Angeles Times - Calendar Section
Sunday - January 14, 1990
The Revenge of
The TV shows of Tom Miller and Bob Boyett are often maligned
by critics, but
their rewards are in the ratings
by Steve Weinstein
Thirty million people a night is the best
revenge. Well, maybe the only revenge when you are two of the most
successful producers sitcom producers in television, but the critics and the
people who hand out awards either ignore your efforts or, worse yet, mock them.
"The Hogan Family" might get
some notice in TV Guide when Jason Bateman insists on using a condom; "Full
House" might grab some attention for featuring the cutest toddler on
television, and "Perfect Strangers" might elicit a knowing nod for
presenting the guy who played the hilariously funny Serge, the gay art dealer,
in the film "Beverly Hills Cop."
But neither Bronson Pinchot, who plays
Balki in "Perfect Strangers," nor Bateman, who plays David Hogan, the
eldest brother in his fantasy-perfect sitcom family, nor the writers, producers
or directors of any of these robustly rated sitcoms ever get nominated for
Emmys. They don’t get applauded for breaking any new television
ground. They rarely even nab a favorite review.
All they ever do is win their time
periods, luring millions of people to TV sets each week with their age-old mix
of silly jokes, pratfalls, funny faces, lovey-dovey, huggy-wuggy sweetness –
some call it sappiness – and a family unit that, no matter what wacky
shenanigans it gets itself into, is full of love and admiration for each and
every member at the end of each and every half hour.
That is the world of Tom Miller and Bob
Boyett, executive producers of such renown television shows as "Happy
Days," "Laverne & Shirley," "Mork & Mindy" and
"Bosom Buddies" as well as "Valerie" – now "The Hogan
Family" – and half of ABC’s winning Friday night schedule: "Full
House," "Family Matters" and "Perfect Strangers."
A world where hugs and adoring smiles translate into big ratings and big
bucks. A world where real-life problems melt away in the feverish
afterglow of fictitious family harmony. A world where sentiment is not a
A world that Miller and Boyett cultivate
both on and off the small screen.
"It has to do with who we are,"
Boyett says. "We don’t set out to say what can we do to get a warm
moment in this show, but Tom and I aren’t very cynical. We love families
and we love building families. We even build [the crew of] each show like
a family. We want a certain amount of nurturing people, a certain amount
of women and older people. We want a great happy family of people there.
"And when we sit down to design a
show, that’s just a part of us. Tom is Richie Cunningham from
Milwaukee. I’m a guy from Atlanta who’s not a real Hollywood kind of
person. We do like a little sentiment. We do think people should
make a human connection with each other."
Miller Boyett Productions makes that
peculiar breed of sitcom – the 8 and 8:30 p.m. show. The kind of series
deliberately designed to coax the mass audience into watching their network at
the beginning of the television evening and then to keep them there for the
sometimes more sophisticated fare that pops up later. The kind of shows
that must have something for children and teen-agers and adults. Shows
that NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff says, "Children actively
look forward to seeing the way many adults look forward to ‘L.A. Law,’ ‘thirty-something’
or ‘China Beach.’"
"I like the fact that I can sit down
with my kids [aged 5 and 8] on Friday night to watch these shows," Stu
Bloomberg, ABC’s executive vice president of prime time, says of his network’s
Miller-Boyett heavy Friday lineup.
The trick to these sitcoms, Miller and
Boyett say, is to create a family of some sort, even if it’s not a typical
mother, father and three kids type of family, that the audience wants to be a
part of every week. And you need "a vision, a sensibility," that
the audience will be interested in week after week for – if all goes well –
several years and more than a hundred episodes.
The hook – "Full House"
features three adult men raising three little girls, and "Perfect
Strangers" tells the story of a greenhorn from a tiny Mediterranean island
who moves in with his American cousin in Chicago – helps sell the show to the
networks. But those hooks, Miller and Boyett say, aren’t nearly as
important as the "sensibility" of these shows, which always feature
open communication among family members, interpersonal or family problems
resolved in a positive and cheerful manner and a warm, fuzzy moment some 22
minutes into the show.
