On March 22, 2019, I had the opportunity to speak with Ross Brown. Ross Brown has been a writer and producer on television sitcoms since 1985, for shows including Webster, Step by Step, The Facts of Life, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. He also created the 1997 sitcom Meego, which starred Bronson Pinchot.
I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to answer some questions I have.
Sure, sure, I appreciate–I’m glad you sent me the questions, there, and I think I can answer… most of them. Some of them I don’t know the answer to!
You’re credited as the creator of Meego.
So what, in 1997, what went into creating a network sitcom back then?
Well, there were several ways it happened, but in… it could happen, but in general, a writer/producer/showrunner would go to a network and pitch an idea. Sometimes you would have an actor attached to it. In this case, the process started with Bronson. I knew that CBS was going to be looking for a family comedy, because they were looking to expand the amount of family comedies they… or, family-friendly comedies they had. And, so I talked to Bronson, because I was working with him at that time on Step by Step. He had a part on Step by Step, and I said “You know, look, if it’s going to be a family show there need to be kids, and you tend to play an Other, there, and you’ve already played a, a, somebody from a foreign country, so…” You know, I said “What if we did, you know, Mary Poppins from outer space?”, basically. A nanny from outer space. And Bronson said “Okay, that could be fun.” And so we developed the idea, we talked about it together, we talked about it with the production company that I worked for and that Bronson worked for at that time–Miller-Boyett–and then, you know, went with them to meet with the senior executives at CBS, and pitched the idea. And they liked it, and from that point, I wrote a script, and they gave me some feedback on the script, and then we shot the pilot.
What was the turnaround time on that? How long did that take to go from the pitch…?
Golly… Usually from the pitch to getting a story approved for, you know, there’s one thing, when you pitch a pilot, you are usually not pitching the story of the pilot episode. You’re pitching the series concept. What is the series gonna be about, in a, from a 30,000-foot view? And then you go in separately and you pitch the actual story of the pilot episode. You know, so you’ve gotta make some decisions. You can pitch a story about a nanny from outer space, but are you showing that person being hired? Or are you picking the story up where that person’s already been working for the family for five years? You know, those kind of decisions.
So but I’d say it takes about three months from when you pitch an idea and get approval for it, to then go develop a pilot story, refine it, go back into the–when–probably about two months. Develop the story, and then another couple months to write and re-write the script, show it to the producers before you show it to the network, and then show it to the network and get feedback from them.
I think something that I’m not aware of, you know, in looking at these shows is: how does it come about that someone like Bronson is working with CBS to try to develop a show. Did they reach out to the actor or the other way around?
I’m going on my memory now. My memory is that I talked to Bronson first, and he was comfortable working with me. And then we went to the senior producers, to Tom Miller and Bob Boyett. And they said “Yes, and we’re going to be talking with CBS.” And then they made the call to CBS and said “We want to pitch a show for Bron… with Bronson attached to it.”
So but there are other shows–not this one–but there are other shows where the network has made a, a deal with an actor saying “We’re looking for a pilot for you” and so they’ll have a deal with an actor already, and then they make pitches from writers about shows that could star that actor or actress. Or they may have a writer pitch a separate show that they really like and then say “Have you thought about Actor X for that show?” And they–so it happens in different configurations.
Right. And that latter situation that you’re referring to, I suspect that was– I mean, I don’t have information on this, but I suspect that may have been how Bronson’s previous sitcom, The Trouble with Larry, came about.
Could be. I don’t know, but it could be.
Let me ask you about the writing aspect of it. Because the popular image of the television writers’ room–it’s just a bunch of funny people spitballing their ideas.
So how do stories get developed, and broken, and, you know, script assignments given out?
Sure. Well, every writing room is not the same. There are some, I’m told–though I was not there–I’m told that the Frasier writing room was quite sedate and scholarly. And people would say [adopts a sedate voice] “Well, what if this happened and Frasier said something like that that?” “Yeah, that’s funny.” And they were not particularly raucous. And other rooms are raucous, there. But I’ll tell you what my general process was on Meego and other family sitcoms. I would come in with the writers, and there would be, say, myself and five or six other writers. And we would spend the first couple of… we would come in 6-8 weeks before we were going to start shooting episodes, which would generally be 6-8 weeks before they were going to start airing on television. So we were coming in right after around Memorial Day, if the show’s going to premiere in September. And we’d spend a couple of days saying “Let’s just talk about every half-baked idea anybody has for the show.” And we’d throw out 50 ideas, and then try and say “Well, which of these seem the most promising?”, see if any themes emerge from that. And when we identify the most promising idea or where we might want to start, we talk that story through. Usually it would take the writing staff a full day to sort of grapple with the story and say “Okay, so what are the themes? How do we use the other characters in the show that aren’t featured in this particular story line? Can they have a role in this storyline? Do they need to be part of a, what’s called a B-story or a subplot?” And really lay the story out scene by scene.
