Forgotten MTM: A Look at Three Short-Lived ’80s Sitcoms

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! With MTM’s most successful ’80s sitcom enjoying full coverage on Tuesdays, this week’s companion entry looks at some of the company’s short-lived efforts. While we’ve already discussed one of their better known ’80s flops, Mary (1985-1986, CBS), starring the company’s namesake, this week we’re examining the three shows created (or co-created) by The Mary Tyler Moore Show‘s co-creator Allan Burns (who, incidentally, also wrote for my beloved He & She); they are: The Duck Factory (1984, NBC), Eisenhower And Lutz (1988, CBS), and FM (1989-1990, NBC).


The Duck Factory (1984, NBC)

Created by Burns with UPA animator Herbert Klynn, The Duck Factory starred Jim Carrey as a wide-eyed Hollywood import who takes a job at a struggling animation house that produces a long-running weekend children’s cartoon series called “The Dippy Duck Show.” An ensemble comedy in the classic MTM vein, the show was centered around Carrey as the logical, good-hearted Midwestern executive producer Skip Tarkenton (a role that didn’t allow him to do ANY of the shtick for which he is now known — sadly). Skip was hired following the death of the company’s leader Buddy Winkler (his funeral is the first half of the pilot) by the deceased’s ditsy and vivacious widow Sheree (Teresa Ganzel, whom you may remember as Greedy Gretchen). Others at the company included Clarence Gilyard Jr. and veteran funnyman Jack Gilford as animators, Nancy Lane as the editor, real-life voice actor Don Messick as the talent, Julie Payne as the uptight business manager, and writer Jay Tarses, coming off the cancelled Buffalo Bill (covered here in 2015 — and the show that The Duck Factory replaced on the schedule) as “Dippy Duck”‘s writer. The Duck Factory‘s scribes included many familiar Newhart names: John Steven Owen, Barbara Hall, Katherine Green, and Dan Wilcox. 13 episodes were produced and then broadcast from April to July 1984 — the first six of which were scheduled after Cheers.

Having seen all 13 offerings, I can tell you that the show (shot single-cam) is feel-good and uncomplicated, but old-fashioned and comedically inconsistent. While the debut starts relatively amusingly — if slightly goofy and contrived (it’s a pilot, so we excuse some inartfulness) — and the show is poised in its next three episodes to be both funny and character-driven in that quintessentially MTM way, this quality declines as the series progresses. (Of course, the episodes were broadcast out of production order, disrupting the emotional continuity.) But I think the biggest issues — in fact, Grant Tinker, who ordered this highly anticipated series, eventually came to dislike The Duck Factory — stem from its style, which I assume was implanted by Burns. First, the tone is sweet, with a traditional sense of optimism and humanity — the kind reminiscent of 1970 (pre-Archie Bunker). But it feels decidedly retro and disconnected from truth for 1984, which required more frankness about the realities of the world, even as the decade sought to be brighter and shinier than its predecessor. So, the truth inherent in this premise and its casting choices (like Messick and Tarses) is diluted by the stagnant comedic style. In the ’70s, MTM was progressive — comedically — moving the genre forward, but in the ’80s, MTM (and The Duck Factory in particular) was looking to the past, with nothing new too offer, especially in terms of humor. Also, swimming against the current requires stronger muscles.

On the narrative front, I’d cite the series as being mostly character-driven, as the players (unlike in many Hollywood-based concepts) aren’t subordinated for the premise. But part of the problem is the way the show invokes its premise, for in its rosy perspective (where ideas are cut and dried and the regulars are all basically good), the show is limited in what it can do with the characters. So, instead, the scripts — perhaps nobly — focus on the regulars’ relationships, using this as the source of emotional weight. However, after a few weeks of novelty and some genuinely amusing ideas, this relationship angle becomes a gimmick that halts character development in favor of manipulative, unmotivated story points. For instance, in the seventh aired entry, Gilford’s character has an affair with Ganzel’s — an episodic convention that I imagine is supposed to be “adult,” but rather comes out of nowhere and means nothing; as if the series is attempting to be risqué, but only superficially. Also, the show clearly hopes to build a romance for Carrey’s character with Lane’s, which is obvious in the ninth aired installment (produced and narratively intended to be the season finale). And yet, with these folks still in need of more individual investigation, it’s hard to invest in l’amour, which feels writer-imposed.

So, The Duck Factory starts promisingly with a solid premise and an intent to develop its classically designed ensemble. But the writing is comedically regressive, shortchanges the audience on behalf of its star (and I think we might say this even if Carrey didn’t become the comedian we know him to be today), and struggles to use its characters in stories that actually develop them. Yet more than any other here, I so wish it could have worked — these writers are top-notch, the cast is excellent (Ganzel is a hoot; Gilford is always a delight; Tarses and Messick have truth), and the idea holds merit. In fact, the first three and last three episodes of the series were released on VHS in the mid-’90s. The best installment is probably the second aired (produced eighth, bumping the intended sophomore entry out of its rightful slot), “Filling Buddy’s Shoes,” in which the office staff vies for the executive producer title. It’s funny and uses the players within the premise, granting them exploration in the process. Directed by Rod Daniel (WKRP In CincinnatiFilthy Rich), written by John Steven Owen (Operation Petticoat, Newhart), this outing aired on April 19, 1984. Lots of unfulfilled potential.


