Thursday, November 30, 2023

A Divas Christmas on Lifetime

Back in the spring of 1985, I first heard about a pilot being filmed in Los Angeles called The Golden Girls, the cast of which was to be like a supergroup of the best women in TV comedy.  I got a similar feeling when earlier this year, I first heard about Lifetime’s new holiday movie, Ladies of the ‘80s: A Divas Christmas, starring five TV legends:  Linda Gray, Donna Mills, Morgan Fairchild, Loni Anderson and Nicollette Sheridan.  And to top it all off, the film was written by Stan Zimmerman and James Berg, a team who got one of their earliest jobs on the first season of The Golden Girls and went on to write for other female small-screen icons, from Roseanne to the title characters of Gilmore Girls.

 As Stan Zimmerman prepares not only for the Ladies of the ‘80s premiere – 8PM Eastern/Pacific, this Saturday, December 2 on Lifetime -- but also the February 13, 2024 release of his memoir, The Girls: From Golden to Gilmore, I sat down with him to talk about what we can expect from our eagerly anticipated date with the Divas this coming weekend. 

The Ladies of the '80s: A Divas Christmas cast (l-r):  Donna Mills, Loni Anderson, Linda Gray, Morgan Fairchild and Nicollette Sheridan, with writer Stan Zimmerman at The Maybourne Hotel, Beverly Hills, CA, November 28, 2023.

Must Hear TV: Where did the idea come from, to do a Christmas movie for Lifetime, reuniting divas from the ‘80s? How did it all come together?

Stan Zimmerman: I have to give credit to Jason Wood, who is now head of casting at Lifetime. He was the casting assistant on the very first pilot Jim Berg and I wrote, and then became our assistant.  We've remained in touch, and we were talking about him coming to see a production I just directed in Los Angeles of the play “The Diary of Anne Frank,” with a cast of predominantly Latinx actors, because I wanted him to discover some of those talents that he didn’t yet know.  When we were talking one day, he mentioned, “There’s a project here at Lifetime – would you mind if I threw your hat in the ring, for you and Jim to pitch for this?”  He told me the basics they already had:  they had a deal with five iconic actresses, and wanted a Christmas movie, which had to be shot in just thirteen days, and in only one location.  I said, “Give me 24 hours.”  And then Jim and I came back in 24 hours and pitched ideas for the film to the producer, Larry Thompson.  This was so on-brand for Jim and me, right up our alley!  So we were bursting with ideas.


MHTV:  That’s all they had at that point?  Unite these women in a Christmas movie?

SZ:  Yes.  The rest was up to us. The hardest part was the one-location thing. We could redress that one location, so it could be a mansion, it could be a hotel.  All the rooms could be turned into other locations.  We could use the parking lot, or shoot a scene in a car in the driveway.  But it had to be shot in one location in 13 days. This was in March of 2023. Jim and I were in Dallas, about to world premiere our play, “Silver Foxes,” and so our heads were in that space. But we knew this was an opportunity we just couldn't pass up. And so we pitched maybe six or seven ideas, and Larry Thompson liked all of them. And then something happened that you don't hear very often:  he said to us, the writers, “What do you guys want to do?”  With the time crunch, the idea that really jumped out as our favorite was based on what all these women are known for, and that was soap operas.  Almost all of them had started on, or at one time were on a daytime soap opera.  I was an ABC soap freak as a kid:  All My Children, One Life to Live, General Hospital.  I did some research and found out like Donna Mills had started in a soap called Love is a Many Splendored Thing, a CBS show back in the day.


MHTV:  Never mind Knots Landing!  In your mind and Jim’s, is this more based on daytime soap or primetime? Because when I see names like Donna Mills, Nicollette Sheridan, Morgan Fairchild and Linda Gray, I think of primetime soaps.

SZ:  Yes.  But the concept for the film was that, because all of these daytime soap operas are being canceled, there was a daytime soap opera called “The Great Lakes.” And at one time or another, all of the divas were on that show.  Now, the show is being canceled. Jim and I have often wondered, why are daytime soap operas not as popular anymore?  Why haven’t they been reinvented?  So for our movie, what if they come back for one final Christmas episode, done live. And play off of their daytime diva and nighttime diva images.  And with those crazy storylines that daytime soap operas have, we thought it'd be really fun and campy. In our minds, that was what the audience would be craving. When they heard about these five ladies coming together, they’d want those bitchy lines. They want the slapfest. They want the crazy storylines. So Larry agreed, Lifetime agreed, and we made a deal very quickly. And off we went to writing.  We had so little time, that there were days when I was at the Golden Girls convention “GoldenCon” in Chicago this past March where I would have to go up to my hotel room on breaks and meet Jim on Zoom to write some scenes and bang out that first draft.  Because we had a deadline of May 1, which was the writers' strike. So we knew:  computers off May 1.


MHTV:  And that is a crazy short time to write a movie.

SZ:  It’s a crazy short time to write an email. Because there are so many levels of people that have to weigh in. It’s not just, “it’s March, Jim and Stan, write whatever you want.” You have to write outlines. And I wanted an outline to be approved.  I hate wasting time when I'm writing. So I wanted everybody to sign off first.  Jim and I are experienced veterans at this, and they were actually going to give us more latitude, to go off and write, but I was very adamant about, “No, you're seeing an outline” -- or what we call a beat sheet, which is kind of an abbreviated outline -- to sign off on the basic beats of the plot.  That way, after getting approval, we could then write scenes quickly. I always think that's easier.

I love the structure part of developing scripts. For some reason, my mind just thinks that way. On sitcoms, I would always be the one taking writers off into a room and do what we call beating out the story and the structure of it. So once we got the structure, that pretty much stayed the same. And we wrote really, really quickly. I think that was one of the solid points of hiring us as writers, because we kept saying to them, “We're used to writing fast on sitcoms,” where sometimes a script gets thrown out on the day of a rehearsal, and you have to be rehearsing a different script the next morning.  So you might have to do a page-one rewrite sometimes. From all the shows that we've been on, from Golden Girls to Gilmore Girls and Roseanne, or Rita Rocks for Lifetime, we’ve experienced every single thing you can imagine. Here, luckily, they were happy and we didn't get a ton of notes.  Because on May 1, we had to stop. We would love to have continued working, and to have gone on set.  I kept joking to Jim, “I'll dress as a grip, and I’ll have a mustache and a hat and overalls or something, and just stand behind a potted plant.”  Of course I couldn’t do that, because of the strike.  But we were able to talk to the actresses on the phone during our writing process, to get their notes. And that was really cool.


