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Married ... With Issues

Television

The new sitcom starring his wife, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, might settle the debate about writer Brad Hall.

February 10, 2002|PAUL BROWNFIELD

At 2:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, Brad Hall took lunch at his desk on the Culver Studios lot. His office is spacious but barren, the big desk and big couch looking like the last two pieces of furniture to be hauled out on moving day. Hall opened a takeout container and began picking at a chicken sandwich and fries. There was a reporter on his couch, and as he ate, Hall persevered with amiable self-deprecation through a series of questions, all of which seemed a little dishonest, given their underlying theme: Would you be here if you weren't married to Julia Louis-Dreyfus?

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 14, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
"Fawlty Towers" episodes--There were only 12 episodes of the British TV series "Fawlty Towers." A quote in a Feb. 10 Sunday Calendar story about the NBC upcoming sitcom "Watching Ellie" said there were 16.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 17, 2002 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
"Fawlty Towers" episodes--There were only 12 episodes of the British TV series "Fawlty Towers." A quote in a Feb. 10 story about "Watching Ellie" indicated there were four more.

On Feb. 26 at 8:30 p.m., Louis-Dreyfus will become the third former "Seinfeld" co-star to begin a new series, playing a nightclub jazz singer in the midseason NBC comedy "Watching Ellie." Ellie is Eleanor Riggs, a plucky vocalist of some talent who must nevertheless get by singing at weddings and such. After nine seasons on "Seinfeld," shining in her own way but also under the creative auspices of men, Louis-Dreyfus gets to show off her considerable sex appeal, and yes, sing. Ellie is single and lives in a Los Angeles apartment (think Los Feliz-area one bedroom, $1,400 a month, walking distance to trendy stuff on Vermont), and she is pursued by a collection of damaged men whom the "Sex and the City" gals would reduce to punch lines in less than one breakfast.

Most prominently, "Watching Ellie" will test whether Louis-Dreyfus can overcome the perceived "Seinfeld" albatross, after the resounding failures of "The Michael Richards Show" and "Bob Patterson," starring Jason Alexander. But "Watching Ellie" is also a test of Hall, who created the show, and whose career has come to epitomize the excessive, multimillion-dollar studio deals handed out to sitcom writers in the 1990s, when huge hits abounded and one needed only to have spent time in the writers' room of "Friends," "Seinfeld" or "Cheers" to cash in.

Today, the environment is less generous, most of those so-called "overall deals" having failed to produce new hits. In the current sitcom recession, dramas grab the headlines and unscripted programming keeps proving it's more than a passing curiosity. But success can still be had by being in the right place at the right time. By being married, for instance, to Louis-Dreyfus at the moment she decides to return to prime time.

This isn't the first time that Hall, who has virtually no sitcom staff experience, has managed to skip over the years-long steps by which a TV writer becomes a show runner--that is, the executive producer who oversees all aspects of a project. What is still unknown is whether Hall truly deserves the abuse of his peers, or whether the combination of disdain and envy he inspires is more global, of a sort that could be directed at any writer whose development deal bought a big house but didn't create a good show.

Hall, 43, joined this fraternity (and it is mostly men) in 1996, when he signed a development deal with Big Ticket Television to create sitcoms for a reported $15 million. The deal, which tied Hall exclusively to CBS, made him one of the highest-paid writers in television, even though his only show-running experience had come as executive producer of NBC's "The Single Guy," the failed mid-'90s sitcom starring Jonathan Silverman as a single guy (hence the title) surrounded by a gaggle of married friends.

NBC liked the pilot, but came to dislike the show and Hall's handling of it. He was dismissed or left, depending on whom you talk to, and went directly into the embrace of his Big Ticket millions. In a Daily Variety article announcing the deal, Hall's handlers noted that CBS had "identified Brad very early on as [being] at the forefront of a new generation of show creators," and the credits that suggested Hall's chops were duly noted: former writer-performer on "Saturday Night Live"; mentored by respected writer-producer Gary David Goldberg on the acclaimed series "Brooklyn Bridge." Plus, he came from theater.

Hall's exclusive arrangement with CBS included heavy episodic commitments to whatever ideas he dreamed up. "He will bring a slightly younger demographic to the network, a different sensibility for us," CBS Television President Leslie Moonves said at the time.

Hall made at least one pilot he liked for Big Ticket and CBS, but it didn't make it to air, and with more than a year left on his contract, he walked away from the game altogether, evidently beaten down by politics. He left millions on the table. "He was honorable," says Larry Lyttle, Big Ticket Television chief. "Most people wouldn't have done what Brad Hall did. People should say, 'There's a really solid guy.'"

Hall withdrew, temporarily, in that wonderful way that Hollywood's writer establishment can withdraw. He saw movies and read books. He adapted two novels into unproduced screenplays and took some script doctor assignments from the studios. He spent time with his kids and practiced classical guitar.

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