Barry Kemp knows about creating sitcoms, both for established comedy stars (“Newhart,”)”Delta”) and for actors new to the comedy field (“Coach”). He’s not sure which is easier.
Anyone creating a series for a known entity has the obvious advantage that the audience already knows the persona of the performer.
“You don’t have to give nearly as much character background, description, and history as you do when you’re creating a show from scratch with no one that the public readily identifies with,” says Kemp.
“The disadvantage is that everybody already has an idea in mind of what they think works for that performer.” Recognizability is offset by a feeling of being boxed-in. “If you want to do anything slightly different from what the public expects,” warns Kemp, “you’re in for a bit of a rocky ride.”
Creating a show from the ground up, as he did with “Coach,” a rock-solid hit in its fifth season on ABC Wednesdays at 9.30 p.m., Kemp found himself creating all the characters first, and then casting them. With an established star, the job is really to cast supporting players to spin around the lead.
He had seven or eight actors in mind until the casting department at Universal suggested Craig T. Nelson. “I was a big fan of Craig’s work,” Kemp says, “and he was exactly what I was looking for.
“I wanted somebody who could handle the comedy, but who could also be a little dangerous and be believable as the coach. That’s difficult because we were going after somebody 40 years old. We wanted a really top-notch actor, but not one who was so closely associated with one particular part that we’d start with one foot in the bucket.”
“Coach” did not have an auspicious beginning. It was picked up as a mid-season replacement and for a while it appeared the show would have a fall launch. But all 13shows hadbeen com-pleted by thetime it debutedin March, fiveyears ago. “Wewere con-cerned be-cause we werea football showand by then it was baseball season,” Kemp recalls. “We really got off to a rough start, but then, they put us behind ‘Roseanne’ in reruns. We began to take off that summer and they brought us back in the fall.”
This season, “Coach” has been a Top 10 dweller.
Creating a new show for Delta Burke was a different ball game. “Delta” debuted last fall but is currently on hiatus. It returns to the schedule in March.
Kemp had the experience of working with another star fresh from a hit series, Bob Newhart. “Each of Bob’s characters was close to Bob’s natural persona,” says Kemp. “They were a little different but both very easy to take. Bob is a reactive comic and therefore most of his comedy comes from reacting off the people around him.” Delta Burke, like Coach Hayden Fox, as played by Craig T. Nelson, is an active character. They both cause the situations they find themselves in. Kemp believes it is more difficult to have a dynamic lead because when the character is active, he or she has a stronger point of view.
“That automatically makes them not as readily acceptable to the average person,” says Kemp. “People want things generally nice and sometimes those characters, like Archie Bunker, don’t come off as nice, and it takes longer to like those people,” he says.
Such solid characters can pay off in the long run. “Give them time and what you wind up with are characters with tremendous dimension and depth,” Kemp says. “That’s why they ultimately become the most popular characters. ‘Roseanne’ is a good example of a character who is flawed, but immensely popular partly because of those flaws,” he says.
“Delta” also ran flat into the expectations of an audience that wanted to see Delta Burke as she was playing Suzanne Sugarbaker in her last series, “Designing Women.” Here in “Delta,” the popular actress was blonde and playing a would-be country singer waiting tables in a Nashville club.
“It was a dilemma we anticipated that we’d face and I think it’s borne out,” says Kemp. “Delta had created such a strong persona in the other role, that it’s going to be a little difficult and take some time to break that mold, that habit ,” he says.
He maintains that Burke is a much better actress than many people realize. “She has a much broader range than I certainlyknew about,” he says.
“She’s capable of doing a lot more than she’s done. Her portrayal of Suzanne was wonderful, but it did not have as many dimensions as the character she’s playing now. It’s much different being the center of a show. Suzanne was a great accent, but I don’t know that you’d want to have her in the center of a show,” he says.
“Delta” was set to resume production at the end of January. “We’re fine-tuning the series, making some tonal adjustments,” says Kemp. “We’re trying to keep what was unique about the show, but we’re also trying to raise the intelligence level of the characters a little bit; and make the show a little bit more universal in feel–and less regional and specific.”
Kemp says he’s happy working with volatile characters. “The hotter characters tend to have great passion, and they can be a little frightening at times at first blush,” he agrees. “But generally they are great fun to watch. They’re more unpredictable.”
He plans to stay with “Coach” throughout its run and predicts that will be another two years or so. He had quit “Newhart” after the second season because he thought he lacked the muscles for show-maintenance.
“I’ve been trying to strengthen those (muscles), and I’ve actually enjoyed it a lot,” he says. “‘Coach’ was a very personal show for me and I made a commitment to follow through, however long it lasted.”
However, he has no desire to go on as long as”Cheers” has.
“‘Cheers’ is an endurancerecord that I’m astonished by and I’m in awe of it,” he says. “But I have no desire to duplicate it.”