Back in the game
JAMIE TARSES and Betsy Thomas, uncharacteristically made up for a photographer and relieved that the session had finished, sat in the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel and philosophized about a topic they know well: television comedy.
“Everybody begins at that point of ‘I want to do something that is of very good quality, I want people to enjoy it, learn from it, be inspired from it,’ ” said Tarses, the former head of ABC Entertainment, in a rare interview. A show like “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” featuring a character partly based on Tarses herself, demonstrates how it’s not always possible to take the high road due to commercial demands, she said. “But always aspiring to do that is certainly admirable and what everyone would like to be able to do every day of their lives.”
It’s been especially tough for sitcoms lately, but the two women had reason to celebrate. “My Boys,” a show written by Thomas four years ago and co-executive produced by Tarses, will launch Tuesday on TBS. Along with “Ten Items or Less,” the show represents the cable network’s first venture into original programming planned to complement its syndicated comedy block -- “Sex and the City,” “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Seinfeld.”
Tarses and Thomas have known each other since the days when networks still loved sitcoms and women executives and comedy writers were rare in Hollywood. Eight years ago, Thomas sold her first pilot script, a comedy based on her own life in Hollywood (“Then Came You”) to ABC.
Then, after Tarses resigned under difficult circumstances from her high-profile job, the two often met informally to talk over Thomas’ latest projects. One, also loosely based on Thomas’ own experiences, followed a young female sportswriter and her weekly poker games with her male friends. ABC and NBC passed but Tarses liked it and remembered it.
Last November, just after she signed on as a partner with Pariah Productions, Tarses asked Thomas what had happened to that script. When she heard it was collecting dust, Tarses knew it would be perfect for TBS.
Michael Wright, senior vice president of original programming for TBS and sister network TNT, said “My Boys” was just what the channel had been seeking: a romantic “buddy” comedy, with a smart, contemporary tone that avoided silliness or sentimentality. The lead character of P.J., a sweet tomboy on a steep learning curve about life, love and occasionally career, was perfect. “She’s very attractive, the girl that guys want to go out with and women want to hang out with,” he said.
He said P.J. (played by Jordana Spiro) is a well-written version of Thomas herself. “The characters are all plucked from her world,” Wright said. “She’s writing from what she knows.”
Thomas agreed that she tends to write about women like herself -- “not particularly girly, not particularly [aggressive], just professional, sensitive, intelligent women who can both drink a guy under the table, and yet are sensitive and vulnerable and a little crazy.”
In the ‘90s, Tarses made news as the first female entertainment chief at any of the big three networks. She became the entertainment president at ABC after a successful run at NBC as a development executive, during which she was responsible for “Friends.” Since leaving ABC, Tarses has shied away from the press.
Though many women now populate writing rooms and executive suites in Hollywood, it wasn’t the case when Tarses and Thomas first met. “Now the composition of those rooms has changed dramatically,” Tarses said, ticking off women-led comedy staffs at CBS and ABC.
As a consultant on “Studio 60,” Tarses helps shape the character of Jordan McDeere (Amanda Peet), the president of the fictional National Broadcasting System who oversees a troubled comedy show and is the only female executive in sight. The show is accurate in the limited view it describes, she said.
In a production studio, she said, “certain areas going to be mainly men and only one woman. You also haven’t seen her other staff. In terms of who she’s working with, only her dynamic with two men, they’re accurate with that. I don’t think you’ve been exposed to enough of the world in which she’s working to know if they’re getting it right or not.”
Thomas said she always had fun in the male-dominated writing rooms. “The truth is, [the culture of the writing rooms] has less to do with gender and more to do with the pace and the stress and the frenetic nature of television production. Fourteen-hour days. Working crazy hours. You’re under a lot of stress. You have to toughen up. You have to develop a thick skin or a great sense of humor. You’ve got to let a lot run off your back.
“There’s a lot of rejection in this business. You have to get used to that. Just like in sports.”
“My Boys” is replete with baseball metaphors, delivered through P.J.'s voice-over narration, and Thomas says she has plenty more where they came from. In Hollywood, she said, “there are people who are respectful of others in general. And know how to play rough without getting someone hurt. There are people who don’t know how to roughhouse whether they’re a comedy writer or stockbroker.
“I’ve been really lucky. I’ve always been treated with complete respect.”
One reason Thomas wrote “My Boys” four years ago, she said, is that she could not identify with women on television, portrayed mostly through gender stereotypes.
“We have a lot of female friends who work in the biz one way or another,” Thomas said of herself and Tarses. “We talk about work and politics, things that are typical male. We go to dinner, and we can talk about work and then shift right over to earring talk just like that,” she snapped her fingers.
“There are TV shows where women do nothing but talk about sex and shoes,” Thomas said. She quickly added that “Sex and the City” is a terrific show “and they’re on TBS, so we love them.”
The premise of “My Boys,” the weekly poker game, is a seven-year tradition in Thomas’ home, which she shares with her husband, actor-writer Adrian Wenner. One of the regulars is actor Michael Bunin (“Scrubs”) who was cast in “My Boys” as Kenny, a sports memorabilia store owner also coping with dating dilemmas.
Tarses has joined the group a few times. She lives a few miles away in the Hollywood Hills with musician Paddy Aubrey and their 14-month-old child, Wyatt.
Though both are beyond their 20s now, the women said they don’t write or produce for a target audience.
“You write what you know,” Tarses said. “If they want it, they feel it will appeal to the target audience,” which at TBS is the usual 18-to-49 demographic.
TBS shaped “My Boys” by insisting on a single-camera format without a live audience, which Wright said allowed more focus on the characters and their relationships. He also said he relied on the women’s extensive experience in television comedy.
Tarses said television comedy is in a “transitional phase,” noting that lately the breakout shows have been dramas.
She and Thomas partly blamed the press for a “backlash” against comedy. “They’ve been reviewing the form more than the content,” Tarses said. “The multi-camera comedies that have come on in the last couple of years have perhaps been unfairly evaluated based on the fact that they are of a certain form.”
“The word ‘sitcom’ has become a dirty word,” Thomas said. “It’s even to the point where somebody says about ‘My Boys,’ ‘So this is a sitcom,’ I bristle. But then I think, well actually, technically it is.”
Undoubtedly, the popularity of reality shows and mockumentaries has also contributed to the dearth of traditional comedies.
“There is an adrenaline rush people get from watching reality television because it’s really happening and people are made to look uncomfortable and you want to see conflict,” Tarses said. “That’s what in a lot of reality shows drives them and brings people back to watch more.”
What’s more, she said, “there’s a correlation to reality television in this evolution with the idea that anybody can be on television.”
Thomas called the situation “depressing. You used to win money on game shows by answering trivia questions. Now you point to a suitcase. You used to have to guess whether this window cleaner is more or less than $1.59, and show some amount of knowledge.”
Still, Tarses said, they are both “genuine fans of the medium. TiVo has ruined my life basically. But I love television, I really do, and there’s some great stuff on television.” Some promising midseason comedies she said she’s looking forward to include ABC’s “Knights of Prosperity” and “In Case of Emergency.”
“When will the next big hit be a comedy?” Tarses asked. “That hasn’t been true in a long time. Will it ever be true again? That’s what people are trying to figure out.”