Gay TV Scribes Prove Life Really Is Golden
Since sharpening their comedic teeth on shows like The Golden Girls and Roseanne, Stan Zimmerman and Jim Berg have gone on to long, successful careers in Hollywood. But this season their dream of finally creating their own sitcom came true thanks to Mad TV's Nicole Sullivan, Tisha Campbell-Martin, and a little show called Rita Rocks.
By Graham Kolbeins
|Stan Zimmerman (left) and Jim Berg, writers of the new Lifetime sitcom Rita Rocks, with Rita star Nicole Sullivan (Mad TV).|
The dream of creating a sitcom from the ground up has always been the drive behind Stan Zimmerman and Jim Berg’s lifelong writing partnership. Between classes and college jobs, they’d spend all their time together, writing scripts, and thinking up farfetched schemes for Hollywood success. It didn’t take long for the inseparable duo to fall into the enviable position of writing for The Golden Girls, crafting sassy quips for everyone’s favorite retiree divas.
After garnering a Writers Guild nomination for the groundbreaking "lesbian kiss" episode of Roseanne, writing for Gilmore Girls, and working on film projects including the upcoming Sarah Jessica Parker-attached The Ivy Chronicles, Zimmerman and Berg are finally living their dream. Their original comedy series Rita Rocks, which they describe as Roseanne meets Welcome to the Dollhouse, premiered on Lifetime this month, starring Nicole Sullivan of Mad TV as a frustrated working mom who gets in touch with her creative side when she starts a rock band in her garage.
Bolstered by All Over the Guy’s Richard Ruccolo as Rita’s devoted husband and Tisha Campbell-Martin as their meddlesome mailwoman (who ends up playing keyboard in Rita’s band), Rita Rocks is a back-to-basics multicamera sitcom that uses the sharp comedic talents of its stars and writers to stay competitive in a TV market saturated with reality shows, single-camera sitcoms, and an avalanche of nearly identical talent competitions.
Ironically, it’s those same talent competitions that made the script for Rita Rocks a viable product after floating between networks for 10 years, posits Berg: “It took the zeitgeist of American Idol for the industry to realize that people were interested in music and seeing everyday people sing.”
In this Advocate.com exclusive, Zimmerman and Berg shed some light on the surprisingly closeted atmosphere backstage on The Golden Girls, the unique position of queer voices in Hollywood, and the epic civil rights-themed Broadway musical they’re writing with Cyndi Lauper.
Advocate.com:How did Rita Rocks end up on Lifetime? Did you have any trepidation about marketing a lighthearted sitcom on a network that’s widely known for its melodramatic TV movies?
Jim Berg: They said they wanted to try something new, and we were willing to be their guinea pig. Also, being a writer in this economy, where they’re making less and less TV shows...you’re not that choosy. If Lifetime wants to make your script, you say, “Have at it! Let’s do it. Let’s partner up and see what we can do here.” There’s the joke about Lifetime just being the melodramatic movies of the week, but they were looking to branch out, and we believed in them.
Stan Zimmerman: It was really smart of them to cater to an audience that hasn’t had a spotlight on it recently. You know, working moms are just not associated with sitcoms. Since Roseanne there’s only been one other show focused on a working mom, and that’s Life With Bonnie.
It’s always about the dad and his pretty wife that steps in the frame every now and then. It made sense that Lifetime would want to explore comedy from the mom’s point of view.
You’ve worked on a number of female-focused shows: Roseanne, TheGolden Girls, Gilmore Girls, and now Rita Rocks. It brings to mind something Lauren Hutton said when the Sex and the City movie came out: that the portrayal of femininity on that series couldn’t be authentic because it’s written by gay men.
Zimmerman: Jim, you’ve always loved Lauren Hutton--
Berg: I don’t love her anymore!
Zimmerman: Let’s call her now and get to the bottom of this.
Berg: Maybe she was misquoted or taken out of context--
Well, to be fair, she did admit that she’d never seen Sex and the City -- right after she said that.
Zimmerman: OK, she’s drunk.
Berg: Oh, Lauren.
Lauren Hutton aside, it’s hard to deny that some of the most riveting and entertaining portrayals of women on television have come from gay male writers. Do you find it more comfortable to write for female voices? Do you ever run into problems trying to portray women’s issues on TV?
Berg: We never run into problems. We think it’s a natural fit because, in some ways, both of us have been oppressed, so we know what it’s like to be marginalized by the white male power structure. As young gay boys, the people that we related to more were the women in our lives: our sisters, our mothers, our grandmothers, our teachers. It’s who we listened to, it’s who we appreciated. We were a little scared of our dads.
Zimmerman: Women feel more comfortable talking to us because we weren’t threatening in a sexual way. I think a lot of women are more open to us with their feelings than they’d be with a straight guy. So we would always, as writers, want to listen to what people say, and address their problems in our stories. We have so many female friends who are moms now, who say to us, “Were you in my house? How did you know this is what I was thinking and feeling?”
Berg: And as gay men, you know, we’re not afraid to deal with the emotions that women are usually relegated to dealing with but men aren’t. We have the best of both worlds. Growing up, you just always saw men on the screen, and women weren’t portrayed as much as [being] fully rounded figures. So that was a niche for us to fill. And it worked. On Golden Girls it was a dream come true, especially with the quality of those actresses. To see their professionalism, and hear them say a line that you wrote -- and then to hear the audience respond?
Zimmerman: One line out of Bea Arthur’s mouth and we were addicted. It was all we ever wanted to do.
