Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner have turned the Carsey-Warner Co. into the most successful independent television production company by following their own tastes rather than riffing on what’s already been done.
In the process, the producers of “Roseanne,” “The Cosby Show,” the new “Cosby” show, “Cybill,” “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Men Behaving Badly,” among others, also have created some of the boldest women television has ever seen.
Since 1984, when “The Cosby Show” debuted, American audiences have tuned in every season to at least one and as many as seven Carsey-Werner comedies at a time. During the 1988-89 season, the company had the three top-rated shows on television with “Roseanne,” “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World.” And “The Cosby Show” has made the most money of any show in television syndication history, close to $1 billion.
“There’s a lot of us in all of this,” says founding partner Marcy Carsey of the shows she and partner Tom Werner have created. “We all raised kids at the same time. That’s why we were interested in the domestic comedies.” In addition, she adds, “We try to do what’s not on the air.”
When they came up with the concept for “Roseanne,” “There was nothing on TV about the absurdity of being a working mother,” Carsey recalls. “There were wives on TV. But the shows were not about them. They were about the husbands.”
Roseanne became television’s most outspoken woman during the show’s nine-year run.
Going against the grain
“The Cosby Show,” the company’s first big hit launched in 1984, also went against prevailing tastes. “There was no comedy in the top 10,” Carsey recalls. “Of course, that made us want to do comedy.”
Plus, Carsey notes, back then, kids ruled the roost on the airwaves. “I watched an episode of ‘Family’ in syndication and the boy was yelling at the mother: ‘You don’t know anything.’ Bill (Cosby) was about parenting. It was fabulous.”
Cosby’s new show, she adds, deals with another issue that has not been previously addressed on television: aging and the marginalization and frustration of older people that occurs in our society.
Carsey-Werner’s latest shows have moved away from specifically domestic comedy. “Men Behaving Badly,” based on a British series of the same name, looks at male behavior that is so politically incorrect that it’s funny. “It’s definitely a woman’s show,” Carsey says. But, as it turns out, while men apparently like to laugh at themselves, Carsey admits, “Women don’t get it.”
The surprise hit “3rd Rock From the Sun” looks at the absurdities of life on Earth — through the eyes of visiting aliens. The show came after Carsey-Werner executives read everything from Kurt Vonnegut to Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” “We wanted to get off Earth,” Carsey says. “We were tired of doing domestic comedies.”
Carsey-Werner has paid little attention to the new content ratings. “It’s much ado about nothing,” Carsey says. “I raised kids. The biggest impact on them is the local news. My son would be terrified by kidnappers and robbers. I’d ask, ‘What movie have you been watching?’ He’d answer, ‘The news.’
“Little kids are surrounded by murders, fires, terrible violence. My God, you would have to look hard to find violence or much sex on (primetime) TV. The news isn’t going to be affected, or daytime TV. So the real culprits fall through the cracks.”
Power of positive thinking
Carsey says that when she left her post as a programming exec at ABC in 1980 to start her own production company, she never doubted it would be a success. Less than a year later, Tom Werner followed. Iconoclasts, they set up their office above a 7-Eleven in Westwood instead of making a studio or network deal. To get the company off the ground, Carsey took out a second mortgage on her homes.
Being independent gave them the flexibility to produce the shows that interested them. If they had arranged an exclusive deal with ABC, for instance, “The Cosby Show” never would have gotten on the air; ABC rejected it. It ended up on NBC instead. Later, NBC waffled on “Roseanne.” The producers sold the idea to ABC instead. The same dynamic was at play with “Cybill,” which was rejected by ABC and now airs on CBS, and “3rd Rock,” which ABC execs turned down, only to see it become a hit for NBC.
Of course, not every show has been a runaway success. “Oh Madeline,” an early effort starring Madeline Kahn, was picked up by ABC executives in 1983 but lasted only one year. ABC also pulled “Chicken Soup,” a vehicle for Borscht Belt comedian Jackie Mason, two months into the season.
But with hits far outweighing the misses, Carsey-Werner today is a company with an estimated value of $1 billion. Much of its success comes from unrelenting standards. “They take (the shows) very seriously,” says Yvette Lee Bowser, a former producer for “A Different World” and the creator of “Living Single.” “They will rip a show up from top to bottom to make it right.”
The company shows no signs of slowing down. Three years ago, Carsey-Werner launched its own domestic syndication arm and bought back the domestic syndication rights to “Roseanne,” “The Cosby Show” and “A Different World” from Viacom. Last year, it expanded to include international distribution.
The partners also are getting into the movie business through Carsey-Werner Moving Pictures. The goal: to import “smart comedy” to the bigscreen. But the producers intend to take their time.
Make way for Wayans
In the meantime, Carsey-Werner is creating new shows for television. The company just signed a deal with Damon Wayans for a show about an undercover cop that will appear on Fox next year. The show will be about Wayans and his brother at home, and Wayans and his co-workers on the job.
And by the time it gets on the air, the concept will be carefully worked out. “We do it different than anyone else,” Carsey says. Except for one early effort, “Every pilot we shoot goes to series.”