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The Birth of a Sitcom : How a hopeful TV series called ‘Caroline in the City’ grew from dream to reality. Here’s an inside look at that mysterious and frenetic process known as pilot season.

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FADE IN:

INT.--AVERY FISHER HALL,

LINCOLN CENTER--AFTERNOON, MAY 15, 1995.

As our story opens, hundreds of people have crowded into this auditorium in mid-town Manhattan. They are here to celebrate the end of pilot season--that time of year that comes sandwiched somewhere between winter and spring--by watching NBC unveil its fall schedule.

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The network has been looking closely at 25 series pilots, as opposed to 27 for ABC, 24 for CBS and 27 for Fox. At least twice that many scripts were also ordered but never made it to production.

Two men in this audience are paying particularly close attention. Fred Barron and Marco Pennette have created a potential NBC series called “Caroline in the City,” which they wrote with partner Dottie Dartland, and now lean forward anxiously as NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield steps onstage to begin the event. As he speaks, we flash back nearly a year and a half. . . .

*

CUT TO:

INT.--CBS/MTM STUDIOS OFFICE--DAY

It is January, 1994, and Barron and Pennette sit in their office basking in the glow of the success of CBS’ “Dave’s World.” Barron created the show, based on the writings of columnist Dave Barry, and Pennette is one of the writers with whom he instantly bonded.

Life is good, but they are restless to try something new. So, as they hang out in Barron’s office during a hiatus on “Dave’s World,” an idea develops.

“I’ve always wanted to do a show about a cartoonist,” Pennette explains.

“Actually, the original concept for ‘Dave’s World’ had a cartoon fantasy about going into Dave’s private world,” Barron recalls.

They toss around the idea of a sitcom revolving around a thirtysomething female cartoonist--maybe someone like Cathy Guisewite, but not really--who lives in New York City and is involved with a younger man. “An edgy relationship,” Pennette says.

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INT.--BARRON’S OFFICE--

A FEW WEEKS LATER

Barron and Pennette lounge in the office, tossing out lines of dialogue to each other as Barron’s assistant, Terrie Barna, laughs politely and writes everything down. Suddenly, a cartoonist named Caroline is coming to life.

“How about if Libby says, ‘I can tell in the first 10 minutes if a relationship is going anywhere or not,’ ” Pennette says.

“And Caroline responds, ‘No kidding? For me, it usually takes three years living with someone and lending them a lot of money to figure that out,’ ” Barron shoots back.

They smile and seem happy with the progress. It has taken lots of evenings and weekends, but they have now put together a pilot script for a show they’ve dubbed “Caroline in the City.”

*

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INT.--CBS PRODUCTIONS

OFFICE--A FEW WEEKS LATER

Late February is always a busy time for Andrew Hill, president of CBS Productions, and this year is no exception. He sits at his desk taking yet another call about yet another potential TV pilot he might be interested in. As he talks, a script co-written by his close friend Barron is dropped on his desk.

“Fred is one of most gifted writers I’ve ever come across,” Hill says. “And when he works with Marco, they really complement each other. When they told me about this one, I knew it was going to be good.”

Hill has a production deal with Barron, getting a first look at all of his projects, and eagerly reads through the script, pleased with what he finds. There is only one problem: Since he hadn’t ordered “Caroline in the City,” and Barron and Pennette are busy putting together two pilot projects of his that CBS Productions has asked for, this one will have to be set aside temporarily.

“Typically, we go in to them with just a concept for a new show,” Hill says. “But Fred and Marco insisted on working up this script on their own because it was the best way to show what they wanted to do. I think we have something a little more than the usual with this one.”

*

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INT.--OFFICE AT NBC’S BURBANK HEADQUARTERS--NINE MONTHS LATER

It is now mid-December, 1994, and the two projects Barron and Pennette had been creating have gone nowhere. Pennette has returned to “Dave’s World,” and Barron is back coming up with more ideas for the production company he has formed with Pennette.

