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'Social Studies': Change in Lesson Plans

Television: Sitcom creator-producer Nancylee Myatt, as a UCI student, thought she'd become an actress.

March 22, 1997|STEVEN HERBERT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When she was attending UC Irvine in the late '70s, Nancylee Myatt wanted to be an actress. Now millions of Americans are watching her work on TV--but as a writer, not as a star.

Myatt is the creator and co-executive producer of "Social Studies," a UPN sitcom set at a boarding school in Manhattan. It premiered Tuesday on KCOP-TV Channel 13.

Myatt moved to Los Angeles after college and says she "did very well" appearing in TV commercials, including spots for Volkswagen and Van de Kamp's frozen fish. But as she "fell in with a great group of actors, directors and writers, they encouraged me to write. My actor friends needed material, so I started [coming up with] jokes and sketches."

She spent the next two TV seasons as a writers' assistant with Witt-Thomas Productions, one of the most prolific suppliers of sitcoms. Working on "Mama's Family," her job was to take writers' suggestions for script changes and put them into the computer. "I had the opportunity to work with some really wonderful writers and watch how [the process] worked," she recalls. "I thought, 'I can do this.' "

Two of those writers, Chris Cluess and Stewart Kreisman, brought her along when they moved to Warner Bros. "They were secure enough and cool enough to allow me to pitch jokes, and quite a few landed in the scripts," Myatt says. "They believed I had the potential to be a writer."

They encouraged her to apply to the Warner Bros. Writer's Workshop. She graduated in 1990, whereupon Cluess and Kreisman hired her to be part of the "Night Court" writing staff. She ended up as an executive story editor, and in 1992 wrote the last episode of the show's final season.

Over the next four seasons, she held a number of jobs including executive story consultant to "The Powers That Be." Her path to her current position started in 1994 when she was hired by Sandollar Television to write a sitcom pilot for Dolly Parton.

The network passed on it, but Sandollar commissioned Myatt to create a series about three women--one 16, one 30 and one 40. The idea eventually mutated into "Social Studies."

Myatt decided to make "Social Studies" as real as possible and to give it an edge, as she puts it. She went into America Online's teenage chat rooms, identifying herself as an adult and asking participants about the TV shows they watch, the music they listen to and the slang they use.

Another step was casting actors about the same age as the characters they would portray. "It's important to me," says Myatt, "that when a girl turns on this show and looks at the screen, she sees somebody that looks just like her and doesn't see the glamorous '90210' girl. Age is really important to that."

Such commitment has its problems, however: State laws and regulations mandate daily classroom time and maximum work hours for child actors. Indeed, Myatt says, she "completely understands now" why other shows cast adults in teenage roles. "The school time made it really difficult for us to get a show in the can each week." Still, she says, "what I try to do is be truthful."

Six episodes of "Social Studies" have been taped, and two more scripts have been ordered by UPN. The network will announce in May if the series will be on its fall schedule. (Though Tuesday's premiere drew generally negative reviews, it did relatively well in the ratings).

"I'd love to see 'Social Studies' have a nice long run," says Myatt, who meanwhile has been working on some movie scripts. "Success breeds opportunities. If 'Social Studies' gets legs, then people might be a little more open to hearing my ideas."

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