Then, on most shows, you have to clear the story with the network. So the showrunner–me, in this case–would call the network person and briefly describe the outline of the story. And they would comment on it, and give you notes if they had any. And then I would–at that point in time, that’s all group work. Then when an actual draft has to get written, you’d send one of the writers out of the room and say “Okay, you’re going to go write the first draft of this.” And I’d give that writer six or seven working days to write a first draft of the script, and then the rest of the room would go on to episode two. “What are we going to do for the second episode?” Pick a story, and go through the whole process once again.
Eventually, the writer writing the first draft will turn in the draft to the group. Everybody will read it, and then we’ll get together and talk about the–what our reaction to the draft is, what seems to be working well, what doesn’t work quite as well, are there things that should be re-written, or are there missing things? And then the group will reconvene as a group and do a re-write. And if I were leading the group, I’d say “I’m good until page 3, anybody, anybody got anything before page 3? No? Okay, on page 3, this line here doesn’t quite work for me. Let’s try and find another joke”, or “Let’s find”–”I’m not sure I believe this attitude that the character’s expressing” or whatever, and we work through the whole script until we have a revised version.
Then you get into the production cycle of it, which is–there’s a table reading with the actors, where the actors read the script out loud, and you have the crew there, the writer/producers, the studio and the network representatives and the director. And you get another glimpse of what’s working and what isn’t working. You get feedback–certainly from Bronson if it’s a show that features Bronson as the lead actor–and the writers do a re-write. And then the next day the actors rehearse it from 10 to 4 and you come and see what’s called a run-through. And they perform the script without cameras, and then you get more clues about what needs to be re-written. And you do that again a second time, on a Wednesday. Thursday’s a technical day, a camera-blocking day. And Friday you shoot the show in front of an audience. And that’s the basic process.
One of your questions was whether the show was filmed in front of a live audience. It was, largely, although there were some scenes–because of the magic elements in the show–that needed to be pre-taped. Because they had, they were technically cumbersome and you needed to start and stop a lot and things, scenes that did not flow in front of an audience. But by and large, it was a live audience sitcom.
One of the things that I see about Bronson across many of the things that he’s done is that he really likes to improvise.
He likes to come up with jokes on the spot, especially when he’s doing characters. So what kind of leeway has to be made in the script for an actor who likes to do that?
Bronson does more than improvise. He will come in in rehearsal with ideas for jokes and so on. So some of the jokes that were not http://cuts%20out that get filmed, you know, Bronson’s been working on all week on that stuff, and some of it he might improvise in the moment. But I–when you’re, when you do live audience comedy, and you’ve got somebody who is skilled at improvisation, and at creation and so on, like Bronson is… that’s a gift, and you’ve got to make room for that. You’re a fool if you don’t make room for that. And, look, Bronson is a highly-trained actor in addition to being a very funny guy, and he knows when there’s an essential part of the script that he can’t just eliminate, that’s part of the storytelling. And he wouldn’t, you know, throw you that kind of a curveball, there. But I really value Bronson’s input on the show.
Absolutely. One of things I’m trying to suss out is, you know, how much is him and how much, you know, is everything else. So that’s very illuminating.
Well, because live audience sitcoms have this rehearsal process, there’s–it’s–you really get to work together with the writers and the actors and the director during a rehearsal process and a preview process, very much like a play. And so it’s collaboration.
For the other cast on Meego, how are those decisions made?
Ed Begley, Jr. was suggested to us by CBS, and we really liked the suggestion, thought he’d be great for the dad in the show. Jonathan Lipnicki was, was, I believe, already in mind when we wrote the little kid character, that–once we knew we were going to have a family–that he had become fairly well-known because of the Jerry Maguire movie. And we said “Well, let’s put him in a TV show”, so we wrote the part for Jonathan. The other two kid actors, we held auditions for the part, and ended up with the actors we did.
I think there were a lot of great casting decisions. Ed Begley, Jr.–he’s, I feel like he’s the rare sitcom dad that can kind of rib somebody, but you can tell it’s from love.
