TARSES, JAY

U.S. Writer-Producer

Jay Tarses, a self-proclaimed outsider from the mainstream Hollywood television industry, achieved a reputation in the 1970s and 1980s as a "maverick" writer-producer--a maverick generally is described as brilliant, bold, outspoken, outrageous, and innovative. Tarses has been critically praised for introducing a bold new form of half-hour comedy series, often called character comedy or "dramedy," which achieved a radical stylistic break from the traditional sitcom formula. Tarses has had an ambivalent relationship with the three major networks, who often criticized--and frequently canceled--his shows for being too dark, inaccessible, and not "funny" enough for traditional sitcom audience expectations.

Beginning as a writer/actor with a Pittsburgh theater company, Tarses reportedly worked as a New York City truck driver for the Candid Camera series before a career in advertising. In the late 1960s, he teamed with Tom Patchett as a stand-up comedy duo performing dry, semi-satirical material on the coffeehouse circuit. The Patchett-Tarses team turned to television writing, gaining credits on musical variety shows and assorted sitcoms prior to working on the writing staff of The Carol Burnett Show, for which they won an Emmy in 1972. The two went on to become collaborative executive producers for MTM Enterprises, where they achieved their first major impact on television history--as writers-producers for the original Bob Newhart Show (CBS 1972-78), in which Newhart played an introverted psychologist, surrounded by a circle of interesting and quirkily eccentric characters.

Building upon their success with Newhart, they developed The Tony Randall Show (ABC/CBS, 1976-78) another MTM series, starring Randall as a widowed Philadelphia judge surrounded by his children, housekeeper, secretary, friends and legal associates. Apparently this sitcom was the site of great tension between the producers and the networks over the nature and style of the type of innovative "character comedy" that Tarses and Patchett were trying to introduce. During this period, they also produced several other short-lived and often-controversial series, including We've Got Each Other (CBS, 1977-78), a domestic sitcom about the personal and professional lives of a professional couple, their colleagues and neighbors, and Mary (CBS, 1978), a comedy/variety hour attempting to revive the televisual charisma of Mary Tyler Moore. However, Mary was a ratings disaster of such magnitude that it was canceled after three episodes, and its embarrassing failure "drummed us out of the TV business for a while," according to Tarses. During a hiatus from television during this time, the Patchett-Tarses team turned to writing screenplays, including two Muppet movies. The writing/producing team returned to television with the poorly-received Open All Night (ABC, 1981-82), a sitcom about a convenience store with an ensemble of eccentric customers, and the notable Buffalo Bill (NBC, 1983-84), about an unlikable, egomaniacal talk show host Bill Bittinger (played by Dabney Coleman) and his ensemble of television station coworkers.

During this period, Tarses split from Patchett and developed The Faculty (1985, canceled after one episode on ABC), about embattled high school teachers, characterized by its black humor and mock documentary interviews. The ABC network reportedly asked Tarses to reshoot the pilot because they felt it was too dark and they wanted more emphasis on the students rather than the faculty; when he refused, the series was dropped.

Tarses achieved a critical comeback as producer and occasional writer/director of the controversial "dramedy" The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (NBC/Lifetime 1987-91). Originally produced for NBC, this series starred Blair Brown as a divorced woman living alone on New York City's Upper West Side, surrounded by an ensemble of quirky and likable characters representing her family, friends and lovers. After it was canceled by NBC, the series was picked up by the Lifetime cable network, which continued production of the series, reshaped to be aimed strategically at a female audience of a certain age, class and income level. The same year that Molly Dodd debuted, Tarses also introduced (on another network) The "Slap" Maxwell Story (ABC, 1987-88), another critically-acclaimed "dramedy" about the professional and personal tribulations of an arrogant, provocative sports writer, played by Dabney Coleman.

In addition to writing and producing, Tarses has occasionally played cameo roles in his series--as a neighborhood cop in Open All Night and a garbage collector in Molly Dodd--as well as playing a writer for a cartoon studio in a 1984 MTM sitcom The Duck Factory.

