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STRANGERS IN A STRANGE LAND

Two Writers From New York Move to L.A. to Do a TV Sitcom. The Story Lines Are Endless.

September 08, 1996

Just what happens to your life after your sitcom hits it big on TV? Sure, there's the money and fame. But, aside from those incidentals, what's it really like? * Let's pick a series, say "3rd Rock From the Sun," which premiered on NBC earlier this year. The comedy about four aliens in earthling bodies hit it big almost immediately. The creators, Bonnie Turner and Terry Turner, had spent seven seasons as writers for "Saturday Night Live," living in New York City. They commuted to Los Angeles when their work as screenwriters for "The Brady Bunch Movie," "Wayne's World," Wayne's World 2" and "Tommy Boy" dictated, but it wasn't until 1994 that they agreed to move to Los Angeles and write a situation comedy for Carsey-Werner Productions. * So, Bonnie & Terry, what is it like? (And by the way, are you going through life connected by an ampersand?)

*

It was in midtown manhattan about 31/2 years ago that our business manager announced, "You are now making more money in California than you are in New York." This was met with a blank look from us, for while we knew that making more money was good, there was something in Stuart's tone that meant we were going to have to reconsider things. We didn't know what. Then he added, "You are paying taxes in Manhattan and California. You might think about moving." It was a hard decision. We had what we thought was the best of both worlds. Writing movies in Los Angeles and working in late-night television in New York. We thought, no. We're not moving.

It wasn't as if we had never been to Los Angeles, or didn't like it. We had spent the previous three summers working at Paramount. We had made friends there. John Goldwyn, the studio's president of production, had guided us through the pitfalls of movie writing, and we felt like Hollywood was a great second home. Our daughter loved it. She spent her days at theme parks and cruised around boulevards she had only seen in Aaron Spelling productions. She hung around movie sets and had her picture taken with members of Aerosmith. At night we returned to our rental home and lounged by the pool and talked about how we were going to re-carpet the apartment on West 88th Street. We were bicoastal and damn proud of it. We were back living in New York when we worked on "The Brady Bunch Movie." Even then, we never thought we would move. But then again, we never thought we would create a sitcom. Life changes.

Friends and family ask us what it is like to work in half-hour comedy. We are not sure. By the end of this day, we still will not be sure. The only thing we can confidently say is we like the place we work, we like our new house and we like our car. Which is a good thing, because these are the only places we've been since "3rd Rock From the Sun" started production.

The history of the show was a little odd in that it jumped from ABC, which developed it, to NBC. ABC was not exactly warm to the show. NBC, on the other hand, was openly excited when we arrived. Our agent, Marty Adelstein, told us that a move like this usually never happens. We nodded. But we weren't really surprised because throughout our career we had heard that phrase a lot. We have even considered it as an epitaph for whichever one of us goes first. "Here lies Bonnie/Terry Turner--This usually never happens."

NBC started us up in the fall of '95. After making 13 shows, we still weren't on the air. We began to joke that we were making the world's most expensive home movies. When "3rd Rock" first aired, many people were surprised (most of them pleasantly) by its success. We thought, "This is great! We premiered in the Top Ten." Looking back, we were very naive. We were new to sitcoms and didn't fully understand the odds. We merely assumed "3rd Rock" would do well because of the people involved. After all, the show had John Lithgow at the helm, Jane Curtin opposite him and a gifted supporting ensemble. Jim Burrows directed the pilot episode. There was a big, bright promotional campaign from NBC. And, of course, Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach had guided the show from the beginning. How could it miss? Right?

It wasn't until after the show was on the air that we saw the big picture. There was a nearly overwhelming rush of joyous enthusiasm from everyone involved. In that moment, we realized how slim the chances were of the show's making it. It felt like the elevator in the Empire State Building. Like children we wondered, "When does it stop going up? When do I get my stomach back?" Suddenly we were thankful for our ignorance. If we had known how high the platform was, we probably would never have taken the leap. Or at least not without a major prescription from a licensed professional.

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