A Grown-Up Series Grown Old

Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer who covers comedy and television

In the early days of "Mad About You," Danny Jacobson says, he and Paul Reiser were in agreement: The sound of a baby crying signaled the show was over. As Jacobson, the show's co-creator, puts it, " 'Waaa' was the end of the series."

At the time, Reiser and Jacobson could afford to talk in absolutes. They were just two guys--Reiser an accomplished comedian, Jacobson a fledgling show creator--who'd come up with this simple little idea for a series: Marriage, Act 1. FADE IN: Manhattan apartment. WE SEE young couple in bed, talking.

From there, it was all based on what Reiser and Jacobson, both recently married, were thinking and feeling about the territorial stuff of a committed relationship. It was a sitcom whose story would be told in lighthearted, self-contained vignettes; a quintessential "Mad About You" scene had Jamie Buchman emerging from the bathroom to demonstrate to husband Paul the fine art of putting the toilet paper on the roller. For the all-important part of Jamie, the casting came down to Teri Hatcher and Helen Hunt. The producers made a fairly wise choice.

"The first two years were some classic television," says Jacobson, understandably partial to the early years, beginning in 1992, when as executive producer he ran the writers' room. "But the chemistry [between Reiser and Hunt], you can't write that. It's just there."

When sitcoms become hits, creative pledges grow flexible; suddenly, studios are eyeing the hundreds of millions of dollars in syndication profit to be had, if the show just keeps churning, and stars are doing the math of progressive raises and owning pieces of the show. According to Jacobson, Jackie Gleason was once asked why he did only 39 episodes of "The Honeymooners," to which Gleason quipped: "How many stories should you tell about two people in an apartment?"

Like a lot of good shows, "Mad About You" kept going, and like the Buchmans' marriage, the series had its peaks and valleys. Out of necessity, it aged into a plot. At the end of the fourth season, Jamie and Paul had trouble conceiving. They flirted with extramarital affairs and breaking up. The following season focused on pregnancy and concluded with the birth of their first child.

These were honest, promising story arcs, and America mostly stuck around. But for some viewers the series was drifting away from the simple charm of its original premise. How could it not? The well-intentioned attempts to reinvigorate the franchise betrayed the fact that "Mad About You" was now a franchise, no longer a sleepy gem but a hit show with an Academy Award-winning actress and a TV star. Gleason may have thought there were only 39 stories to tell about two people in an apartment, but one wonders how many more "Honeymooners" episodes would have been made had syndication been the golden carrot it is today.

Indeed, for all the criticism networks take for canceling shows before they've been given a fighting chance, less is said about those shows that are still on the air when they have no fight left.

"You may feel it's time, creatively, to go, but there's so much [money] riding on the show that if you're at 100 [episodes], the [studio] wants you to go to 200," says David Isaacs, who has written for such long-running shows as "Frasier," "Cheers" and "MASH."

Adds Jacobson: "It's those last two or three years [of a hit] that pays for the studio to do 10 other shows."

In this inevitable pendulum swing from art to commerce, "Mad About You" is in good company. Shows ranging from "Roseanne" to "MASH" to "Seinfeld" hung around long enough to make viewers nostalgic for the good old days. Because no matter how loud the promos get ("An all-new episode!!!"), they can't hide the fact that sitcoms are built on repetition of theme and character, an obvious recipe for creative burnout.

"The idea of making a show in its 10th year as sharp and fresh and funny as it was in its first year, no one knows how impossible that is," says Bill Diamond, executive producer of "Murphy Brown" during its eighth and ninth seasons. "When you do that many episodes, 22 to 25 a season for five seasons, you've pretty much covered all the wrinkles and pimples and character traits."

"It's almost as if we had mined all the funny out of it," says Isaacs, talking about his tenure on "MASH," where he was an executive producer in the show's later years. "Characters who really had provided a lot of conflict, they had left the show. It was still well-written, but the madness of it was gone."

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"Mad About You" is still well-written too, but as the sitcom retires into syndication with an hourlong series finale Monday, the former hit is exiting under decidedly un-"Seinfeld"-ian circumstances--80-something in the ratings and once again a movable chess piece for NBC, which has made a habit of shifting "Mad About You" to new time periods, often to the vocal dismay of its star.

Over lunch in his bungalow on the Culver Studios lot, where "Mad About You" is produced, Reiser disagrees that creative fatigue has set in on his show. "If the numbers in the last year were not what we wanted, I know for a fact that it's not because the shows were not as good," he says.

It's the week after the final episode has wrapped (directed by Hunt and guest-starring, among others, Janeane Garofalo as the Buchman baby, Mabel, all grown up), and Reiser and executive producer Vic Levin are editing the show's last original episodes. Before "Mad About You," Reiser was a well-honed observational stand-up comic whose most memorable role had come in Barry Levinson's 1982 film "Diner," about six Baltimore friends, where as the nudgy friend Modell he immortalized the line, "You gonna finish that sandwich?"

