Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Retoolers

I happened upon this 199 Time Magazine article about the Urkel phenomenon, and what caught my eye was this passage about the producers of the show, Miller-Boyett productions (originally Miller-Milkis-Boyett), the producers of some of the cheesiest and most popular "family" sitcoms ever. Explaining their method, the author writes:

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.


Andrew Leal said...

"Perfect Strangers" sort of went through a third retooling as well. In the seventh season, Larry married his girlfriend, and Balki and his girlfriend moved with them into an old Victorian house. The newspaper setting and supporting cast were minimized, used maybe two or three times that season, the rest focusing on the group at home, sometimes in fantasies (a hallmark of Miller Boyett shows, i.e. the cast doing The Honyemooners or Laurel and Hardy). And the brief third season dropped the newspaper and its characters entirely, focusing only on the pregnancy of Jennifer and Mary Anne for six episodes.

Also, what struck me as odd even in my youth, they kept Belita Moreno, from the first season, when she played Ernie Sabella's wife fairly often, gave her a different hair color, and used her as the newspaper advice columnist. While this tactic has always been common with actors who played one-shot roles, it always boggled me that they had her play two completely unrelated recurring characters, consecutively.

Todd said...

I demand to know more of the retooling of Full House pre-air! I seem to recall it wasn't a huge hit in its first season and was almost canceled. I have no idea why it was spared.

That said, the Mork and Mindy retooling is the oddest of all. They took the third-biggest show on television and changed it for no apparent reason.

Anonymous said...

If I remember right, the "Mork and Mindy" retooling was part of a crackpot idea by ABC that by making the show more young and hip (basically by eliminating any regular cast member over the age of 35), they could move the show to Sunday nights and dominate that evening with a new comedy block that also featured "The Associates", from the same MTM group led by James L. Brooks that had gone over to Paramount to do "Taxi". What the end up doing is casting off the main counterbalances to Robin Williams' manic energy, and just going overboard with his schtick.

Add to that ABC's hyping of Raquel Welch as the guest star for the second season and the overblown script they came up with, and you had a true Jump the Shark moment for the show.

Anonymous said...

Aside from ABC's wanting a younger supporting cast for the series, the other thing that happened to Mork and Mindy is that Robin Williams was unhappy with the scripts he was doing. Williams wanted "meaningful" stories rather than the relatively simple slapstick and visual stuff the first season had concentrated on. Unfortunately, "meaningful" tended to bring out the worst in Garry Marshall's sitcoms, as the results were almost invariably heavy-handed and unsubtle.

The Laverne and Shirley retooling was one of the most pointless things I'd ever seen. Yeah, they added a couple of new characters who ultimately came to nothing, and Laverne and Shirley traded in their dead end brewery jobs for different dead end jobs, but all the big change ever really amounted to is that the series got all new sets.