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The Revenge of Successful Sitcoms : The TV shows of Tom Miller and Bob Boyett are often maligned by critics, but their rewards are in the ratings

TV'S IMAGE MAKERS: First in an occasional series on the people who create what you watch on television.

January 14, 1990|STEVE WEINSTEIN

Thirty million people a night is the best revenge. Well, maybe the only revenge when you are two of the most successful sitcom producers in television, but the critics and the people who hand out awards either ignore your efforts or, worse yet, mock them.

"The Hogan Family" might get some notice in TV Guide when Jason Bateman insists on using a condom; "Full House" might grab some attention for featuring the cutest toddler on television, and "Perfect Strangers" might elicit a knowing nod for presenting the guy who played the hilariously funny Serge, the gay art dealer, in the film "Beverly Hills Cop."

But neither Bronson Pinchot, who plays Balki in "Perfect Strangers," nor Bateman, who plays David Hogan, the eldest brother in his fantasy-perfect sitcom family, nor the writers, producers or directors of any of these robustly rated sitcoms ever get nominated for Emmys. They don't get applauded for breaking any new television ground. They rarely even nab a favorable review.

All they ever do is win their time periods, luring millions of people to TV sets each week with their age-old mix of silly jokes, pratfalls, funny faces, lovey-dovey, huggy-wuggy sweetness--some call it sappiness--and a family unit that, no matter what wacky shenanigans it gets itself into, is full of love and admiration for each and every member at the end of each and every half hour.

That is the world of Tom Miller and Bob Boyett, executive producers of such renown television shows as "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," "Mork & Mindy" and "Bosom Buddies" as well as "Valerie"--now the "The Hogan Family"--and half of ABC's winning Friday night schedule: "Full House," "Family Matters" and "Perfect Strangers." A world where hugs and adoring smiles translate into big ratings and big bucks. A world where real-life problems melt away in the feverish afterglow of fictitious family harmony. A world where sentiment is not a dirty word.

A world that Miller and Boyett cultivate both on and off the small screen.

"It has to do with who we are," Boyett says. "We don't set out to say what can we do to get a warm moment in this show, but Tom and I aren't very cynical. We love families and we love building families. We even build (the crew of) each show like a family. We want a certain amount of nurturing people, a certain amount of women and older people. We want a great happy family of people there.

"And when we sit down to design a show, that's just a part of us. Tom is Richie Cunningham from Milwaukee. I'm a guy from Atlanta who's not a real Hollywood kind of person. We do like a little sentiment. We do think people should make a human connection with each other."

Miller Boyett Productions makes that peculiar breed of sitcom--the 8 and 8:30 p.m. show. The kind of series deliberately designed to coax the mass audience into watching their network at the beginning of the television evening and then to keep them there for the sometimes more sophisticated fare that pops up later. The kind of shows that must have something for children and teen-agers and adults. Shows that NBC Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff says, "Children actively look forward to seeing the way many adults look forward to 'L.A. Law,' 'thirtysomething' or 'China Beach.' "

"I like the fact that I can sit down with my kids (aged 5 and 8) on Friday night to watch these shows," Stu Bloomberg, ABC's executive vice president of prime time, says of his network's Miller-Boyett heavy Friday lineup.

The trick to these sitcoms, Miller and Boyett say, is to create a family of some sort, even if it's not a typical mother, father and three kids type of family, that the audience wants to be a part of every week. And you need a "vision, a sensibility," that the audience will be interested in week after week for--if all goes well--several years and more than a hundred episodes.

The hook--"Full House" features three adult men raising three little girls, and "Perfect Strangers" tells the story of a greenhorn from a tiny Mediterranean island who moves in with his American cousin in Chicago--helps sell the show to the networks. But those hooks, Miller and Boyett say, aren't nearly as important as the "sensibility" of these shows, which always feature open communication among family members, interpersonal or family problems resolved in a positive and cheerful manner and a warm, fuzzy moment some 22 minutes into the show.

Critics often call them derivative, stupid, unrealistic and trite, and they frequently lament the mass audience's almost addictive zeal for such mind-numbing gushiness. While more sophisticated, less predictable comedies such as "The Wonder Years," "Murphy Brown" and "Cheers" may win the Emmys and the critics' hearts, Miller and Boyett nevertheless are heartened by their audience's loyalty.

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