16. THICKE AND BURNETT: HERE TO STAY BUT I CAN SCREW THAT UP
Fernwood 2Night was a mock talk show starring Martin Mull and Fred Willard. It was actually a spinoff of the quirky late night show Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, which took place in Fernwood, Ohio. Fernwood’s name came from a small street bordering Metromedia Studios, once located on Sunset and Van Ness in Hollywood, and at the time home to Lear’s company of numberless classic TV shows. Mull played a character named Garth Gimble on the show, who was actually killed by being impaled I think on a fireplace poker, or something like that. Google it. On the Fernwood 2Night talk show, Mull plays Garth’s twin brother, Barth. The basic premise is a bit pathetic, as it’s about a wannabe who’s fallen on hard times, and is trying to keep his show business hopes alive by doing this talk show, and all sorts of sidebar businesses, generally subtly promoted by the various guests (weird products are a “product of Gimbleco”). It was all very weird, wacky and fun – at once capturing a small town, inexpensive talk show – complete with a TV tray as a desk – and great parody. It was very unlike the hefty Norman Lear shows – like One Day at a Time or All in the Family – so perhaps it explains why, and is perhaps good that, Norman left it alone. It was, after all, a syndicated show. Who knows if it was a big time money maker? But people of college age at the time remember it fondly. So I’m told.
And I fit right in, at long last – the irony of it all, that it was a Norman Lear company production. We picked up on the formula right away – a seemingly straight interview that turns funny. The first bit we wrote was about a popular local restaurateur in Fernwood whose competitors are mysteriously disappearing, or catching on fire. And of course it’s soon obvious the guy is a mobster.
The quirky interviews – bogus authors and such – were the bread and butter of the show, and then there were local eccentrics who would come on the show regularly. It was really very entertaining, and much fun to work on.
Meanwhile, we had been around long enough to try and help acolytes get started in the business. I learned much later that the great Larry Charles, who worked a great deal with Larry David, and directed several Sacha Baron Cohen movies, had been one such acolyte who met with us during the Fernwood days (I guess after sending us material), and we gave him encouragement. Who knew??
Head writer? Alan Thicke. Yeah THE Alan Thicke, now often known as Robin Thicke’s father. Thicke was a very big deal in Canada before he moved south. I think I first met him when I was doing the Sonny Bono show – he probably knew Bearde and Blye, all being Canadians and he was wearing a suit. A writer wearing a suit; I knew he must be from some other country. He later played the Dad of Kirk Cameron, former child actor and current religious wack job, on Growing Pains. But I knew him when he was a genius, herding cats as head writer of Fernwood. He would field the pitches, re-write stuff, cast people, and schedule a show that was on nightly. My understanding is that Norman Lear & Co. (and by the way, Norman Lear was never a presence during the production that I can recall), wanted the show to be completely improvised, but Thicke insisted on scripting. Thicke won out, under threat of firing. But of course that didn’t stop Mull from insisting it was improvised. It wasn’t. All the script was on cue cards, and Mull would read them. Now of course there was some meandering off the script, especially during “interviews” but the show was far from being improvised, since the interviews were really small sketches that required set ups and punch lines, so to speak. People like Ken Mars, who played the crazy mayor of Fernwood, would meander quite a bit. Let’s say Mull and Willard, and the superb regular cast and guests, did a fantastic job of making it seem like it was improvised, like, I suppose, the Tonight Show is (but even Johnny had cue cards on the floor for his nightly monologues).
We caught on quickly to the tone and the satire of it all, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We would dictate our scripts into a tape recorder – not really my preference - and a staff of assistants would transcribe them into scripts. There was a hot Asian assistant who would work on the transcribing, Leslie Winner, and we or some writers would throw in a few flirtatious remarks onto the tape. We had a good time collaborating.
I didn’t especially like that system, but no doubt it was done in the interest of time. There was a huge maw on this monster, as it was a daily show, although of course not done live.
The audience for the show was two-tiered, partly because indeed it was a “show within a show”, and partly because some people saw the parody, and others didn’t. The Lear people cleverly brought in an audience of mostly retired folks who did not see the parody aspect.
The formula for the show, at least as far as our writing of the basic “guest interview” bits was to slowly suck people in that a guest was legit, and then eventually reveal the craziness, i.e., the actual parody part. For instance one of our bits was an author who wrote a book called “Winning Through Acting Crazy” wherein one can manipulate or negotiate with people by seeming to be unglued, which is not far from a book called “Winning Through Intimidation”. Of course the interview ends with the “author” holding a gun on the hosts, sticking them up. They think he’s merely demonstrating his methods, but he doesn’t relent. Another of our bits was a guy, played by Fred Grandy, later of Love Boat and the U. S. House of Representatives (!), who was supposedly a doctor who treated glaucoma with marijuana. He said it was alarming how many people have glaucoma, and really should take their medicine. Barth points out how the band is taking their medicine. Of course by the end of the interview, the guy is really just a dope dealer.
On Grandy - I also played soft ball with him once, in a qausi-show business pickup game, wherein we had to let his daughter, who was about 5, play. Well okay. But he remembered well the glaucoma doctor bit, and as I say he went on to get elected to congress from Iowa. I assume his daughter is now a lovely 39 year old.There were regular bits and characters on the show, the main ones being Barth and Jerry themselves. Jerry, the sidekick, masterfully played by the comic genius Fred Willard, was a dim bulb who would go on comic, kookie rants. Barth was equally hilarious doing the opening monologue – generally written by Harry Shearer.
* * *
Get more stories about crazy fun times in Funny is Money published by The Ishmael Tree soon.