MSTV Flops: A Look at MADMAN OF THE PEOPLE

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, we’re looking at Madman Of The People, the short-lived Must See TV Thursday flop that aired for 16 episodes during the 1994-’95 season. Scheduled behind the year’s most-watched show, Seinfeld, and before the debut of ER, which would be the year’s second most-watched show, Madman Of The People holds the distinction of being this esteemed block’s first failure since the night’s comedic offensive was officially branded “Must See TV” in the season prior (1993-’94). Although Madman would finish the year in the Top 20 (at #12), the series not only didn’t hang on to enough of Seinfeld’s 9:00 lead-in, but it was also not strong enough to sustain the audience that (largely) came back at 10:00 for ER; so, with too many viewers actively tuning out for this one half-hour, the network realized the show wasn’t just less than those two hits — it was something nearly a third of the night’s audience was choosing to avoid! This would become a familiar scenario for NBC Thursday, the most prestigious place the network could launch new comedies that would either build their wings to fly, or crash and burn under these high standards… all in front of more eyeballs than other nights’ hits enjoyed. Now, few of the hammocked shows — the ones linking one hit to another (i.e. Friends to Seinfeld and Seinfeld to ER) — could match the success of these titans, but building the perfect line-up wasn’t the goal of MSTV. No, the goal — as Warren Littlefield and company saw it — was to use its Grade A real estate to evangelize: to spread NBC’s dominance, via comedy in particular, to other nights, so that the network wasn’t just a one-evening-wonder.

As a result, no two seasonal line-ups for Must See TV Thursday were the same, and though there’d be several years ahead where everything NBC broadcast on Thursday would make the Top 10, the only post-’93 season with a comedy line-up that we’d consider All-Star — of shows that we still watch today — was 1993-’94, with Mad About You, Wings, Seinfeld, and Frasier. Only the latter two actually made that Top 10, but it was considered a winning block — they all took their time slots and were well-received. NBC, as it did in the mid-‘80s, could have rested on its laurels and kept the schedule exactly the same. But the brass knew the only way to be a winning network was to take more than one night, and that’s why the two hammocks – Wings and Frasier – became anchors the next fall, at 8:00 and 9:00 on Tuesday, poised to take on ABC’s winning comedy block. (It was a battle NBC would lose numerically, but win critically — leaving enough of a dent in its rival’s line-up that these moves could be considered a success.) The goal was to expand from there, with Thursday being the leading producer of potential new anchors. It became imperative, then, to tell the difference between a show that could likely win outside of the established MSTV brand where it was launched, and one that was only winning because of it. As a result, percentages of audience retainability became the chief metric — if enough people held on, then the possibility for thriving on say, Tuesday, was greater. (Yet, short of taking the chance and moving a new show, this was conjecture.) Here, a positive critical reception was the only potential tonic to mediocre returns; thus, the key for these new hammocks was to either be a critical darling or to be enough of a companion to its smash hit neighbors that the audience drop-off was small enough to justify a second year (likely on a different night).

Naturally, the ideal was always to offer a quality show with good numbers, but making quality was hard enough already; it was much simpler to schedule a series that held onto a sizeable portion of its anchor’s lead-in audience because said new show was specifically targeted for the same audience. This is how the “singles in the city” template entered the public consciousness and became a derisive term for all late ‘90s (and early ‘00s) fare that was rote, familiar, and clichéd — not to mention, usually, structured primarily around young urbanites. These shows were largely mediocre — hence the disdain — and on the moderately successful end of the spectrum were MSTV Thursday hammocks like Caroline In The City and Suddenly Susan, which did well enough to go off and fly (even at figuratively low altitudes), while the opposite (unsuccessful) side of the spectrum contained these eponymous MSTV flops, which included one-seasoners like Inside Schwartz (discussed here) and Stark Raving Mad (discussed here). With regard to both of those turkeys, they were each, qualitatively and generally, good-but-not-great (especially in comparison to their neighbors). But the possibilities for success outside of Thursday — and in a figurative community where all the property values were less — remain something we’ll never know. What we do know, subjectively, is quality — or, rather, our perceptions of it. And while I think Inside Schwartz never really found its voice, Stark Raving Mad had a perspective all its own, and in a different place, I think it could have had a decent run…

