When “Inside Schwartz” creator Stephen Engel was in college, dating was relatively easy. He’d meet a girl in class, hang out — and presto! — he had a girlfriend.
But when Engel’s college flame dumped him when he was 25, the Jewish writer entered alien territory: the singles scene. “I didn’t have a lot of experience formally calling women and asking them out,” he says. “I’d never been ‘fixed up.’ I’d never been on a blind date. I had some horrific experiences.”
At the time, Engel, a self-professed “sports nut,” wished he could bring in sports analysts for advice. “I wished we could do instant replays to examine the body language,” he says. “It would be like, ‘She’s sitting on the couch, her arms are crossed, so does she or doesn’t she want me to make a pass?'”
The now happily married Engel, has turned his past wishful thinking into an NBC sitcom, “Inside Schwartz,” about a recently dumped sports nut with a parrot named Larry Bird and lots of bad dates. Like Engel at 25, Adam Schwartz (played by Breckin Meyer of “Rat Race” and “Road Trip”) imagines sports figures analyzing his love life. When a blind date announces she has four kids, an umpire blows a whistle and shouts, “Too many players on the field!” When Schwartz pines for his ex, Hall of Famer Dick Butkus pops up and advises, “Trust me, Adam, it’s over.” When Schwartz’s Jewish best friend, Julie Hermann (played by Jewish actress Miriam Shor) gazes into his eyes, Butkus razzes him to kiss her (he doesn’t listen).
While the 20-something Engel was a lawyer and wannabe writer, Schwartz is a wannabe sportscaster stuck working for his dad. He doesn’t get much help from his agent, William Morris (Dondre Whitfield), an African American who uses Yiddishisms like bubbaleh, “because that’s how he thinks agents talk,” Engel says.
Engel is not the first Jewish writer to make a gag of his life; but unlike “Seinfeld” and “Mad About You” characters, who were Jewish by innuendo, Schwartz makes his heritage clear in the first couple of minutes of the pilot. And while most TV shows pair Jewish characters with gentile love interests — ostensibly for dramatic conflict — “Schwartz” may be the first sitcom in which two appealing young Jews generate romantic tension.
For Engel, the reason is simple. “I’m Jewish, and the character is basically an exaggerated version of me,” he says.
Growing up Reform in New Rochelle, N.Y., the now 40-year-old Engel was as sports-obsessed as Schwartz. He shot hoops daily, fantasizing that he was a Knicks star and that sports announcer Marv Albert broadcast his every move. Every time a car drove past the hoop in his driveway, he assumed it was a Knicks scout. “If I missed the basket, I was, like, devastated,” says Engel, who at 5′ 9″ was too short to play on his high school team.
At Tufts, the budding comedy writer made the Hillel team and taught a comedy writing course, but decided to attend NYU law school to please his parents. “I spent most of my 20s trying to convince my dad that I didn’t want to be an attorney,” says Engel, who wrote screenplays on weekends and got his first break penning a comedy for producer Joel Silver.
By 1991, he’d snagged a full-time writing job on HBO’s “Dream On,” though he was too terrified to imagine Albert announcing his ditching of law with a trademark “Yessssss!”
Nevertheless, Engel went on to co-executive produce “Dream On,” serve as a consultant for “Mad About You” and create the short-lived CBS series “Work With Me,” about married attorneys who are forced into the same practice.
“Inside Schwartz” came about when Engel decided to experiment with the sitcom format and thought it would be funny to merge the grandiose field of sports with a person’s private life. “Sports coverage is so pompous,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s like they’re talking about gladiators going into battle.”
“Schwartz” also allows Engel to poke fun at his dates from hell — and the talent agency that refused to sign him. Schwartz’s hack agent, named after the William Morris agency, “carries himself like Mark Ovitz but has the client list of Broadway Danny Rose,” Engel says.
To satisfy NBC attorneys, the character must always introduce himself as “William Morris, not affiliated with the William Morris Agency, the largest talent agency in the world.”
Engel’s talent agency is Creative Artists Agency. “I could have named the character that, but it wouldn’t have been as funny,” he says.
“Inside Schwartz” debuts Thursday, Sept. 20 at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.