‘Square Pegs’: The Grody Bunch – Rolling Stone
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‘Square Pegs’: The Grody Bunch

Can Anne Beatts produce a smart TV show in a dumb medium?

Square Pegs

Square Pegs, a CBS situation comedy, featuring (from left, seated: Merritt Butrick as Jonny Slash, John Femia (in tie) as Marshall Blechtman, Sarah Jessica Parker as Patty Greene, unknown in white hat and , Jami Gertz as Muffy Tepperman. 1983

CBS Photo Archive/Getty

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An assistant rushes in: so-and-so is on the phone, and he needs to talk. Anne dutifully picks up the receiver. While talking, she fills out a credit-card application. “How much money do I make?” she asks no one in particular. She hangs up. The phone rings again. It is another urgent call, this one regarding Bill Murray. “I want you to try to find him,” Anne says into the phone. “His very rude agent is always out to lunch when I call. I know Billy wants to do the show.”

The show in question is Square Pegs, which CBS broadcasts Monday nights at eight. Anne Beatts created and produces this show. It is the reason for the ringing telephone, the anxious assistant and, probably, the sunglasses.

“I want you to look at this picture,” Anne is saying. The picture is of a desk. A large, curved desk. “I love this desk. Isn’t it beautiful?” Anne is interrupted. It’s a writer calling about his script. Anne offers advice, a meeting is arranged. She hangs up and looks again at the photo. “This is such a big desk.” She smiles and taps the picture with her nail. “This is a real producer’s desk.”

***

Square Pegs is what CBS likes to call a “situation life” comedy, as opposed to a regular situation comedy, which presumably means that Square Pegs is realistic. Innovative. Exciting. Square Pegs is different from most primetime TV shows: Square Pegs is hip. Hipness, in this case, is important.

Square Pegs is about the high-school years, a time when popularity is crucial to happiness. Freshmen Patty Greene and Lauren Hutchinson are two highschool “square pegs,” and the show chronicles their attempts to gain acceptance with the higher social echelons of Weemawee High.

Unlucky with such popular types as the Valley girl-esque Jennifer DiNuccio and her Sylvester Stallone-esque boyfriend, Vinnie Pasetta, Lauren (plump, with braces) and Patty (skinny, with glasses) befriend the wacked-out Johnny Slash and his best friend, would-be comedian Marshall Blechtman. Not content with just these two odd pals, Patty and Lauren scheme like mad in their quest for popularity.

They try out for the girls’ football team (Patty: Why did I let my father talk me into wearing his old shoulder pads? I look like Charles Laughton about to pour lead on the peasants), audition for the school play (Lauren: Nothing assures popularity like stardom) and even resort to violent acts (scrawling graffiti across the hallowed halls of Weemawee).

Despite their massive efforts, Patty and Lauren remain misfits, albeit smart misfits: they make glib comments about economic policy. Lauren and Patty may not have dates for the spring formal (Patty: The bottom line is, cup size trumps IQ), but they have not gone unnoticed.

Square Pegs has received excellent reviews. James Wolcott, writing in New York magazine, called it the best show of the new season and observed that “unlike most movies and TV shows about teens, Square Pegs isn’t a sex-obsessed idyll in which sunkissed hunks and nymphets loll about in a haze of lapping pleasure…Square Pegs is a tribute to teenies stubbornly holding on to their smarts while the brain cells of those all around them are abandoning ship.”

Marvin Kitman of Newsday wrote, “Square Pegs is the most astounding new show of the year,” and Tom Shales, writing in the Washington Post, called the program “an oasis of delightfulness.”

Critics, however, do not make up the Nielsen family. “I was very happy God blessed us with the football strike,” Anne Beatts says. “We would have been smashed by Monday Night Football. Although we’ve also lost viewers to the Smurfs.”

Square Pegs has done significantly better in the ratings than was originally predicted. Initially, the Dancer, Fitzgerald, Sample (DFS) ad agency told its clients that the combined competition of That’s Incredible and Little House: a New Beginning would kill Square Pegs: “The scheduling of this featherweight comedy is like sending toy soldiers into battle against Nielsen gladiators.”

As Beatts recalls, “DFS said we were destined for the dustbin, but we’ve now beat our competition four times. I had a car accident the day we beat Little House in the overnight ratings. I hit a Volkswagen. I should have hit something bigger.”

CBS, to its credit, has faith in the show, even though demographic studies indicate that adult males (18 to 34), a main target audience, almost never view the program. According to Kim LeMasters, CBS’ vice-president in charge of comedy development, the network has “done everything but send 90 million Americans ten dollars and bribe them to watch.”