Now, I go into every short-lived comedy hoping for a gem but expecting a flop, and since MSTV Thursday was a place where “good” was too often synonymous with “it meets a certain ratings threshold, based on the previous show’s audience,” one never truly knows if there’s solid, comedic character work to support any kind of personal enjoyment. Yet beyond my regular interest in ascertaining this series’ episodic charms, I wanted to see specifically where Madman Of The People, the first official MSTV Thursday comedy that NBC axed, fit into this new programming strategy. For even though the Peacock Network had already begun its outreach, replacing previous hammocks Wings and Frasier with Friends and Madman Of The PeopleFriends (at 8:30 behind Mad About You) was not yet a known success, meaning the templated “singles in the city” brand was only just then coming into the popular fore after a few years of gestation (see: Living Single, Ellen, Wild Oats). In other words, Madman Of The People was scheduled, like all new shows on Thursday, with the hope that it could eventually be an anchor on another night… but unlike future MSTV flops, replicating Friends/Seinfeld in the hopes of retaining that audience wasn’t yet the established custom. In fact, one might argue that Madman’s failure to sustain enough viewers in between Seinfeld and the new ER is precisely what provoked such extreme measures from NBC next season — when the hammocks (The Single Guy and Caroline In The City) were much more aligned with their partners (Friends and Seinfeld). So, I knew Madman Of The People would be an MSTV outlier — but what about its quality…?

The series was created by Chris Cluess and Stu Kreisman (Night Court, SCTV, MADtv), produced by Aaron Spelling’s company (with Spelling and E. Duke Vincent as non-creative EPs), and designed as a vehicle for Dabney Coleman, whose string of short-lived sitcom flops had become legendary (Buffalo Bill was the best of this list, and the only one we’ve covered thus far; the others were The “Slap” Maxwell Story and Drexell’s Class). This premise cast him as a famed New York columnist — the “Madman of the People” — who is forced to work with a new editor… his daughter Meg (Cynthia Gibb). Others in the ensemble were his wife, Delia — a school teacher played by Concetta Tomei — their younger goofball son (John Ales), their recently married daughter (Ashley Gardner) with her husband (Robert Pierce), and a veteran co-worker at the paper, portrayed by Newhart’s Todd Susman. Cluess and Kreisman’s pilot script established the father-daughter relationship as the series’ emotional heart and the proposed narrative engine, with both humor and pathos. Coleman’s Jack would be harsh and curmudgeonly, like his groundbreaking characters in previous sitcom endeavors, but tempered now by the premise’s familial bonds and a more affable paternal spirit. However, the pilot presentation (directed by James Burrows) didn’t enthuse NBC, and though it was shown as the premiere (with few changes), there were swaps before an order was made: the married daughter and son-in-law were bumped down to recurring guests, Susman’s character was eliminated completely, and the workplace was filled out with two new regulars — Craig Bierko as the sex-focused B.J. and Amy Aquino as the spunky Sasha, both of whom debuted in week two.

The writers’ room was initially staffed with creators Cluess and Kreisman (as EPs), Mad About You vets Sally Lapiduss & Pamela Eells (Family Matters, The Nanny, Hannah Montana; Eells: The Suite Life Of Zack And Cody, Married… With Children) and Steve Paymer (Roseanne, The Single Guy, Soul Man), along with notable names like Tom Seeley & Norm Gunzenhauser (Murphy Brown, Newhart, The Jeff Foxworthy Show), Dava Savel (Dream On, Grace Under Fire, Ellen, Will & Grace, That’s So Raven), and Bill Fuller & Jim Pond (Night Court, Living Single, One On One). But this was a troubled project behind-the-scenes. Following poor reviews and unspectacular ratings, production shut down in early November — with ten episodes produced following the pilot — as NBC replaced EPs Cluess and Kreisman with Stuart Wolpert (One Day At A Time, The Facts Of Life). Then more changes were made to the concept: Aquino’s character was dropped, Jeff Maynard was brought on as recurring gofer Steven Spielberg, and a potential romance was plotted for Meg and B.J. The writing staff was also trimmed after a few weeks — Paymer, Fuller and Pond were out — and then trimmed again a few weeks later, when Wolpert, after only a month, was shown the door. (He’s credited on only four episodes.) Once 16 outings were produced of the 19 order, NBC and Spelling (who was allegedly losing money) agreed to shut down production — with Lapiduss & Eells and Seeley & Gunzenhauser as credited EPs for the final produced installment. The show was removed from the schedule by early February, leaving two additional installments to be burned off in June (in a Saturday night slot). This cleared the way for Friends, which started building on Mad About You’s audience in January, to take Madman’s post-Seinfeld time in late February. NBC had been eager to make this swap, for it was grooming this new hit to be a viable 8:00 anchor for the following season, during which MSTV Thursday took on its most famous form — Friends at 8, Seinfeld at 9, and ER at 10.