I really like Ed as an… he’s, you know, he’s a terrifically nice person, but also he’s a very good actor. And he was somebody that, you know, I hadn’t seen as a sitcom dad at that point in time. And so it felt fresh.
I want to go back–you were talking about, you know, submitting scripts to CBS. Just to give you my background, I was born in 1984, and so I–in my mind, some time in the mid-90s, you know, there seemed to be a shift in network sitcoms to a little bit more blue humor. So what were the boundaries?
Unquestionably. Well, there’re different boundaries. And it’s, you know, it’s… I remember–this is not about Meego, but I tried to do, use a word. And I don’t even remember what the word was, but whatever word I wanted to use–this was not CBS, this was an ABC show I was doing–they said “You can’t say that on your show.” I said “Why not? They used that word on Roseanne, which is on your network at 9 o’clock, and my show’s on your network at 9 o’clock.” And they said “Yes, but the audience has a different expectation for the shows on TGIF on Friday night than they do for other parts of the week.”
And so they, you know, the–each network has a, an actual department that’s called Broadcast Standards or Standards & Practices or something like that, and they review each script and send you a memo that says “You–We have a problem with this word” or some–”this other word” or so on, you know. I went through this on a pilot–again, not on CBS, on another network–where it had a scene where… the show was about a… the older brother of the family having to adopt his younger brothers and sisters and being the youngest dad in the world at age 23 [this would be the 1995-1997 series Kirk–Casey]. And it had a scene where a six-year-old boy came in and said “I’m ready for school” and the script said he was wearing a cowboy vest and underpants, and… and they sent me a note saying “Russell”–that was the little boy’s name–”must be wearing boxer shorts.” And I called them back and said “He’s six. He doesn’t wear boxer shorts. He’s a little boy, he wears, like Spider-man underpants.” And they said “Well, we don’t want to be seeing–we have a rule on our network that all males in their underwear have to be wearing boxer shorts.” I said “Yeah, but this male is six! It’ll look stupid if he’s wearing boxer shorts.” And they said “Well, we don’t want to be seeing any bulges on television.” I said “Once again: he’s six, he doesn’t have a bulge.” And they finally, they finally relented and let me show a six-year-old boy wearing underpants on television.
But to get to the heart of your question: there used to be something on television–earlier–that was called “the family hour”. And you were expected to have shows between… in the first hour of prime time–so 8 o’clock to 9 o’clock on the West and East coast, and 7 to 8 in the middle of the country–that were family-friendly, and had rules about language and so on. That went away in the 90s, and it was left up to the networks to make decisions. And they started putting shows like Friends on at 8 o’clock. And so you were then in a position, even if you were doing a family show, of going “My god! These other shows are, have much more appeal to adults, how am I going to compete with that?” And it’s part of why shows like Step by Step and Meego and all the TGIF shows stopped being on television. They’re just… they couldn’t compete.
I never knew that!
Yep! And they, you know, largely now, those family-friendly shows are available on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, and not on broadcast networks.
That clarifies so much! I’m also remembering when I was a kid, having to beg my parents to let me stay up past 9 to watch the shows that were a little, you know, more risque.
Well, and, you know, I should say: with the Standards & Practices people, it’s not just risque or nudity on adult dramas that they deal with, you know, they deal with all kinds of things. There are books out there–and I don’t remember the title of them–but that have collections of these Standards & Practices notes, some of which are humorous. You know, they–in gory shows, where they’ll say “We assume that when character A gets shot in the head, it will be done tastefully.”
(Laughs) That’s great!
(Laughing) So, yeah, and then they…they, they used to–I’m told–that there were network notes–maybe not Standards & Practices notes–and I think there’s actually a whole book with this title out there–on a show My Favorite Martian where they gave the note “A Martian wouldn’t say that.” Which would lead one to say “How exactly do you know what Martians do or don’t say?”
What else can I answer for you?
The big question is: Meego ended up being cancelled, at least in the US, halfway through. Like, I think six or seven episodes into the full 13. So how does that kind of decision get made?
Yep. It gets made based on ratings, and… at the time, what happened was CBS picked up two shows that had been part of the ABC TGIF lineup that were done by the same production company, by Miller-Boyett, and Warner Bros. They picked up Family Matters and Step by Step. And then they ordered Meego and one other show, and I can’t remember what that other show was off the top of my head. It might have been a Gregory Hines sitcom.
I think you’re correct.
