If there ever was a show conceived in bitterness, it’s The Famous Teddy Z. In the 1987-8 season, creator Hugh Wilson gave CBS Frank’s Place, an acclaimed, Emmy-winning, unique comedy-drama that became the cause celebre of every ‘”quality television” group. CBS not only canceled it, they canceled it in the worst possible way: after pre-production had already started on a second season, when it was too late for most of the people to line up jobs for the fall of 1988. It’s not surprising that when Wilson came back with another show (again on CBS — like Joss Whedon with Fox, sometimes you just can’t quit the network that cancels your shows), it was a more mainstream, multi-camera comedy on tape; it’s also no surprise that it took a sour attitude toward show business itself.
The premise of the show is based on the old story of how a guy got to be Marlon Brando’s agent by punching him out. In the pilot, Ted Zakolakis (Jon Cryer), just back from a hitch in the army, gets a temp job at the mailroom of a big Hollywood agency (where, true to life, everybody else who works in the mailroom is a college-educated wannabe-agent trying to catch the eye of the big agents). He winds up punching out a crazy Brando-esque movie star who immediately declares that he’ll only sign with the agency if Teddy’s his agent. The most popular character on the show, instantly, was Al Floss, the veteran agent played by Alex Rocco; the pilot was re-shot to give him more scenes, and even though the show was canceled with several episodes left unaired, Rocco won an Emmy for best supporting actor in a comedy. He was that good. The show got excellent reviews and good ratings for the pilot, but ratings fell off soon after and critics felt that subsequent episodes were very uneven, good in spots, not so good in others.
Unlike Wilson’s two previous shows, several characters on this show seemed to have been forced in by network focus-groups, particularly Teddy’s grandmother and precocious kid brother. CBS wanted some kind of domestic-comedy element in the show, but the writers clearly had no interest in the domestic scenes. (Originally it was Teddy’s mother, played by Lainie Kazan, but she quit and was replaced by an older actress as a grandmother.) And because of the jumping back and forth between home and work, the workplace characters were never developed as much as they needed to be; the only characters who stood out were Teddy, Al, and Teddy’s assistant Laurie, the ambitious agent-wannabe who’s horrified at being assigned to a fraud like Teddy. Most of the other characters are nonentities.
But these are problems that many shows go through in their first year — we can all name other shows that realized that they needed to get rid of the home stuff and focus everything on the workplace — and the grandmother and brother had pretty much been dropped by the end of the run. But the show had trouble establishing itself even as a workplace comedy, because so many of the jokes were insider Hollywood humour, and a lot of the stories had that note of bitterness in them. Like this episode, which was one of the ones produced but never aired on CBS, which eventually aired on Comedy Central. Called “How To Make a Telvision Show” and directed by Wilson’s old colleague Frank Bonner, it’s an only slightly exaggerated portrayal of the experience of pitching a show to a network and getting it made — and it’s very inside, very true, and very bitter. Still, it does suggest the potential the show had if it had gotten to develop its characters more, since Cryer is a good Everyman actor and his relationship with Laurie, the shark-to-be, could have gone a lot of places. Alex Rocco only has one scene in this episode but he still dominates it, because he is awesome.
Part 1 (of 3):
Part 2 (of 3):
Part 3 (the part with Alex Rocco’s scene in it):
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