Eisenhower & Lutz (1988, CBS)

Burns intended to pair with Jay Tarses (The Bob Newhart Show, The Tony Randall Show, The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd) for a series in the vein of the latter’s Buffalo Bill (1983-1984, NBC), a dark sitcom — covered here in 2015 — that starred Dabney Coleman as an anti-heroic scruple-starved television host. They crafted a scenario for Coleman in which he would play a sleazy Palm Springs lawyer — another “unlikable” fellow. But Tarses was too busy on Molly Dodd and Coleman opted instead to go ahead with The ‘Slap Maxwell’ Story, for he considered the title character in Eisenhower & Lutz, as written by Burns, to be too amiable. This notion of affability is a concern throughout the show’s run, as Bud Lutz, played by a relative newcomer named Scott Bakula (Quantum Leap and Murphy Brown), is clearly designed to be slimier and less morally upright than most protagonists, even as the scripts remain very careful to keep him relatable and provide the audience with reasons to like him. As a result, the character never comes close to being like the skeezy Buffalo Bill… At any rate, the show had Bakula playing lawyer Lutz in the middle of a love triangle between his barmaid girlfriend Megan (Dave’s World‘s DeLane Matthews) and his old high school friend Kay (Home Improvement‘s Patricia Richardson), a partner at a bigger, more successful law firm. Others in the ensemble included Henderson Forsythe as Bud’s rube-y father, Rose Portillo as his sarcastic secretary, and Leo Geter as an eager young upstart. (Incidentally, there was no Eisenhower; just Lutz.)

13 episodes were produced and then broadcast between March and June 1988 on CBS, where it was scheduled on Monday nights following Newhart, which shared several of Eisenhower & Lutz‘s writers: former showrunner Dan Wilcox, regular scribe Shelley Zellman, and future Executive Producers Mark Egan and Mark Solomon. Not surprisingly, the series was structured as an iconic MTM ensemble comedy, and all of these familiar voices — especially Burns’ — reinforced those parallels. However, never on any prior MTM hit had so much of a premise relied upon the idea of a romantic construct (the closest was Rhoda, and we saw how that turned out); we just saw this design being used for story in another MTM flop, The Duck Factory, but here the love triangle informed a major part of the concept. I find this misguided — never mind that this is a plot-based concern — for at the heart of the triangle is our hero (and again, he is more hero than anti-hero), whose emotional indecision is especially distracting during this initial era, when the audience has to develop a set, established understanding of what he wants. (If he doesn’t know, it’s much harder to root for him!) Furthermore, it does the women no favors. While I’d argue that they’re well-contrasted, too much of how we know each one is based on who they are in relation to the lead, as opposed to who they are as MTM’s palpable humans.

However, despite this construct, which I think monopolizes the stories and hinders character growth, Eisenhower & Lutz has fairly well-defined laugh-getting regulars and offers potential in its generally smart (in comparison to most) identity. If only the premise was more able to find story outside of these plot-driven motifs (a problem that most comedies have when their characters are still too new to motivate narratives while yielding the necessary amount of laughs)… In this regard, the triangle isn’t the series’ only problem, as story in general is laboriously conceived within these first 13 episodes — I know, not a fair sample as the first 13 should be the hardest — but, you see, the confining romantic beats foster an atmosphere in which the show decides to tell us about its characters through big emotion-based developments, instead of, you know, showing us. For instance, in a two-parter, airing as the series’ sixth and seventh installments, we learn that not only does Bud have a child out of wedlock, but also that he himself is illegitimate (for his father, another regular, isn’t really his biological father). It comes as a shock to the characters, but less so for the audience — because we really don’t know them well enough yet to care. Also, while this idea may provide great drama, it doesn’t add definition. That has to come through story, not from it. (That’s the very crux of why this triangle is an impediment.)

And yet, the show’s bones are MTM, its players are generally consistent, and comedy is its chief objective. As a 13-episode single-season wonder, which really could have been given — and may have deserved — an additional order to better itself (and I don’t say this often!), Eisenhower & Lutz is less embarrassingly egregious than most. Sadly, though, as with The Duck Factory, the promise suggested at the beginning of its existence is never again seen, for the best installment of the 13 is, bar none, the pilot, “The Whiplash Kid Returns (I),” which aired at 8:30 on Monday, March 14, 1988. (Part II was seen that same evening at 9:30, following a new episode of Newhart.) It was written and directed by Burns… While the pilot, naturally, isn’t free from the romantic triangle, waffles on the degree to which it wants to establish its lead’s warmth, and contends with a lot of anticipated exposition, the humanity on display here is never more ably illustrated, as that would soon be lost in wishy-washy narrative drivel. But, them’s the breaks


