Monday, July 08, 2002

TV series hopes to be the one still standing



By Bill Keveney
USA TODAY

        STUDIO CITY, Calif. - Diane Burroughs and Joey Gutierrez are starting to build a family. They've got two months to finish the job - from the teenage children to the house in which they all live.

        It may sound unlikely, but that's the norm in the unnatural order of television. Burroughs and Gutierrez are the creators and executive producers of “Still Standing”, a CBS comedy about a blue-collar Chicago couple whose efforts to be cool parents often put them in hot water. The series tapes its first episode Aug. 13 and premieres Sept. 23 at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT, in the coveted slot after the hit “Everybody Loves Raymond.”

THE MAJOR PLAYERS
    Diane Burroughs and Joey Gutierrez
    Age. Burroughs, late 30s; Gutierrez, 39
    Hometown. Burroughs, Mount Prospect, Ill.; Gutierrez, Calumet City, Ill.
    Family. Live together; in relationship for 16 years

    “Still Standing” title. Each is creator and executive producer; they have overall responsibility for the series.

    Notable writing credits. “Martin”, “The Drew Carey Show”, co-executive producers on “Yes, Dear”; Gutierrez helped with opening monologues on “Seinfeld.

    “On influences that led to the creation of “Still Standing”.

    Gutierrez: “My parents have been married 43 years. Even though they argued every day, you knew they were staying together. That's why we always loved shows like” Roseanne”. Just underneath it all, there's a genuine love for each other, even though you say the worst things to each other.”

    On experiences that motivated them.

    Burroughs: “We went to see Smashing Pumpkins and Kiss at Dodger Stadium. There were entire families there, with their kids, in the Kiss makeup. There were 25,000 people there like that. These are the families we want to write something for, the parents that take their kids to (these) concerts, the kids and the parents who listen to the same music.”

    On leaving stand-up comedy for TV writing.

    Gutierrez. “I loved doing standup. It taught me a lot of things. But I knew I would never be a George Carlin or Richard Pryor. ... I never needed to be on stage. I liked writing the jokes.”

    Burroughs. “I was in it during the era of everyone being blue. That ended my stand-up career quite rapidly. ... Midwestern content is a lot different than it is out here.”

    ——

    Randy Cordray
    Age. 48
    Hometown. Casper, Wyo.
    Family. Married with two sons, 16 and 18

    “Still Standing” title. Producer

    Notable production credits. “Dharma & Greg”, “Coach”; got his start as a stagehand at KTLA-TV.

    “On what he brings to the series. “ “I have a long history of working in the entertainment industry. I have done predominantly situation comedy in my career. I pretty much know most of the crew people who do each of the various jobs. I bring this body of knowledge with me.”

    “On what brought him to the series. “ “After I learned “Dharma” was canceled, I submitted for this show. I had a couple of interviews (for other shows), but this was the one I really wanted. It looked like a hit. I had an instant affinity for (Burroughs and Gutierrez). I felt like we would have fun together.””

    On duties that include hiring much of the staff and crew and overseeing the budget. “I hire all the right people to do the show properly. It's a really fun job ... My job is to build the best show possible for these guys.”

    ——

    Mark Addy
    Age. 38
    Hometown. York, England
    Real-life family. Married with a 2-year-old daughter

    “Still Standing” role. Bill Miller, husband and father of three

    Notable credits. “The Full Monty”, “A Knight's Tale”, “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas”; “The Last Yellow”; upcoming release “The Sin Eater”, with Heath Ledger

    On what brought him to “Still Standing”. “It was the writing. I just thought it was a great script. I found it very funny.”

    On what he brings to the series. “I think it's probably the fact that I'm quite ordinary in terms of who I am as a person. I think that's the kind of character they wanted, just a regular guy, really. ... I can bring a bit of heart to that character as well, a sweetness to the guy that may not be there with other actors.”

    On changing accents. “It's hard work for me. ... It means putting in a few extra hours a day, but it's worth it.”

    ——

    Jami Gertz
    Age. 36
    Hometown. Glenview, Ill.
    Real-life family. Married with three sons (ages 3, 7 and 10)

    “Still Standing” role. Judy Miller, wife and mother of three

    Notable credits. “Gilda Radner: It's Always Something”; “Twister”; “ER”; “Square Pegs

    “On what brought her to the series. “I laughed. ... This had a quality I knew. I grew up in blue-collar Chicago. I knew people who loved Rush and AC/DC, hard rockers who loved Aerosmith and drove Camaros. Diane and Joey are kind of my contemporaries. ... (Also) I love performing in front of an audience. It's exciting, having that immediate reaction.”