“At first, CBS was nervous,” Beatts recalls. “They said, ‘Aren’t kids today only into sex, drugs and rock & roll?’ I said, ‘Yes, –but we don’t have to show the sex and drugs.'”

***

Anne Beatts’ Middle name is Patricia. Patricia, as in Patty. Patty, as in Lauren and Patty. “Patty Greene is me,” says the 36-year-old Beatts. “I was that gawky kid with the Coke-bottle lenses. I was only 12 years old when I started high school. I was precocious, but I had, you know, too many arms and legs, and no tits. I had to wear undershirts when all the other girls were wearing bras. I had a best friend like Lauren, and we both had very dry senses of humor. Sarcastic. I remember a teacher saying to us that she was sick and tired of our blasé, cynical attitude. We were in seventh heaven. It didn’t matter that we had no tits––we were blasé.

“But I’m not just Patty. There is a lot of me in all these characters.” Beatts slicks back her razor-short hair and adjusts her sunglasses.

She continues: “At first, the Square Pegs characters were little things moving around in my head saying funny lines to each other. I would say the lines out loud while I was sitting on my lawn in Bridgehampton. I would sit there and laugh out loud. In high school, I was a lot like Muffy Tepperman [Weemawee’s school-spirit czar, played, with preppie zeal, by Jami Gertz]. I was student-council secretary for two years running. I had all those lists of things after my name in the yearbook.”

After high school, Beatts went to McGill University in Montreal. “It was a big enough school that there were a considerable number of Square Pegs,” she recalls. “Most of them worked on the daily newspaper, which is where I ended up. That was my first real experience with writing. Before that, I’d write poetry and, you know, put it under the bed. At McGill, I started writing seriously.”

Like all serious writers, Beatts moved to New York City after graduation – specifically, to her boyfriend’s fifth-floor walk-up on St. Mark’s Place. “It was Abbie Hoffman’s building. The street itself looked like a set from the road company of Hair,” she says. “My boyfriend was writing for the National Lampoon. They would have these dinners, and he would bring me. The other writers at those dinners couldn’t say, ‘Let her eat at home, preferably out of a dog dish,’ because there I was. I wasn’t about to leave, and I didn’t know anyone else in New York. They weren’t used to having girls. I was the first woman they let in the door.”

Those Lampoon dinners, which included such stars as Michael O’Donoghue, Henry Beard and the late Doug Kenney, are now legend. “I think we could have kicked the hell out of the Algonquin Round Table,” O’Donoghue has said. “There was a long wait between quips at that damn potsy Round Table.”

“We would all come up with funny ideas at those dinners,” Anne recalls. “The jokes would fly, and people would write things down on napkins and later ask, ‘Whose idea was this one?’ It would often turn out to be one of my ideas.”

Beatts was subsequently offered a job at the Lampoon, a publication she has termed a good magazine for people with zits. “I wrote for the Lampoon for four years,” she says now with some bitterness. “I left, finally, in a big blowup because my desk had been given away.”

The unemployed Beatts started work on what would become Titters: The First Collection of Humor by Women, an anthology that featured contributions by, among others, Deanne Stillman and Margie Gross. They, along with Janis Hirsch and Andy Borowitz (“my token male”), are now staff writers on Square Pegs.

Titters was a good concept, a marketable concept. As a collection of humor by that stereotypically unhumorous bunch–women–the book was an unusual property. “Anne always knows how to connect the dots,” says Deanne Stillman. “When we were trying to sell Titters, she referred, in one thought, to William Butler Yeats, the lost-wax process and dress shields. I don’t know what this had to do with anything, but it certainly impressed the editor.”

David Felton, another contributor to Square Pegs, also recognizes Beatts’ considerable marketing skills. “She’s tough. She’s very frank, and she’s determined. Somehow, she learned enough about the business to sell her ideas and to sell herself.” Before Titters‘ publication, Beatts received another job offer: a writing position with this new late-night TV show called Saturday Night Live.

“I was never a real reader of Lampoon,” says SNL producer Lorne Michaels, “but Anne had been recommended to me by Michael O’Donoghue. She thought I was hiring her for the wrong reasons–because O’Donoghue was then her boyfriend––and when we met, she was a combination of friendly and wary. She was a little combative. But that was 1975. Everyone was a little combative in 1975.”

“I turned down Saturday Night when I was first offered it,” Anne says. “I was doing Titters. I kept saying: ‘But I have this book! Who cares about television? It’s just a lava lamp with sound.'”

