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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
SERIES (with Tom Patchett; selection)
The Carol Burnett Show
1972-78 The Bob Newhart Show (executive producer, writer)
1976-78 The Tony Randall Show (creator, executive producer,
1977-78 We've Got Each Other (creator, executive producer,
1978 Mary (creator, producer, writer)
1981-82 Open all Night (creator, producer, writer)
1983-84 Buffalo Bill (creator, executive producer, writer)
SERIES (creator, producer, writer, director)
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
Make Your Own Kind of Music (also writer)
1981-82 Open All Night
1984 The Duck Factory
The Chopped Liver Brothers (executive producer, actor;
with Tom Patchett)
1985 The Faculty (ABC) (executive producer, director, writer)
1994 Harvey Berger, Salesman
1995 Jackass Junior High
(writer, with Tom Patchett)
the Academy, 1977; The Great Muppet Caper, 1981; The
Muppets Take Manhattan, 1984.
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
Humorous Days and Nights of Jay Tarses." Broadcasting (Washington,
D.C.), 6 February 1989.
Peter. "The Quixotic Days and Nights of Jay Tarses" (interview).
The New York Times, 6 June 1993.
Andy. "Jay Tarses: 'I Don't Do Sitcoms'." New York Times,
2 August 1987.
Chuck. "What in the World is Molly Dodd?" Television-Radio Age
(New York), 17 August 1987.
Pam. "Upscale Feminine Angst: Molly Dodd, The Lifetime Cable Network
and Gender Marketing." Camera Obscura (Berkeley, California),