Welcome to the 8th installment of "Belled."
This issue uncovers another classic Designing Women article from the archives -- this one taking us behind the scenes to look at the making of an actual episode. Plus, we check out where Jean Smart is currently popping up, preview the season premiere of Any Day Now, and highlight an off-Broadway reaction to last issue's Vagina Monologues when Richard Gilliland's Penis Responds..........
Behind the Scenes of 'Designing Women'
The Structure of a Situation Comedy
A Classic 'Designing Women' Article
Source: Inside Entertainment - September, 1987
Written by: Lyndon Chubbuck
Most people are unaware of the extensive preparations that go into developing a new television series before it is scanned across the home screen. Although there are no hard and fast rules, usually a writer or producer comes up with the idea for a show. Then this "creator" sets down on paper several pages of descriptive information (often referred to as the "bible") about the proposed show. This bible includes the "back story" (the facts leading up to the show's present story), character descriptions (their background and how they relate to other characters), a story outline for the "pilot" episode, and maybe six or a dozen ideas for future episodes (about one paragraph each). The series creator may present this bible to the network executives in a "pitch meeting," the first of several meetings where the series proposal is discussed and reshaped. After some deliberation, the network may tell the creator to "go to script," that is, write the pilot script. Some weeks (or even months) after receipt of the pilot script, the network executives decide to accept or reject the new show for production.
But then, rules were made to be broken.
When Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (One Day at a Time, M*A*S*H, Filthy Rich) walked into CBS to present a concept for a half-hour show, her "pitch" consisted only of her interest in assembling four actresses--Delta Burke, Dixie Carter, Annie Potts, and Jean Smart -- and putting them in an environment where they could do battle with each other. The CBS executives looked at her and asked: "What's the setting?" Off the top of her head, she ad-libbed: "Uh....an interior design company"--- to which the execs responded: "If you write the show, you've got a deal." Designing Women was born.
In simplest terms, Designing Women is just four women talking. But those conversations are a new step forward for television. "I want those conversations to be the way women really talk to each other," says executive producer/creator/writer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. Some of the conversations have been and will be controversial and cover topics such as gynecology, friendships, beauty contests, and even other television shows. In successful TV comedy, the humor arises from "real life" situations -- something the viewer can identify with. And the "real" way these "Designing Women" communicate with and relate to each other rings true as a bell.
This fresh approach scored well with its audience. Designing Women was solidly in the top fifteen (Nielsen ratings) when its first several shows aired last fall on CBS at 9:30, Monday nights--an impressive opening for a new series. Then the "Big Eye" decided to move the show to Thursday night--an assignment which, if your network's initials don't begin with a letter somewhere between M and O, spells ratings suicide (or homicide....sitcomiside?). NBC's Thursday night lineup has such a solid audience following that a new show like Designing Women was to doomed to lose whatever it did have and certainly had little (if any) chance to build an audience. In its new timeslot, the ratings went south and the show was pulled from the air.
But the network wasn't prepared for the overwhelming reaction from the show's viewers. Two of the show's most ardent fans, armed with computerized mailing lists of fans across the country, organized a letter-writing campaign and, in conjunction with the organization, Viewers for Quality Television, flooded CBS Entertainment President Bud Grant's office with four times the mail that saved Cagney & Lacey. The handwriting was on the wall--and on the floor and piled to the ceiling in hundreds of mailbags. CBS promptly reversed itself and ordered Designing Women back to work.
The show is both typical and unique when compared with many of the other sitcoms that populate the broadcast schedule. An important difference is that the executive producers, Harry Thomason, and his wife, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, run the show more like a small comfortable family business than a network television show. As a result, from readthrough to filming, the production is easygoing and relaxed, with little of the high-pressure hysteria that characterizes many of the other TV shows. It's a production on which everyone seems to be genuinely happy.
Each show begins with a concept that can be spun into a script, setting up the conflict between the characters upon which the show is built. The action is centered around "Sugarbakers," an interior design firm owned and operated by Suzanne (Delta Burke) Sugarbaker, a self-centered former beauty queen who has been clever enough to extract enough alimony funds from her past marriages to open the design business. She is partnered with her older sister Julia (Dixie Carter) Sugarbaker, a jaded, no-nonsense kind of gal who never hesitates to disagree with her younger sister at any time and on just about any topic imaginable. Their partner is the design business is Mary Jo Shively (Annie Potts), a modern woman who's trying to support herself and her kid and who manages to maintain her sense of balance with her clever and outspoken wit. Charlene Frazier (Jean Smart) is the good-hearted but slow-on-the-uptake receptionist at Sugarbakers.
