That ’70s Show” co-creators Bonnie and Terry Turner aren’t so sure the series would make it on the air today.
The brainchild of the Turners and fellow creator Mark Brazill, “That ’70s Show” didn’t shy away from the hallmarks of that carefree time, including the era’s more casual attitude toward casual drug use.
The pilot included a scene in which the teenage cast members are clearly stoned, with smoke strategically wafting through the air. Later, as lead character Eric (Topher Grace) is lectured by his dad, we see what the still-stoned Eric sees: The room’s walls swinging back and forth.
It was all played for laughs, and although the show (and, more specifically, Fox) garnered some criticism, most of those scenes still wound up on air.
“The goal was to make it look like people smoking dope, without them actually (being shown) doing it,” Terry Turner says. “It was all about implying it… .”
But nine years later, a lot has changed. In this post-Janet Jackson breast-baring world, TV content is being scrutinized in many more ways than it was when “That ’70s Show” launched in 1998. The rise of content watchdogs such as the Parents TV Council, as well as the shift to a Republican-led FCC, has also changed what might be allowed onscreen.
As a result, shows coming after “That ’70s Show” haven’t been given as much leeway, notes Fox current-programming senior VP Marcy Ross.
“The network gave it this freedom and leniency, and shows after that weren’t given the same leniency,” she says. “It was grandfathered in. I can’t tell you how many shows have asked why ‘That ’70s Show’ was able to show smoke, and why can’t we show that?’ It did have its own rules.”
The Turners chalk it up to “That ’70s Show’s” timeslot.
“The thing that helped us was a distance from where we were,” Terry Turner says. “There was an idea, ‘That’s what they did then. They don’t anymore.’ It took place in the ’70s, which gives the audience a reason to distance themselves from it.”
Ross points out that people look back at 1970s-era drug use “with a sense of humor and lightness.”
“Drug culture in 2006, on the other hand, is very scary. You can’t make light of it now,” she says. “But the 1970s, it was almost iconoclastic. It was a time of experimentation. It may be an odd thing to equate drugs with innocence, but it’s not so funny now.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean the show didn’t run into trouble through the years. The Turners admit they did have “some touch-and-go moments, some struggles” with Fox’s standards and practices department.
“If you watch it play out in syndication, it’s apparent when we were having problems. There’s not as much smoke in the room, or people aren’t holding their breath,” says Bonnie Turner. “But I give the Fox standards people a lot of credit. When we had to argue a point with them, they’d hold their line, but they were very intelligent about it. They were very cooperative and on the side of the process.”
The Turners learned one thing quickly: The show’s signature scene — a rotating camera showing the characters in the basement, saying goofy things (presumably while high) — couldn’t be called the “smoking scene.”
“We called it the 360 scene because the camera moves around the room in a 360-degree circle,” Terry Turner says. “We had to be very careful not to mention smoking anywhere in it. If anyone reading the script, like a standards person, saw the word ‘smoking,’ they’d say, ‘You’ve got a problem.’ ”
The show’s producers also took advantage of that lighthearted tone (and the idea that the show’s characters were sometimes high) to play around with the characters’ perceptions of reality. Through flashbacks, flights of fancy and other devices, “That ’70s Show” wasn’t your typical sitcom.
It all started with that swinging wall in the pilot.
“We got into this thing, where we asked ourselves, what can we do each time to show something else,” Terry Turner says. “Oddball things began to be a signature. We did films within a film, split screens, differing points of view on the same event. … Sometimes we’d go overboard, and some shows we look back in retrospect, having done nine flashbacks in a row.”
All of the effects were organic to the ’70s era, however, so no CGI was used.
“The show had a homemade quality,” Terry Turner says. “Whatever we did, we tried to stay inside the ’70s, what was possible then.”
The Turners say the show’s whimsy was inspired by everything from Woody Allen and the James L. Brooks film “Starting Over,” to B-movie king Ed Wood.
“Movies do insane, over-the-top things,” Terry Turner says. “It has to be something that catches your eye. So much of the stuff we tried to do in TV was based on movies.”
But that swinging wall wouldn’t make the cut these days, in an atmosphere that Bonnie Turner calls “very hostile.”
Adds Terry Turner: “If we came up with the swinging wall or the 360 camera now, it would be dismissed. We slid it underneath before things changed.”