MHTV:  How much were the actresses able to shape their characters? 

SZ:  Quite a bit.  Before they signed off, they all either had phone calls – one of the original actresses who was going to be in the movie, Joan Collins, sent in written notes, because she was in England -- but with the others, we got on the phone and had long conversations that were really interesting.


MHTV:  And was that a dream for you?  Had you met all of these women before?

SZ:  I had not met most of them, which was crazy, because most of them hadn't done sitcoms, except Loni Anderson.  I had met Joan Collins, when Jim and I had developed a show for her. We always thought she was really funny. And she ended up being on Roseanne, but not when we were there.  But because people are obsessed with royalty in America, so we pitched a show for her and Rupert Everett as royalty that had to flee their country with nothing but their titles, and then came to America, and were scamming in Beverly Hills. And she loved it. And we spent time with her in her home in Beverly Hills. We happened to be in Europe and went to her house in London. That story is in my book…


MHTV: Which is…?

SZ:  The Girls: From Golden to Gilmore.  It’s the story about all the wonderful women that I've worked with. And Roseanne.  There is a section about the developments that we had with so many wonderful women, and that that chapter is called “The Next Lucy,” because all of these actresses that we would meet with, from Joan Collins to Teri Hatcher to Miss Diana Ross, they all said at one point in the meeting, “I want to be the next Lucy.”  And we all know there can never be another Lucy.  It’s a tall order.  But we felt we could tap into what was funny about Joan Collins and her dry, very Oscar Wilde sensibility. But unfortunately, the show never came to be. 

When we spoke with all the actresses, they gave us ideas on how to deepen their characters.  And because we had really studied a lot of their interviews online, we pulled from their real stories. So for example, we found out that Donna Mills had adopted a child, so we put that into the character -- but we bumped it up to where she had adopted five or six children, in the Angelina Jolie or Madonna category.  And another actress who was originally going to be  part of the cast, Jaclyn Smith, is such an entrepreneur. So we created a storyline about giving up a lot of show business to start her own businesses. And has she been so obsessed that she has neglected relationships?

Ultimately, because of the actors’ strike, they literally had a very short window to film this. So the good part was they had to film the script we wrote. But the bad part was that it was hard for the actresses to rearrange their schedules with short notice, and so Joan and Jaclyn dropped out, even though they loved the script.  After that, Morgan Fairchild switched roles and ended up playing the one written for Joan.  No fool, she knew where the jokes were!  And she does have a lot of one-liner zingers that are going to make memes one day, I just know it.  I’m hoping.  On the level of some of the other lines Jim and I have written, like “Sure, Jan,” from The Brady Bunch Movie, or from The Golden Girls, “No, no, I will not have a nice day,” which I see all the time, people imitating it, which is really cute.  This is a very different kind of Lifetime Christmas movie, because A, it’s a comedy.  But there is a lot of romance in there. There are some very heartfelt moments as well.  I have to admit, I get a little teary at the end. I wasn't sure if I wanted to put in a part about how the young male lead was affected by his mother's passing. But it's something I'm still dealing with. And I realized that not only would it be therapeutic for me, but maybe for other people as well.


MHTV:  Of course.  The holidays are when everybody thinks about relatives they've lost.

SZ:  So there's a line in there, when the guy says, “A part of me died when she died.” And especially during the holidays, and not being with her on Thanksgiving, this year was pretty difficult for me. So I was glad that they allowed us to keep lines like that in there. Also, it was fun to name the young lead female after my niece, Nell.  That’s always fun to do.


MHTV:  Speaking of the names, I love the device of giving all the characters the names of their famous TV characters, like Ewing and Cunningham and Marlowe.

SZ:  It's honoring their past, and what they bring so beautifully to this project. And I think that's why this storyline works so well, because when they arrive, they literally come with a lot of baggage, but also good baggage from their long careers in this genre. 


MHTV:  With your writing background, obviously, people might get a sense of The Golden Girls from this movie – although on The Golden Girls, Rue McClanahan was only 51 when the pilot was made. Here, everyone in this movie is older than that. And yet they're still vital, and they're still playing sexy roles. In what ways, consciously or maybe even subconsciously, were you affected by your Golden Girls experience when creating this movie?

SZ: Well, that was such an important part of Golden Girls, showing these women as vital and sexual and working and with relationships and conflicts. And I know that's an important part for Donna Mills, that she wants to show that you don't have to just sit in a corner after 60.  You can sit in a corner if you want to, but you can also go off and make a Jordan Peele movie like Donna did.  And I really respect that about her.  That's been the theme in our work, that no matter what age, you keep living. And every day you wake up, and the joy that I have of jumping out of bed.  Although sometimes now I make some grunting noises.

We wanted to give all these characters jobs and emotions, and love.  To have Linda Gray be with hot Christopher Atkins!  As a gay man, I remember being young and watching The Blue Lagoon.  I think I looked at pictures of him in that for a long time.  So it's exciting to reunite them, since they played lovers on Dallas.


MHTV: What are the challenges to writing a Christmas movie? How do you get in the Christmas mood in March?

SZ: Christmas movies are a breed unto themselves. When Jim and I were writing it, we had to think, how can we cram every single little bit of Christmas into every scene and shot?  And then they still were yelling, “More Christmas!”  And we were like, what more can we do?  So you have to be clever about how you put it in so it seems organic. Scenes around a Christmas tree.  Or because the movie is about the making of a TV show, we could have fun with shots, where it looks like it’s snowing, and then you pull back and reveal how we’re actually in sunny California.  We even got meta at the end, talking about how they can turn this into a reality/soap opera for today’s day and age.  Or they could go off and make a Valentine's movie. So we're hoping that the audience watches the movie and that it's so popular that we can continue with these characters and add a few more divas.


