The Revenge of Successful Sitcoms : The TV shows of Tom Miller and Bob Boyett are often maligned by critics, but their rewards are in the ratings
Thirty million people a night is the best revenge. Well, maybe the only revenge when you are two of the most successful sitcom producers in television, but the critics and the people who hand out awards either ignore your efforts or, worse yet, mock them.
“The Hogan Family” might get some notice in TV Guide when Jason Bateman insists on using a condom; “Full House” might grab some attention for featuring the cutest toddler on television, and “Perfect Strangers” might elicit a knowing nod for presenting the guy who played the hilariously funny Serge, the gay art dealer, in the film “Beverly Hills Cop.”
But neither Bronson Pinchot, who plays Balki in “Perfect Strangers,” nor Bateman, who plays David Hogan, the eldest brother in his fantasy-perfect sitcom family, nor the writers, producers or directors of any of these robustly rated sitcoms ever get nominated for Emmys. They don’t get applauded for breaking any new television ground. They rarely even nab a favorable review.
All they ever do is win their time periods, luring millions of people to TV sets each week with their age-old mix of silly jokes, pratfalls, funny faces, lovey-dovey, huggy-wuggy sweetness--some call it sappiness--and a family unit that, no matter what wacky shenanigans it gets itself into, is full of love and admiration for each and every member at the end of each and every half hour.
That is the world of Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, executive producers of such renown television shows as “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “Mork & Mindy” and “Bosom Buddies” as well as “Valerie"--now the “The Hogan Family"--and half of ABC’s winning Friday night schedule: “Full House,” “Family Matters” and “Perfect Strangers.” A world where hugs and adoring smiles translate into big ratings and big bucks. A world where real-life problems melt away in the feverish afterglow of fictitious family harmony. A world where sentiment is not a dirty word.
A world that Miller and Boyett cultivate both on and off the small screen.
“It has to do with who we are,” Boyett says. “We don’t set out to say what can we do to get a warm moment in this show, but Tom and I aren’t very cynical. We love families and we love building families. We even build (the crew of) each show like a family. We want a certain amount of nurturing people, a certain amount of women and older people. We want a great happy family of people there.
“And when we sit down to design a show, that’s just a part of us. Tom is Richie Cunningham from Milwaukee. I’m a guy from Atlanta who’s not a real Hollywood kind of person. We do like a little sentiment. We do think people should make a human connection with each other.”
Miller Boyett Productions makes that peculiar breed of sitcom--the 8 and 8:30 p.m. show. The kind of series deliberately designed to coax the mass audience into watching their network at the beginning of the television evening and then to keep them there for the sometimes more sophisticated fare that pops up later. The kind of shows that must have something for children and teen-agers and adults. Shows that NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff says, “Children actively look forward to seeing the way many adults look forward to ‘L.A. Law,’ ‘thirtysomething’ or ‘China Beach.’ ”
“I like the fact that I can sit down with my kids (aged 5 and 8) on Friday night to watch these shows,” Stu Bloomberg, ABC’s executive vice president of prime time, says of his network’s Miller-Boyett heavy Friday lineup.
The trick to these sitcoms, Miller and Boyett say, is to create a family of some sort, even if it’s not a typical mother, father and three kids type of family, that the audience wants to be a part of every week. And you need a “vision, a sensibility,” that the audience will be interested in week after week for--if all goes well--several years and more than a hundred episodes.
The hook--"Full House” features three adult men raising three little girls, and “Perfect Strangers” tells the story of a greenhorn from a tiny Mediterranean island who moves in with his American cousin in Chicago--helps sell the show to the networks. But those hooks, Miller and Boyett say, aren’t nearly as important as the “sensibility” of these shows, which always feature open communication among family members, interpersonal or family problems resolved in a positive and cheerful manner and a warm, fuzzy moment some 22 minutes into the show.
Critics often call them derivative, stupid, unrealistic and trite, and they frequently lament the mass audience’s almost addictive zeal for such mind-numbing gushiness. While more sophisticated, less predictable comedies such as “The Wonder Years,” “Murphy Brown” and “Cheers” may win the Emmys and the critics’ hearts, Miller and Boyett nevertheless are heartened by their audience’s loyalty.
“Our award is that 30 million people are watching,” Miller says. “To me, the goal is to entertain. And if you’re doing an 8 o’clock show, that means you also try to make them intelligent, you have them tell a story that has not a preachy moral necessarily, but something there so that it’s not a bad thing if you watch it. The fact that those (shows) don’t win awards means nothing to me if we continue to please that many people.”
“When people come home after a day of hard knocks,” Bloomberg says, “I don’t think they want to see the sturm and drang of family fighting. To show some of the more positive aspects of domesticity is not a terrible thing. People do get some sort of satisfaction from seeing family problems resolved in a positive fashion.”
Others don’t agree. Richard Schickel, film critic for Time magazine, says that there is something insidiously wrong with presenting families that “get it together so easily” week after week. He says that he actually feels guilty after watching certain family sitcoms--guilty for not being as good a husband or father as the men he sees on television.
