But they have gained a reputation in TV circles as expert fix-it men, skilled at tinkering with shows and playing up the elements that work. Their legendary success was boosting the role of Fonzie, the greaser with a heart of gold, in Happy Days. "Basically, the concept of a show is merely a vehicle to get it launched," says Boyett. "What keeps it going is the ability to present characters people want to follow."
That reminds me that these guys -- whose shows were usually evil but phenomenally successful -- could write a book on how to re-tool a sitcom: almost every show they were ever involved with was substantially re-tooled in the middle of its run, sometimes several times. Like their mentor Garry Marshall, they didn't do the whole artistic-integrity thing and would basically do anything to keep a show on the air, whether it was bowing to network demands, playing up any character who became popular, or changing the setting. Let's look at some of the shows produced by Miller-Boyett or some variant thereof (Miller-Milkis, Miller-Milkis-Boyett -- basically, Miller, a former assistant to Billy Wilder, was the constant factor in all this):
- Happy Days: one of the most famous and successful (commercially anyway) re-toolings ever. Then it was re-tooled several times to adjust for the departure of Ron Howard and the departure/return of Joanie and Chachi.
- Laverne and Shirley: they moved the whole show from Milwaukee (Miller was from Milwaukee and it was presumably his idea to set these shows there) to Hollywood, then did it for a year without Shirley (or Lenny).
- Mork and Mindy: Completely overhauled in its second season.
- Angie: this was one of the few older-demographic comedies this team did (Bosom Buddies, which underwent a mild second-season re-tool, was another). Since all their shows were attempts to cash in on the success of something else, I suspect that this was done in response to the launch of ABC/Paramount's Taxi, which briefly made it OK for the network to do smart adult comedies. Then Taxi's ratings tanked and they abandoned that pretty quickly. Anyway, despite a successful first season, Angie had a new setting and had dropped some characters by the time the second season started.
- Perfect Strangers: early on, Larry and Balki were working for a mean shop owner played by Ernie Sabella. In the third season, they were working a big glamorous Chicago paper. Apparently the producers had decided that people didn't want to see the characters working a depressing dead-end job like Laverne and Shirley; this was the '80s and audiences wanted successful people.
- The Hogan Family: one of the most notorious and publicized re-toolings of the '80s, started as a show with Valerie Harper and wound up as a show about Sandy Duncan.
- Going Places: a show I never saw, but which according to the linked article had the characters change jobs/settings in the middle of its short run.
- Family Matters: the focus of the Time article that started this post; it starts off as a Perfect Strangers spinoff and suddenly it's a show about Urkel, whom the producers embraced just as they once embraced the Fonz.
Just about the only show on that list that didn't get heavily re-tooled was Full House, and even that got changed a lot before it first aired (change of premise, and an unused pilot with a different actor).
I don't have much to say to sum up, except that Tom Miller and co. are a test case for what producers can accomplish if they don't really care what their shows were originally supposed to be about. If they throw the whole integrity and plausibility notion aside and just rejigger every show to emphasize whatever the public likes at a given point, they can actually be pretty darn successful. Frightening, but successful.