MHTV:  Obviously Joan Collins and Jaclyn Smith couldn't make it this time, but maybe later? Are there more divas on tap if this goes further?

SZ: I literally have divas driving around my house, honking, asking, “Where is the script?”  That would be the fun part. I have many friends like Joan Van Ark who I would love to be in the movie, and it would be great to bring Michele Lee into it. 

The business now, I think it's just trying to get back up on its feet and figure itself out. I think Lifetime has been a little overwhelmed with the response to this movie already, before it has even aired, but I'm not.  I told them, people are going to go nuts when they hear these five actresses are in this movie together!  There's a need to celebrate older women, and especially these women with what they've accomplished in their lives and what they're still accomplishing, and yet also to have fun with it and not take it too seriously. So I think there's so many more stories to delve into with these characters and other characters in that age group that I hope we get to do that.


MHTV: Certainly, if The Golden Girls could come up with seven years’ worth of stories, you've got plenty to say as well.

SZ: I'm sure they have some ex husbands.  It could be, “Hi, it’s me, Mort,” instead of Stan Zbornak.


MHTV: What is the update with “Silver Foxes,” your gay male version of The Golden Girls that you mentioned you staged as a play in Dallas this past spring?

SZ: When Jim and I first wrote “Silver Foxes,” we had a reading of it in my living room with Leslie Jordan and George Takei. We had created it for Logo as a half-hour sitcom, but when we found that no television network wanted to deal with an older demo or gay audience, we turned it into a play and had that sold-out run in Dallas, that Michael Urie from Ugly Betty and Shrinking directed. Actually, I found out today that there is a gay theatre company in Dublin, Ohio, that just secured the rights for the next production, which will be in September of 2024. So I'm going to go there for opening night. I won’t be involved in the play, but they want me to come and do a Q&A. Recently, we had a wonderful reading of the play in New York City that Michael directed. So we're really hoping to get it off-Broadway. That's our goal -- and then eventually, it becomes so popular that will become a TV series.


MHTV: With the Divas, these women are famous and beautiful and beloved. Why do you think there haven't been more vehicles for them to be doing stuff lately, and for others in their age group?  Do you think that it's going to change with things like this movie, or maybe with “Silver Foxes?”  What is it going to take to change things? 

SZ:  Personally, I don't think even the success of this will change things.  I think people in the entertainment business unfortunately have very narrow minds of what the audience is. And they don't see the value in portrayals of older people.  Meanwhile, young people adored Betty White up until the very end. And these kinds of shows don't just attract an older demo, but it's hard for executives to see that. They attract all people.  Most young people have grandparents that they love, and they could watch it and laugh with them -- or watch it and call them after and understand them more. Yes, of course, I'm always hopeful, but I've just been around this so much. And I am still a half glass full kind of guy, so I do hope that this can change things. But I'm going to keep working and pushing these kinds of shows and these kinds of characters, whether networks come running at us or not.


MHTV:  Maybe the success of ABC’s Golden Bachelor will help, too.  And that glass of yours, is it half full of champagne or whatever that that highly alcoholic beverage was they were drinking in that late night scene?

SZ:  Some crazy “Christmas concoction.”

MHTV: …That makes all of their truths come spilling out. 

SZ:  That’s what I’ll be drinking on December 2.  A lovely woman named Tami, whom I met on the first Golden Girls cruise in 2020, sent me these two beautiful martini glasses, and a bottle of Ciroc vodka, my favorite.  So I’ll be toasting the Divas.


Thursday, August 26, 2021

Go Live with The Conners

Today, ABC announced that for its season 4 premiere, The Conners will once again be airing a live episode.  But this time, there's an intriguing twist.

At the same time, the network also announced an innovative sweepstakes, titled "You Can Be a Conner."  Winners will receive a call from the cast -- on-air, as part of the episode.

Today at the Television Critics Association teleconference for critics, Executive Producer Bruce Helford referred to the gimmick as "working without a net," because the selected fans will not know what the topic of the episode and thus the call will be -- nor will the producers know what said fans will say, live on-air.  (One would imagine that ABC will be airing the whole thing on the standard 7-second delay, but still, I think the censor should start practicing hitting that button now.)

The episode will air on September 22 at 9 PM Eastern, and will be performed live for both the East and West coasts.  Enter at, and see details below in ABC's press release.









ABC’s No. 1 comedy last season is set to return with more laughs, surprise guests, a live episode and a chance for viewers to win a virtual appearance as a member of the Conner family in the season four premiere when “The Conners” returns WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 22 (9:00-9:31 p.m. EDT). 


The cast of “The Conners” will perform live for both the East and West Coast broadcasts of the season four premiere episode. The members of America’s favorite family are no strangers to live television, but this time, they’ll need some extra help to pull it off. Starting today, ABC and “The Conners” are launching the “You Can Be A Conner” sweepstakes, offering viewers the opportunity for a once-in-a-lifetime experience by entering for the chance to win a virtual appearance during the live season premiere episode. As part of the storyline, a Conner family member will call each lucky sweepstakes winner for a live conversation regarding how they deal with some of the same life issues that the Conners navigate on a daily basis.


The sweepstakes is open to legal U.S. residents, 18 and older. No purchase is necessary to enter; visit for official rules and full details.


“The Conners” stars John Goodman as Dan Conner, Laurie Metcalf as Jackie Harris, Sara Gilbert as Darlene Conner, Lecy Goranson as Becky Conner-Healy, Michael Fishman as D.J. Conner, Emma Kenney as Harris Conner-Healy, Ames McNamara as Mark Conner-Healy, Jayden Rey as Mary Conner and Jay R. Ferguson as Ben. 


“The Conners” is executive produced by Tom Werner, along with Sara Gilbert, Bruce Helford, Dave Caplan, Bruce Rasmussen and Tony Hernandez. The series is from Werner Entertainment. 