Meanwhile, Hill has sent “Caroline” off to executives at the CBS network, as he is obligated to do. The network doesn’t have to buy everything its production company wants to develop, but it does get the first shot at each show. Unfortunately, CBS has decided against putting “Caroline” on.

“They said they had other shows they were developing in the romantic comedy area and this was not something they wanted to develop,” Hill explains.

Despite the disheartening news, CBS Productions is free to shop its project elsewhere, and so ships the script to NBC for another opinion. And now, Hill has come to the network with Barron and Glenn Adilman, head of series development for CBS Productions, to meet with Jamie McDermott, senior vice president for prime-time series, and Bob Levy, director of prime-time series. They have already read “Caroline” and, after hearing a 15-minute pitch about the show from Barron, offer a few ideas of their own.

“We really love the main character,” McDermott tells Barron. “And we love your writing. But you have to lose the older woman-younger man theme. What can we do to make this work for us?”

The meeting ends on a positive note, and Barron and Pennette are back at work within days on a rewrite.

“This is an evolutionary process,” says an undiscouraged Barron. “What I love about NBC is they have a vision. They’re saying there is something in this script that we like.”

*

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INT.--BARRON’S LOS ANGELES HOME

--EVENING--A FEW WEEKS LATER

The air outside on this early January evening is frigid and the cold air inside Barron’s Hancock Park home is not much of an improvement. That’s why Pennette curls up near the one heater that works, sipping Snapple and shivering as he tries to come up with one-liners.

He is spending his “Dave’s World” hiatus back at work on “Caroline,” along with Barron, but this time they have help. They have hired Dartland, a writer on “Grace Under Fire” and now “Cybill,” to work with them.

Her input seems to be helping, as the concept for “Caroline” begins to change. The main character is still a cartoonist in New York, but the relationship angle is changing. She now has an on-again, off-again affair with Del, her philandering boss, and is developing feelings for her new assistant, an artist named Richard. Her next-door neighbor is a woman named Libby, who is always there to offer tart-tongued dating advice. Likewise, Libby’s brother, Mark, always seems to be hanging around to offer a decidedly male point of view on Caroline’s relationship woes.

By mid-January, a completely revamped version of “Caroline in the City” is handed over to Hill. After another month and several more frigid meetings at Barron’s house, the three writers deliver a final draft to Littlefield.

*

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INT.--CONFERENCE ROOM AT NBC’S BURBANK HEADQUARTERS--DAY--

TWO MONTHS LATER

It’s Oscar Day, 1995, and all around Los Angeles excitement and limousine traffic are building in anticipation of the Academy Awards. Well, everywhere but Burbank. Today is the final casting day for several fall pilots, including “Caroline in the City.”

The casting process for the show had begun barely a month ago, after Littlefield saw the final draft of the script and gave it a green light for production. As he read “Caroline,” he had one reaction: “Let’s put Lea Thompson in this.” The veteran of 22 feature films, best known for her role in “Back to the Future,” had done a TV movie for NBC, and Littlefield had been after her since then to do a series for the network.

Coincidentally, she was busy at that moment filming another NBC movie, so Littlefield called and asked her to put “Caroline” in the pile of scripts she was considering and call him after the weekend to offer her opinion. By the end of the day Monday, she called back to say she was interested. After one lunch meeting with Barron and Pennette, she signed on. With this commitment from an established star, Littlefield put the pilot on the fast track, even signing on director James Burrows, whose success is legendary thanks to hits like “Cheers” and “Friends.”

“As soon as I heard he was on board, I started looking for a summer house,” Pennette says.

By March 6, casting agents Gilda Stratton and Grady Roberts were hired and began interviewing actors for the recurring roles of Del, Richard, Libby and Mark. By March 27, they have seen 50 Dels, 100 Richards, 75 Libbys and more Marks than they’d care to count. Of this crop, a handful were sent over for formal auditions with Barron, Pennette, Burrows and Thompson. And from that group, three of each character have been asked to audition for NBC executives on Oscar Day.