On "Mad About You" this nudginess continued, but opposite Hunt, who could mimic and deflect his shtick like a seasoned pro, Reiser bloomed into a very likable TV star (Hunt, in turn, became a very likable movie star). Viewers, it was said, saw themselves in the Buchmans, in their seemingly insignificant squabbles, which was why "Mad About You" could do an entire episode on Jamie and Paul getting locked in their bathroom on Valentine's Day.

"We were all surprised by who the audience turned out to be, because it wasn't just people who look like us and sound like us--you know, young, dual career families living in New York," Reiser says. "We got really passionate response from old couples and 15-year-old kids. So we thought, 'Hey, we're onto something.' This is not about being 30 in New York. This is about what we really thought it was about--two people, two different people in one environment, trying to be as one."

More than any other year, this season's numbers have dropped, down to under 10 million viewers a week. To be sure, some of this is due to "Mad About You's" competition this season, which at various times has included "King of the Hill" and "Ally McBeal" on Fox and the WB's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Reiser and Hunt say that coming back this season had a lot to do with not knowing how to go out last season. It wasn't as if they didn't have options. Hunt has a thriving film career, and Reiser has a multiyear deal with Columbia-TriStar to develop new TV shows, and in the meantime is working on a script for Castle Rock Entertainment.

"At the end of last season, it just didn't seem over," Reiser says. "We were literally at the last episode, going, 'Is this it or not?' . . . But it would have been a very perfunctory ending to just say, 'Well, all right, they'll move.' Or whatever concoction we came up with."

(In a brief interview patched in from a plane, Hunt said: "Not being able to think of an ending was part of the impetus to come back.")

As it happened, Reiser and Hunt were in an excellent position to negotiate for a seventh season of "Mad About You." Faced with losing both "Seinfeld" and "Mad About You" from a sitcom roster that was top-heavy with yuppie knockoffs, NBC agreed to a licensing fee that covered Reiser's and Hunt's salaries, which went from $250,000 an episode to $1 million an episode for each, according to estimates.

Given the show's ratings this season, the decision backfired, though that discounts the stability NBC bought by keeping "Mad About You" and "ER" in a year that had them losing not just their most popular show but supposedly their soul, "Seinfeld."

Last December, after watching the show languish in the ratings, NBC moved "Mad About You" from Tuesdays at 8 p.m. to Mondays at 9 p.m., in part to make room for a newer comedy about two people in an apartment, "Will & Grace."

"I can't even find it [this season], I don't even know when it's on," Reiser says, only half-joking.

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This is all merely a fitting coda to the scheduling frustration Reiser has experienced in the show's seven-year run.

Since debuting on Wednesday nights at 9:30 after "Seinfeld" in 1992, "Mad About You" has also visited Saturday, Thursday, Sunday, Tuesday and Monday. Its peak season came in 1994-95, when it averaged 21.4 million viewers and finished 10th overall leading off NBC's powerful Thursday night sitcom bloc. The following season it was moved to Sundays at 8, where the show still averaged 16.3 million viewers and finished 37th.

The only reason to relive this history is to underscore the idea that "Mad About You's" popularity suffered as a result, which is Reiser's point, though he doesn't particularly want to delve back into "the bitter stuff"--not now, not with "Mad About You" about to go off the air.

"I think we were asked to do too many things too many times," he says. "This season, frankly, I think the truth is [NBC] said, 'Well, we know they're leaving, so we don't have to build a base for next year.' . . . I think it would have been a little more honorable, and simply respectable, if they'd said, 'This is one of our senior shows and it's been a cornerstone of our network, let's let them go out in the style which they deserve.' "

Reiser searches for a metaphor to illustrate his frustrations and finally comes up with this one: It's like if you're an artist, he says, and you can't tell people where to hang your paintings.

But sitcoms aren't generally considered hallowed works of art--particularly not to the networks paying a premium to rent them. Seen in that light, the choice for NBC, says a network source, was unsentimental: Continue to lose ground to ABC and Fox on Tuesday nights, or get a head start on building a lineup for the future.

"Mad About You," it should also be said, hasn't always been a scheduling victim. In fact, the show came close to being canceled several months out of the gate, was saved and sent to Saturdays, and then given the boost it deserved in 1993, packaged with the likes of "Seinfeld" and "Frasier" on Thursday nights.

"It slayed dragons for us. It conquered time periods. What more can you want from a show?" Warren Littlefield, president of entertainment at NBC during nearly all the show's moves, says. "The ultimate compliment to a show is that it has the strength to be moved to a different place."