Beatts eventually accepted Michaels’ offer and ended up creating (often with Rosie Shuster) such characters as the Loopners and such skits as The Lighter Side of Child Molesting. She stayed with the show for five years and won two Emmy Awards.

“I kinda fell into things,” she says now. “Square Pegs is the first job that wasn’t an accident. Show business is like a roulette table. You put out a lot of bids, place your bets and hope one comes in. This one, luckily, happened to come in. Now, as the producer, the trick is to maintain a funny balance between control and, uhmm, suicide.”

***

“Sometimes I think, what an adult job we have,” says Sarah Jessica Parker (Patty Greene). She sighs. She is thinking about Norwalk, California. “Borewalk,” says Amy Linker (Lauren Hutchinson). “New Jersey to the tenth power,” says Anne Beatts. “There is nothing there but things out of a Johnny Carson monologue. Norwalk is full of Carmelita’s Bridal Modes, as it were.”

Square Pegs is filmed at Excelsior High School in Norwalk. Norwalk is past Downey, lost somewhere in Los Angeles County. Excelsior is an abandoned school, and it was recently used as the set for Grease II.

Since Square Pegs is filmed scene by scene, rather than videotaped in front of a live audience, and since the filming takes place in Norwalk at a real high school with real lockers and real bathrooms and real drinking fountains, rather than at a Hollywood sound stage, the cast and crew are constantly stuck together.

“There is nothing to do in Norwalk but work,” says Sarah, who is 18 years old. “And when we’re done working–well, it’s just lucky we get along so well.”

“Norwalk is so depressing,” says the 16-year-old Amy, “that without Sarah, I would go out of my mind.”

Actually, these two have known each other for years. Or, more specifically, they’ve known of each other.

“I thought she was so weird,” Amy says of Sarah. “We’d both go out for the offbeat parts. She’d always wear these weird bell-bottoms to auditions. I couldn’t tell if she wore them to look strange or if she wore them normally. Anyway, I thought she was very weird.”

This was back in New York. Sarah, who is originally from Cincinnati, played Annie on Broadway. Amy made her TV debut at age 12 in a Burger King commercial. Both are seasoned pros. And both are pretty––definitely not misfit types. Amy wears padding and fake braces on her teeth to play Lauren, and Sarah wears phony glasses to play Patty, but despite their real-life cuteness, both girls have been continually cast as Square Pegs.

“I once did a commercial for Blue Cross,” says Sarah, “which tells you the kind of face I have. I mean, help this child. Once, when my mother went out of town, I cut my bangs. I thought, this will make my face look rounder – more appealing to the American people. Did this work? Of course not.”

Amy concurs: “As long as I’ve been an actress, it’s always been a fantasy of mine to play a character that just had braces. Lauren is a dream come true.”

“But,” Sarah says, “I’ve always felt like a square peg anyway. My education, for instance, is so inconsistent. I mean, ask me what a predicate is–I learned that this week. If you put me in a group with 15 other kids my age and look at my test scores, I seem like an Appalachian child who was raised in the mines.” Amy agrees. “We don’t even understand some of the jokes in the show,” she says. “We have to ask the writers to explain sometimes. Patty and Lauren are just so bright.”

These are only minor worries, though. Boys, on the other hand, are major concerns. Amy has a crush on a DJ at (you guessed it) KROQ and likes countless guys at her real school, Beverly Hills High. Sarah has a sort of boyfriend (they hold hands in public), but no names, please.

“There was this one guy in my high school in New Jersey,” Sarah recalls. “He was so superb looking. He was a football player. The New York Jets had asked me to sing the national anthem before their game that Sunday, and I knew this guy was a football fan, so, casually, I mentioned that I was going to the football game. The next Monday, he came up and asked me for my autograph. I gave it to him, and…he never talked to me again.” Amy laughs at Sarah’s story. “If that’s not Square Pegs,” she says, “I don’t know what is.”

***

“I like two things about L.A.,” Anne Beatts is saying. “Valet parking and KROQ.” KROQ is a New Wave radio station, and while valet parking is, well, nice, KROQ is hip. It is the station in L.A. – every cool dial is tuned to KROQ. Especially in Square Pegs land.

Weemawee is spiritually KROQ. In fact, Square Pegs is the first primetime show ever to feature performances by New Wave acts.

The Waitresses sing the theme song, Devo performed at Muffy Tepperman’s New Wave bat mitzvah, and X, a Flock of Seagulls and Joe Jackson all have expressed interest in appearing on the show. “I’d like to get some of those black performers like Wilson Pickett,” Anne says. “And Adam Ant may do the show soon. We could do some story about how Jennifer has a crush on him. But the music has to work with the script, and every show can’t end in a dance.”