Before any of them can audition, each actor must sign a five-year contract with the show. It’s just one more way of seeing who is truly serious about the job.

“It’s a hideous system,” says New York stage actor Malcolm Gets, who will be auditioning for the role of Richard. “You walk into this big room with all your competition, and they bring in the contracts and put them all in a big pile. It’s a real test to stay focused.”

“I’m so nervous for the actors because I know how horrible it is. I can see their hands shaking,” says Thompson, the only actor in the room who knows she has the job.

Eric Lutes, who has just moved from New York to Los Angeles and become a hot property thanks to a guest role as Kelsey Grammer’s gay boss on “Frasier,” is supposed to go in first to audition for the role of Del. A scheduling snafu, however, forces him to go last.

The NBC executives quickly and politely start running through each audition about 3:30 p.m., and by 5 p.m. a whole new acting crew from another pilot is outside the office door waiting its turn. All the actors head home (except for Gets, who will spend the next five hours at the airport waiting for a flight back to New York). By the time they arrive, some decisions have been made.

Lutes and Gets have got the jobs. As for the roles of Libby and Mark, it will take another week and dozens more actors before final decisions can be reached.

*

CUT TO:

INT.--CBS/MTM SOUND STAGE--

MORNING, TWO WEEKS LATER

On April 10, the whole cast is finally in place. Libby has been changed to Annie to make the character closer to that of Amy Pietz, the actress playing her. Tom Wilson, who co-starredwith Thompson in the “Back to the Future” films, will play Mark.

The Friday before, the cast had done its first complete read-through of the script. It had gone well, with yuks aplenty. Today, though, they do it again for the NBC executives, and the sound stage feels about as funny as a morgue.

When the read-through is finally over, Barron and company gather at one end of the table to go over notes. Don Ohlmeyer, president of NBC, West Coast, and his associates sit at the other end, privately sharing their own observations.

“Caroline is like a bottle tossed into the ocean,” Ohlmeyer tells his crew. “I have no idea what she wants in life.”

*

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INT.--SAME SOUND STAGE--

ONE WEEK LATER

Barron and Pennette stand anxiously offstage, watching as Burrows gets the cameras in position and the actors get ready to tape the pilot.

“I can assure that every line in our original script has now been rewritten,” says Barron, who along with Pennette and Dartland has spent the week staying up until 4 every morning making revisions.

Not to Mark’s dialogue, though. It has all been eliminated. The table-read a week earlier was seven minutes long, and something had to be cut. Rather than toss out a line here and a line there, the entire character has been dropped, perhaps to be resurrected somewhere down the line if the show goes to series.

Big changes have been made to Del too. Once an obnoxious womanizer who couldn’t commit, he is now a twice-divorced charmer who loves to watch “Garfield” and eat Cap’n Crunch on Saturday mornings with Caroline.

“We used to have a lot of Del-bashing going on,” Pennette says. “But we don’t want the cards stacked against him, because over the course of a series, he has to be real tempting to Caroline.”

Suddenly, Burrows gives the word and the taping begins. The audience, composed of several church groups recruited for the evening, plus a swarm of managers and agents, seems to be enjoying themselves. Every single one-liner gets a big response.

As the taping proceeds, Barron, Pennette and Dartland revise jokes they think are not working. After the audience finally gives one more big round of applause and departs, the writers come up with a new, more ambiguous ending. Instead of Del and Caroline going off to her bedroom, the camera pans away to a light in the window, leaving the state of their relationship in limbo.

When the scene is finally done, the NBC contingent comes onto the set to huddle privately with Barron and Pennette. They talk quietly for a few minutes, shake hands and head into the night.

