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An episode with no simple rules

Helmer tapped for deft work on ABC comedy's somber post-Ritter return

Naturally, James Widdoes is appreciative of his first DGA nom. He just wishes the circumstances were better.

“It’s nice but, of course, a little bittersweet,” he says.

Widdoes was given a nod for directing the “Goodbye” episode of ABC’s “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” It was the the first episode taped after the sudden death of series star John Ritter.

Taping the show five weeks after Ritter’s death, Widdoes and the writing team had to delicately deliver both humor and pathos.

“The balancing act was to try and modulate the level of emotion,” he explains. “Let’s face it, if we were to let the horses out to run, we could’ve had a sobfest.”

There were three or four versions of many scenes. Some were quite maudlin, others a bit more perky. It was Widdoes’ job to find just the right mix.

“There was a lot of very respectful and gentle easing into the collective way to go,” Widdoes says. “One of the great discussions was whether we should laugh. I don’t mean in the ‘Saved by the Bell’ level but, rather, the ‘MASH’ level.”

More than any other comedy, that classic CBS series would often mix death and humor with wondrous results.

Instead of taping in front of a studio audience, as is normally the case, “Goodbye” was closed to the public. After a script read, there was a run-through for both Touchstone, the studio that produces the show, and ABC.

Widdoes, a former actor (“Animal House”) and veteran sitcom director, adds that it’s typical for the energy level to be high at rehearsals. Not this time.

“It was very surreal,” he says. “Usually, there’s always laughter, but this was not that kind of run-through. Everyone was going through the motions before shooting.”

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