Follow “The Conners” (#TheConners) on InstagramTwitter and Facebook


ABC programming can also be viewed on demand and on Hulu

Saturday, April 10, 2021

A Tribute to Anne Beatts and her creation, Square Pegs

Back in the days when I was editing the “Icons” (classic TV) section of CBS’ Watch! magazine, I was like a kid in a candy store.  So many of the shows I had grown up adoring had been on CBS – and now, I had license to get in touch with any of those shows’ creators and/or stars, to write tributes of all my favorites, one by one.

In February of 2008, I was thrilled to get to interview Anne Beatts, to pay tribute to her 1982-83 sitcom Square Pegs, short-lived but influential on my generation of actors and writers – and everyone else adolescent at the time.  [I must admit, my writing partner Bonnie Datt and I were so molded by Square Pegs that we even wrote its characters into a spec script we wrote for Sex and the City – melding the two worlds and winning a few screenwriting awards in the process.]  The piece ran in the magazine’s May/June 2008 issue; you can check it out here

But Anne, who died this past Wednesday, April 7 at age 74, was way too interesting to be confined to a mere page’s worth of memories.  And so below, here is the full scope of her memories not only of creating the beloved sitcom which brought Sarah Jessica Parker to national attention, but also as a pioneering “girl writer” on Saturday Night Live.



The Square Pegs Origin Story

Square Pegs was autobiographical.  What happened was that I had been on Saturday Night Live for the first five years of that as a writer.  And then the upheaval happened.  Lorne Michaels was no longer doing the show.  Everybody left at one time.  And I had an agent, an older gentleman named Frank Cooper. He had been Frank Sinatra’s first agent – he was of that generation.  He was trying to get me some other work.  And he said, “I guess you were probably very popular when you were in high school.”  And I said, “Oh, Frank, are you kidding?  I wasn’t very popular at all!  I was a square peg when I was in high school!”  And he said, “Why don’t you write about that?”

Frank had the idea he could sell a high school show to CBS.  There wasn’t a show like that at the time.  I guess there had been Welcome Back, Kotter and Happy Days, but at the time there wasn’t a show of that nature.  And he knew that CBS was wanting to skew younger -- which was a little bit of an uphill battle.  So we went in, and I had never pitched a sitcom.  I had never written a sitcom, or spec script, or had anything to do with the word “sitcom” -- and it kind of stuck in my throat a little bit.

I went in to CBS and had thought out what my life had been like in high school, me and my best friend.  So Square Pegs was based on us; I was the Sarah Jessica Parker character, the skinny one with glasses, and she was the short one with braces.  I harkened back to us, when we were in Somers High School in the ‘60s, in Somers, New York.

I wasn’t a big sitcom watcher.  So in my concept, I harkened back to [the 1959-63 CBS sitcom The Many Loves of] Dobie Gillis.  That was a model of a high school show that I really liked.  And then when I went in to pitch, guess who was in the room?  Dobie Gillis!  Because Dwayne Hickman was an executive at CBS at this point.  So here I go in to have a meeting with Kim LeMasters who was the CBS development exec at the time, and in the room – the way there’s always 3 or 4 people in the room – was Dobie himself!  I thought at the time that this was either good or bad omen.  I guess it proved good.  Because there I was, talking how much I loved Dobie Gillis and how my show could be like that.  That was the pitch.

My agent had set up for us to meet at NBC the next day.  I was at the Chateau Marmont [hotel], getting dressed for the meeting, and the phone rang.  It was my agent and the executives from CBS.  They had some concerns and questions about the show.  And basically it was, what about sex, drugs and rock and roll?  This was 1981, I guess, because I was on SNL from ’75 to ’80. So this was the fall of ‘81. Were these girls having sex?  This was pre-Dawson’s Creek; you did not want the answer to be yes.  You wanted the answer to be no, because they wanted to do something that was basically an 8 o’clock show.  And I said no, that they weren’t– which was perfectly true.  I wasn’t telling them just what they wanted to hear, but what my vision of the show was.

[My main characters] aspired to those things, but were nowhere near reaching them.  And I quoted another archetype, another movie that was important for me, which was The World of Henry Orient.  About a little girl chasing Peter Sellers around New York -- which I later learned was actually based on the real experience of the author, with Oscar Levant, of all people.  The original book was written by Nunnally Johnson’s daughter [Nora], and she had had for some bizarre reason an insane crush on Oscar Levant, so that was why there was this concert pianist character, played by Sellers, who they were crazy in love with.

I said that’s sort of the level of sexuality these [Square Pegs] girls are operating on.  So the CBS executives got it, and they bought the show on the phone.  Sad to say, I never had the meeting with NBC, because that actually would have been a better network, probably.  Hindsight being 20/20, maybe that would have kept the show on the air longer, because they were still struggling.  It turned out it was actually one of Brandon Tartikoff’s favorite shows.  He tried to buy it as a summer replacement show, but they had already unfortunately syndicated it to USA, so that deal didn’t happen.

Cheers was on NBC, and they had lower ratings than we did that year.  But [Tartikoff] believed in that show, and kept it on the air.  Unfortunately we were on the “Tiffany Network,” and were messing with CBS’ ratings.  This in the day when there were only three networks.  We had a 23 share.  Now if you had a 23 share, you would be the queen of Hollywood.  More people saw Square Pegs than ever watched an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and Square Pegs was a flop.  That’s the ironic part about it!

We did special material for the Square Pegs DVD, which comes out on May 13 [2008], and I think it will do well, although that depends upon if they promote it or not.  But it might do quite well, because people who were fans might buy it now for their kids.  Because it’s been 25 years.  So I think maybe the people who were 13-year-old girls are moms now, and might say it’s great for their kids.  That’s what I’m hoping, anyway.  There could be potentially a new generation of fans.  There’s still a tremendous amount of web presence for the show, all these web sites and things like that, and places where you can download episode guides and songs.  There’s a tremendous amount of fan stuff that’s out there.