Instead, there’s a radio station. Radio Weemawee bears a remarkable resemblance to…well, KROQ, but there is one striking difference: KROQ doesn’t have Johnny Slash.

Johnny Slash is unique, his brain barely functioning beneath his Walkman headphones and Ray Ban shades. Slash, though, is not really a square peg. Slash is, as he himself would say, “New Wave. Not punk. New Wave. Totally different head. Totally.” “Mail-order New Wave, I would say,” claims Merritt Butrick, who plays Johnny Slash. “That’s why I was an extremely illogical choice for what they had perceived.”

“I’m not into music,” explains the 23-year-old Butrick, who also admits to a dislike for chairs. “I’ve never owned a stereo. That would be too dangerous. When I owned a TV, I talked to it. I talked to it to avoid loneliness and still have the strength of being alone. I would turn the TV on softly. That I could handle. But I am much too lonely to play music.”

Butrick was last seen in Star Trek II as Captain Kirk’s illegitimate son. “This show is not as risky for me compared to something like Star Trek, “Butrick says. “Johnny’s the kind of guy who ended up staying back every year in high school. Oddly enough, there are parallels between my school and Weemawee. I was popular in only the wrong ways. I was popular with everyone’s girlfriends. I lost all my friends when I got to high school, because I gave them each one of Ayn Rand’s books to read. I wanted to talk about fantasy, and they… they just didn’t want to talk. Then I fell in love doing an audition for drama class.

“My scholastic tests said I should work for the CIA,” Butrick continues. “And the college I went to had the initials CIA.” After receiving a B.F.A. from the California Institute of the Arts, he appeared in an early episode of Hill Street Blues.

“I was typed as a suburban juvenile delinquent,” Butrick says. “We’re still realizing the value of Rebel without a Cause. When I went for this audition, I was totally unprepared. All my parts had involved sex and drugs. There are no sex and drugs in Johnny. The audition was horrendous. I was obviously too old for the part, but the director [Kim Friedman] pushed for me. She said, simply, ‘I need an actor in the role.’

“I’m still learning about Johnny,” Butrick says. “I create him from moment to moment. Johnny is about humor. Humor is almost a better word than love. Humor. Love. I can learn to love myself more through humor. I’m still not Johnny enough, because I have all this pent-up anger. Johnny sees past that to people’s hearts. And he’s Polish.”

“He’s Polish?”

“Sure, he’s Polish,” Butrick says. “Johnny Slash is like the pope. Humor. Love. Just like the pope.”

***

Anne Beatts is very fifties. Her clothes are Fifties. She plans to buy a turquoise-and-white ’59 Rambler. Her office décor is Fifties–oddly shaped table legs and boxy couches. At one time, Beatts thought of setting Square Pegs in the Fifties. “Unhappy Days,” she says. Anne Beatts was once very Twenties.

During her National Lampoon days, she and then-boyfriend Michael O’Donoghue were, according to a 1979 Rolling Stone article (RS 296), “known around Manhattan for their Gatsby-like attire, Beatts mostly turned out in sleek dresses and Michael sporting a white tropical suit and matching slouch cap.”

“We had this incredible apartment,” Beatts says. “Totally art deco, chandeliers – the works. I think it was Lorne Michaels who used to say, ‘Michael and Anne are staying together for the sake of the apartment.'”

The Twenties, though, have apparently passed, although Beatts still retains a certain Fitzgerald-like wild-party reputation. She has been called “the doyenne of Hollywood.”

“I like to entertain,” she says modestly. “I live in an enormous house. It’s Rod [Stewart] and Britt’s [Ekland] old house. But I really lead a completely unchic existence. I’m in Norwalk every day. I stay there all day. I don’t go out for lunch. I don’t wear sandals.”

Beatts points to a picture on her office wall. “That’s a photograph from my Halloween party. I invited the cast and the cast’s mothers, and the crew and the crew’s wives and husbands and girlfriends and boyfriends, and the staff and their wives and husbands and girlfriends and boyfriends. I guess you could say the only star in that picture is Tracy Nelson.”

Tracy Nelson (Jennifer Di-Nuccio) is, in certain ways, also very Fifties. Her grandparents are Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, and her father is Rick Nelson. There is also something vaguely starlike about the 19-year-old Tracy – she has a sweet singsong voice, a definite presence. Her great-grandfather, after all, was Cecil B. DeMille. “Show business has never been a mystery to me,” says Tracy. “Not for one moment was it a mystery.”