The dramatic/character comedies written and/or produced by Tarses have operated in what has been considered "uncharted territory" in the television industry. In terms of production style, they have generally not been shot as traditional sitcoms (four cameras, on videotape, in a studio before a live audience, with an added laugh track). Tarses has generally worked independent of the studio system, shooting in a cinematic style in warehouses or on location, and using a single 35mm film camera. He has characterized his work as low budget, preferring to put his money into writing and actors rather than sets. Tarses' characters are distinguished as not always sympathetic or charismatic (an example is Bill Bittinger on Buffalo Bill). His dialogue is markedly low-key and "quirky," with a humor best described as biting and often darkly satirical, sometimes surreal, and written in a subtle comedic rhythm that eschews punch lines. Unlike traditional episodic sitcoms which attempt to solve problems in one episode, the narrative elements of Tarses' dramedies are serial, continuing from episode to episode.

Perhaps Tarses two greatest contributions to the television industry have been his creativity in constantly pushing the limits of television style--both cinematically and narratively, and his willingness (often eagerness) to go to battle with the networks to champion the broadcasting of innovative and non-formulaic forms of narrative television at the expense of audience ratings. Tarses has increasingly refused to play the Hollywood programming "game", yet has produced what have been some of the freshest and most daring television series of the 1970s and 1980s.

-Pamela Wilson

 

JAY TARSES. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A., 3 July 1939. Educated at Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts; Ithaca College, Ithaca, New York, B.F.A. Married: Rachel Newdell, 1963; three children. Production assistant in New York for Candid Camera, 1963; worked in advertising and promotion, Armstrong Cork Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; joined Tom Patchett in stand-up comedy team, playing the coffeehouse and college circuit, the late 1960s; with Patchett, television writer, staff of The Carol Burnett Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and others; independent television producer since 1981. Recipient: Emmy Award, 1972; WGA Award, 1987. Address: Endeavor Agency, 350 South Beverly Drive, Suite 300, Beverly Hills, California 90212, U.S.A.

TELEVISION SERIES (with Tom Patchett; selection)

1967-79 The Carol Burnett Show
1972-78 The Bob Newhart Show (executive producer,                                                 writer)
1976-78 The Tony Randall Show (creator, executive                                                 producer, writer)
1977-78 We've Got Each Other (creator, executive                                                producer, writer)
1978 Mary (creator, producer, writer)
1981-82 Open all Night (creator, producer, writer)
1983-84 Buffalo Bill (creator, executive producer, writer)

TELEVISION SERIES (creator, producer, writer, director)

1987-88 The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (also actor) 1987-88 The "Slap" Maxwell Story
1989-91 The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd (also actor) 1992 Smoldering Lust

TELEVISION SERIES (actor)

1970-71 Make Your Own Kind of Music (also writer)
1981-82 Open All Night
1984 The Duck Factory

TELEVISION (pilots)

1977 The Chopped Liver Brothers (executive producer,                                    actor; with Tom Patchett)
1985 The Faculty (ABC) (executive producer, director,                                       writer)
1990 Baltimore
1994 Harvey Berger, Salesman
1995 Jackass Junior High

FILMS (writer, with Tom Patchett)

Up the Academy, 1977; The Great Muppet Caper, 1981; The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984.

FURTHER READING

Christensen, Mark. "Even Career Girls Get the Blues: Is Prime Time Ready for The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd?" Rolling Stone (New York), 21 May 1987.

___________. "Jay Tarses" (interview). Rolling Stone (New York), 17 December 1987.

"The Humorous Days and Nights of Jay Tarses." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 6 February 1989.

Kaufman, Peter. "The Quixotic Days and Nights of Jay Tarses" (interview). The New York Times, 6 June 1993.

Meisler, Andy. "Jay Tarses: 'I Don't Do Sitcoms'." New York Times, 2 August 1987.

Ross, Chuck. "What in the World is Molly Dodd?" Television-Radio Age (New York), 17 August 1987.

Wilson, Pam. "Upscale Feminine Angst: Molly Dodd, The Lifetime Cable Network and Gender Marketing." Camera Obscura (Berkeley, California), 1995.

See also Dramedy