Critics often call them derivative,
stupid, unrealistic and trite, and they frequently lament the mass audience’s
almost addictive zeal for such mind-numbing gushiness. While more
sophisticated, less predictable comedies such as "The Wonder Years,"
"Murphy Brown" and "Cheers" may win the Emmys and the
critics’ hearts, Miller and Boyett nevertheless are heartened by their
"Our award is that 30 million people
are watching," Miller says. "To me, the goal is to
entertain. And if you’re doing an 8 o’clock show, that means you also
try to make them intelligent, you have them tell a story that has not a preachy
moral necessarily, but something there so that it’s not a bad thing if you
watch it. The fact that those (shows) don’t win awards means nothing to
me if we continue to please that many people."
"When people come home after a day of
hard knocks," Bloomberg says, "I don’t think they want to see the sturm
and drang of family fighting. To show some of the more positive
aspects of domesticity is not a terrible thing. People do get some sort of
satisfaction from seeing family problems resolved in a positive fashion."
Others don’t agree. Richard
Schickel, film critic for Time magazine, says that there is something
insidiously wrong with presenting families that "get it together so
easily" week after week. He says that he actually feels guilty after
watching certain family sitcoms – guilty for not being as good a husband or
father as the men he sees on television.
"There are unreasonable expectations
being generated, I think, on young people in particular who are going to start
to wonder, ‘How come my mom and dad aren’t so niftily caring and so willing
to drop other preoccupations and deal with my issues?’," Schickel
"The obvious reason people watch
these shows in such huge numbers is that their own life is so messy. It’s
refreshing to see that problem solving is possible . . . . And you can
never underestimate the desire to feel warm and cuddly at the end of these
"But," Schickel wonders,
"don’t you think people need just the opposite these days after eight
years of Reagan and a year of Bush? Enough with the ‘there aren’t any
problems’ already. For the last two decades, the American family has
been a very troubled institution. These TV families make it seem as if
there is no trouble with the institution. My sense of television is that
no one individual program is dangerous by itself, but a steady diet of this kind
of nonsense is bound to have some effect."
"So what if they are
unrealistic," argues Henry Winkler, who played "The Fonz" for 11
years on "Happy Days" and called Tom Miller his "mentor."
"Here’s the truth: People watch
television for three reasons. One is to get a glimpse of the world.
One is to be entertained. And one is to be emotionally taken care of
because it is so difficult to live at this point in history. They don’t
only want that warm, emotional moment – they need it. This man [Miller]
instinctively understands that."
For a few years in the early ‘80s, when
shows like "Dallas," "Dynasty" and "Magnum P.I."
dominated the top of the television charts and several powerhouse comedies from
the previous decade like "Happy Days," "All in the Family"
and "MASH" were fading, family sitcoms were considered extinct by many
television executives. Then Tartikoff put "The Cosby Show" on
NBC’s schedule, and it became a phenomenon, spawning "Growing
Pains," "Mr. Belvedere," "Who’s the Boss?," "The
Hogan Family," "ALF," "Major Dad," "My Two
Dads," "Full House," which is essentially "My Three
Dads," and so on.
While Tartikoff is also renown for
programming such critics’ darlings as "Hill Street Blues," "St.
Elsewhere," "L.A. Law," "Miami Vice" and
"Cheers," he insists that even if some slightly cynical people
consider the happy, positive relationships these shows depict "Pollyanish,"
there is nonetheless a place for them in the "television landscape."
"You can get cynical about Miller-Boyett
shows dating all the way back to ‘Happy Days,’" Tartifoff says.
"The music swells up and you know you will have a war moment even before
you hear the dialogue because you’ve already heard the music swell. But
I don’t think those shows are any more harmful or unrealistic than having the
cops catch the bad guy 51 minutes into every episode of ‘Magnum’ or ‘Hunter.’"