“There are unreasonable expectations being generated, I think, on young people in particular who are going to start to wonder, ‘How come my mom and dad aren’t so niftily caring and so willing to drop other preoccupations and deal with my issues?’,” Schickel contends.
“The obvious reason people watch these shows in such huge numbers is that their own life is so messy. It’s refreshing to see that problem solving is possible. . . . And you can never underestimate the desire to feel warm and cuddly at the end of these things.
“But,” Schickel wonders, “don’t you think people need just the opposite these days after eight years of Reagan and a year of Bush? Enough with the ‘there aren’t any problems’ already. For the last two decades, the American family has been a very troubled institution. These TV families make it seem as if there is no trouble with the institution. My sense of television is that no one individual program is dangerous by itself, but a steady diet of this kind of nonsense is bound to have some effect.”
“So what if they are unrealistic,” argues Henry Winkler, who played “The Fonz” for 11 years on “Happy Days” and calls Tom Miller his “mentor.”
“Here’s the truth: People watch television for three reasons. One is to get a glimpse of the world. One is to be entertained. And one is to be emotionally taken care of because it is so difficult to live at this point in history. They don’t only want that warm, emotional moment--they need it. This man (Miller) instinctively understands that.”
For a few years in the early ‘80s, when shows like “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “Magnum, P.I.” dominated the top of the television charts and several powerhouse comedies from the previous decade like “Happy Days,” “All in the Family” and “MASH” were fading, family sitcoms were considered extinct by many television executives. Then Tartikoff put “The Cosby Show” on NBC’s schedule, and it became a phenomenon, spawning “Growing Pains,” “Mr. Belvedere,” “Who’s the Boss?,” “The Hogan Family,” “ALF,” “Major Dad,” “My Two Dads,” “Full House,” which is essentially “My Three Dads,” and so on.
While Tartikoff is also renown for programming such critics’ darlings as “Hill St. Blues,” “St. Elsewhere,” “L.A. Law,” “Miami Vice” and “Cheers,” he insists that even if some slightly cynical people consider the happy, positive relationships these shows depict “Pollyannaish,” there is nonetheless a place for them in the “television landscape.”
“You can get cynical about Miller-Boyett shows dating all the way back to ‘Happy Days,’ ” Tartikoff says. “The music swells up and you know you will have a warm moment even before you hear the dialogue because you’ve already heard the music swell. But I don’t think those shows are any more harmful or unrealistic than having the cops catch the bad guy 51 minutes into every episode of ‘Magnum’ or ‘Hunter.’ ”
Tartikoff, Miller and Boyett all contend that some of these sitcoms, particularly “The Hogan Family,” are underestimated by the people who comment on television. “The big shock is that television is not so bad,” Miller says. “Lowell Ganz (who wrote for ‘The Odd Couple’ and other television shows and scripted the feature films ‘Splash’ and ‘Parenthood’) was at a party and some friends said, ‘I’m amazed at how bad television is.’ And he said, ‘I’m amazed at how good it is. I think it’s fantastic that they can do that well turning out 24 episodes a year.’ Just think of how many movies you go and pay money for and you don’t even get one good laugh.”
Tartikoff points to episodes in which “The Hogan Family” tackled such realistic topics as swearing, race relations, death, drunk driving and one episode, suggested by Tartikoff himself, which stated that “real-life” was far different than the way life is routinely depicted on sitcoms.
But Boyett says a sitcom cannot deliver a lecture every week--"sometimes you want to stop talking about East Germany and gossip about Zsa Zsa Gabor.” But every now and then, even though critics lambaste sitcoms for trivializing such issues by wrapping them up too neatly, he feels a “strong responsibility” to sneak in a positive message.
“It would be irresponsible to have that amount of people watching you and never do something that would make a little difference.”
Neither Miller nor Boyett is married and neither has any children of his own. They do have dogs, Chinese shar-peis. Miller’s is named Billy, for Billy Wilder. Boyett has a whole brood. One is called Spielberg, another is named Lucas, which might provide a clue about which slice of the audience pie these guys are out to conquer. Another dog, a pup named China, runs around their offices on the Lorimar lot in Culver City.
But besides the dogs, they truly do try to make “families” of the people they hire for each show. At the start of the weekly table readings of the scripts for both “The Hogan Family” and “Full House,” both men greet their casts and writers with enthusiastic hugs and inquiries about their kids, their mothers, the condition of their tonsils.
“These are two old-fashioned nice guys,” Tartikoff says. “They have a tremendous degree of passion that goes far beyond the millions of dollars they can make if the show stays on the air. They like what their show says and they are involved. They are not absentee landlords.”
Miller and Boyett read every draft of every script for all four of their shows. They attend rehearsals, story meetings and tapings. They are in their offices all day, every day.
Miller, Boyett says, gets up at 3 a.m. each morning to make script notes for his respective writing teams. They are rich, having made a fortune off the syndication of “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and other shows, but they don’t lead a glamorous Hollywood life style. Both wear tennis shoes around the office. They say they don’t take vacations.