The Launch of SJP, and Her New Friend, Amy Linker

We tried to tie the DVD to coincide with the Sex and the City movie.  We were able to get Sarah Jessica Parker on all the extras – actually all the cast members, except Merritt Butrick, who died [in 1989] and Jon Caliri, who was unavailable.  [SJP] had done Annie, but as she herself has said, she was not the first Annie [on Broadway]; she was like Annie #3 in the production, and she wasn’t Andrea McArdle.  And so really, that had not launched her career; so yeah, we did kind of discover her.  The person who was really responsible for that was Eve Brandstein -- she was the casting director for Norman Lear -- who also could be credited for discovering George Clooney and so many others.  She put a lot of people on shows.

When I finally wrote the pilot script – it was kind of amazing because it was the first sitcom ever I had anything to do with – I wrote the script, rewrote the script, it went to pilot, and then series.  I was like “Oh, I think I’ll do this [for a living.]”  Little did I know, it was like getting struck by lightning to get that to happen.

When the show was going to go to pilot, every production company in Hollywood was sniffing around, because I had this deal and a show for which I’d just written the script completely on my own.  So I was the most popular person in Hollywood at that point.  People were sending me flowers and champagne – it was amazing.  On the strength of Mary Kay Place’s recommendation, I went with Norman’s company.  She said “If you want to have your creative vision serviced…”  That’s how Eve and I first met.  Eve and Kim Friedman, who directed the pilot, and I went on a cross-country mission to find kids for this show.  And one of the big things about Tandem, as Norman’s company was called then, was that they were willing to cast age appropriately.  Because everybody else wanted [actors] over 18.  Like in 90210; they didn’t want the trouble of working with actual, real kids.  And so that was another reason that really sold me on [Tandem] as a production company, because they did work with kids.  With The Facts of Life and so on, they were accustomed to it, and would cast age appropriately.

Sarah Jessica Parker was the first person that I ever saw for the role of Patty.  Eve brought her in.  We were in New York, and she read, and Eve was like, “Isn’t she great!”  And I was like “Yes… but she’s too pretty.” Eve had a pair of sunglasses, knocked out the lenses, and put them on her, and said, “Now have her read.”  I still wasn’t convinced.  We made her come back like 8 times to audition.  You know how it is – do you take the first apartment you see?

Obviously she was the best person -- and with the Lauren character, we had similar issues because we were meeting these chubby girls.  And we knew we could put on fake braces.  But we were still reading girls who were chunky, and couldn’t find anybody.  Then I had the idea that we could put her in a fat suit.  Because I remembered when we were doing the bees on SNL, and we had these little padded body suits for the bee characters.  In 1982, the whole thing of prosthetics wasn’t nearly as advanced as now.  But still I thought, “Why can’t we do that?”  So poor Amy Linker had to wear fake braces and body padding and still deliver a performance.  Sarah had, of course, fake glasses, and as she said, she had to dress as an Appalachian child.  She got her revenge for that later!


Casting the Cool Kids

Literally, we went everywhere.  San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago.  Jami Gertz was in Chicago, and she had kind of done local commercials.  Nothing really.  And Tracy Nelson was a funny thing, because she said to me when she auditioned, “You worked with my father.”  I was like “What?” and it turned out her dad was Ricky Nelson, who had been a host on SNL.  Which made me feel a lot older suddenly.  I got a few gray hairs there, I think.

So we did really do the Gone With the Wind talent search to get these people, the embodiment of the characters as I saw them.  One reason the show worked so well, I have to credit the casting.  John Huston used to say casting was everything, and I really have to say that it is.


A Slice of Real Life

I think [all the characters] were high school archetypes.  That may have changed, but I suspect not all that much.  There’s the student leader like Muffy, the king and queen like Vinnie and Jennifer.  And then Jennifer had to have a friend and confidante, and I really wanted to have the show be multiracial, so it was logical to me to have an African American girl [played by Claudette Wells].  Which also was groundbreaking; not since I, Spy had there been black and white friends.  And this was 1982!  So that was important to me that there be a person of color in the show.  As there had been back where I was; Somers was a predominantly white bedroom suburb, but there were Black kids in the school.

My friend does know that Lauren was based on her – and I think she’s flattered.  I had saved all the notes we wrote to each other when I was in high school.  The one issue was whether the show needed to be period or not, like The Wonder Years, which came later.  I really wanted it to be contemporary, because I wanted to be able to do jokes about Reagan and things like that, and be “of today.”  So I borrowed the daughter of a friend of mine and her friend, who were 14-year-old girls who went to private school in Manhattan, and lived in Soho.  So I thought of them as reasonably sophisticated.  I wanted to check that I wasn’t totally off.  I remember, I took them to lunch and said, “Is there anyone in your school who is doing this?”  And they said “Oh no, only the sluts!”  And I thought, “God, things have not changed.”

And then I asked them, “Who are your heroes?” and they said Che Guevara – they didn’t really know who he was but had a poster – and James Dean.  And then I was like “Okay, I can still write this.”  But then I tried to keep my ears open to current slang, and that’s how the Jennifer Valley Girl character came about.  And that was before the song “Valley Girl;” even though the show was on the air after the Moon Zappa song came out, we had shot the pilot before that.  That was something Tracy came up with.  I remember Tracy said – she was not conventionally the pretty girl -- that she was auditioning with all these girls more conventionally gorgeous.  And they were like, “You’re not here for the Jennifer character!”  They were mean to her.  And so she figured “I’m going to get this” – this fierce resolve.  Here were the girls who had been mean to her in high school!  She ended up doing a devastating take on people she had observed.


 The Music of Square Pegs

The music was another thing that was groundbreaking – this was pre-Miami Vice.  There really hadn’t been rock and roll on TV since Ricky Nelson.  It was very important to me that the music be part of their world.  Johnny Slash, the anomalous character, was the way the music came into the show.  If you want to talk archetypes, there’s always the strange kid.  And he said he was “left back and laid back.”  It’s like that line in Animal House:  “Six years of college down the drain.”

I was listening to the radio, and I was going to clubs in New York, and was hearing these [New Wave] groups.  What was interesting about The Waitresses -- my friend Lynn Goldsmith is a rock and roll photographer who just put a book out.  She had taken shots of all these iconic people, like Springsteen.  She was someone I turned to for music world connections.  She told me about The Waitresses, “the perfect group for your show.”  I was like “Okay, the Waitresses.”  And then [coincidentally] I was listening to a song on the radio, “I Know What Boys Like” – [and thought] “this is the perfect group for my show!”  I said, “I don’t know about the Waitresses, but I want the group who did this song!”  So we got them, brought them out [to L.A.] to be in the pilot, and also to write the theme song. 