*

CUT TO:

INT.--NBC CONFERENCE ROOM--

EVENING--TWO WEEKS LATER

Less than two weeks remain until NBC announces its fall lineup, and Littlefield is warming up for the announcement by going on the American Online computer network to answer viewer questions. It doesn’t take long for one viewer to complain that NBC doesn’t seem to have many shows with strong female lead characters.

“I think you’ll be pleased to see what we’re adding to the schedule,” Littlefield writes back.

He declines to commit to any new show, though. That will have to wait until the crowd in a room down the hall finishes its job. Starting this week, NBC has been bringing in focus groups of a dozen or so randomly selected people to watch and review the network’s pilots. They get free NBC commissary sandwiches and the chance to one-up Nielsen families by deciding what goes on the air.

Eric Cardinal, NBC’s vice president for program research, waits anxiously for their answers. At the moment, though, he’s much more interested in the test being run on cable-TV systems around the country. These are “the most definitive tests we do,” he explains. Cable subscribers in selected cities are called at random and asked to watch a pilot at a specific time. After the show ends, the researcher calls back to get their feedback.

It would seem that a network would love to get its hands on the research results as soon as possible, but Littlefield is taking a different approach. This year, he wants to “see what our guts tell us” and make decisions before seeing the research.

*

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INT.--NBC CONFERENCE ROOM--

AFTERNOON--THE NEXT WEEKEND

It is still one week before the network unveils its schedule, and prime-time exec McDermott drops by the office to continue preparing for the big day. Littlefield is also there, and though he has vowed not to look at the research results until Thursday, he asks Cardinal for the response to “Caroline.”

Despite McDermott’s reservation that the audience might not like the ambiguous ending, the results were overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s the highest-testing adult comedy we’ve had since ‘Frasier,’ ” McDermott says after looking at Cardinal’s numbers.

It may be four more days until NBC executives begin picking the shows for fall, but “Caroline” won’t have to wait that long.

“It looks like must-see TV to me,” says Littlefield, referring to the network’s much-used advertising slogan.

*

CUT TO:

INT.--AVERY FISHER HALL,

LINCOLN CENTER--AFTERNOON

The day has finally arrived. The NBC brass has invited advertisers, the press and anybody else who matters for the unveiling of its schedule in New York. Littlefield and company flew to the city on Friday, sorting out the fall lineup on the plane trip and through the weekend.

A few days earlier, Barron and Pennette had gotten the preliminary word from NBC. They had made the schedule. As good as that news might have been, though, there was still plenty of reason to worry. What time slot are they going to get? Tuesday or Thursday could make their show a hit. Friday or Saturday might send it the way of quickly canceled series like Valerie Bertinelli’s “Cafe Americain.” NBC has been toying with the idea of pairing it with “Mad About You” in a bold effort to grab viewers in the 8-9 hour on Sundays.

The “Caroline” creators have nothing to worry about, though. Just before the presentation begins, Barron and Pennette go backstage to wish Lea Thompson good luck. She throws her arms around them and announces, “We hit the jackpot!”

She is right. A few minutes later, Littlefield tells the capacity crowd that “Caroline in the City” will be airing at 9:30 p.m. Thursday nights--otherwise known as the Golden Time Slot, which launched previous hits like “Seinfeld,” “Frasier” and “Friends.”

Out in the audience, Barron and Pennette try, and fail, to remain calm as the crowd laughs loudly at a clip of their show. It’s the first time they’ve seen it with a real audience, and neither of them seems to really believe this is all happening.

As the announcements end and the crowd moves outside for a cocktail reception with the smiling NBC executives, Barron and Pennette wander out looking like the victorious athletes in those Disneyland ads. Hey, Fred Barron and Marco Pennette, that idea you tossed around in your office a year and a half ago is now the odds-on favorite to be the first hit of the 1995-96 season. What are you going to do now?

“We’re going up to Fred’s room to come up with ideas for the first six episodes,” Pennette says.


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