Gary Jacobs, one of the executive producers of NBC's 2-year-old comedy "Empty Nest," doesn't even try to get people to recognize his show by its name anymore.
"I defend myself against that pain," he says, by automatically adding an explanatory sentence: "You know, the show that's on Saturday nights, after 'The Golden Girls'?"
Only then, he recounts, does the light start to go on. The person will start to laugh. "Oh, yeah. Richard Mulligan, the guy from 'Soap.' The doctor with the two grown-up daughters who live at home. The dog . I watch that show. I love that show!"
"Empty Nest" is the show that comes on at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, after "The Golden Girls," one of TV's most popular comedies. A traditional sitcom that was spun off of "The Golden Girls" in 1988, it doesn't get a lot of media attention--only a lot of viewers.
"Sometimes I feel like, if we're a hit show, we're the best-kept secret for a hit show that I've ever encountered," Jacobs lamented recently at the show's headquarters in Hollywood.
But these days, "Empty Nest" is proving itself more than a "time-slot hit"--that is, a show people watch just because it's on after another popular program. During the summer, reruns of "Empty Nest" frequently beat reruns of "The Golden Girls" in the Nielsen ratings, and for the current season, it ranks No. 9 among the 102 series that have aired in prime time--just ahead of "The Golden Girls." Both shows draw 31% of the audience.
"I do feel that the show is no longer merely the beneficiary of a great lead-in," said Jacobs, who serves as executive producer along with creator Susan Harris, Paul Witt and Tony Thomas. "It has an audience that likes it in and of itself."
Besides, he said, "We've seen shows like 'Chicken Soup,' which were beneficiaries of even better time slots, and failed"--a reference to the ABC comedy that had relatively good ratings last season but was canceled anyway, in large part because it was losing more than one-third of the audience of the show ahead of it, top-rated "Roseanne."
So why does America love the story of Miami pediatrician and widower Harry Weston (Mulligan), who shares his home with two of his adult daughters Carol (Dinah Manoff) and Barbara (Kristy McNichol), and a big dog named Dreyfuss, and who suffers daily persecution from his pesky neighbor Charlie (David Leisure) and his tyrannical nurse from the Arkansas backwoods, Laverne (Park Overall)?
The cast has made the rounds of TV talk shows, encountering hosts eager to hypothesize that "Empty Nest" strikes a chord among viewers because of today's economic climate. In the show, Carol, a depressed divorcee who works in a library, and Barbara, a sunny-tempered undercover cop, moved back home after the first season because they could not afford their own homes--a situation reflected in society.
But Jacobs said that "Empty Nest" did not take this turn for sociological accuracy: The young women came home because it was funnier. "We had to bring them together in order to do our stories," he said.
"We're home because we have to be home," Manoff said. "They couldn't figure out a way to have us keep coming home to borrow sugar from Daddy. It was insane."
Harris, who also created "The Golden Girls," said that "Empty Nest" has gone through major creative revisions both on and off the air. As introduced on a "Golden Girls" episode, the Weston family was a middle-aged couple dealing with the empty-nest syndrome after the kids had left for college and marriage.
"At the time I created it, that was exactly what happened to me," Harris said. "My son had left for college, and I thought it would be very difficult. But, somehow, I survived."
Harris solved her own empty nest problem by having another child, who now is 2 1/2. The show had to undergo some changes, too, when Harris realized that two people complaining week after week about missing the kids could wear thin no matter how cushy the time slot--so a pilot episode featuring the couple was scrapped and "we killed the wife," she said simply.
That left widower Weston, home alone for the first time with no company but Dreyfuss, a huge, disobedient mixture of St. Bernard and golden retriever (portrayed by look-alike canines Bear and Julio). For the first season, the daughters dropped in to get sugar and comfort Daddy.
Then, just as actor Mulligan was beginning to protest having to carry the show almost single-handedly, the daughters moved home--creating both more comic options and spreading the show's focus more evenly among the main characters.
"In the first year, it really was a good idea (to focus on his character); it was all about this man who was alone, just himself and his dog, really still grieving from the loss of his wife, maintaining his sense of humor," Mulligan said. "But (the other characters) are really very interesting . . . and on a very pragmatic level, you've got to keep actors busy."
Jacobs agreed that the show's current appeal stems not from the idea of empty-nest syndrome, but from the audience's longing for the close-knit unit of family and friends that the show creates. And Mulligan's Weston represents the most trustworthy medic to hit the airwaves since Dr. Kildare. "I can't help but think people watching him think, 'This is the father I never had, this is the doctor I never had,' " Jacobs said.
When the show first aired, however, there were some who found it not so nice--namely, Southerners concerned that Overall's drawling Laverne perpetuated a stereotype. The most vitriolic reaction, predictably, came from Arkansans. Overall, a Tennessean, believes she has since won them over to her side. Everyone, she contends, gets some satisfaction out of watching the ultra-efficient Laverne continually outsmart her boss.
"The thing about Southerners is, they are often very stereotypical," Overall said. "They're large . I mean, I grew up with them, and I know. . . . I think Laverne now has a depth and realness to her that's good for all groups here in the United States, not just Southerners. As long as my people are proud of me, that's enough for me."
Sociological accuracy? Family solidarity? Emotional truth? The Arkansas vote? There's another theory about why "Empty Nest" may be a success: the dog.
Bear and Julio, chosen over numerous canine hopefuls to portray Dreyfuss, are treated with as much respect on the set as any of the human stars. During breaks, Bear, the father of a litter of pups abandoned by their mother, cares for his offspring, who are kept backstage in a large cage.
Trainer Joel Silverman, of Birds and Animals Unlimited, who works with the dogs, said the key to Dreyfuss' popularity is not to overuse him. The producers try to limit major "dog jokes" to one every three or four episodes.
"I hate to admit it: I sit there and I watch the dog--and it works on me every time," Jacobs said. "I like to think I'm more sophisticated than that."