When they had Square Pegs on Nick at Nite at one point, they had a sequence which thrilled me, where they had people in the street, singing theme songs -- and they had people singing the Square Pegs theme song.  So I was pretty pleased.  I worked with them [in writing] it – glasses, and cliques, and so on.  I was telling them what it should deal with.

Once we did the pilot, and then it was picked up by CBS, which was also quite an amazing thing, the market research for it was not good.  It said things like “These kids should be in an insane asylum, not a high school.  They’re disrespectful of adults.”  Cleverly, Kim LeMasters kept it under his hat, because luckily for me, he had been promoted up the ranks as the show had moved along, and had more power, and was a big proponent of the show.  And ultimately [CBS senior programs executive] Harvey Shephard also became very fond of it.  His daughter, Greer Shephard, went on to produce such shows as Popular, and was a big fan of the show.

At one point, for Muffy’s bat mitzvah, it had originally been booked to be The Clash, and they fell through.  And funny, to think that The Clash was going to be on Square Pegs.  When they fell through, we had the Boomtown Rats begging to be on the show.  They sent us a side of smoked salmon.  Meanwhile, Devo was also another possibility, and they were local.  So I had to call up CBS and ask them which.  Harvey called his daughter Greer and asked her – she was in high school at the time – and she picked Devo.  So Devo was on the show.  And then they tried to cancel, and I couldn’t find out why they were cancelling; and it turned out the head Devo guy had scheduled root canal for the same week.  I remember being on the phone with him saying, “Change your appointment – you have a contract!”


Square Pegs on the Air

When the pilot got picked up, I had to hire a writing staff.  That was another struggle, because I remember they made me hire Andy Borowitz.  They didn’t want to have a staff composed entirely of women.  I wanted women because I was writing about girls in high school, so it seemed the writers should be women.  So the staff was women, and Andy.  He was our token male.  We used to call him Tootsie Borowitz. 

M*A*S*H was the only other single-camera show on the air at the time.  Our [Director of Photography] was a guy who had worked on M*A*S*H.  He was about 70 or something.  Emil Oster.  People were not shooting single-cam because it is more expensive; but now, everything is single camera.  Obviously there will always be multi cam shows, because comedians like to perform in front of a live audience.  I teach sitcom at USC – I work for the writing division of the School of Cinema and Television, now called the School of Cinematic Arts because George Lucas gave them a bunch of money.  I’m an adjunct professor.  And almost all the shows I’m teaching are single-camera.  Entourage, Weeds, even Scrubs or 30 Rock.  So that was another issue.  And that was another reason why – when I was in this bidding war where people were wining and dining me and wanting me to pick their production company – one of the stipulations I had had was that I wanted the show to be single cam.

I had worked on commercial parodies on SNL and actual commercials in England, which is where I had first worked in TV: 30 millimeter film, sixty-second black-and-white TV commercials in the ‘60s in London.  So it was very important to me to do [Square Pegs] in single camera, because for me it was a reality element.  I felt it should be [shot] in a real high school.  And it was shot in a real, abandoned high school, in Norwalk, California.  It had been condemned for heating problems.  It was the school where they had shot Grease 2

The show was supposed to be set in upstate New York, outside of New York City – a la Somers.  But it was odd, because there ended up being a Valley Girl on the east coast – because she was a transfer student.  The reason we shot it in Norwalk was to find a school that looked like one of those WGA school buildings they built during the Depression on the East Coast.  There wasn’t that kind of school in Beverly Hills.  And so the exterior shot was actually a middle school that’s over on McCadden place in Hollywood, and the interiors were all at the school in Norwalk, which was great; we would never have been able to build those sets.  We had the full cafeteria, and an auditorium and theater – it was an amazing physical plant.

What was very lucky was there was a football strike.  Football was on another network, ABC, but it was lucky for us in terms of our competition.  We were on opposite Little House on the Prairie on NBC, so that was the real ratings competition, because obviously it was a similar audience.  I never wrote the show to be a kids’ show.  I didn’t realize that, that they would say “Is it an 8 o’clock show or a 10 o’clock show?”  To me it was a show.  It was meant to be for everybody.  It was sort of ghettoized by CBS in a way I never intended to happen.

[Mondays at 8PM] wasn’t a great night or a great time slot.  But because of the football strike, we were protected for a while.  Then they moved us to Wednesdays at 8:30, and that was the death of the show.  They said “We have great new show to give you as a lead in:  Zorro and Son.”  There wasn’t a lot of competition, but in a counter-programming move, NBC moved The A-Team up to 8 o’clock, and that was the end.  Suddenly we got a 12 share – still not so shabby in today’s terms, but then it was death.  I was in New York and called up to get the overnights, and the girl told me 12, and I knew pretty much that it was over.  And then she asked me for a job, and I wanted to go, “With timing like that, stay out of comedy.”

We got cancelled after 20 episodes.  It would have been nice to get 22 or 24, but we had 20.  We had a lot of support from the network.  We had a lot of support from CBS, but not from the production company.  That show was expensive for them, and the guy who was running it, who later went back to England, just never got the show and didn’t support it.  He actually left the company after that year, because he also had allowed them to cancel Archie Bunker’s Place on his watch, and it wasn’t taken very well.  

We were on at 8, so we were trying to start the night.  We didn’t have a hammock, a lead-in.  The only lead-in we ever got was Zorro and Son, and of course that was famous [as a disaster, lasting just five episodes].  The thing about it is that if right now, you had a show that every 13- to 16-year-old girl was watching, you’d have Gossip Girl.  And you’d be a big hit. 

