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The Zappa Siblings Zap Their New Sitcom : Moon Unit and Dweezil Complain That ‘Normal Life’ Is Normal TV

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Try out this idea for a TV show. First, take two unusual siblings: Moon Unit Zappa, whose 1982 novelty song “Valley Girl” generated a new wave in pop culture, and her brother, Dweezil, an outspoken metal guitarist and singer whose last album was called, “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama.” Both are the offspring of cult rock star Frank Zappa.

Next, cast two sane and stable TV actors as parents. Finally, call the show “Normal Life.”

Bizarre kids. Straight parents. Laughs a minute. Hit sitcom.

That was the basic concept Moon (“Unit is my middle name”) and Dweezil dreamed up when they approached executive producer Bernie Brillstein over a year ago to do the new CBS sitcom “Normal Life,” which premieres Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KCBS as a mid-season replacement. “We pitched the show as “Addams Family Ties,” said Moon, who at 22 is the eldest of four Zappa children.

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But things didn’t go exactly as the two novice actors planned. Just how far is the finished show from their original concept?

“How far is Russia from here?” Moon said.

Since its inception, “Normal Life” has been plagued with writing, directing and casting problems that some members and former members of the show say extend far beyond the usual growing pains of a developing sitcom.

“At first, it was a very ironic title-Normal Life.’ Like, yeah, right,” said Dweezil, 20, suggesting that people who know the Zappa family expect anything but normalcy. “But as the show went on, it really did become ... S he switches to his best zombie imitation and speaks in monotone " ... nooormal life.”

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Once the series was picked up by CBS for 13 episodes, the show’s pilot, which the Zappas say was closest to their initial desire, was scrapped. After the first episode, the original mother on the series, feature film actress Janet Margolin, was replaced by TV veteran Cindy Williams of “Laverne & Shirley” at the suggestion of CBS. Episode No. 1 was was then reshot.

After episode No. 4, the show’s director and head writer were both replaced, and the characters were slightly revised again. After episode No. 8, following weeks of creative differences, the series father, Max Gail, who played Wojo on “Barney Miller,” was virtually written out of the series.

“There’s kind of a network within a network over there,” Gail said. “And there was this feeling that the Zappas untamed was not what an audience wants to see. Somehow, when the network picked up the show and brought in a writer, suddenly the show was not about the Zappas. We went from ‘Normal Life’ to normal TV. My character became a conventional domestic duffer.”

Several sources said that the show’s changes came at the insistence of CBS, which took on a new president, Jeff Sagansky, while “Normal Life” was in mid-production. Nobody at CBS was willing to comment on this story.

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“The pilot was more to the left,” said executive producer Brillstein, who dismisses the sitcom’s changes as routine. “We did more outlandish things on the pilot, and the apartment looked more wild. We tried to go all the way. We tried to be funny and bizarre. But the pilot didn’t test well with audiences.

“The finished show is more like what (Moon and Dweezil) envisioned than they think it is. We simply pulled it in a little, and made it a little more reality-based.”

The two Zappa children, sitting in the shadowy den of their father’s Laurel Canyon home, said the changes reached beyond that. They agree that “Normal Life” is funny, certainly no worse than other sitcoms on TV. Their complaint is that it resembles so many other shows on TV.

“I think television has such great possibilities, but it’s just too controlled,” Dweezil said. “That’s the thing. We wanted to try and get on TV and do stuff that was out of control, but we found ourselves being controlled. It was like thespian penitentiary.”

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“After we had done about six shows,” Moon said, “they called me in and said,” she breaks into a drop-dead serious voice, “ ‘We’re thinking about making your character 21, instead of 22.’ “S A bemused look crosses Moon’s face, “And I said, ‘Oh, OK.’ You know? I mean, this is insanity. This is the kind of stuff that they take so seriously, far too seriously.”

Moon and Dweezil have taken acting classes together and do regular guest spots on MTV as “Veejays From Hell.” They have also had small acting roles in film and television, with the scales tipped in Moon’s favor.

“She’s the professional actress,” Dweezil said.

“Professional actress means your will can be broken. Let’s just clarify that,” Moon interjected. She said that if her life were a book, its title would be “Painful But Necessary Steps.”

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“They tried to break my will too,” Dweezil said. “It just wouldn’t happen. Because what they would find was that they just couldn’t get the performances they were trying to get out of me.”

What did CBS want out of Dweezil?

“They wanted me to be Ricky Schroder.”


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