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A 'Life' That's Bonnie Hunt All Over

The Second City veteran uses her improv skills to write, act and direct a sitcom that is shot in a unique way.

November 03, 2002|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

Bonnie Hunt is still on a high from working with veteran comedy star Carl Reiner the day before on her new ABC sitcom, "Life With Bonnie." "It was the thrill of my life," she says breathlessly over the phone. "Carl Reiner is perfection. The crew gave him a standing ovation. For me, all is right in the world. This is all goodness. It's just nice to meet these people and be in their presence and learn from them."

That upbeat demeanor may seem hard to imagine, given that "Life With Bonnie" has been trailing in its time period behind NBC's "Frasier" and CBS' "The Guardian." But the network has given the freshman comedy series a vote of confidence by picking it up for the entire season. It also is seen in repeats Saturdays on cable's ABC Family.

In the family comedy, Hunt plays Bonnie Molloy, a harried housewife and mother of three, who is the host of a morning TV talk show in Chicago. The Reiner episode, in which the creator of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" plays the owner of the television station, airs this week.

Hunt, a former nurse, created the series with Don Lake. Both have written the episodes and Hunt is directing all but three installments. She sees wearing several hats as really one job.

"It's just easier [to direct]. I am a storyteller, and I take great pride in the storytelling and a great joy. I have this incredible crew. The cameraman and I get together in the morning and I go over what I want to see and how I want to shoot it."

The majority of sitcoms, like "Friends" and "Will & Grace," shoot with three cameras in front of a studio audience. A few others ("Scrubs," "The Bernie Mac Show") are produced like an hourlong series with one camera and no audience. "Life With Bonnie," though, has a unique style.

"We shoot Mondays and Tuesdays," says Hunt. "Mondays we shoot all the family stuff and Tuesdays we do the talk show in front of a live audience. Then what I do is edit the show quickly and then we have an audience come in and we show two or three episodes in front of an audience. That is where we get our laugh track. This is something I wanted to try to do and nobody does. The network was nice enough to let me do it that way, and it works out great. I get a sense of how the episode is working and I get an honest laugh track."

Hunt honed her comedic chops with the famed comedy troupe Second City, in her native Chicago. After appearing as a regular on the series "Grand" and "Davis Rules," she became the first woman to write, produce and star in her own series, "The Building," which appeared for just five episodes on CBS in 1993. She also wrote, produced and starred in the 1995 CBS series "The Bonnie Hunt Show." Though both series received generally good reviews, they failed to attract audiences.

Even so, Stephanie Leifer, ABC's senior vice president of comedy series, said the network has long had its eye on Hunt.

"There are just a few names that you always feel like that person is a TV star," says Leifer. "They need to get into the right thing at the right time. She is one of those people that we collectively as a company have always admired and felt like was an ABC personality, in our tradition of strong women. I think she's accessible and real and she's really fun."

Hunt and collaborator Lake first met 13 years ago while appearing with Second City at the old Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica. Their comedic sensibilities immediately clicked. Lake was a regular on "The Building" and "The Bonnie Hunt Show" and co-wrote the romantic comedy "Return to Me" (2000) with Hunt.

"She's something," says Lake. "We really do enjoy storytelling, honest to gosh. So it's fun to do a new story every week. Creatively, it's incredibly satisfying."

Their writing style is simple. "We have two keyboards and one monitor," says Hunt. "We just write like we are having a conversation. We improvise a lot of the scenes in our office and we play all the parts, and then we sit down and write it. We work just the way we always worked throughout our training at Second City."

Now it's up to viewers to decide if their efforts are working.

"Life With Bonnie" can be seen at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on ABC and 9 p.m. Saturdays on ABC Family. The network rated Tuesday's episode TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

Cover photo, of Bonnie Hunt with a Hansen twin, by Bob D'Amico

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