Behind the Scenes of 'Designing Women'
The Structure of a Situation Comedy
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.
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