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"The testing on 'Mad About You' was not great," says Preston Beckman, NBC's executive vice president of programming and planning, recalling the network's research on the pilot. On one issue, though, the research was clear--everybody loved the couple.

Loved them, in fact, to the exclu

sion of all the eccentric friends and relatives in their midst. In its seven years, "Mad About You" never developed breakout supporting characters, talented as the ensemble may have been. You could almost argue that the only character to emerge from Paul and Jamie's shadow was their dog, Murray.

"When we cut away from Paul and Helen to do other stories, you just felt like no one cared," says Larry Charles, executive producer of the series during its fourth and fifth seasons. "That isn't a reflection of the actors, but the chemistry between Paul and Helen was addictive. People wanted to see that play out."

To Jacobson, who along with Jeffrey Lane was the show's head writer for the first three seasons, "Mad About You" owed a debt to shows like "The Honeymooners" or "I Love Lucy," but not to "Seinfeld," a sitcom to which "Mad About You" was sometimes compared. Regardless, Jacobson left after three seasons to take a reported $20-million deal with 20th Century Fox Television to create new sitcoms. From this lofty perch, he could afford to feel that "Mad About You" had outlived its premise.

"It was a show about newlyweds; it had to run its course," Jacobson says today.

Charles presided over what he calls "Mad About You's" "blue period," including the season in which Paul and Jamie danced around a breakup. This was also the year "Mad About You" moved to Sundays and stopped being the show Jacobson had piloted--the light farce about newlyweds.

"I was not interested in further perpetuating the romantic myth of marriage," Charles says. "They had supposedly been married four and five years by then. Well, you've become bored with each other by then, you're onto each other's shtick already. . . . My goal was to strip away the artifice of the couple and show them for what they really were. And I had two great actors to work with."

In most sitcom worlds, people don't change; unlike life, where self-interests clash and people constantly disappoint one another, sitcom characters are soothingly predictable, their actions varying only slightly from week to week.

"A sitcom is a comfort pill," says Patricia Richardson, co-star of ABC's "Home Improvement." "It may not be art. I have no problem with giving comfort to people."

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More so than other long-running shows, "Mad About You" demonstrated a willingness to experiment with tone, despite the risk that this would alienate its core audience.

On the one hand, the show could have kept doing episodes about a couple who, say, find themselves having sex on their kitchen table because they can't steal a moment away from obligations. But when Charles took over, he didn't want to be a "mortician"--industry slang, he says, for a show runner who inherits a no-longer-evolving show and simply keeps the corpse looking pretty. Instead, Charles, who came to "Mad About You" after several seasons on "Seinfeld," wanted to raise the dramatic stakes. So did Reiser and Hunt.

"They had the courage to sort of take it in this direction and let the chips fall where they may," Charles says. "A lot of that credit goes to them. We all decided to pursue our artistic instincts, even though it might not sync up with the audience."

Adds Hunt: "We wanted to see the couple in trouble, we wanted to see them struggle with infertility, the dark side of motherhood--all of those things that we or our friends [experienced] we wanted to express through this show."

Among the sitcom's principals, there was also a certain measure of obstinacy involved. A dark, unfunny cloud passed over the Buchmans' marriage, coincidentally enough, the same season that "Mad About You" was slotted at 8 Sunday nights, a move that so angered Reiser he declined to show up to the presentation of the network's fall schedule. NBC had wanted the couple to have a baby all along. But the network wasn't thrilled about introducing infidelity into the Buchman equation, though the show hit a false note on that score, finally, by backing off on having Jamie or Paul actually consummate an affair.

Still, Charles noted that the mood among the producers toward NBC was: "As long as you're not taking care of the show, we'll take care of the show."

That credo continued to the end. Last year, there was the episode titled "The Conversation"--a one-take, commercial-free installment in which Paul and Jamie sit in agony outside their wailing infant's bedroom.

In a way, the episode said all you needed to know about where the sitcom had come and where it was going. Still adult, still sincere, still about the couple--but also not about the couple anymore.

Indeed, "waaa," as the vow between Jacobson and Reiser had gone, was not the end of the series. Instead, it was the beginning of a new and more problematic era. "If there was an underlying theme to the show it was that relationships are hard, and the only way they survive is through work," Reiser says.

The nice thing about syndication is that it paves over the rocky stuff; episodes that were clunky, story lines that didn't exactly work--they all disappear into the seamless rotation of reruns. The core of "Mad About You" will emerge.

"We'd always go back to square one," says Reiser, to the same question--what's happening with the couple?

For those who've lost track, you can find them these days living in syndication.

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The hourlong series finale of "Mad About You" airs at 9 p.m. Monday on NBC.

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