But here's the big difference between our show and other teen shows, like Our So-Called Life.  Our show was a comedy.  And I think that is a big difference.  If the show had been kept on the air, it had the potential to be more successful than drippy shows about teenage angst.  Our show was based on the premise that someday you'll look back on all this and laugh.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Join the Pet Set

If you are a fan of animals, of classic TV -- and here's a no-brainer:  a fan of Betty White -- then you'll want to check out today's DVD box set release of her early '70s talk show, Betty White's Pet Set.

The show's 39 full-color episodes, which debuted in 1970 -- in one early episode, Betty hosts her friend Mary Tyler Moore, years before she would join that show and become an iconic member of its cast -- boast a veritable who's who of  '70s television, each star stopping by to show off a beloved pet.  It's such a revealing and intimate look at the stars' personal lives, the kind you won't get during a packaged, PR-approved visit to The Tonight Show.

No one will ever have a career like Betty's, spanning eight decades in televi
sion, because Betty was quite literally there when they first turned on the TV cameras in Los Angeles, hosting hours each day of live talk.  By the time of Pet Set, Betty was an established pro, and it shows in her quick wit, and her ability to make her guests comfortable and move the segments along.  Combine that with her innate love for and comfort with all creatures great, small, and even deadly, and also her relationships with experts in zoology and conservation, and you have a breezy half hour that's both enlightening and entertaining.

I've heard that Betty has had these episodes sitting in her treasure chest for years, and decided now, at the show's 50th anniversary, was the perfect time to release them for a new generation to enjoy.  (They are also apparently available, for a fee, on Amazon Prime.)  The box set, which was released today, also boasts a good number of special features, including a behind-the-scenes mini-documentary; promo and public service spots; photo galleries of Betty and pets and also Betty and her husband /fellow producer Allen Ludden; and several featurettes about Betty subtitled Game Show Goddess and Queen of Television.

I spent the weekend bingeing episodes with such amazing guests as Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett, Paul Lynde, Agnes Moorehead, Beverly Garland, Lorne Greene, Eve Arden and Barbara Feldon -- and I have so many more to look forward to, including Doris Day, James Stewart, Burt Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Michael Landon, Barbara Eden, James Brolin, Della Reese, Vincent Price, Eva Gabor, Eddie Albert, Peter Marshall, Rose Marie, Bob Crane, Bill Bixby, Jim Nabors, Bob Barker, Mike Connors, Barbara Bain, Dennis Weaver, Johnny Mathis, Donald O'Connor, Merv Griffin, Rod Serling, Pat Carroll, Peter Lawford, Vikki Carr, Amanda Blake, Arte Johnson, Sue Anne Langdon, Miyoshi Umeki, Richard Deacon, Nancy Kulpe and Billy DeWolfe.

Between Pet Set and my continued viewings of The Love Boat in preparation for writing my next book, I can look forward to spending many of these pandemic hours with some old friends from sunnier times past.  Thanks, Betty!

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Kids Are More Than All Right -- and you have a second chance to see them

or as much success as ABC has had in launching comedies that introduced us to American families of different ethnicities -- black-ish, The Goldbergs, and Fresh Off the Boat, as the most prominent examples -- the network has for some reason been unable, or more likely too impatient, to make a success out of a sitcom featuring an Irish-American clan.

In 2016, ABC launched the very funny The Real O'Neals, about a modern day Irish-Catholic family with a gay son -- but cancelled the whole enterprise after just two abbreviated seasons and 29 episodes.

Then in 2018 came The Kids Are Alright, an, I daresay, even better, funnier comedy, about the exploits of the gaggle of eight Cleary brothers and their comically world-weary parents (Mary McCormack and Michael Cudlitzin the turbulent 1970s. One needn't be Irish-American like me to appreciate the warmth and authenticity of this truly laugh-out-loud show -- plus, isn't everyone Irish at least that one day a year in March? -- but ABC clearly didn't see it that way.  In one of the network's more shocking, short-sighted cancellations of late (although remember, they also prematurely cancelled The Real O'Neals, Better Off Ted and Happy Endings, so should we be surprised, really?), the Cleary Kids lasted just one season.

I'm sure no one was as disappointed as the show's creator, Tim Doyle, and not just for the usual workaday reasons, but because The Kids Are Alright was based on his own upbringing, as the artistic child with acting aspirations amid a writhing horde of brothers.  Doyle, whose credits include beloved shows like Better Off Ted and Ellen, on which he served as executive producer, used his acting background to provide the voiceover narration for the show, which faithfully retold many of his own hilariously humiliating life stories.

But now, in a streaming world, is any sitcom family truly dead?  Just recently, all twenty-three episodes of The Kids Are Alright popped up on Hulu, which is both a joy and relief to me, because now I can safely delete them from the valuable real estate on my DVR.  In celebration of the Clearys' return, I asked Tim six questions -- I should have made it eight, one for each Cleary kid -- about why we should watch.

Must-Hear TV:  How did the show end up getting on Hulu?

Tim Doyle:  During the initial run, Disney made each episode available after airing on the website and Hulu. But after we didn’t get our season two order, it was quickly pulled down from both — which seemed weird. I didn’t understand their hurry to make us unavailable. Other canceled ABC shows were still being offered. Hell, there are canceled shows which I wrote back in the ‘90s still running on those sites. My first TV job, Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs, is coming back to Disney+ in a couple of weeks!

Fans of The Kids Are Alright kept contacting me on social media, complaining they couldn’t watch those original 23 episodes — nothing on any streaming service, no DVD release. What gives? Then when the quarantine descended, it just struck me as wasteful, like the company was missing a bet to give folks something they might enjoy bingeing during these crazy times, and maybe even build a new audience who didn’t find the show during its network run.

When fans reached out, I basically started encouraging them to write to Disney Channel, Disney+, ABC, Hulu — the various platforms Disney now owns. These fans are passionate. I think they even sent a few pleading letters to Nat Geo! And suddenly I got a nice email from Peter Rice, the CEO of Walt Disney Television, telling me that Kids would go back up on Hulu starting August 5. No idea what their internal process was, but I have to assume that viewer enthusiasm must have played a role.

MHTV:  How do you feel about the show being back and available for viewers to discover?