There are a number of successful writers who came out of Golden Girls, and more specifically, it seems to have fostered the careers of more than a few queer television writers. What was it like working in that environment?
Berg: At the end of the day, it was a job. It wasn’t, like, this huge queerfest. In fact, we were the only gay people on the show during our time there.
Zimmerman: And Marc Cherry’s been really great about acknowledging that we were the first writers on Golden Girls that were gay. People thought that there were a lot of gay writers on it, but there weren’t that many.
Berg: This was the '80s, and in the television industry it wasn’t truly encouraged to be open with your sexuality. So it all got channeled through our writing, onto the show. But day to day in the writer’s room -- it wasn’t all that much fun. It’s a lot of pressure to get the show out week after week and be funny. It makes sense that gay people could excel by writing for those women -- but by the same token, it wasn’t the White Party.
Zimmerman: Like you even know what the White Party’s like!
Berg: I was at enough parties! Do you know what I’m saying, though? When you look at it, it was just a job. You go to work every day, sit in your office with other people who are straight and married, and they talked about their lives, but they really weren’t -- at that time -- interested in hearing about your life. We focused it all on the script, and we had to. At that point we were told by agencies that we had to bring a woman as our date, as our beard to any functions that were dealing with the show. It was just a different time. When we were on Roseanne, though -- one of the reasons they liked us is because we were gay. Tom Arnold used to say “Where’s my gay guys?” and we would go into his office. We really ran the whole gamut from “Keep it quiet” to “Don’t shut up about it!”
Zimmerman: And now, on Rita Rocks, the other writers can’t stop talking about gay stuff. We’re like, Can we just write the script, please? They’re so curious. On one show we were off writing the script and we heard that the whole staff of male, straight writers had a discussion about who would they sleep with if they were gay, me or Jim?
Berg: He got the executive producer, but I got the hotter writers -- so it all worked out.
How has it felt to see Golden Girls evolve from this coded gay television series to the point where it’s become almost iconic in gay culture -- where gay men have become associated with its legacy?
Zimmerman: It’s pretty exciting when I go out to [West Hollywood hipster gay bar] the Abbey or something and I see the age range of people that watch Golden Girls: young guys who come up to me and recite lines and it’s like, “You weren’t even born when this show came out!” It still touches people of all ages, from little kids to, you know, old ladies, obviously.
Berg: The gay community loves divas, especially when they say something particularly funny.
Zimmerman: And sexual.
Berg: They love hearing them talk dirty.
Can we look forward to any queer characters or story lines on Rita Rocks?
Berg: It’s interesting you should ask that!
Zimmerman: I don’t know if I should say -- we’re in discussions.
Berg: Oh, what could happen?
Zimmerman: Carson Kressley has his show on Lifetime [How to Look Good Naked], so Nicole and Carson filmed these little spots that are going to run during Christmas called “Fa La La Lifetime.” They had such a great connection that Carson told me, “I want to be on Rita Rocks!” So we thought, “Hmm, this could be really fun!” Whether she works with him at Bed & Bath Max, which could be really funny -- or maybe, in the past, Rita and Carson were high school prom dates.
Berg: We also want to work some lesbian mom stories into the show -- maybe one of Shannon’s friends has two mommies.
Zimmerman: In the writing our gay sensibility is already there, so of course we would also like to cast characters that also are gay. We’ve even talked with the people who use the extras for our show, and when we’re at Bed & Bath Max, we’ll have two men or two women shopping together, or in a coffee shop scene, why can't there be two guys sitting there talking?
Berg: We let it seep into people’s consciousness in the background -- without them even noticing.
Zimmerman: And also hit them over the head with it.
It’s almost like your careers have come full circle with Rita Rocks, as it’s replaced one of the Golden Girls time slots on Lifetime’s schedule.
Zimmerman: I’ve had so many full-circle moments in my career -- being a lover of The Brady Bunch as a child, and then all of a sudden there we were, [re]writing The Brady Bunch Movie and being in the Bradys’ house! It’s been really, really interesting. As a child I was a big fan of Lily Tomlin, so we wrote this movie with her in mind. We got it to her in another one of our schemes, and suddenly there we were having dinner with her, and she wanted to do our movie! It’s been quite awhile since that meeting, but we’ve actually decided to turn it into a Broadway musical.
Berg: We never let things die.
Zimmerman: We got the script to Cyndi Lauper, and she’s agreed to write the music and lyrics to do a Broadway version of this feature film we’d written for Lily Tomlin years ago.
Berg: It’s about a housewife in 1969--
Zimmerman: It’s called The Ruthie Ruddick Story--
Berg: And she goes to Greenwich Village to save her sister from being a hippie, and she inadvertently becomes the catalyst for the gay rights movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement.
Sounds like an epic adventure!
Zimmerman: It is epic -- in a comedy way. And the climax of the movie takes place at the Stonewall Riots, which she inadvertently started. It’s really funny, and it’s about an underdog woman, which is kind of our forte. Her character is very closed-minded, and she ends up opening her mind and her heart to other people.
Berg: Maybe in our next conversation we’ll be talking about that full circle.
Zimmerman: Wouldn’t that be nice? We’ll be sitting here with Cyndi Lauper on Broadway--
Berg: It will happen.
Zimmerman: It’ll happen. Let’s affirm it. We’re Oprah-ing it!
Rita Rocks airs Tuesdays at 8:30 p.m. Eastern/Pacific on Lifetime.