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Television

Married ... With Issues

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

February 10, 2002|PAUL BROWNFIELD

"I think Jeff wants to be the cat that ate the canary on this one," says a show source, acknowledging that the scuttlebutt around town is generally cynical about "Watching Ellie's" prospects for survival. It didn't help when Carsey Werner Mandabach, the boutique independent studio tapped to oversee the production, got skittish about the financial arrangement and withdrew its money from the show.

It is with the confidence of a network head that Zucker calls Louis-Dreyfus "a very enticing star." Of the series, which has tentatively been given a 12-episode order, Zucker says: "It does get funnier, but it's never going to be 'Friends' or 'Will & Grace.'" He means that it's unfair to judge a single-camera show alongside a bawdy laugher. He also keeps mentioning Louis-Dreyfus' name, as in: "I personally believe a lot in Julia, and I really like the different concept."

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.

Hall has been with Louis-Dreyfus for more than 20 years and married to her for 15; he loves her more than anyone. "She's unbelievable and real," he says. "On 'Seinfeld,' that was sort of her job, to be the one who was very, very real. And funny, but real. And the way she worked with props, the way she eats, the way she does certain things on screen, I think, is just amazing. And not easy. And easily overlooked. It's a really special skill to be able to pick up a phone the way that a human picks up a phone. It's not as easy as you think."

They were drama students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., when they met. Hall founded the Practical Theater Company and hired Louis-Dreyfus to be in one of his shows. She would later be cast in the famed improvisational comedy troupe next door, Second City.

Together, Hall and Louis-Dreyfus were plucked for the cast of "Saturday Night Live," enduring two unremarkable seasons, 1982-84. They moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s; soon enough, Louis-Dreyfus hit the mother lode, cast as Elaine Benes, the ex-girlfriend-turned-pal of comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Hall acted in features. At a dinner party in 1991, he says, he met Gary David Goldberg. The two hit it off, and Hall went to work on two of Goldberg's subsequent series, "American Dreamer," a sitcom, and the nostalgic "Brooklyn Bridge," which mixed comedy and drama.

All of this, of course, happened before he became that Brad Hall. "I was very, very happy in Chicago as an actor making $168 a week," he says. "And when it became more important in the paper how much money I was making, I thought that was grotesque."

On "Watching Ellie," Hall has a writing staff of four. On this Friday, three of them are holed up in a room that has an empty bookcase and a smaller sofa than Hall's (perhaps superstition prevents writers of new shows from actually moving in to their digs).

They are Andrew Gottlieb (formerly of "The Single Guy"), Joe Furey (formerly of "NewsRadio") and Jeffrey Ross, best known for his work on Comedy Central as a kind of third-generation Friar's Club comedian. They insist that media reports of the show's imminent demise are greatly exaggerated and bat around the misnomer of the "Seinfeld" curse. "I think people are angry that you're not playing these characters anymore," Furey says.

There is no writers' room, per se, on "Watching Ellie." At "The Single Guy," where Hall did run a room, he earned a reputation as someone who didn't trust his writers. It was a staff that included Jay Kogen ("Frasier," "The Simpsons") and Max Mutchnick and David Kohan, the creative team behind "Will & Grace."

The image of Hall that emerges, from some of those who were around the show at the time, is of a harried show runner trying to please two masters, increasingly torn between fickle network demands and his own vision--not so much imperious as overwhelmed. "The writers were standing around doing nothing," says someone familiar with how the show functioned.

Hall concedes that he did a lot of solo rewrites ("We were behind a lot," he says, "so there was a lot of catching-up writing, late at night"). He adds, of the joke rooms that dominate network comedies: "I just don't like it. So I never really did it that way."

None of this behind-the-scenes tumult is unusual. The trick, of course, is to produce a hit show, at which point you're deemed an eccentric genius (i.e., Aaron Sorkin, the dramatist-savant behind "The West Wing").

"Part of the skill is not so much how great a pure writer you are, but also your ability to navigate the network waters," says Marty Adelstein, Hall's longtime agent, who is leaving the Endeavor Agency to become a talent manager. "He's a pure creator and a pure writer."

There isn't much on the resume to back this up, but then Hall has experienced the flip side of this hyperbole. He has been told he's great and handed millions, and then had to pay the price for having powerful handlers able to close big deals.

Hall will tell you "The Single Guy" wasn't a bad show, and that it did a better job of holding its "Friends" lead-in audience than any of the please-be-like-"Friends" sitcoms NBC has scheduled Thursday nights at 8:30 since.

The show averaged nearly 25 million viewers its first season, which would have been terrific for anything that wasn't sandwiched between "Friends" and "Seinfeld."

He will also say that his development deal was a mistake. Artistically. "Maybe they work out sometimes. I don't know, do they?

And then Hall says what you've perhaps been waiting for him to say all along: "You know what? I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I have an unbelievably beautiful, well-known wife. And the people who criticize me don't."

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"Watching Ellie" will air Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. beginning Feb. 26 on NBC.

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Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer.

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