Memories of Sandy Frank, Prolific Producer, Conservative, and Late Show with David Letterman Writer
My dear friend, colleague, and fellow traveler Sandy Frank passed away on Friday after a long and valiant battle with brain cancer. Here are some memories of Sandy I’d like to share.
I knew of Sandy Frank years before I met him because Sandy was a member of the Late Show with David Letterman writing staff during their glory days in the 1980s. To me that writing staff was like the 1927 Yankees of comedy writing. After college I moved to New York hoping to somehow wrangle a job, any job, with Letterman – which eventually I did, sort of, as an NBC Page assigned to the show. As I watched Sandy and the other Late Show writers walking into the studio for rehearsal every afternoon I dreamed of one day joining their ranks.
Cut to twenty years later, by which time I had become an established TV writer (although never for Letterman). I was sitting in Joel Surnow’s office in Chatsworth, California, and we were interviewing candidates for writing positions on a conservative news parody show Joel had just sold to FOX News. Sandy walked in, and before he could even introduce himself I blurted out, “Sandy Frank? My God – you’re hired!” I may have even asked Sandy for his autograph, I was so star-struck. Meeting people you’ve admired from afar can be a real let-down because a lot of them turn out to be… well, frankly, creepy tools. But Sandy Frank quickly became one of my favorite people, both as a writer and a friend.
Sandy had an air about him of tranquility and wisdom, but always from a place of total humility and good will. He actually exuded a quiet good cheer and a delight in life and his fellow man that was infectious and deeply comforting. While Sandy was a man of strong opinions and beliefs, it was almost impossible for me to imagine him ever losing his temper or being petty or rancorous. And, of course, Sandy was brilliant.
I knew that he had gotten his undergrad and law degrees from Harvard, which he never mentioned (unlike most Harvard grads I’ve had the pleasure of knowing), but one day out of random curiosity I asked him what his bachelor’s degree was in and he said, “Mathematics.” I don’t know about you but to me a degree in mathematics from Harvard is just about as impressive as a law degree from Harvard. Even so, never once did Sandy ever play the “math expert” card he so easily could have played.
I think my favorite Sandy story was how he became a TV writer in the first place. After finishing law school and passing the bar Sandy went to work for a law firm at 30 Rock where he frequently ran into his college friend Jim Downey, then writing for the Letterman show (Downey had been an original staff writer at Saturday Night Live and later served as head writer for the Letterman show as well as being a mainstay at SNL for decades). Sandy and Jim got to talking one day, and it seemed that the legal profession wasn’t really doing it for Sandy. In those days being a first-year law associate meant spending 70 or so hours a week (including weekends) making photocopies of legal documents while the more senior attorneys actually practiced the law. As Sandy had written for the Harvard Lampoon, Jim suggested he put a packet of material together, which Jim presented to Letterman for his consideration. Dave had recently said to Jim, “We’ve got too many Harvard guys on the staff – let’s mix it up a little,” so Jim gave Dave Sandy’s packet without a name or resumé attached so the material could speak for itself. It did to the extent that Sandy was offered a job writing for the Late Show almost immediately. And here’s my favorite part of the story: when Sandy told a fellow first-year that he was leaving the law firm to pursue his lifelong dream of being a comedy writer on a hit TV show, the guy’s reaction was, “So does this mean I’ll have to find someone to cover for you on Saturday?”
Sandy dispensed knowledge in the casual, off-hand manner that truly educated people have, in such a way as to never make the recipient feel like the uneducated idiot I was. For example, when we were talking about the formula for sitcoms, Sandy told me the two most important principles were “friends are important” and “be yourself.” In a flash I saw the truth in those five words, dispensed with Sandy’s trademark merry smile. When it came to politics Sandy was one of those calm, reasonable conservatives that – well, let’s just say that if all conservatives expressed themselves the way Sandy did there’d be a lot more of us. Sandy loved telling of a conversation he’d had with a college friend who was hysterically anti-gun (Sandy being the only Jewish, Harvard-educated, comedy-writing lawyer I’ve ever met who enjoyed taking his .357 to the shooting range). The woman told Sandy that she could not find a moral justification for owning a handgun, even if an armed intruder broke into her home. “In other words, you’d rather have the guy kill you than to own a gun?” he asked her. “Ideally, yes,” she replied.
The show we worked on together didn’t last for very long, but by the time it wrapped Sandy and I were friends for life and got together frequently, often (but not always) in the presence of like-minded Hollywood conservatives in a forum I’ll refer to here as simply The Fight Club. In the years that followed Sandy wrote and published a very good book about screenwriting, watched his three beautiful daughters grow up (sending two of them to Berkeley, which couldn’t have been easy), and maintained deep and abiding friendships with everyone from Lawrence O’Donnell to Ann Coulter. Then a couple of years ago Sandy found out he had brain cancer, and he entered what he knew would be the final phase of his life with courage, dignity, and unflagging good cheer. Sandy and I never had The Talk about how long he had to live, but once he told me that his doctor had advised him not to drive during the treatments. “But you’ll drive again eventually, right?” I asked, without thinking. There was a pause, and then Sandy softly said, “Probably not,” which told me everything I needed to know about his prognosis.
I find the term “compassionate conservatism” redundant because I believe conservatism to be the most compassionate type of politics. Or to put it another way, what’s compassionate about making people live under the yoke of liberal fallacies? And Sandy was a deeply compassionate person as well as a conservative. Brilliant? Yes. Hilarious? Of course. But Sandy Frank was also gentle and unfailingly gracious. He made the world around him a better place. I am honored always by his friendship, and I will miss him.