Thursday, December 08, 2011

Back To 1988, By Way of 1986

One of the few sitcoms I watched at the time and then never revisited again (that I recall) was Dear John, the 1988 adaptation of a BBC sitcom from Only Fools and Horses creator John Sullivan. I watched the pilot when it first aired, because I was watching just about any sitcom on NBC at the time, and I thought it was funny enough to watch a few more times. But like many people, I didn't follow it after it moved away from Cheers; it survived for four years, but was never really a hit, and had almost no syndication life. It turned up here in reruns briefly a couple of years ago, following Taxi reruns on a channel that was showing filler during a transition to a new format. But I didn't watch it then either.

What got me watching it again was reading this article, "Anatomy of a Sitcom," from the New York Times during the show's first season. It really paints a bleak picture of what it's like to make a television sitcom, though that's pretty typical of the way television was profiled back then: behind-the-scenes looks at the making of TV were less reverential, because there was less reverence for TV than there is now. Even mass-market TV publications like TV Guide would often capture the self-doubts of TV producers and stars, or get into the sausage-factory nature of making network TV. The truth is probably somewhere in between that dark perspective and today's happier perspective, where increased media scrutiny (not to mention DVD commentaries) have trained showrunners to talk happier: you would rarely catch a showrunner doubting himself as openly as Ed. Weinberger does here.

That was what interested me about the show, because it was a Paramount TV production smack in the middle of a great period for Paramount TV -- which unfortunately has been folded into CBS and no longer exists. The TV division was still benefiting from the MTM people who jumped ship to do Taxi: Jim Brooks had left, but Glen and Les Charles were still there doing Cheers, and some of the writers they helped train would soon do Wings and Frasier. And then in the middle of this, Ed. Weinberger, another of the Taxi people, came back to Paramount to do a show with his Taxi star -- and the result wasn't a flop, just not anything special.

"Not anything special" describes a lot of Ed. Weinberger's work after Taxi, which is a bit surprising because he was such a talented guy. When he took over as producer of Mary Tyler Moore in the third season, he instantly infused it with a new energy. The creators of the show, James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, both had a background in single-camera sitcoms and (in Burns's case) advertising and animation, and they specialized in rather "soft" jokes. Weinberger was an experienced writer for stand-up comedians and variety shows, able to write hard jokes and big block comedy scenes, and he brought other writers for stand-ups and talk shows (including Bob Ellison and the great David Lloyd) onto the show. The mix of Weinberger and Brooks was what gave Mary Tyler Moore its shape from then on, and the same mix of hard and soft jokes was all over Taxi.

Weinberger's first act after Taxi was canceled was to create a talking-chimp sitcom, Mr. Smith; it was almost like a performance-art act of contempt for what sitcoms had become in the 1983-4 doldrums.

Then Weinberger seemingly bounced back in a big way by co-creating The Cosby Show. "Seemingly" because while he had co-creator credit, he wasn't with the show after the pilot. (Cosby, for whom Weinberger also created The Bill Cosby Show in the '70s, went through a lot of writers before settling on a few he could work with.) His projects after that seemed a bit scattershot, and often sounded better when you heard the cast list than when you saw the show. Mr. President, starring George C. Scott, probably should have been better than it was. And the Times article suggests that Amen was created by Weinberger almost as an attempt to thumb his nose at Cosby and prove he could do his own all-black show. Again, there was more potential in that subject (there are few American shows about the church, a subject that the British know how to mine for comedy) than Amen got out of it; it was all right in the first season because David Lloyd wrote half the episodes, but it was not a special show.

And then came Dear John. You can see what attracted Weinberger to the UK show: the story of a bunch of divorced people who hang out at a support group, it assembles a group of disparate losers headed by one guy whose pain is more raw than the others but who sees the world more clearly than they do. In other words, it's very Taxi. Here's the pilot of the original series:

And here's the U.S. remake, produced by Weinberger, Ellison and Peter Noah.

1 Pilot by carpalton

As you can see, once John gets to the meeting, the script is mostly the same as John Sullivan's version. (In fact, Sullivan's scripts were used almost verbatim for a few early episodes of the U.S. version.) The biggest difference is at the end. The original pilot just sort of ends on a big laugh -- a common way for UK sitcoms to end. The U.S. version feels a need to have some moment of resolution or hope, so it tacks on a new scene suggesting a) the possibility of sexual tension and b) a moment of redemptive connection between two supporting characters. It doesn't really work, and it may be a hint of why the U.S. version was never going to be on a level with Cheers and Taxi; the heart, the soft stuff, had to be tacked on and wasn't organic.

I may be over-thinking that, and I'd have to watch more of the episodes from later seasons to really know why this one was forgotten. I recall Jere Burns, as Kirk, being the one who made the most impact in the U.S. version; it's a showy part, and he played it more physically than the original actor. On the other hand, the leader of the group (a woman with an unhealthy interest in everyone's sex life) is less funny as a chirpy weirdo than the seemingly normal woman she was in the original. And Judd Hirsch was probably wrong for the part because he was too right for it, if that makes sense: the backstory of the character is close enough to Alex Rieger that he can't help seeming like he's playing the same guy all over again.

And that's how the show comes across in what I've seen of the original episodes: kind of like Taxi but not as sharp and fresh. Like a lot of filmed sitcoms from the late '80s -- Designing Women, Major Dad, Murphy Brown -- it also comes off as being at an uneasy transitional point between the MTM style (the foundational style at that time for any "grown-up" live-audience sitcom shot on film), and the faster-paced style that would soon come to dominate the filmed sitcom (with shorter running times, shorter scenes, and more stories per episode).

Weinberger did one other show while Dear John was running, a gruesome Look Who's Talking adaptation called "Baby Talk," where he was apparently very difficult to get along with: George Clooney fought with him and was dropped, Connie Sellecca left the show before it started, and finally Weinberger himself was let go after the first season. He made a comeback with a couple of other unsuccessful shows in the '90s. But if (like most TV producers) he wasn't able to keep producing hits indefinitely, the '80s and '90s were sitcom era that he did a lot to create -- through the shows he produced and the writers he hired, not to mention his role in keeping the sitcom alive with Cosby.

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