Bob Ellison, Emmy-Winning ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show’ Writer and Expert Joke Fixer, Dies at 91

Bob Ellison, the two-time Emmy Award winner who wrote for The Mary Tyler Moore Show and served as a game-saving creative/script consultant on Cheers, Wings, Becker and many other comedies, has died. He was 91.

He died April 8 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, his business manager, Malcolm Orland, told The Hollywood Reporter. “He was a sweetheart and so good at what he did,” Orland said.

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Ellison came from the world of variety shows, where he wrote and/or produced several specials that starred Julie Andrews and Burt Bacharach. He also co-developed the 1988-92 NBC sitcom Dear John, starring Judd Hirsch.

Ellison wrote 15 episodes and was an executive story editor during the last two of The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s seven seasons (from 1975-77). He shared an Emmy with Allan Burns, James L. Brooks, Ed. Weinberger, Stan Daniels and David Lloyd for the beloved series finale, “The Last Show.”

The unheralded Ellison was a consultant on another legendary sitcom, NBC’s Cheers, for its final seven seasons (1986-93); on NBC’s Wings for its last four years (1993-97); and on CBS’ Becker for its final five seasons (1999-2004).

He performed similar duties for Caroline in the City, Andy Controls the Universe, Bob, Amen, Angie, Best of the West and Mr. President.

“He was always positive, always funny and always brought new energy into every writing session,” Becker creator Dave Hackel told THR. (They worked together on Dear John and Wings as well.)

So just what does a creative consultant do? They “come on one day a week on a troubled script, go to a run-through and a reading and find out what the problems are and try to fix them. Sometimes that involves jokes that don’t work,” he told fellow comedy writer Ken Levine on a 2019 episode of the Hollywood & Levine podcast.

“You always have to figure that the answer is in the air. You just have to wait, know it when it comes along and grab it. You can’t go in and say it’s impossible, that you can’t find it, that you’ll never get it.”

During one impressive stretch, he worked on six shows a week.

Born in New York on Feb. 25, 1933, Robert Ellison graduated from the LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and started out in show business as a trombone player in the Catskills. He often had a joke for the stand-up with whom he was sharing a nightclub bill.

Ellison once wrote a bit about the TV show Ben Casey for a comic and got paid $68.80 for it, a sum he used to cover the cost of an Olivetti typewriter he’d just purchased. That sent his career in a new direction, and he would write for Tony Bennett, stand-up Pat Henry and many others.

He worked on The Steve Allen Comedy Hour, The Dom DeLuise Show and the Robert Morse-starring That’s Life in the 1960s, then was hired for specials hosted by the likes of Andrews, Bacharach, Alan King, Bing Crosby, Petula Clark, Jackie Gleason, Mac Davis and Richard Pryor.

Ellison received his first Emmy for a 1971 Bacharach special and was also nominated for his writing on The Kraft Music Hall that year, Julie and Carol at Lincoln Center (that would be Andrews and Carol Burnett) in 1972 and The Julie Andrews Hour in 1973.

He worked on the Mary Tyler Moore spinoffs Rhoda and Phyllis and produced The Betty White Show, all for MTM Enterprises, too.

Survivors include his wife, Elaine. They had no children.

Levine also wrote alongside Ellison on Cheers, Becker and other comedies and brought him in to help out on Big Wave Dave’s, the 1993 CBS sitcom he created with David Isaacs. “When David and I would get a show on the air, our first call was always to you,” Levine told him on the podcast.

Ellison recalled a time when an ABC executive who had two “henchmen” with him watched a run-through of a sketch he had written. “My Midwest asshole tells me that’s not funny,” the guy told Ellison. “I said, ‘Which one is he?’”

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