A few days after I put up the Pink Lady & Jeff feature, I got an message from "Kagami", a.k.a. Todd Dissinger who had procured an interview with Mark Evanier who just so happened to have been the head writer on the show. The insights Mark provided regarding what it was like to work with Jeff Altman and Mie and Kei, not to mention the behind the scenes workings of the show itself were, to say the least, quite intriguing. I hope everyone reading this will find it to be an interesting and enjoyable read. Many thanks to Todd for making the interview possible, and to Mark for proving the time for this feature!
Todd Dissinger: What was it like to work with Mie, Kei and Jeff?
Mark Evanier: Fine. Jeff was and is a genuinely talented comedian -- one of those folks whose skills I am in awe of. I think we had one argument that lasted about two minutes but otherwise, he was a dream. Mie and Kei were very eager to do well but, for reasons I'll cover below, they weren't able to be as good as they could be, and they were sometimes quite preoccupied with learning the material, rehearsing, etc.. But really, I liked all three very much.
TD: Where did Jeff come from and how did he come to be involved in the show?
ME: Jeff was one of the hottest new comedians at the time. I knew him from the Comedy Store and he'd done a few other TV shows and pilots. He, in fact, was hired for another pilot that I'd done for the same production company, Sid and Marty Krofft. We did a pilot for a variety show to star Anson Williams and his then-wife. We wanted Jeff to be a regular on it but he was tied up with another pilot for NBC.
Then we hired a friend of mine -- a terrific comedian named Bill Kirchenbauer -- and Bill began rehearsing. The day before we were taping the Anson Williams pilot, NBC decided it wanted Bill in another pilot so we lost his services. Fortunately (for us), Jeff's pilot hadn't been picked up so he was available and we grabbed him to take over for Bill. The Anson pilot didn't sell but everyone noticed how good Jeff was...so when the Pink Lady project came along and everyone realized they needed an American co-host, he was the first name suggested.
TD: Did the language barrier present any problems when it came to composing material?
ME: Tons. Mie and Kei really couldn't do verbal humor so we had to write them very simple and let Jeff do the more complicated stuff. Also, once they'd learned their lines, we couldn't change things too much. With English-speaking hosts, we'd have been able to rewrite more during rehearsals. This became a big problem because of the guest stars. No one wanted to be on the show and the guests we got were usually booked at the last minute.
Mie and Kei more or less needed two or three days to learn the English for a sketch or stand-up but but we sometimes didn't book guests until the day before taping. Lorne Greene was booked at 3:00 in the afternoon for a bit that was taped at 7:00 that evening so it had to be written in that time and Mie and Kei had to learn it while also taping musical spots during those hours. Well, it was impossible.
TD: The hot tub bit at the end of the show, whose idea was it?
ME: As I recall, Sid Krofft.
TD: In your opinion, did you think Mie and Kei were comfortable doing comedy? And did the girls have any say about the scripts?
ME: About the scripts? No. They pretty much did whatever we wrote. And I think they were uncomfortable about having to speak English, so they were uncomfy about the comedy bits. They were quite aware that they were not speaking English well enough to be on American TV.
TD: Did you think Mie and Kei enjoyed doing the show?
ME: No, they didn't -- because of the language problems and also the schedule. At the time, they were so popular in Japan that they were booked for concerts there and had to keep flying back and forth. They'd work a few days in America on our show, then fly back to play some huge stadium, then come back...and it was very exhausting. A couple of times, I recall them being very upset because they hadn't received sufficient rehearsal time and there was one day when they came straight to rehearsals from a flight that had run late and they were literally falling asleep. I felt sorry for how hard they were working. There were several sketches where we had to write them out at the last minute because they needed whatever time they had to learn their songs and choreography.
Another problem was that they wanted to sing in Japanese. The network insisted they not, though they finally gave in and allowed one or two numbers. And I think they also felt that they were being separated too much. Fred Silverman, who was then in charge at NBC, had had a tremendous success with "Laverne and Shirley" over at ABC. One of the things that some folks felt made that show work was how distinct Laverne was from Shirley. If you notice, the first few seasons, Penny Marshall always had a big "L" on her wardrobe so you'd know which one was Laverne. They made quite an issue out of making the characters distinct from one another.
Silverman -- or, more likely, his underlings -- kept wanting to apply the same principle to Pink Lady. We tried to explain that the essence of their act in Japan was that they did so much in unison and that they were almost like one person. But the NBC execs kept saying no, they had to have separate identities...and we had to try to do that, which did not feel comfortable to them. So no, I don't think it was a very happy experience for them. And when they heard that two other NBC shows -- The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live -- were doing parodies or jokes about them, they interpreted that as their employer ridiculing them in public for not being better.
TD: Despite its limited run, did you initially think the show had a chance to succeed?
ME: No. As a matter of fact, Mie and Kei had so many bookings in Japan that, if NBC had wanted more shows, I don't know that they could have been done for a long time. Really, we had everything going against us -- a bad idea for a show, an impossible schedule, a poor budget...even a bad time slot. Nothing was working for NBC on Friday nights then and there had never been a successful variety show in a 9:00 time slot, ever. We had enormous trouble getting guest stars on the show.
We also had a director who hated doing the show and was only doing it because of a contractual obligation. He and I didn't get along and that didn't help any. There were some parts of the show that were done his way, which I didn't like...and some that were done my way, which he didn't like...and some that, as a compromise, were done neither way. Nobody liked them. In any case, I felt he ruined a couple of the better things we came up with...and if he were alive and you interviewed him, I'm sure he'd tell you that the writing staff ruined a couple of the things he came up with.
So, no, we never thought the show had much of a future. I think what we initially hoped was that the show was so cheap to produce, NBC would keep it around for a while, figuring that they didn't have anything else that would do better. And I do believe that if it had been around longer, we could have solved some (not all) of its problems. But then it came to light that Mie and Kei were booked for these huge concerts that they couldn't cancel. They were more or less doing the show at a loss in the hopes (of their managers) that they might develop some American following for their records but they couldn't get free long enough to do a real, full season.
TD: Does it bother you to have your name associated with a show that's said to be one of the worst in the history of American television?
ME: Not really. Most people didn't see it and those who did often said, "Gee, it wasn't as bad as I expected." It was such an awful premise...I think I'd have felt bad if we'd done a show with Bob Newhart and Carol Burnett that had been that much of a disaster. But a variety show starring two women who didn't speak English? Well, what do you expect?
After the series ended, I was flooded with good offers, so I wasn't too bothered. My father did get upset when he read some article in which some critic said, "This show was so bad, no one involved with it will ever work again." Well, of course, everyone did, and some did quite well, but my father didn't sleep for a few nights after that. But really, I've worked on a lot of TV shows that didn't get as much attention as that one.
TD: Where was the show taped?
ME: We did the pilot at NBC in Studio 3 -- the one Jay Leno currently uses. During a break in the taping, Jeff and I snuck over to the Tonight Show stage (across the hall) and Jeff did his flawless Johnny Carson impression standing on Johnny's star and sitting behind the desk. We were like two little kids sneaking in somewhere we didn't belong. The series was taped at KTLA on Stage 6. KTLA is a local station but they rent out their facilities to a number of other shows, including lots of network shows.
TD: Are you surprised that the show has developed a cult following?
ME: I dunno. I would have been surprised if it had developed a mass following but I guess it was such an odd idea for a show that it had to appeal to someone.