Once the script is drafted, the call goes out for actors to fill the guest slots. Auditions for guest roles are held in the producers' offices, and often actors are hired right on the spot, as soon as they've finished reading for a role. The casting executives on Designing Women are proud of their reputation for giving breaks to unknown actors. They scout local acting classes and workshops and do not hesitate to hire a talented actor despite his or her limited experience in Hollywood.
It takes a total of five days to complete one sitcom episode. On the first day, the entire production company is assembled for a readthrough. Since this is the beginning of a new show, the cast and crew slowly drift into the large readthrough room. There's time for some small talk, and with great relish Annie Pott's tells the others about the hamster her son received as a gift. "It's the ugliest thing I've ever seen. It looks just like a rat without a tail. It's disgusting." Harry Thomason inquires, "What's its name?" "Harry," replies a sheepish Potts.
Moving on the the business at hand, they dig into the readthrough. Gathered around a large table, each actor reads his or her part in character. The show is timed and notes are taken for possible rewrites. These sessions are handled with a nonconfrontational approach (egos checked at the door), with everyone's goal being to try to make the best show they possibly can. When the script reading is completed, the rewrite is begun, first taking into consideration input from the network exec (the only guy in the room wearing a tie), then cuts for timing, then changes requested by the actors. This particular script is written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. It's very tight and funny and needs little in the way of rewriting. The meeting breaks up with the writers heading off to polish the script while the cast does an interview with a San Francisco TV station about the write-in campaign which revived the show.
The second day the production company moves to the Designing Women set on Stage 26 of the Columbia lot to begin rehearsals. The four stars emerge from their dressing rooms (actually, four trailers which are rolled in and lined up on the sound stage), and the second day is spent walking through the script on the sound stage as the actors and the director begin to "block" the show, making the transition from words on paper to action on stage.
The cast rehearses each scene several times, working on where the actors will stand and move, how the scene will flow, the comedic timing of the lines, and so on. At first, the atmosphere is loose and fun, but the more they hone the script, the more serious the work becomes.
Meanwhile, as the actors rehearse, all around them the sets are being constructed, painted and dressed for this particular show. With only one week from the readthrough to the filming day, each show entails a hectic pace.
The second and third days consist of on-stage rehearsals, including necessary adjustments for the ongoing rewrites. On the fourth day the cameras are brought in and the show is blocked for the camera moves and positions. Each of four cameras, run by three-man crews, is choreographed for every shot, with their positions marked in tape on the floor. Designing Women, like most sitcoms, is produced differently than movies. Instead of filming the show one shot at a time, repeating the same scene over and over, shooting weeks and sometimes months, sitcoms are performed straight through, from beginning to end, on a sound stage in front of a live audience. The various cameras move up and down the stage to film the action as it is played out in front of the audience. The camera crews must make dozens of setups in the course of the show without interrupting the progress of the filming.
This brings up another point where Designing Women differs from most sitcoms. The majority of half-hour comedy shows are shot on videotape, but Designing Women is shown on motion picture film, which gives the show a much "richer" look. Shooting the show on film also enables the producers to attract the talents of Lenny South as Director of Photography (DP). (South is most notably known for his work as DP for Alfred Hitchcock and is highly respected in the industry.)
Filming day, the fifth day, arrives, and in the tradition of the theatre, two performances of the show are presented---one in the late afternoon and the final performance in the early evening---both before a live audience. Prior to the performance, a young comedian steps before the audience to tell a few jokes---to "warm-up" the crowd.
Following the warmup, the four stars of the show are individually introduced, and each one's appearance is greeted with a standing ovation. Then it's on to the performance of the "Monette" episode, which features the long-lost best friend of Charlene, the receptionist. Monette has moved into town and has come to Sugarbakers to hire them to redecorate a mansion she recently purchased. When the three designers discover that Charlene's old friend is actually a madam setting up a brothel, they have to decide whether to expose Monette's true activities to the innocent Charlene, or do the job, take the fee, and say nothing.
