Comedy to Get Your Teeth into ; Fred Barron Was a Creative Force Behind Those Most American of Shows, Seinfeld and the Larry Sanders Show. So Why Has He Come to Britain for His Latest Sitcom?
Viner, Brian, The Independent (London, England)
The quest for television's holy grail resumed this week, as a new pre-watershed sitcom was unveiled on BBC1. My Family has a top- notch cast headed by Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker. Lindsay plays a dentist, Wanamaker his wife. Robert Hanks, The Independent's TV critic, was cautiously impressed: "The `sit' is not new, [but] the `com' is above average."
The really unusual thing about My Family, though, is not that it has funny bits, although these days, frankly, that is pretty unusual for a pre-watershed sitcom on BBC1 (and almost unprecedented on ITV). No, the unusual thing is that it was conceived by a man called Fred Barron, a man as American as root beer, yet who chose, on turning to root canals, to come to Britain. Again, as Hanks wrote: "My Family is an intriguing experiment - an attempt to marry the two styles of comedy, grafting Yankee know-how on to British class."
I track down the man responsible for this intriguing experiment to his holiday home on Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, stamping ground of American presidents and successful comedy writers (who earn considerably more than American presidents). Barron's writing credits include Seinfeld and The Larry Sanders Show, like having played football for Manchester United and Real Madrid. But he has long wanted to write a sitcom inspired by his father, a curmudgeonly dentist with a tendency to smoke cigarettes over his patients. There was no shortage of interest from the US networks. However, Barron knew they would want to distort his vision, to heap sugar on the acid. "And sure enough, they said, `does he have to be a dentist? Does he have to be so cranky?' "
Barron's thoughts began to flit across the Atlantic. He loved the uncompromising, sometimes painful comedy of Fawlty Towers and Absolutely Fabulous, and lamented the way in which One Foot In The Grave had been emasculated in America, where it was re-made with cuddly Bill Cosby as Victor Meldrew. Happily, he knew a TV mogul called Don Taffner, whose company makes the BBC1 comedy As Time Goes By (starring Geoffrey Palmer, who long ago in Butterflies played a curmudgeonly dentist - in television, there are generally only three degrees of separation). Anyway, Taffner engineered a meeting between Barron and Geoffrey Perkins, the BBC's Head of Comedy.
"He was very open to the project," recalls Barron, "but concerned about the sentimentality typical of American television. This was music to my ears." Yet Barron did not want to abandon his roots. "I wanted to make it as I would have done in America - basically tailor the scripts to the actors," he says. He also wanted to create an American-style team of writers, so he brought two of his compatriots, brothers Steve and Jim Armogida, then hired two Brits, Ian Brown and James Hendrie. They all got along famously. Nevertheless, there were, yes, teething troubles.
"In the UK, making television programmes is like a relay race. The writer passes …
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Publication information: Article title: Comedy to Get Your Teeth into ; Fred Barron Was a Creative Force Behind Those Most American of Shows, Seinfeld and the Larry Sanders Show. So Why Has He Come to Britain for His Latest Sitcom?. Contributors: Viner, Brian - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: September 23, 2000. Page number: 8. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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