There was too much riding on CBS's decision. For one thing, the show marked the first time Axelrod and Widdoes had tested their long friendship by working together. There was also the emotional attachment that Barron, head of the successful production house Fred Barron Productions, had developed to the project. And, of course, there were the enormous sums of money to be gained or lost.
Up to this point, the nearly year-long development process for Dave's World had been fairly smooth, especially considering some of the hurdles the show had overcome. First, Axelrod and Co. convinced Barry to lend his name to the series. The Miami Herald humorist had been approached several times before about doing television, but had always turned down the offers.
Then the production team managed to land the actors it wanted, Harry Anderson as Dave and DeLane Matthews as his wife Beth, even though neither looked like a sure thing initially. Anderson, the standup comic and former Night Court star, had retired to the Pacific Northwest to take paramedic courses after vowing never to work in television again. And Matthews, whose credits ranged from the broad comedy of Eisenhower and Lutz to a layered performance in last season's short-lived Laurie Hill, had played the lead in her most recent series. In Dave's World, however, she would be playing a second. After reading the script for the pilot, though, both Anderson and Matthews signed on immediately.
Axelrod, Widdoes and Barron felt good about the pilot. When they filmed it, the audience loved it, which helped, since the idea the network first signed off on - titled 'Science Fair' - wasn't the pilot they shot. 'I started out to write around the idea of a science fair,' says Barron, whose A-list credits include Kate & Allie, Seinfeld, Garry Shandling's The Larry Sanders Show and HBO's Sessions with Billy Crystal. 'But I have to get the characters to talk to me.'
It soon became clear to Barron that Dave and Beth had more than a science fair on their minds. So in the first episode, Dave ends up trying to resolve for himself, as much as for his kids, the subtleties between his sense that life should be fun and his obligations to do the right thing, which can be anything but.
Dave's World began life a bit differently than most series. Axelrod and Widdoes knew they wanted to develop TV programming, but when they met with Andy Hill, executive vice president of CBS Entertainment Productions, they didn't have an idea to pitch. Instead, they sold themselves. Both were, like the Dave Barry character, children of the '60s trying to apply that decade's sensibilities in the '90s. Widdoes will turn 40 this year and Axelrod is 42. Both are fathers who wanted to do a smart, sensitive, sophisticated comedy that they could watch with their children. Their timing was perfect. After years of splitting demographics into increasingly narrow target markets, the networks were looking for shows that would be equally entertaining to adults and kids.
CBS agreed to go into partnership with Widdoes and Axelrod on developing a series. 'It was a longshot,' says Hill. 'They were not established in the business. But I've made a living on longshots and have done so very nicely.' Hill's most recent success is Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, a surprise hit for CBS on Saturday nights. The trick in development, he says, is to overcome the Catch-22 of the business: 'If you haven't done it before, don't do it.'
CBS Entertainment Productions paid for the pilot, a big plus for Axelrod and friends, since a sitcom pilot can run from from $600,000 on the low end to the more typical $1 million-plus price tag. For CBS and the various production partnerships involved in Dave's World, the downside is the possibility that the initial development cost will be a complete loss. The upside is that elusive chance to create another Cheers.
The next piece in the development puzzle came in the form of Dave Barry. The writer changed his mind about going into the television business when he got a call from Widdoes, who played Hoover, the fraternity president in National Lampoon's Animal House. It seems the film, and the character, are among Barry's favorites, and a deal was quickly struck.
Barron was the next component. Widdoes and Axelrod only knew him from his credits, but they called and sold him on the idea. Then they called CBS's Hill, their new partner, to convince him to use Barron as the writer for the series. Hill thought it was a joke - he and Barron are best friends.
