When ABC executives decided last year that they wanted a realistic TV comedy series from a single mom’s point of view--a sort of divorced version of their massive hit “Roseanne"--they turned to “Roseanne’s” producers to develop the project.
Carsey-Werner Productions went out and found a seasoned comedian from the Deep South, Brett Butler, whose gruff stage routine fit the profile--much like Roseanne Arnold’s early stand-up act as a frumpy housewife provided the backbone for “Roseanne.”
Then former “Roseanne” co-executive producer Chuck Lorre was hired to create a series around Butler. As part of the process, he interviewed single working mothers in Elgin, Ill., the same place where research was done in the germinal stages of “Roseanne.”
Clearly, ABC and Carsey-Werner hope that lightning can strike twice--and they may be right. “Grace Under Fire,” which premieres at 9:30 tonight, has been selected by Madison Avenue as the most likely of the new fall TV series to emerge as a hit.
“That’s mystifying,” Lorre said. “It’s like being told you hit a home run when you haven’t left the dugout. I find it strange that winners and losers can be chosen before you even premiere.”
What makes “Grace Under Fire” look like a winner is its time slot. The show is scheduled immediately after “Home Improvement,” the No. 3-rated program on television last season, and, even better, there is no comedy competition on CBS, NBC or Fox.
That’s both a blessing and a potential curse.
“Following a successful show is the best of all worlds and the worst of all worlds rolled into one,” said Larry Gerbrandt, senior analyst of TV programming for Paul Kagan Associates, a media research and consulting firm. “A great lead-in gives you a huge audience advantage. But if you can’t hold onto that audience, the pressures to succeed are magnified. The expectations are high because no network wants to sacrifice any audience.”
Generally, when two comedies are programmed together in one hour, a network wants the second one to lose no more than 20% of the audience delivered by the first. Last season, for example, Tom Arnold’s “The Jackie Thomas Show” ranked among the season’s Top 20 series but was canceled by ABC because it was losing 35% of the audience delivered by his wife’s “Roseanne.”
For Butler, the experience of making a network sitcom is a ride she never expected to take, so she’s not getting too caught up in what the experts are prognosticating.
“The minute I start buying into any of this stuff, I’m outta here. Case closed,” said Butler, a native of Montgomery, Ala., and a 12-year veteran on the comedy-club circuit. “This town caters to the most insecure and vain aspects of a person. And when you start believing the hype, I really think you’re in for a fall. It’s a town that cultivates hissy fits, and I don’t want to be one of those people who has one.”
“Grace Under Fire” stars Butler as a single mother in the Midwest who recently left her marriage with an abusive husband. She takes a factory job to support her three children--one of them a baby.
“Having been recently divorced myself, I thought the divorce aspect might be interesting to write about,” said Lorre, who created last season’s short-lived CBS comedy series “Frannie’s Turn,” about a harried New York housewife. “It’s not dealt with that much on television, especially in comedies. The other parent is simply dead or disappeared, and the impact is not shown.”
Lorre also created a romantic interest for Butler, played by Dave Thomas, to counterbalance the divorce perspective from a male viewpoint. “He’s the disenfranchised male who has been victimized by divorce, to show that divorce beats up men as well,” Lorre explained.
Butler herself has no children and she has been happily married for a long time to an attorney in New York, but she did suffer through an early abusive marriage that helped shape her blunt, comic look at life. Once she was signed, “Grace Under Fire” quickly took shape around her comic style.
“It’s obviously me playing me, except in real life I don’t have three children,” the bleach-blond Butler said in her husky Southern drawl. She was doing a gig in New York when a Carsey-Werner development executive spotted her last year.
To help increase her visibility prior to the premiere of “Grace Under Fire,” Carsey-Werner produced a special featuring her stand-up act, which is now playing on Showtime. In it, she describes her ex-husband as a redneck.
“Maybe I shouldn’t say redneck,” she says in the pay-TV program. “Maybe that’s simplistic and pejorative. I shall elaborate. I was married to a sub-literate, terra-cotta-tooth imbecile with violent tendencies. Wait, other words are coming to me. I was married to a simian, knuckle-dragging, dog-smelling, mother-loving, trailer-dwelling, brainless amoeba on the booger farm of the bayou. That might sound mean, but I assure you my ex-husband does not understand hyphenated references.”
“We weren’t specifically looking for a stand-up comedian to play Grace, as much as a person with a fresh point of view we could marry to the idea,” executive producer Tom Werner said. “But we all fell in love with Brett’s distinct sound.”
Lorre elaborated: “Her stand-up is very strong and assertive. There’s a certain victim quality of some women who have been really dumped on, and there’s no victim in Grace, which has a lot to do with the qualities Brett brought to her.”
After openly speaking her mind on stage for so long, Butler said she has to be more careful in Hollywood lest people think her own sitcom has turned her into a big shot. She cussed out a guy in a gift shop in the Beverly Center a few weeks ago because he was making fun of gays. Once “Grace Under Fire” premieres, she’s afraid she will lose that kind of freedom.
“Some people will say success bred a bitch,” Butler said. “But no, I’ve always been that way. I’ve always been freewheeling. Now I have to watch where I step.”
She professes to be unworried about the show failing. “If this didn’t work, I would go right back to stand-up,” Butler said. “I like it, I’m good at it, this is my 12th year doing it, and I’m pushing through some walls that I’ve always dreamed of in stand-up. I’ve been getting more visceral and political and autobiographical and even profane.”