Day 379: Spun-Off & Spun-Out (Part 1)

originally published January 13, 2013

Everyone loves a spinoff. It’s a bankable bet for a TV network: guide viewers of a successful franchise into a new world, either featuring a character from the original or some people who are – they swear – friends of someone from the original (usually aired in what they call a ‘backdoor pilot’ episode of the parent show). Sometimes spinoffs become hits themselves, but it’s more common for viewers to see them for what they are – a money-grab.

George Jefferson was a popular supporting character on All In The Family before he moved on up to his own successful sitcom. On the other hand, Horatio Caine and his sunglasses were shoehorned into an episode of CSI with the obvious intent of establishing him as the lead in the upcoming Miami branch of the show. Me, I’m going with the former’s tactic when I launch my own spinoff site this fall, “1000 Vowels, 1000 Days”.

I found a list of TV’s mutant-children, and felt I would be shirking my obligation as a student of popular culture (meaning a guy who was raised by television) if I didn’t give it a look. Most of these shows I can’t even remember.

The Brady Bunch wrapped up its network run in 1974, the year I was born. As such, I never really got into the show, though I have always had a tremendous amount of respect for Florence Henderson’s dynamic she-mullet. I wonder if anyone out there remembers the four spinoffs that oozed from the Brady household:

  • The Brady Kids was an animated show that ran in tandem with the original for the Bunch’s final two seasons. No adults, and half the kids even backed out of voicing their characters for the second season. But they had twin pandas.
  • The Brady Hour, a variety show, is on TV Guide’s list of the worst shows ever.
  • In 1981 they tried an Odd-Couple-ish sitcom about Jan and Marcia and their spouses, called The Brady Brides.
  • The Bradys was a 1990 attempt at “Brady dramedy”, featuring such storylines as “…stay-at-home mother Marcia battles with alcoholism.” Awesome!

The hit series Family Ties took two trips to spinoff-land. The more successful show, Day By Day, featured Julia Louis-Dreyfus and a 6-year-old Thora Birch in a show whose premise is so dull, I’d rather just describe it as yet another cookie-cutter 80’s domestic sitcom. The flimsy link to its parent show was that Brian (the family patriarch) was college roommates with Steven Keaton. Wow.

I’m more interested in The Art Of Being Nick. Mallory’s vocabulary-challenged boyfriend was so deeply desired for a spinoff by NBC, they tried it three times. Only the final pilot made it to air, in August 1987. Nick worked in an East Village bookstore, while living with his sister and her kid and no doubt learning lots about life and love. The pilot also starred Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who apparently did a lot more pre-Seinfeld than a few seasons of SNL.

The pilot drew a strong audience, but NBC decided that Family Ties couldn’t spare Nick. Too bad they didn’t feel brave enough to try out The World According To Skippy.

Here’s a little-known fact, inasmuch as I didn’t know it. Zoboomafoo, perhaps the most interesting and least obnoxious of all the kids’ shows my daughter used to watch on PBS back when I was a stay-at-home dad, was a spinoff. It seems the Kratt Brothers (or, as a good friend of mine calls them, the delicious Kratt Brothers) had an earlier PBS series, simply called Kratts’ Creatures. Instead of a talking lemur puppet, they interacted with an animated anthropomorphic dinosaur, voiced by the same guy who voiced Mahoney on the animated Police Academy series, which apparently happened.

One of the biggest hits of the 70’s, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, is responsible for four spawns. Mary’s wacky next-door neighbor, Rhoda, starred in Rhoda, a show that lasted for five seasons and even bested its parent show in the ratings during its first two years. Cloris Leachman’s popular role as Phyllis, Mary’s landlady, scored her a sitcom (Phyllis, because why get fancy with the name?). Phyllis was #6 in the ratings during its first season, beating out both Rhoda and MTM, but didn’t survive beyond year two.

After Mary sailed off the air in 1977, her boss, Lou Grant, got his own show. Yes, it was called Lou Grant. It was also a highly successful 5-year series, and it made Ed Asner the only person to have won a Best Actor Emmy for Comedy and Drama series, playing the same character on both shows. Most people forget this one though:

Rhoda’s doorman was often heard and never seen on Rhoda. But he got his own pilot in 1980 (two years after Rhoda left the air), called Carlton Your Doorman. It was animated. It never made it beyond a single airing of the pilot.

I watched Married… With Children for years, until Al become less crotchety and more hopelessly moronic. But I never noticed its two children-shows. These spinoffs appeared to have created the rule later proven by Friends and its bastard-child, Joey: don’t cast Matt LeBlanc in any show that spins off from another show.

LeBlanc played Kelly’s boyfriend on three episodes of Married…With Children. In 1991, his character was paired with his character’s father (who also appeared on Married) for a train-wreck called Top Of The Heap, in which the two of them try and fail at numerous get-rich-quick schemes. The show co-starred a pre-Chasing Amy Joey Lauren Adams, and lasted only seven episodes.

But Fox wasn’t done with LeBlanc’s character. A year later, they stuck the same guy in a construction job for a guy-and-roommate sitcom to see if that would fly any further than the guy-and-father idea. Adams was brought back, and LeBlanc’s fellow construction workers provided the laughs (though clearly not enough of them) on Vinnie & Bobby, which also lasted for only seven episodes.

LeBlanc’s next stop was in Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” video, and from there his stardom was inescapable. I don’t know what it is about this guy that seems to doom spinoffs, but when Modern Family disintegrates someday, I hope he isn’t considered for the role of ‘Goofy Uncle Troy’ on What’s Up, Haley Dunphy?

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