    On what she brings to the series. “I think my sense of humor will help. It gets you through a lot in life ... When you have a child, you learn not to take yourself so seriously. I think that will definitely help me in the role.”

    ——

    Network comedy's fall-semester math
    — Episodes committed to: 13
    — Budget: $900,000 per episode
    — Studio seating: 207
    — Pages per script: 48 to 52
    — Revised scripts per week: 4
    — People receiving scripts: 50
    — Script pages printed per production week: 10,000 (studio has extensive recycling process)
    — Cast and crew: About 125 full- and part-time, including:
    — Writing department: 9
    — Art department: 7
    — Sound: 6
    — Wardrobe: 4
    — Hair and makeup: 4
    — Props: 2
    — Teachers for child actors: 2

        Burroughs and Gutierrez don't have much time to assemble a network TV show. Fortunately, the comedy-writing couple has been collecting pieces of “Still Standing”'s clan, the Millers, for years.

        From Gutierrez's parents, they've taken a love of children that didn't prohibit having a laugh at the kids' expense. From friends with growing children, they've borrowed an intergenerational battle over cool status, with the occasional truce for joint appreciation of an Aerosmith concert.

        From their own 16-year relationship - living and working together, on a path that took them from Chicago's comedy clubs to the Mack Sennett Building on the CBS studio lot - they bring a sense of teamwork. “We're trying to make (the Millers) our generation, but also a little old-fashioned,” Gutierrez says. Adds Burroughs: “They've been together since high school. That's the "still standing' part.”

        If the task seems daunting, at least Burroughs and Gutierrez can count on plenty of help. They have a budget of $900,000 per episode and a cast and crew that eventually will reach about 125. Like every other network series, this show is a business: They'll have to manufacture scripts, build sets, craft engaging characters and package the results into a 21-minute, 30-second product - the length of a sitcom, minus commercials.

        After all the effort and money spent polishing “Still Standing” to a prime-time shine, viewers may take just minutes on opening night deciding whether to hang with the Millers or flip to “ABC Monday Night Football”.

        For Burroughs and Gutierrez, as well as stars Mark Addy (”The Full Monty”) and Jami Gertz (”Gilda Radner: It's Always Something”) and everyone else involved with the show, that means a summer-long devotion to one task: making the Millers a family America wants to watch.

        The couple, who are running their first show, are often inseparable as they move from meeting to meeting; they seem to handle the pressure well. They remain friendly and polite, but they don't relax. There's a nervous feeling that wherever they are, their busy schedule demands they be somewhere else.

        “There's a saying: "The good news is, your show got picked up. The bad news is, your show got picked up,' ” Burroughs says. “That we've even accomplished getting a show picked up is a huge success.”

        One in a hundred

        Indeed, “Still Standing” has bucked the odds so far. Of thousands of prime-time ideas pitched to networks since last year, only 34 won spots this fall.

        “Let's play the numbers game,” says Warren Littlefield, a former NBC entertainment president who now runs his own production company, which had two new shows picked up.

        “Any given network listens to over 500 series pitches a season. Of those, they buy 50 scripts, give or take. Out of those 50 scripts, they'll make 25 pilots. Five of those will make it to the air. You're looking at about a 1 percent success rate,” he says. “To me, that says it's pretty difficult.”

        With an affable bearing that may trace to their Midwestern roots, Burroughs and Gutierrez - both former stand-up comics - have been in Hollywood 13 years, long enough to know how tough it is to land a series. As TV veterans with credits that include “Martin “and “The Drew Carey Show”, they're also aware of the financial and creative perks of running a hit show.

        The odds are long on that end as well. A USA TODAY analysis of 160 fall TV series premiering from 1997 to 2001 found that nearly one in five was canceled within six episodes; more than two-thirds weren't picked up for a second season.

        Having their comedy on this fall's schedule is even more of a miracle considering that, until a few months ago, “Still Standing “was flat on its back. Burroughs and Gutierrez had first proposed the series to Fox in early 2000. It was rejected, almost always the death knell for a script.

        “It was heartbreaking,” Burroughs recalls. “You want to leave it on the shelf and pretend it never happened.”

        Rejection was tougher because the concept reflected their lives. Gutierrez' parents, a blue-collar couple from Calumet City, south of Chicago, have been married 43 years. They loved and cared for their kids, but didn't spare them every bump and bruise. “When I grew up, my parents were never really our friends,” he says. “They were a little rough with you, they liked to make fun of you. That was their entertainment.”

        At the same time, Burroughs and Gutierrez, who don't have children, wanted to show how families have changed, how the cultural gap between parents and children can blur. “It was a lot about observing our friends with their kids, and remembering what it was like when we were kids,” Gutierrez says.