TD:  I obviously think it’s great. You make these shows to be seen, and I’m afraid Kids never really got the launch it deserved. Any interest in our premiere got massively overshadowed by the huge scandal in the fall of 2018 surrounding Roseanne getting herself fired from our lead-in show, The Conners.

The press pretty much ignored our premiere, when they weren’t being preemptively dismissive as they often are with new network offerings. The glib wisdom regarding us was that we were just a ‘70s version of The Goldbergs — which nobody who watched a single episode would ever actually say. I must have read ten versions of the same smarty-pants “Goldberg Variations” joke among the quippy quick hot takes folks who write for the short attention span media.

It was gratifying, however, when more serious TV columnists weighed in and we got almost universal praise, I assume because they actually took the time to watch the episodes. We received an extremely high rating on Rotten Tomatoes as well, and the pilot script earned a WGA nomination for best writing of a comedy episode. I felt confident that if we made past summer we could easily pick up a few Emmy nods — at least Mary McCormack, Michael Cudlitz and our art department. With that encouragement the cast and crew worked insanely hard and delivered a consistently strong first series of 23 episodes. The show did well but was never quite a ratings hit, struggling to break through all the media clutter. So now I feel like there’s got to be a massive captive audience out there who can discover and love this show if we can only help them find it on Hulu.

MHTV:  What to you is so personal about the Clearys that you want to share with the audience?

The Kids Are Alright creator
Tim Doyle with his TV alter ego,
Jack Gore, at PaleyFest,
September 8, 2018.
TD:  Well, it really is based upon my childhood, my family, my parents -- so writing it was the most gratifying and fascinating creative act I have ever experienced, a true act of confession — of saying things I’ve always wanted to say about being a brother, being a parent, being a son, being a Catholic, being lower middle class, and living through that very confusing decade of the 1970s. For thirty years I’ve been writing other people’s TV shows, telling my own stories only through that distorted, veiled lens. By contrast Kids was so pure and gratifying. No, it’s not a documentary. A lot of things had to be changed from my real life for technical reasons, for legal reasons, or for comedy, but... I can now say to my daughter, or some grandchild down the road... to anybody interested, really: If you want to know who I am, watch the show. It’s all in there. I got that rare opportunity in an artist’s life to cut straight down to the bone and give you my DNA. And a major corporation paid for it all!  

MHTV:  What parallels are there between the time period the Clearys live in versus where we are now?

TD:  The anger in the public discourse was very similar to now, the social and political divide. I think now is worse, but only by a bit. In 1972 some of our beloved national leaders had recently been ASSASSINATED, and we watched it happen on live TV — as disorienting, scary and surreal as witnessing 9-11.

The Vietnam War had us divided. Nixon had us divided. Like today everyone was on a hair trigger of rage, exhilaration and frustration as we watched violent street protest and a presidency falling apart. Would our republic even survive? These are real questions we worried over then and are definitely revisiting today.

My father had terrible politics. But I loved and respected him. I loved my mom as well but she was suppressed and oppressed by the times, never becoming the fully realized person she certainly should have been. And watching the two of them struggle and puzzle through those turbulent years where everything they valued was suddenly up for grabs gave me the perspective to become — for good and for bad — the person and the artist I am today. 

MHTV:  Were you surprised the show didn't get picked up for season 2?  What were your plans for the family and their further experiences?

TD:  There were a number of warning signs along the way, but I was still absolutely flabbergasted with disbelief when ABC chose not to order a second season. In my mind — and I think there’s an objective case to be made for it — we were the BEST comedy on their schedule, CERTAINLY better than several of the shows with LOWER or absolutely comparable ratings which they chose to renew instead. I could not believe the choices they made.

I remember telling Karey Burke that she must possess a high threshold for embarrassment to keep several of the shitty shows she did and toss mine in a dumpster. (BTW this lack of diplomacy with my bosses might also have been a factor in getting my show canned.) In retrospect, our status on the network became much less secure as soon as Channing Dungey and Jamilla Hunter left ABC in December 2018, and were replaced by Dana Walden and Karey. A new creative team coming in always wants to prove itself with a sharp change of direction, and Kids was a leftover project of Channing’s. She had been our champion. Suddenly ABC was giving us fewer on-air promotions, our strong lead-in The Conners went away, and we found ourselves pre-empted to try out new shows in our time-slot. I should have seen the writing but I still naively thought that our superior quality would win the day.

In terms of season 2 and beyond, I have notebooks full of scribbled notions, things we just never got to in the first 23. And more stuff pops up every day — a glance at an old family album or seeing a retro commercial on the internet will send me instantly right back to 1972. The great thing about a series which comes out of your life is the deep story resources immediately at your disposal. Someone in the writers’ room asks, “Did Frank ever have a girlfriend?” or “Did your mom ever work outside the home?” or “Did Joey ever get in serious trouble with the law?” and you’re off to the races with memories of the funny, painful, real stories a family like mine experienced. I would LOVE to get to the REALLY GOOD stuff:  Timmy’s adolescence under Joey’s Bob Guccione-style tutelage and the tug-of-war I went through for years (am still going through?) between sex and my more childish passions, like magic, musical theater and puppetry!

MHTV:  Is there any chance, particularly if the show does well on Hulu, that it could come back?  And if it does, will you please change the spelling to "All Right?!" 

TD:  There’s always a chance. Just a year or two ago I would have scoffed. Dead is dead. Once a show has the stink of rejection on it no platform is going to risk the shame of associating itself with a proven failure.

But I can’t argue with the passion of our fans. They keep asking me for more — an animated cartoon, a comic book, a novel, a Halloween or a Christmas special. You have to think “never say never” these days. There is just sooooooo much TV and so so so many players with such a voracious appetite for content. Yes, I’ve moved on to other projects but I’m still scribbling in my notebooks ideas which I’d love to do on some future iteration of The Kids Are Alright. So wherever I end up next with my new series ideas — cable, streaming, network, Google Maps, the little TV built onto the gas pumps — if I find any further measure of TV success I’ll be looking to leverage that success into a revival of Kids taking place perhaps in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, reuniting that amazing cast and telling more stories from deep vault of my remarkable but also highly-typical American family. 

And yes, I’d be happy to change the “alright.”