Unsurprisingly, given all the off-screen strife, Madman Of The People is troubled on-screen, too, and I think the above changes are negligible, for the premise upon which the whole series is situated made success difficult — no matter who was running the figurative ship. The father-daughter relationship is theoretically a rich place to mine whatever you want to mine — laughs, tears, you name it — but it implies a certain tension between the workplace and the home. Now, we’ve seen many successful series balance these two spheres — Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, etc. — and their designs were all justified by single-star fulcrums, and an equitable enjoyability; that is, there were no major merit imbalances between work and home. In Madman, there’s no imbalance between work and home either, but that’s because neither is really enjoyable. Additionally, the show’s structure fights its premise. It’s built around Coleman… but it isn’t about his life — it’s about his relationship with his daughter, which has now been complicated by her new assumed role in his workplace. Thus, while we, the audience, begin to want the show to commit to being one or the other — a family comedy or a workplace comedy (never mind that Coleman is supposed to provide the continuity for the show to jump back and forth) — the premise is already hamstringed: it’s most fulfilled when it’s more in the office than at home. Why? Well, despite a humane presence like Concetta Tomei and the opportunity for guest appearances from folks like Jane Kean as Jack’s mother-in-law, the home is burdened by an absence of premise-related story. In the home, Meg is Jack’s daughter, as always, and there’s no problem. The conflict is at the office, where the power dynamic is inverted, and where there’s also a chance for snappy ensemble stories to explore potentially comedic peripheral players.

The choice then is either to ignore the premise by staying at home or cushioning it at the office by utilizing it, but within a broader context that supplies richer possibilities in the surroundings. (And, again, neither the show’s quality nor its premise justifies the Coleman-centered design of going back and forth…) I, personally, favor the latter option, as do most of the outings below (in both the Wolpert and Cluess/Kreisman tenures). But either way, the show had to de-emphasize the daddy-daughter conundrum implanted from the premise… and this isn’t just for structural purposes, it’s also because of the characterizations: the primary issue with Madman Of The People — the more damaging one, never solved. Now, Coleman’s Jack has some definition — he’s a neutered version of all his former sitcom anti-heroes: rough around the edges, but with an obviously good heart. It’s not hilarious, but Coleman dimensionalizes him amiably. In contrast, Cynthia Gibbs’ daughter has even less textual color. She’s a slave to the weekly premise — if she needs to fight with her dad, she’ll fight with her dad. If she needs to flirt with B.J., she’ll flirt with B.J. If she has to have “girl talk” with Sasha, she’ll have “girl talk” with Sasha. Her motivations stem from narrative — nothing internally trackable from script to script. Because Meg’s a weak link, she compounds the inherent premise concerns and makes circumventing them less likely. (That’s why at the time of cancellation, many claimed to advocate doing more in the home — a.k.a. where the daughter was less of a presence!) As for the rest of the cast, they’re likable at best, perfunctory at worst. B.J. is well-defined, but try-hard; Sasha is nebulously drawn, but works well with Coleman’s Jack (and her ouster doesn’t seem like a logical fix). It doesn’t matter though; the show stakes itself around the father-daughter bond and suffers because it isn’t well-realized… in theory (structure) or practice (characterization).

Now, this isn’t a good representation of these MSTV failures, most of which looked like Friends knock-offs, but that’s part of why Madman Of The People deserved its own post. Yes, there are some recognizable tropes — the father-daughter office relationship was echoed again in MSTV’s Just Shoot Me!, but the latter centered itself around the daughter and knew from inception that the workplace was key (and then made changes after the first season to double down on this fact) — yet it’s a fairly unique flop, and the fact that it was placed behind Seinfeld is fascinating. Obviously, it didn’t have the same youth appeal as Friends, and perhaps Coleman’s former roles made the show seem like it would be more “adult” than it actually was… but, frankly, Seinfeld and Madman are strangers. Sure, there’s a dark streak that runs through Madman, too — mostly in trite Victories in Premise that are amusing simply because they contend with mortality/morbidity (like in one where Jack is accused of killing a bird, and another where Jack inspires a group of misfit students to hold their dean hostage) — but it’s not couched within clever narratives or relatable characters. And so, the difference between Seinfeld’s #1 ranking and Madman’s #12 seems to be an accurate reflection of their incompatibilities. NBC would strive to make sure, for better or worse, than this aesthetic gulf would never be so wide again… Fortunately, however, because some ideas are clearly better than others, I was able to assemble a list of favorite episodes — in airing order, as usual. (I have 15 of the 16 shows and own a table draft of the one I’m missing.) Subscribers who’d like to see something highlighted on this list can comment below (alerting me of their interest). For everyone else, this’ll give you an indication of what Madman Of The People looked like on a weekly basis.

 

01) Episode 5: “Till Death Do Us Part” (Aired: 10/20/94)

Jack sets Meg up with a guy… who turns out to have an off-putting job.

Written by Sally Lapiduss & Pamela Eells | Directed by Jim Drake

One of the series’ aforementioned Victories in Premise, and an entry that indeed contends with a dark comic morbidity that I suppose was intended to compensate for a relatively light Madman characterization and the writing’s otherwise lack of Seinfeld-ian bite, this offering makes my list because it illustrates a surprisingly good — and therefore rare — example of the show finding a way to have the core relationship occupy both personal and professional spaces.