Anyway, anyway, the–so on one week, Family Matters–which was the lead-off show for the night–ran a re-run on ABC and it got a 15 share. And then the following week, the new episode–and new episodes almost always get better ratings than re-runs–but the new episode, for the first time was on CBS at 8 o’clock, and it got a 10 share. So they’d gotten a 15 share one week with a re-run on ABC, and a 10 share w– (laughing) with a brand new episode of the same show a week later on CBS. It just… that what was clear was: the audience wasn’t mov–the family audience that had been loyal to these kind of shows on ABC wasn’t showing up on CBS. It just wasn’t… CBS could not get their audience younger. And they–it took them a long time to try to, for CBS to get their audience younger, and they’ve tried various things. And they still are not as young as ABC was in those days.
Yeah, and looking at the reporting from that time, it seemed that Family Ma–getting Family Matters and Step by Step was, was essentially a major coup for CBS.
It absolutely was a coup. They were two, you know, established shows, and… that had loyal audiences for many years. But, look. Family Matters was in its 9th year, and Step by Step was in its 7th year, and, you know, they… It’s very hard, especially with kid and family shows to keep that going for a really, really long time, in part because the kids aren’t really kids anymore! You know, they’re in their 20s (laughing) and you’re trying to tell… to figure out how can I tell a convincing story about someone who, in reality, is two years away from the characters they’re portraying on Friends? But I can’t do those stories.
You know, they had trouble when we had gotten, on Step by Step, the oldest girl was in her 20s, the character was, at that time. And we got her a boyfriend, and there was a scene where she was making out with her boyfriend. And the person at ABC was like horrified and going “Oh my god! Dana’s just, you know, making out with this guy!” I said “Dana’s in her 20s! In real life she’s doing a lot more than making out with her boyfriend, and this is a cheat, what we’re doing.”
But, you know, that’s TV. Or, that kind of TV.
So, in terms of Meego, were there sort of general ideas of where to take the show if it had gone to a second season? Like larger story arcs?
You know, we–the larger story arcs really would be “Well, would the dad find out where Meego really came from?” You’d probably play that sort of tension there. But mostly what happens in a, in a family sitcom where you have kids, the new angles for the stories have, at least half of what influences that, is what age the kids turn each year, and what are the rites of passage for a kid at that age. So, you know, if you … in that case, we had Michelle Trachtenberg, who was, you know, 12 years old, I think, on, or so, on the show. I’m sure that she would eventually start dating boys and Meego would have to get involved with that, if we got that far in the show. Because, you know, you just follow the natural evolution. In fact, that’s–to get back to your original question, where did it–how do you come up with story ideas. Part of what I would do with the writers in the early pre-production development is say “Okay, let’s talk about each of the characters”–the kids, what age they are, and “what was going on in any of your lives or your kids’ lives when they were a boy or a girl that age?” And we’d, you know, you’d say “Well, that’s the year we went to the prom” or “That’s the year you get your driver’s license” or “That’s the year you go to your first boy/girl dance” or whatever, and those would be sort of–the starting points for finding stories is just real life and rites of passage for kids and families in those phases.
That makes sense. So, of the 13 episodes that got made, do you have a favorite?
Well, we only got to make 10, as I recall. They ordered 13, but cancelled us, and I think we only made 10 and I’m not sure–as you said, I don’t think they aired all of them, there. I don’t–you know, the pilot’s my favorite just because I spent the most time on it, there. But it’s been a long time since I did the other episodes, and I’m not sure I remember them in as much detail as you might want me to.
That’s fair. It has been 20 years.
Although I will tell you this, that this is ironic to get a call from you about this, because literally two weeks ago a guy who’d grown up in France and I think is now going to school in New York wrote me and asked if I had copies of any of the episodes, because it was his favorite show growing up in France. So somehow (laughing) it made it to France!
Jaleel White showed up in a couple of episodes of Meego in uncredited parts. A lot of people take that–that that was his Urkel character showing up, because he’s wearing the glasses and all. So can you settle the big internet argument as to whether it was Urkel?
I can’t! Because I don’t even remember Jaleel being in the episodes! (…) I don’t have any memory of how that came about. I know there were–at various times that I’m mixing up–some of them were on Step by Step, and some might have been on Meego, where there was discussion of “Can we have Urkel in the episode?” And if we did, I’m sure they wanted people to think it was Urkel, or know for sure it was Urkel because Urkel was one of the most popular characters on television then.
The mystery goes on! Any other memories or thoughts on Meego?
I don’t have anything else to add. You know, it was fun to do, it’s disappointing when it gets cancelled, but, you know, most TV shows do get cancelled before they become hits–without becoming hits. So that’s just life in TV!
Thank you for your time!