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The Gift of Gab

The WB's 'Gilmore Girls' thrives off snappy repartee inspired by Hepburn and Tracy, and Dorothy Parker.

April 09, 2001|HUGH HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's a boudoir really, more than an office, this space on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank where Amy Sherman-Palladino creates the stories for "Gilmore Girls." A critically acclaimed show with a "terribly tough" Thursday night time slot opposite "Friends" and "Survivor," the WB's hourlong "dramedy" is hatched each week in a room where nearly everything is pink, fuchsia or crimson, except for the life-size cardboard cutout of "Angel's" David Boreanaz and the chocolate pudding the show's star, Lauren Graham, is having for lunch.

Graham folds her lean frame onto the pink divan, taking a load off the go-go boots with their 4-inch heels--the ones she wears as single mom Lorelai Gilmore. It's halfway through a 12-hour shooting day and months since the series debuted, but Graham still sounds enthusiastic about her role.

"It's rare that there's a character who has such a specific voice," she said.

"There's so many dramas . . . where the people are distinguished by their actions or behaviors as opposed to how they speak." And how Lorelai speaks is fast, tossing off wry one-liners faster than Annie Hall on amphetamines.

"Almost every scene in this show benefits from speeding it up," Graham said. "It gives it the right energy."

Sherman-Palladino, a petite live-wire outfitted in silver spray-painted combat boots and Capri pants, elaborated on Graham's delivery: "It makes things fly, and I don't know a lot of actresses who could do that. It's hard enough to be in character, hit your emotional moments and handle all the technical things you need to know, but then to have a specific rhythm and a specific speed--that is Lauren Graham."

Sherman-Palladino, 34, said she wanted to get her own voice on television and in Graham's character. Lorelai runs a New England inn staffed by a French concierge who hates dealing with the public and a clumsy perfectionist cook who rejects nearly all produce deliveries. Neighbors include Sally Struthers as a cat-loving slacker living with her much taller husband, in a house where all the doorways appear to be scaled for dwarfs. Down the street, a Korean American antiques store owner sells desks out from under her daughter while she's trying to do her homework.

At 32, Lorelai is grappling with dating and addicted to strong coffee, takeout and short skirts. Above all, she is devoted to her brainy, Harvard-bound 16-year-old daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel), determined to see her daughter enjoy all the opportunities Lorelai missed out on after becoming pregnant at age 16.

Sherman-Palladino said "Gilmore Girls' " zippy repartee was inspired by Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films, in which relationships are revealed through sparring dialogue rather than pages of tedious exposition. "Just by listening to Lorelai's vocal patterns, it says volumes about this woman: First of all, that she's bright enough to put that many words together that quickly . . . and it says a lot about her emotionally, that she's got a deflection shield that's sort of the way she gets through the world, which says survivor."

If the show's breakneck pace is modeled on Hepburn-Tracy comedies, Lorelai's propensity toward acerbic bon mots might be explained by Sherman-Palladino's obsession with legendary New Yorker writer Dorothy Parker.

"Genius. Love her," said Sherman-Palladino. "Here's this bitter, boozy and yet incredibly witty woman. I loved not only her writing style, I loved who she was, and I loved her shortcomings."

Graham chimed in, "She was so alone too--there was nobody like her in her community, she had no . . . "

"She had no support system at all," Sherman-Palladino said, completing the thought. "She would take money for writing assignments and then wouldn't do them. Everything about her always made me laugh, even the way she died; I mean, she was this big gin addict and she didn't care. First, it was, 'I'm gonna die young,' then it was, 'I'm gonna die youngish.' And then she was like 80 and it was, 'Apparently I'm not dying young.' "

Sherman-Palladino named her production company Dorothy Parker Drank Here as a last-minute name switch from the Devil's Concubine. A series produced by a woman who worships Dorothy Parker and cozies up to Satan might seem unlikely to receive the stamp of approval from any organization with the word "family" in it, but last year, the Family Friendly Advertising Forum gave the WB $1 million for script development of "Gilmore Girls." Forum funding comes from Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and more than 40 other mainstream advertisers. (The WB is part-owned by Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times.)

Short Skirts, Sarcasm and a Romance

J. Andrea Alstrup, Johnson & Johnson corporate vice president of advertising, who helped organize the Forum in 1998, said, "I'm really pleased with the development of the show--there's lots of shows with less audience delivery than 'Gilmore Girls,' and I still like the premise. The challenge is to be creatively entertaining without having to be sugary sweet."

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