FM (1989-1990, NBC)

Following the somewhat disappointing Eisenhower & Lutz cancellation, Burns teamed with writers Dan Wilcox and Shelley Zellman to create a whole new series. Well, somewhat new. You see, while Scott Bakula was achieving success on Quantum Leap, his two former co-stars found themselves once again as romantic rivals — this time with Robert Hays (Airplane!, Angie) as the prize. Patricia Richardson, formerly the ex-girlfriend, was now the male lead’s ex-wife, while DeLane Matthews was his new assistant, with whom he shared an attraction (despite having once been her babysitter). Suffice it to say, the main lesson that I think should have been learned in Eisenhower & Lutz — don’t establish a love triangle as a big part of your premise while you’re trying to develop and define the characters — wasn’t learned in time for FM. However, with its D.C. public radio station setting, Burns and company returned to an arena both more familiar (WKRP In Cincinnati, anyone?) and more conducive to a compensatory ensemble-focused, character-driven form of weekly storytelling. That is, this location better allowed the show to derive its creativity from character, as opposed to plot. In fact, FM manages to be the smartest of Burns’ ’80s trio, because it’s the best constructed… once again, in spite of the triangle.

The premise had Hays as a program director, Richardson as his remarried ex-wife, who returns to the station in the pilot (it’s a bit contrived, but not condemnable), and Matthews as, again, his new assistant. Surrounding them were Lynne Thigpen as the no-nonsense station manager, Leo Geter (the one other holdover from Eisenhower & Lutz) as a volunteer who also has the hots for Matthews (oh, goodie — another triangle), Fred Applegate as Richardson’s sparring partner on their political talk show, James Avery as the host of several music programs, and John Kassir as a “voice man” inspired by Harry Shearer. The ninth regular was Nicole Huntington as the teen daughter that Hays and Richardson share. Five episodes were broadcast in the late summer of 1989 — the first and last following a Cheers rerun, and the rest on Wednesdays. Ratings were okay and critical opinion was favorable (Grant Tinker told Allan Burns it was his best yet), so eight more episodes were ordered and broadcast starting in late March following Night Court on Wednesdays. The opening credits changed, Geter’s character got a promotion, and a new regular was added — a young female technician. Only four of these entries aired before the series was pulled and rescheduled at the end of the season in late May, when three more were broadcast at 10:30 on Saturdays. The last, the 13th and final, aired several weeks later after a Cheers rerun.

Burns later learned that FM might have been given another chance had NBC not decided to renew Carsey-Werner’s Grand (1990, NBC) and Paramount’s Wings (1990-1997, NBC) in order to retain the two companies’ respective hits, The Cosby Show (1984-1992, NBC) and Cheers (1982-1993, NBC). While Grand had a short life, Wings found success (and we’ll begin coverage of it here in two weeks). It’s interesting to see how the latter compares to FM, for as workplace comedies with MTM blood, it’s easy to imagine FM getting renewed and Wings not, for as far as I’m concerned, neither series can claim a better first 13 episodes than the other. As for FM in particular, the love triangle does limit the series’ scope, especially because it can’t seem to make up its mind. For while Eisenhower & Lutz viewers seemed to prefer Matthews’ girlfriend character to Richardson’s as the ex, that was reversed for FM — and the audience appeared to resent Matthews for standing in the way of a (nevertheless cliched and anticipated) Richardson-Hays reconciliation. So what should FM have done? Although the first order teased both ideas, the second lot initially played up Hays-Matthews and then abandoned them to focus on Hays-Richardson. Frankly, neither pair shared any better chemistry, so my only concern here is that the show was not cultivating the characters individually like it should have been.

Also, FM, in an attempt to avoid the storytelling confinements of the prior effort, overstocked its ensemble to guarantee more possibilities. I think the daughter didn’t need to be a regular (she’s merely a device), and the Harry Shearer knock-off doesn’t land, introducing a broad, unmotivated style of comedy into an otherwise focused, character-rooted operation. Yet, the setting does offer clear opportunities and the dynamic with most of the players — particularly Hays, Thigpen, Wall, Applegate, and Avery (the non-Eisenhower & Lutz folks, essentially) — is strong enough to suggest future magic. Now, I’ve only seen ten of the 13 installments. (I’m missing “Play Laura For Me,” “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” and “Off The Record,” which I’m eager to find; if you have them, please let me know!) But one of the truest representations of the series — its strengths and weaknesses — is the sixth episode, the first from the second order: “Doing It Again,” in which Hays and Matthews are intimate. It was written by Howard M. Gould (Cybill, Instant Mom), directed by Andy Cadiff (Home Improvement, Spin City), and broadcast by NBC on March 28, 1990. It’s not great — you may like the two above more (heck, I do!) — but, even if this entry is less individually strong, the show’s more consistent scripting, along with its premise and design, offered the best hope, I think, for longevity.



Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in on Tuesday for more Newhart!