Over the last four years, baby boomers have relived their childhood via Nick at Nite, the quirky cable station that airs reruns of such TV series as "Mr. Ed," "My Three Sons" and "The Donna Reed Show."
This Wednesday, Nick at Nite tries something new: an original show. "The Early Days" is a pilot for a regular series set during the Golden Age of TV.
The initial episode visits the chaotic debut of "The Sam Arnold Show," a mythical variety show within the show. The half-hour comedy also goes behind-the-scenes with Sam (Ray Gill), his ex-wife Elise (Janet Zarish) and the cast and crew of "The Sam Arnold Show."
The pilot, in black and white and in color, was created and written by Will McRobb and Joe Stillman, with "I Love Lucy" writers/creators Bob Carroll and Madelyn Davis serving as creative consultants.
"The Early Days" is not a nostalgia sitcom in the vein of "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley."
"The interesting thing about the program is that we are trying to capture the magic of what we call the Golden Age of Television," said Geoffrey Darby, senior vice president, Nickelodeon/Nick at Nite Production.
"We are not going back and making a sitcom about the Golden Age of Television. We are going back and trying to give people a place where there are good stories, well made, that sort of emotionally tug you."
McRobb, the mastermind behind the inventive series promos seen on Nick at Nite, added, "We wanted to recapture the feelings that people had back then. People used to get dressed up to watch TV and then would sit down and enjoy an evening of TV.
"We were kind of hoping not only to recreate the historical details but also the attitude toward TV that it is a wonderful thing, a kind of innocent thing. Nobody knew how it worked or where it was going to go, but it just felt right. I think part of it was an emotional feeling. That took a lot of rewriting."
Carroll and Davis, McRobb said, came aboard after the project's first draft was written. "They wrote the first five years of 'Lucy,' so we went to them for tips and ideas and they gave us great advice to make it more authentic."
Darby believes "The Early Days" reflects Nick at Nite's concept of a TV Land, which is the network's feeling and approach to the vintage programs it airs.
"TV Land is a place that has an emotional hook with our audience," he said. "We treat things that are not real life as real. We treat the fact that Mr. Ed can dial a telephone and talk as real. We treat those characters (from old sitcoms) as if they are alive.
"There are many reruns in our world and a lot of them don't actually belong on Nick at Nite. You wouldn't see something on Nick that just came off network programming, like 'The Cosby Show,' because there is actually a better show that defines TV Land, like 'Father Knows Best.'
"We think the next stage is to create product and TV programs that are truly representative of TV Land."
McRobb takes the concept of TV Land very seriously. He has a true love for the classic series seen on Nick at Nite. "I grew up watching stuff like 'The Brady Bunch' and 'The Partridge Family,' " he said. "I think I feel the way most people do about early to mid-'70s TV, that it was schlock that ruined my brain.
"But working at Nick at Nite, I grew up all over again watching 'Donna Reed' and 'My Three Sons.' I have a very reverent attitude toward these shows."
"The Early Days" isn't the only new series on the Nick at Nite drawing board. This month, Nick will shoot a pilot for a sitcom entitled "Hi, Honey I'm Home."
"This is high concept," Darby said, "this is like a horse that can talk. It's about rerun families. When they get canceled on TV, they don't go away. They go into the sitcom relocation program and they are placed in modern-day color setting. But they are still the characters that existed on the (vintage) TV show.
"They are placed there until they get picked up by another channel and put back on the air. It's a clash of 1950s values with 1990s values. And that clash provides the humor."
"Hi, Honey I'm Home," will air on Nick early next year. Like "The Early Days," it too could become a series.
"We will air them in a block and call them 'Nick at Nite New. ' "
"The Early Days" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. and repeats Saturday at 8:30 p.m. on Nickelodeon (cable).