Fran Drescher and Peter Marc Jacobson, the husband-and-wife team behind the hugely successful series "The Nanny," were once so joined at the hip that they compared themselves to one of TV's most beloved couples, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Like that iconic duo, Drescher and Jacobson had clearly defined roles: She was the foghorn-voiced comedian with an outrageous persona and a sparkling smile; he was the quieter creative force behind the scenes, helping to shape their brand of comedy. Fueling their star power was their fairy-tale-like off-screen romance — they had been together since falling in love in high school.
In a 1994 interview, Jacobson offered a key difference between him and Drescher, and their idols, who eventually split up. "We'll stay together."
Drescher and Jacobson are still very much together. But like Lucy and Desi, they are now divorced, living very separate lives — she as a single woman, he as a gay man.
That real-life twist, accented by years of tears, heartbreak and therapy, was their inspiration in creating the new TV Land comedy "Happily Divorced," which premieres Wednesday.
It stars Drescher as Fran, a struggling Los Angeles florist whose life is turned upside when she learns that her husband of 18 years, Peter (John Michael Higgins), is gay. He can't afford to move out, so they agree to continue living under one roof. They confront their own significant differences while she dives into the dating world and he explores his newfound sexuality.
"It's not totally our story," said Drescher last week as she and Jacobson, who is an executive producer, wrapped up a day of taping. For instance, Peter announces to Fran that he thinks he's gay while they're in bed, just a little while after having sex. Jacobson did not reveal that he was gay until after they were divorced. The emotional turmoil which accompanied their real-life split, initiated by Drescher in order to escape what she called a "codependent relationship," is off-limits.
"There's a lot of creative license here because we want to create situations and a comedy that will last for at least five years," she said. "We're always referring to our personal lives, and we write about what we know."
Added Jacobson: "When we were married, we were a heterosexual married couple. It's different now, but our love has always been there. The divorce was very amicable. Everything was split down the middle. We always have done our best when we're together."
The series is the latest foray into original programming by TV Land, which has specialized in reruns of vintage TV shows such as "The Jeffersons" and "I Dream of Jeannie." "Happily Divorced" is being paired with "Hot in Cleveland," the Betty White comedy returning Wednesday for its second season.
Larry W. Jones, president of TV Land, said, "We know that Fran comes with a passionate and loyal fan base. Our audience likes to see these popular stars in modern situations. There are similarities to 'The Nanny,' but it's very different."
Drescher is also looking to recover from a few post-"Nanny" stumbles: a talk show and a CW sitcom, "Living With Fran," failed to catch fire. She and Jacobson acknowledge that "Happily Divorced" represents a more topical — and saucier — leap for their frothy brand.
Said Drescher, "I really love the fact that this show is about something, that it's purposeful and contemporary and speaks to the true meaning of love. I love 'The Nanny,' but it's very exciting to be playing someone a little closer to myself."
As they spoke, the two displayed a clear chemistry reflecting their deep affection for each other. At one point during a brief photo session, Drescher caressed her former husband's face as they sat on a couch on the set. She is still the more dominant speaker, and he watched her intensely as she began to discuss their evolving relationship.
Behind much of Drescher's comedic persona is years of pain. She has spoken in the past about being raped by an intruder at the couple's house. Though there were good times in the marriage, Drescher said she became increasingly unhappy: "I felt like a bird in a gilded cage and I needed to get out. I needed to find the tools that would help me discover who I was."
She moved to New York after "The Nanny" ended in 1999 and became involved with another man. They didn't speak. Jacobson began to rebuild his life without her, though he didn't come out of the closet for a few years.
When Drescher was stricken with uterine cancer about a year later, Jacobson reached out to her, and the two began to rebuild their bond. Drescher, who wrote a bestseller, "Cancer Schmancer," has also found new purpose as a rape and cancer survivor.
At the moment, they are both unattached.
Said Jacobson: "The bottom line is, we never stopped loving each other."