        The resurrection

        But Hollywood knows how to conjure up a happy ending. Burroughs and Gutierrez submitted their rejected script as a writing sample when applying for jobs on a CBS comedy, “Yes, Dear”, premiering in fall 2000. It helped them get jobs as co-executive producers and earned them a development deal from 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that produces “Yes, Dear”.

        “They have a unique blend of skills as storytellers and comedic writers,” says Dana Walden, the studio's president. “They find both the funny and the heart.”

        The script also caught the eye of Wendi Goldstein, CBS' senior vice president of comedy development. “I remember reading it and thinking it was so great, why couldn't we make that pilot?” she says. “I thought the characters were so well drawn, and it was so funny.”

        She also saw it as a strategic fit for CBS' powerhouse Monday family-comedy lineup. Developmentally, “Still Standing”, with two teens in the household, caps an ages-of-man evening that starts with the childless “King of Queens “couple, moves to families with toddlers on “Yes, Dear”, and from there to the Barones, whose oldest child is nine, on “Everybody Loves Raymond”.

        Problem was that the script was owned by a different studio, where Burroughs and Gutierrez had been working. Complex negotiations ensued. Burroughs and Gutierrez figured that yet again, “Still Standing “was DOA.

        In December, they got the call from Goldstein. They had their pilot. “We were in shock,” Burroughs says. “It took it two weeks to really settle in. We're like, "We better read this thing (again). We wrote it two years ago.' ”

        But the offer was contingent on coming up with what the network considered the right actors to play Bill and Judy Miller. When Burroughs and Gutierrez couldn't find the perfect Bill, CBS suggested Addy, a successful British actor who played the chunky, unemployed steelworker who doffed it all for a few quid in “The Full Monty”.

        Addy wasn't necessarily looking for a stateside TV series, but the “Still Standing “script made him laugh. “A lot of people say that comedy doesn't travel well,” he says. “I found it very accessible.”

        With no Judy jumping out during auditions, the studio mentioned Gertz. Burroughs and Gutierrez admired her work, but knew her more for playing upscale, uptight types rather than the working-class, roll-with-the-punches Judy. “That wasn't how I was perceived, as blue-collar Jami Gertz,” says the actress, who also hails from the Chicago area. Nonetheless, “I (understood) their voice. I knew I could play it.”

        The two actors jelled. “I don't know that we would have cast these people (as first choices), but they turned out to be perfect,” Gutierrez says. “It's better to be lucky than smart.” CBS also liked the chemistry: The network announced in mid-May that “Still Standing “ would get its best available time period in the fall.

        Making music

        As soon as they got the nod, Burroughs and Gutierrez scrambled to gather a writing staff, competing with dozens of shows in an annual Hollywood hiring frenzy.

        The nine writers, who range from newcomers in their 20s to TV veterans with their own teenagers, have credits from shows such as “Married
       ellipsis With Children”, “Dharma & Greg “and “Just Shoot Me”. They're working to have five scripts ready by the time the actors arrive for informal readings Aug. 7. Six days later, “Still Standing “will have its “opening night,” the first episode taped before a live audience in the 207-seat studio.

        “The sitcom is the closest format, shooting style, to live theater,” says Randy Cordray, the producer overseeing much of the daily operation. “You're rehearsing and shooting a stage play every week.”

        Cordray, brought on by the executive producers, likens his line producing job to that of a general contractor - from hiring production staff and crew to managing the budget to down to helping find the right composer and music for the title sequence. On a recent weekday, as Cordray sat in his office, listening to Bob Seger tunes to get the right Midwestern feel, Burroughs and Gutierrez huddled in a nearby room with the writers, outlining a story about the perils of disagreeing with a spouse.

        The executive producers, who earlier had attended a casting session for a supporting role, had to leave for a conference call to discuss “notes” - the comments and suggestions about stories, characters and scripts made by network and studio executives.

        The execs are especially concerned about the crucial first few episodes, when a series can cement - or alienate - an audience. “You want to do five pilots, kind of, to give people a chance to come to the show,” Gutierrez says.

        Executives want those episodes to focus on Bill and Judy; they say the loving, arguing couple, who still get in trouble together, gives “Still Standing “its distinctive feel. “They want us to keep shining a light on these two,” Burroughs tells the writers.

        For Burroughs and Gutierrez, the next few months could be the longest of their lives. But the opportunity to run their own show is a TV writer's dream. Their challenge is to hold onto it; they believe they can.

        Then again, there's Gutierrez' mother, Victoria, the family pessimist and a big influence on her son's comic sensibility. The day the show was picked up by the network, he says with a laugh, “The first thing she said was, "”Ooh”, I hope it's not one of the first ones canceled.' ”

        Families are like that.

       



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