Still, they repeatedly insist on giving credit for the success of the shows to the people who write the words each week. Jeff Franklin heads up “Full House.” Chip, Doug and Bob Keyes oversee “The Hogan Family.” William Bickley and Michael Warren take care of “Perfect Strangers” and “Family Matters.” Get it, family matters.
Miller, who wrote for “The Odd Couple,” “Nanny and the Professor” and “The Brady Bunch,” created “Happy Days” at Paramount back in 1974 with Garry Marshall and Edward Milkis.
Boyett, who was a development executive at Paramount, joined Miller and Milkis a few years later for a string of hits, including “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy” and helped make superstars of such unknown actors as Penny Marshall, Robin Williams and “Bosom Buddies’ ” Tom Hanks. In the 1978 season, they owned four of the five top-rated programs on television.
They also dabbled in movies, producing “Silver Streak,” “Foul Play” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” Miller says that in a few years, when they can no longer endure the frantic pace of four weekly television shows, they’d like to return to feature films. “I don’t want to do PG all my life,” Miller says.
As the half-hour comedy supposedly bit the dust in the early ‘80s, Milkis left to pursue his own projects and Miller and Boyett moved to Lorimar, home of “Dallas,” “Knots Landing” and “Falcon Crest,” to develop and produce hourlong dramas for the first time. “Comedy was supposedly dead and we had four projects under way for what they were calling ‘warmedies,’ ” Boyett remembers. “Then, three weeks after ‘Cosby’ hit the air, all three networks came to us saying, ‘Comedy is back,’ and we just abandoned those hourlong projects.”
Miller calls their current run at Lorimar their “second great phase.” Their network sitcom output is equaled today only by the team of Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, producers of “Cosby,” “A Different World,” “Roseanne,” “Grand,” scheduled to debut Thursday, and the recently canceled “Chicken Soup.”
But the path to their current success hasn’t been as smooth as it might seem. Ironically, their first “family” at Lorimar, “Valerie,” starring Emmy Award-winning actress Valerie Harper, split up in one of those full-fledged, irreparable tempests that destroy so many real-life families these days. In the fall of 1987, at the start of only the show’s second full season, Harper abruptly left the series in a vicious contract dispute with Miller and Boyett that eventually landed her a multimillion-dollar court victory.
Having lost its star, NBC could have easily dumped the show. But Tartikoff says that network research indicated that while Harper’s character was popular, Jason Bateman was the show’s top draw. So rather than can the series and risk introducing a new show, NBC decided to bank on Bateman’s popularity and the other established characters. Valerie was killed off, the show was renamed “Valerie’s Family” and Sandy Duncan came on board to run the now motherless household. The next year, Valerie’s name was dropped altogether and the show became “The Hogan Family.”
Miller and Boyett said they are bound by the court settlement and cannot talk about the incident with Harper. Tartikoff said that the show survived in part to avoid the ripple effect that might have swept through the business, had they “allowed an actor to dismantle a show.”
Over on ABC, “Full House,” which has been landing among the top 25 rated programs and is now Miller-Boyett’s top-rated show, started dismally in 1987. The only thing that saved the series, one rumor has it, was that the sitcom’s 6-month-old baby was too cute to send packing. ABC’s Bloomberg laughs at such a suggestion, but he says that the twins who play “Baby Michelle,” now 2 1/2, do have a remarkably high recognition level among the public.
“Perfect Strangers,” which stars Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker, was fortunate to have been sandwiched between ABC’s top 10 hits “Who’s the Boss?” and “Moonlighting” when it debuted in 1986. Now it beats “Dallas” handily almost every Friday at 9 p.m. Even “Family Matters,” Miller-Boyett’s new show this season, which has struggled on Fridays between “Full House” and “Perfect Strangers,” has been renewed for the rest of the year.
That’s not to say they’ve never had flops. Miller’s been involved in such forgettable programs as “Me and the Chimp,” “Blansky’s Beauties” and the TV-movie “Women in Chains.” Together they have failed with “Joanie Loves Chachi,” “Goodtime Girls,” “Making It” and “Out of the Blue.”
“Shows really have to work to make it today,” Boyett says. “It’s always been tough to have a hit but today it’s a million times more difficult than it was in the ‘70s. It used to be that people would sample a new show just because it was new. Now, new is bad. Now, people hear new and they are not interested. We’ve been lucky that the networks have believed in us and our shows long enough for the audience to become attached to them. Our track record certainly helps in that respect.”
Ironically, it’s Tartikoff, whose network is getting killed by Miller-Boyett and ABC on Fridays, who best understands the lure of Miller-Boyett sitcoms. His own 7-year-old daughter is one of the tens of millions who is devoted to ABC’s Friday night lineup.
“I am determined at some point that I’ll be able to come home after a long and difficult week of work and see my child wanting to watch NBC rather than ABC,” Tartikoff says. “After a hard and depressing week, seeing that in your own home is not exactly the best way to launch into your weekend.”