"This middle-aged housewife fights a never-ending battle against dirt, grime and waxy yellow build up in Westlake Village, Calif. Her Herculean efforts are not helped by three messy sons, dozens of neighborhood kids, animals and the mud pit in the front yard that was going to be the Jacuzzi. Mary dreams of the day that she can prove to her long-suffering husband that she can keep the place spic and span."
If that sounds to you like a publicity blurb for an old sitcom, you're only partly right.
It's a publicity blurb for a new sitcom, and the heroine is beleaguered Westlake Village homemaker Mary Jacobs, who seems to attract chaos much as Lucy Ricardo and Mary Hartman did in TV generations past.
The difference is that 38-year-old Mary Jacobs is real--one of five winners in a cable-television network's nationwide contest to choose likely subjects for development into a full-fledged comedy series.
Jacobs was chosen out of hundreds of applicants who sent letters and videotapes in response to the "Nick at Nite Do It Yourself Sitcom Contest," a competition sponsored by Nickelodeon, a cable channel that reaches about 30 million homes.
Nickelodeon crews taped a 10-minute episode at Jacobs' home this week. It will be broadcast, along with episodes revolving around the four other winners, later this fall. Viewers will phone in their choices for the best episode, which will be considered for series status, network officials said.
"She sent us this incredible letter," said producer Dave Potorti. "It was a collage of pictures of her kids and the neighbor kids, and it was on this fluorescent paper. She impressed us with her skills at using scissors and paste, as well as her writing skills."
A videotape clinched the deal. "Her house is truly the messiest place I've ever seen," Potorti said. "It just floored us."
But Jacobs, an aspiring writer, claims only a small measure of domestic genius. Hers is the only home in her posh, gated subdivision to boast a two-foot deep mudhole--"our Jacuzzi," she says--in the front yard. An old door serves as a slide down the stairs, a tent is sometimes set up in the living room, and the kids get to take felt-tip pens to their bedroom walls.
Her impressionistic housekeeping standards are outlined in an unpublished book of advice to housewives, which originally was titled "Autobiography of a Nobody," but later changed to "How to Keep Your Mind From Turning to Oatmeal."
Among the volume's recipes are "complete failure cookies"--chunks of salami on toothpicks. "Then there are my 'incomplete failure' cookies," says Jacobs, who claims she once was fired from a teaching job for telling too many jokes. "You make incomplete failure cookies by cutting up raw cookie dough. They're incomplete, see?"
After seven publishers rejected her book, Jacobs resigned herself to a life of TV-gazing, "just like I was supposed to do," but was sparked out of lethargy by the sitcom opportunity.
"My life is like the Beverly Hillbillies," she says. "We live in this fancy neighborhood, but my car is filled with old junk food. My husband is vice president of a high-tech company in the Valley, and he's always bringing people from all over the world home to dinner to see how America really lives."
TV Became Reality
That, Potorti said, is the whole idea. "TV shows back in the '50s like 'I Love Lucy' were based on real life," he said. "In the intervening years, things got turned around, and people started to look at TV as reality, and felt their lives weren't real unless they were wearing the same clothes as the people on 'Dynasty' or whatever."
But real people aren't always funny, he acknowledged. Among those turned down in the sitcom contest were a New Jersey man with a pet rat he would carry on his head, a Connecticut man who placed a microphone in his cat's litter box and a military couple who would salute each other at home.
Jacobs presumably keeps more laughable company with the winners--the principals of a Cleveland ad-jingle agency, a British trucker transplanted to Tennessee, a Florida couple living with the wife's long-divorced parents and a Louisiana family with odd hobbies.
"Some of them sound so bizarre," she said. "I've never really looked at myself as all that unusual."