Tartikoff, Miller and Boyett all contend
that some of these sitcoms, particularly "The Hogan Family," are
underestimated by the people who comment on television. "The big
shock is that television is not so bad," Miller says. "Lowell
Ganz [who wrote for ‘The Odd Couple’ and other television shows and scripted
the feature films ‘Splash’ and ‘Parenthood’] was at a party and some
friends said, ‘I’m amazed at how bad television is.’ And he said,
‘I’m amazed at how good it is. I think it’s fantastic that they can
do that well turning out 24 episodes a year.’ Just think of how many
movies you go and pay money for and you don’t even get one good laugh."
"That’s the secret they know at
home," Boyett says.
Tartikoff points to episodes in which
"The Hogan Family" tackled such realistic topics as swearing, race
relations, death, drunk driving and one episode, suggested by Tartikoff himself,
which stated that "real-life" was far different than the way life is
routinely depicted on sitcoms.
But Boyett says a sitcom cannot deliver a
lecture every week – "sometimes you want to stop talking about East
Germany and gossip about Zsa Zsa Gabor." But every now and then, even
though critics lambaste sitcoms for trivializing such issues by wrapping them up
too neatly, he feels a "strong responsibility" to sneak in a positive
"It would be irresponsible to have
that amount of people watching you and never do something that would make a
Neither Miller nor Boyett is married and
neither has any children of his own. They do have dogs, Chinese shar-peis.
Miller’s is named Billy, for Billy Wilder. Boyett has a whole brood. One
is called Spielberg, another is named Lucas, which might provide a clue about
which slice of the audience pie these guys are out to conquer. Another
dog, a pup named China, runs around their offices on the Lorimar lot in Culver
But besides the dogs, they truly do try to
make "families" of the people they hire for each show. At the
start of the weekly table readings of the scripts for both "The Hogan
Family" and "Full House," both men greet their casts and writers
with enthusiastic hugs and inquiries about their kids, their mothers, the
condition of their tonsils. Two days later, on the set for rehearsals,
they do the same.
"These are two old-fashioned
guys," Tartikoff says. "They have a tremendous degree of passion
that goes far beyond the millions of dollars they can make if the show stays on
the air. They like what their show says and they are involved. They
are not absentee landlords."
Miller and Boyett read every draft of
every script for all four of their shows. They attend rehearsals, story
meetings and tapings. They are in their offices all day, every day.
Miller, Boyett says, gets up at 3 a.m.
each morning to make script notes for his respective writing teams. They
are rich, having made a fortune off the syndication of "Happy Days,"
"Laverne & Shirley" and other shows, but they don’t lead a
glamorous Hollywood life style. Both wear tennis shoes around the
office. They say they don’t take vacations.
Still, they repeatedly insist on giving
credit for the success of the shows to the people who write the words each
week. Jeff Franklin heads up "Full House." Chip, Doug and
Bob Keyes oversee "The Hogan Family." William Bickley and
Michael Warren take care of "Perfect Strangers" and "Family
Matters." Get it, family matters.
Miller, who wrote for "The Odd
Couple," "Nanny and the Professor" and "The Brady
Bunch," created "Happy Days" at Paramount back in 1974 with Garry
Marshall and Edward Milkis.
Boyett, who was a development executive at
Paramount, joined Miller and Milkis a few years later for a string of hits,
including "Laverne & Shirley" and "Mork & Mindy" and
helped make superstars of such unknown actors as Penny Marshall, Robin Williams
and "Bosom Buddies’" Tom Hanks. In the 1978 season, they owned
four of the five top-rated programs on television.
They also dabbed in movies, producing
"Silver Streak," "Foul Play" and "The Best Little
Whorehouse in Texas." Miller says that in a few years, whe they can
no longer endure the frantic pace of four weekly television shows, they’d like
to return to feature films. "I don’t want to do PG all my
life," Miller says.
