambling debt. Should I go on?

You’re a sick man, Mr. Winter. You’ll never get hired for the Everybody Loves Raymond Christmas special if you keep this up. You should, however, get an Emmy for this episode, except that you’ll only get an Emmy if the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences develops a sense of humor about itself, which it won’t, because then it could no longer call itself the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. By the way, don’t you think you could sell an Emmy for more than $15?

Jerry, if you don’t mind, and because this is such a rare opportunity, I thought I would pose a couple of questions to Terry before I turn this over to you. Terry:

1) Did you major in TV science in college?2) So, how does it work? Do you write the lines for Tony, and then someone else writes the lines for Carmela? There must be a lot of writers on the show.3) Are you as frightened of decaying old age as this episode suggests?4) Have you ever been to Rao’s? I once heard what is probably the best line ever uttered by an FBI agent in Rao’s. It was an exciting enough night already—Woody Allen was there, plus Charlie Rose, but my bonus was this: I was having dinner with a group of ex-FBI Gambino Squad guys when these two very large Brooklynites in turtlenecks walk in. They go up to three other men, also large, also in turtlenecks, and then they all proceed to hug each other for what seemed like 40 minutes. I asked one of my FBI friends what he thought was happening, and he said—and this is true dialogue, because I am a journalism professional—”What you have there is a just-released-from-jail-party-type-situation going on.”5) How do you do your mob research? Do you have on staff former wiseguys as verisimilitude coaches?

That’s enough for now. I’m sure something else will come to me. Over to you, Jerry.