02) Episode 7: “Birthday In The Big House” (Aired: 11/03/94)

Several characters are stranded during a blackout.

Written by Bill Fuller & Jim Pond | Directed by Phillip Charles Mackenzie

Although it will be remembered as a footnote in television history — the episode that concluded NBC’s Blackout Thursday stunt (which its predecessor, Seinfeld, ignored) — this is one of the series’ most satisfying excursions and that’s because it doesn’t make any attempts to reconcile the father-daughter relationship within the premise’s inherent structural problems. No, it puts Jack and his son in jail with a drag queen, and strands Meg, off on her own story, in an elevator with Sasha and a hot (but smelly) Italian. By avoiding the premise, the show can focus on its comedy, which is decent — especially in the third part of the narrative, with Delia at home, getting drunk with their caustic German neighbor, played by Elsa Raven.

03) Episode 10: “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Christmas” (Aired: 12/15/94)

Jack and Delia have different ideas on how to celebrate Christmas.

Written by Deidre Fay & Stuart Wolpert | Directed by Jim Drake

The second episode produced by new EP Stu Wolpert (but the first to air), this installment introduces new recurring character Steven Spielberg (in place of the departed Sasha), reuses Jane Kean as Delia’s obnoxious mom (although her debut appearance, produced earlier, actually aired afterwards), and illustrates a potential alternative to the more work-focused structure of future weeks: an emphasis on the home. In this case, it’s a very funny outing, as a game of White Elephant serves as a natural centerpiece where the entry’s various conflicts can reach a head. As of this publication, you can see this broadcast, sans original commercials, on YouTube.

 

Other notable episodes that merit mention include: the three other outings on which Wolpert is credited, “Notes From The Underground,” which puts Coleman’s Jack on the subway for an atypical entry that begs for more laughs; “Truths My Father Told Me,” which may be the most solid workplace-centered story for the father-daughter dynamic; and “Anytime, Anywhere,” which introduces the Meg/B.J. romance; while others worth noting include the final produced offering, EP’d by the writers, “The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword,” which should be considered another morbid V-I-P; and the last broadcast episode, “The Madman And The Showgirl,” which comes from the Cluess-Kreisman tenure and features Nita Talbot as a lampoon of Greta Garbo. (“Showgirl” is the one I only have in script form.)

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Mad About You!

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4 thoughts on “MSTV Flops: A Look at MADMAN OF THE PEOPLE

  1. I remember this show. It was as mediocre as they come! This was sanatized “s” –and not even funny sanatized “s” like FRIENDS. I totally forgot Amy Aquino and Craig Bierko were in this. Thanks for covering it.

  2. I watched a few episodes of this back in ’94. I’m not suggesting this is the show’s biggest problem, but this is one of the things that struck me as a mistake:
    Dabney Coleman’s working-class, man-of-the-people, Mike Royko/Jimmy Breslin-type columnist belonged at a daily newspaper, like the New York Daily News. Instead, someone decided this show should be set at an upscale magazine — the kind of magazine that, in my opinion, wouldn’t have that kind of columnist.
    It’s like NBC, or the producers, wanted to have it both ways. They wanted the curmudgeonly Coleman but also wanted the typical “beautiful single yuppie” setting that was done to death on ’90s sitcoms.
    Bottom line: for me, it was a premise that didn’t make sense from the get-go.

    • Hi, Tgibbs! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree that there’s a problem with the relationship between character and setting, but I don’t think a believability issue is among the show’s chief concerns.

      I do, however, think the network didn’t do itself any favors by whitewashing the characterization for which the actor had become known. Had Madman really been as rough-around-the-edges as, say, Buffalo Bill, then the more “upscale” magazine could have provided richer comedic conflict. The show then could have indeed had its cake and eaten it, too — the prickly Coleman in the glossy world; the “of the people” man vs. the “for the people” magazine.

      But it didn’t do that, which I think speaks to the larger issue: not the magazine, but the man.

      You see, EVERYTHING about the series was tame. No matter what high-concept episodic narrative was employed to suggest a certain “edge,” it was still soft and gooey in character, look, and attitude. I understand NBC had definitive ideas about the workplace (which fed the tension in the writer’s room)… but the problem was bigger and started way back in the pilot; Madman wasn’t really a “mad” man and he never was — no matter *where* he was.

      And thus, I think whether the magazine believably reinforced his “of the people” moniker was second to whether the show’s characterization of the man reinforced his “madman” persona. Because if the latter concern was properly addressed, the former could have been maximized (as it already stood) for story and laughs… both of which the show desperately needed.

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