The show is, as someone described it, a bit like Seinfeld with kids - smart, edgy humor within a family. Barron, 45, says he draws heavily from his own life for the scripts. The Dave's World landscape is pure Clinton-generation baby boomer. The character coaches his kid's soccer team, plays Louie, Louie on an aging electric guitar late into the night and dreams of singing in a rock 'n roll band. Widdoes uses his own life (he coaches a Little League team) and his substantial directing experience (on series including Delta, Home Free, Davis Rules, Teech, Anything but Love, Uncle Buck and Just the Ten of Us) to add yet another layer. 'The show is a reflection of where all of us are in our lives,' says Hill. 'That wistful 18-year-old inside who has to take the backseat to the adult. And the show does need to be about reality. When it's at its best, it's deeply based in the reality of our experiences.'
Going into the pilot season, Dave's World had all the elements of a hit - a significant creative and producing pedigree and proven talent. And it played to audiences like a hit. But during television pilot season, there are no sure things. It's not enough for a pilot to be good; it has to fit somewhere in the network's schedule. The tone and texture have to create a flow from show to show. And then there are the politics of the business. Last year, for instance, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason (Evening Shade) and Diane English (Murphy Brown) were able to leverage the clout of their top-rated series into prime Monday night time slots for their new shows, Bloodworth-Thomason's Hearts Afire and English's Love and War.
By Tuesday afternoon, Axelrod, who makes it a habit to put every possible scenario on a continuous mental loop, was uneasy. There had been no wild card yet. 'Every season,' says Axelrod, 'there's a wild card - a show that comes out of nowhere and becomes the spoiler.' That night, Tom Arnold showed up at a party thrown by talent agency William Morris, and the three became convinced that Arnold, fresh from ABC's cancellation of The Jackie Thomas Show, was that wild card. (Arnold's appearance turned out to be a false alarm).
Axelrod knows how precarious a new show's life can be, having supervised movie and TV projects first at ABC, then Columbia Pictures TV, New World Pictures and most recently Producers Entertainment Group, which has a stake in Dave's World. Among the shows he has shepherded through the development minefield are Dynasty, The Fall Guy, The Blue and the Gray, RFK, Unsolved Mysteries and Crime Stories.
By the time Wednesday rolled around, Axelrod, Widdoes and Barron were getting frantic. Scheduling week is basically the networks' version of hell, with great news and terrible news often delivered at the same time. And even if your show survives the first three days, that's no guarantee it will make the fall schedule. A remarkable number of shows, in fact, remain in play until the last minute.
By noon, the trio was downing Regency club sandwiches like potato chips and the pressure was rising. 'I never want to see the Regency's room-service menu again in my life,' says Axelrod.
There was still no call, at least not from CBS. 'We were getting calls from all the other studio chiefs,' says Widdoes, 'telling us what they had heard, who had left without a deal, who had deals, who was still waiting.'
That Wednesday was one of those New York days when in theory it's spring, but the air is already drenched with the thick steamy sluggishness of summer. No amount of air conditioning could cool the tension in the room. 'We should have had a time-lapse camera,' says Widdoes. 'There were three areas in the room to sit, and we kept moving between them.'
By late Wednesday afternoon, the grapevine had Dave's World definitely in the fall lineup, and the rumor was that the show was competing with the new Faye Dunaway/Robert Urich comedy, It Had to Be You, for the prized 8:30 p.m. Monday time slot.
Axelrod, who has a sort of Tom Cruise/Top Gun confidence about him, momentarily broke down under the intensity. 'I got all choked up,' he says. 'I couldn't talk.' Barron, the resident cynic who carries pessimism around like Linus dragging his blanket, was half convinced the call would be bad.
Widdoes, meanwhile, used his sardonic sense of humor as the day's leveling agent. As Axelrod chain-smoked, Widdoes watched, grimaced and added an occasional theatrical cough. Barron tried to confine himself to just worrying.
At 6 p.m., the call finally came. It was good news.
'We yelled,' says Axelrod.
'We jumped around,' says Barron.
'We did a group hug,' says Widdoes.
They received a 13-espisode commitment - one of the few shows this year to get that vote of confidence from any network - and the Monday slot between Evening Shade and Murphy Brown.
They flew back to Los Angeles almost immediately, and Barron started work on episode No. 2. He titled it 'Science Fair.' It's about life insurance. Now he's working on episode No. 3. It's titled 'Science Fair.' No one knows yet what it's about.
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)