Suzanne Sugarbaker tries her own pragmatic approach when she tells Madam Monette, "The way I see it, marriage is much more profitable. To me, it's like buying a new car. First of all, you people don't even have a contract, and you're only charging the guy according to how much he drives it. If you marry him, he has to pay for the entire vehicle, whether he ever drives it again or not."
The show is a success with the live audience and ends with an enthusiastic ovation. The cast, producers and crew drift out of the sound stage with a sense of satisfaction knowing the show has gone well but realizing that tomorrow they go back to the readthrough room where the next script is waiting.
In conjunction with this article, "Monette" is currently the Featured Episode in the Episode Summaries section of DWT.
A Very Active Jean Smart is Back on Screen and Stage
Jean Smart has been a very busy lady of late. In addition to her juicy supporting bit in Disney's The Kid with Bruce Willis (now in theaters), Jean is starring opposite Tony Award Winner Nathan Lane in the Broadway revival of The Man Who Came to Dinner at the Roundabout Theatre.
The Man Who Came to Dinner is a comedy about tart-tongued curmudgeonly critic Sheridan Whiteside (Lane) who disrupts the lives of a middle-American family when an injury forces him to spend Christmas in their home. Soon, all his Hollywood and Broadway friends converge on the house in an effort to entertain him, as well as to "improve" the lives of his hosts. The production will christen Roundabout Theatre Company's new permanent home at the refurbished Selwyn Theatre on West 42nd Street, which had been mostly lost to films and pornography since 1934. It's been renamed the American Airlines Theatre after a corporate sponsor.
Drama Desk Award-nominee Smart plays the sexpot actress Lorraine Sheldon. The production also reunites Nathan Lane with four-time Tony Award winner Jerry Zaks, who directed Lane in both Guys and Dolls (Tony Award) and A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.
Previews began June 30, 2000 with a July 27th scheduled opening. Tickets are now available. Call 212-719-1300, or for more information visit the Roundabout Theatre website.
In addition, a brief profile article on Jean with quotes can been found in the August issue of More Magazine -- currently on newsstands.
**For the most timely updates on Ms. Smart's projects and activities, please visit her website Smart Stuff: Officially Jean Smart.
'The Penis Responds'
Okay, even though it's after the fact, we have to do it. After last issue's focus on Annie and Judith's appearances in Eve Ensler's award-winning play conquering one of the greatest female taboos, we couldn't resist mentioning this -- especially since the rebuttal play (which actually appeared off-Broadway in early June) featured one of Designing Women's own Gentlemen Callers . . . .
It was inevitable: after those Vagina Monologues all season long, the PENIS was bound to RESPOND.
Richard Gilliland (J. D. Shackleford) co-starred with play writer and director Ernest Thompson (On Golden Pond) in (according to the press materials) "12 short plays you'll wish were a lot longer. The Penis Responds probes the ins-and-outs and ups-and-downs of the world's most overused, yet misunderstood, piece of anatomy . . . a lighthearted, in-your-face comedy for audiences of all genders, shapes, and sizes." More from the flyer: "You'll have a ball."
If anyone had the opportunity to see Richard in action, we'd love to hear from you for a future newsletter!
'Any Day Now' Kicks Off its Third Season on Sunday
LIFETIME Television's critically-acclaimed and provocative original drama series, Any Day Now, returns for its third season in a new timeslot on Sunday, July 23, 8-9pm (ET/PT). Any Day Now stars Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint in the groundbreaking drama lauded for its unabashedly frank story about best friends who are undivided by race and united by the triumphs and sorrows of their generation from the 1960s Civil Rights era to today.
Any Day Now continues the story of Mary Elizabeth, "M.E." (Potts), and Rene (Toussaint), two women who, after pursuing very different life paths, have continued a rich bond of friendship and respect that they shared growing up together in the deep South. Set in their hometown of Birmingham, AL, the series chronicles the remarkable relationship between M.E., who is Caucasian, and Rene, who is African-American, by interweaving present day storylines with scenes from their childhood experiences during the turbulent Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s. Mae Middleton returns as the young M.E., along with Shari Dyon Perry as the young Rene.
A powerful yet lyrical counterpoint to the "present day" storylines is formed each week by parallel stories from the women's childhood experiences. They transition this year to 1965-66, when Malcom X gained increased support, Vietnam continued to heat up and the March from Selma to Montgomery marked a period when the Civil Rights movement began to evidence the strains of diverging philosophies and tactics.