As the half-hour comedy supposedly bit the
dust in the early 80's, Milkis left to pursue his own projects and Miller and
Boyett moved to Lorimar, home of "Dallas," "Knots Landing"
and "Falcon Crest," to develop and produce hourlong dramas for the
first time. "Comedy was supposedly dead and we had four projects
under way for what they were calling ‘warmedies’," Boyett
remembers. "Then three weeks after ‘Cosby’ hit the air, all three
networks came to us saying, ‘Comedy is back,’ and we just abandoned those
Miller calls their current run at Lorimar
their "second great phase." Their network sitcom output is
equaled today only by the team of Marcy Casey and Tom Werner, producers of
"Cosby," "A Different World," "Roseanne,"
"Grand," scheduled to debut Thursday, and the recently canceled
But the path to their current success hasn’t
been as smooth as it might seem. Ironically, their first
"family" at Lorimar, "Valerie," starring Emmy Award-winning
actress Valerie Harper, split up in one of those full-fledged, irreparable
tempests that destroy so many real-life families these days. In the fall
of 1987, at the start of only the show’s second full season, Harper abruptly
left the series in a vicious contract dispute with Miller and Boyett that
eventually landed her a multimillion-dollar court victory.
Having lost its star, NBC could have
easily dumped the show. But Tartikoff says that network research indicated
that while Harper’s character was popular, Jason Bateman was the show’s top
draw. So rather than can the series and risk introducing a new show, NBC
decided to bank on Bateman’s popularity and the other established
characters. Valerie was killed off, the show was renamed "Valerie’s
Family" and Sandy Duncan came on board to run the now motherless
household. The next year, Valerie’s name was dropped altogether and the
show became "The Hogan Family."
Miller and Boyett said they are bound by
the court settlement and cannot talk about the incident with Harper.
Tartikoff said that the show survived in part to avoid the ripple effect that
might have swept through the business, had they "allowed an actor to
dismantle a show."
Over on ABC, "Full House," which
has been landing among the top 25 rated programs and is now Miller-Boyett’s
top-rated show, started dismally in 1987. The only thing that saved the
series, one rumor has it, was that the sitcom’s 5-month-old baby was too cute
to send packing. ABC’s Bloomberg laughs at such a suggestion, but he
says that the twins who play "Baby Michelle," now 2 1/2, do have a
remarkably high recognition level among the public.
"Perfect Strangers," which stars
Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker, was fortunate to have been sandwiched between ABC’s
top 10 hits, "Who’s the Boss?" and "Moonlighting" when it
debuted in 1986. Now it beats "Dallas" handily almost every
Friday night at 9 p.m. Even "Family Matters," Miller-Boyett’s
new show this season, which has struggled on Fridays between "Full
House" and "Perfect Strangers," has been renewed for the rest of
That’s not to say they’ve never had
flops. Miller’s been involved in such forgettable programs as "Me
and the Chimp," "Blansky’s Beauties" and the TV-movie
"Women in Chains." Together they have failed with "Joanie
Loves Chachi," "Goodtime Girls," "Making It" and
"Out of the Blue."
"Shows really have to work to make it
today," Boyett says. "It’s always been tough to have a hit but
today it’s a million times more difficult than it was in the 70's. It
used to be that people would sample a new show just because it was new.
Now, new is bad. Now, people hear new and they are not interested.
We’ve been lucky that the networks have believed in us and our shows long
enough for the audience to become attached to them. Our track record
certainly helps in that respect."
Ironically, it’s Tartikoff, whose
network is getting killed by Miller-Boyett and ABC on Fridays, who best
understands the lure of Miller-Boyett sitcoms. His own 7-year-old daughter
is one of the tens of millions who is devoted to ABC’s Friday night lineup.
"I am determined at some point that I’ll
be able to come home after a long and difficult week of work and see my child
wanting to watch NBC rather than ABC," Tartikoff says. "After a
hard and depressing week, seeing that in your own home is not exactly the best
way to launch into your weekend."