The third season finds M.E. and Rene in search of purpose and reward beyond their day-to-day mantras, as they seek greater individual accomplishment in their everyday lives. M.E., a housewife and mother, has finally finished her first novel, Port Dixie, and Rene, a single, successful attorney searches for more meaning in her life beyond her professional career as she becomes a mentor to a troubled teenager.
In the season premiere, Rene represents a troubled 14-year-old boy on trial for murder, she is convinced she can make a difference in the future of his young life by going up against the prosecutor who wants him tried as an adult. Rene never gives up on the boy whose fear is masked by anger. When it seems she is the only one who believes he deserves another chance, she herself becomes the target of his violence. M.E. can't comprehend why she is so diligent in helping this murderer, who is guilty of killing a young newlywed. At home, M.E. becomes furious at Colliar (Chris Mulkey) when she learns he has taken it upon himself to quit her job as a security guard after his contracting business goes into the black. She's insulted by his audacity, while he thinks he's doing her a favor. In past time, M.E. and Rene experiment with alcohol to disastrous results.
On the heels of the emotionally draining case involving the youth, Rene and her assistant are pulled over by police without explanation and forced to the ground at gunpoint. Arrested and taken to jail, the charges stem from what the police claimed was for an unpaid ticket. Clearly Rene believes she's been subjected to racial profiling -- "DWB" or "driving while black." M.E. is upset by Rene's lack of protest to the police injustice, and Rene claims defeat....she's tired of the fight. Later, Rene sees a similar discriminatory incident happen to another young man. She urges him to file a complaint and offers to represent him. Meanwhile, M.E.'s newspaper editor approaches her about writing an article about a corrupt city council in the town of Clayton Falls, adjacent to Birmingham. Bored by the assignment, M.E. is recharged to the case with the help of her daughter, who helps her uncover a controversial story in the sleepy town. In past time, young M.E. and Rene witness the changing mood of Rene's brother, who becomes a Muslim and supporter of Malcom X. Rene's father is upset by his son's choice, seeing the group as extremists who opt for violence over peace. M.E. tries to enlist her own group of white Muslims and supporters of Malcom X.
Executive Producer Gary Randall believes that the new 8pm timeslot will create a great opportunity for family discussion, especially for mothers who may be watching the show with their teenage daughters. "Any child my daughters' ages, which range from age 11-17, will be able to watch those girls in 1965-66 and relate to the fact that their mothers were those little girls in 1965-66," Randall commented. "They're sharing those growing experiences that are universal," he continued. "I think it's a great opportunity for discussion in the household."
Creator and Executive Producer Nancy Miller added that Any Day Now is not only a reflection of the present, but a look at our not-so-recent past. "I think that when little kids watch the show, some of them are shocked Rene couldn't go into a store and order an ice cream cone," observed Miller. "It's entertainment, but a back door education process too, that I think can open up a lot of interesting dialogue."**
Any Day Now airs Sundays at 8pm on LIFETIME Television.
**Source: Any Day Now Third Season Press Kit.
"Charlene and Bill are currently living in Mexico. Charlene sees all the poor children on the street and decides to open a home for single unwed mothers. She calls on the ladies of Sugarbaker's to help her decorate and choose the 5 girls that will stay in the home. She helps each one get a job modeling Charlene's own designs for maternity clothing, and makes sure they save up the money to buy baby things, groceries, and a place to live when they can afford to live on their own." (submitted by Rachael)
Don't forget to Email "Belled" with reader feedback and to tell us where you think the "Designing Women" characters would be today for future issues!
(29) What celebrity did Charlene find out she may be related to?
(30) What was the mascot for the Poplar Bluff's high school football team?
(31) In what city do Monette's parents currently reside?
(32) What nickname does six-year old Quint Shively go by to his friends?
* Answers will appear in the next issue.
Answers from Issue #007
(25) Besides the sub-committee monitoring violence against women in film and on television, which other committee was Suzanne forced to sit on?
A committee studying the spawning habits of Alaskan salmon.
(26) Which recurring guest star from Designing Women made a brief appearance as a mover in the pilot episode of Women of the House?
M. C. Gainey -- who played both T. Tommy Reed and Junior Jones on Designing Women
(27) What song do Suzanne and Desiree lip-sink and perform to when they are feeling down?
"And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" by Jennifer Holliday from "Dream Girls"
(28) Speaking of Desiree, how old was she supposed to be?
Desiree was six years old.