But a family of icons can be frustrating. “I’m not my family,” Tracy insists. “My father’s seen the show, I think, twice. You don’t have to be like your family. I mean, Prince Charles doesn’t have to be like his mom. “I was on Hour Magazine with my grandma Harriet,” says Tracy. “My grandmother said, ‘Tracy and I owe everything to television.’ I looked at her and said, ‘Grandma, I don’t owe anything to television. Television is a factory now. They wheel you in and they wheel you out.” Tracy pauses. “I take myself very seriously when I work.”

Jennifer DiNuccio is not, however, a Shakespearean heroine. Her speech is heavy on the like. The word like, as in, “Like, gross me back to the Stone Age” or, “Like, I know Vinnie likes me but, like, you know.”

Jennifer, in fact, sounds awfully similar to renowned Valley girl Moon Unit Zappa. This oft-made observation annoys Tracy. “The song hadn’t even come out when I auditioned,” she says. “I was just trying to sound like the girls in my high school.” Tracy, as it happens, attended Westlake, a private girls school in L.A.

Naturally, Westlake is chock-full of girls from the Valley. Jennifer DiNuccio is not, however, a Valspeak cliché. She has the necessary vanity factor, but she is too loopy for the Valley. She’s actually a good deal like Johnny Slash, off on another, like, planet.

“Jennifer is almost from another time. She’s not quite all there, but I understand her,” says Tracy. “She’s like a possession. I am Jennifer.” Does the phrase ‘déjà vu’ ever spring to mind?

Anne Beatts is talking about casting. Square Pegs was difficult to cast. There was a nationwide search for the right Patty and Lauren, the perfect Jennifer. “In several cities,” Anne says, “the kids would show up dressed like Lisa Loopner’s boyfriend, Todd de la Muca. You know, the Billy Murray character. I thought, oh, God – I’ve created a monster.”

That’s not really surprising. The characters on Square Pegs have definite Saturday Night Live counterparts. Jennifer DiNuccio (as well as Moon Unit Zappa‘s Valley girl, for that matter) is a direct descendant of Laraine Newman’s SNL character, the appropriately named Sherry Norwalk. Lauren- and Patty-like characters were continually played by Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman on Saturday Night Live, notably in one slumber-party sketch in which three little girls discuss sex.

Johnny Slash is a fairly original incarnation (although his type is a natural for Bill Murray), but Marshall Blechtman is Todd de la Muca with a laugh track. Marshall actually makes Cone-head jokes, and in a recent episode of Square Pegs, SNL’s Father Guido Sarducci appeared as a “video exorcist” hired to free Marshall from the Pac-Man grasp. “

Square Pegs is definitely the heir of Lisa and Todd,” says Beatts. “But with one important difference: Lisa and Todd didn’t know they were [Square Pegs]. Lauren and Patty know. Johnny isn’t certain of anything. And Marshall is the squarest peg of all.”

Marshall Blechtman is a nervous character, somewhat painful to watch. He tells these awful jokes, mostly lifted from old SNL routines. Blechtman is not just a high-school misfit, he is a permanent misfit. “He is nothing like me,” says John Femia, the 16-year-old actor who plays Blechtman. “My jokes are funny.”

But, like Marshall, John is nervous – a sure ulcer-before-20 candidate. “Show business is very bizarre,” he says. “It’s very egotistical. Now I just laugh at it. I used to get intimidated, like when I was twelve and a regular on Hello, Larry. I started in the business when I was six. TV was good then. All in the Family and M*A*S*H were on, and I was influenced by those shows. I would stare in the mirror every day and say, ‘I’ve got to get this face in the movies.'”

Marshall, he feels, has “done a great service for nerdy kids everywhere. When I first got the part, I spent a day in Anne’s bungalow at the Chateau Marmont discussing Marshall’s character. I said, ‘Let’s give him an ego.’ She liked that idea. I spent the rest of the day going over my impressions for her. I’ve never seen Anne laugh so hard in my life.”

Femia can do impressions of Howard Cosell and Richard Nixon and Lucille Ball. Or, rather, Femia can do an impression of Gilda Radner doing an impression of Lucille Ball. All Blechtman-Femia’s impressions are secondhand. SNL, it seems, has dominated his life. “Before a take,” Femia says, “I’ll go over to the crew and tell a joke. They won’t laugh. When they don’t laugh, I know I’ve got Marshall in the palm of my hand. It’s very courageous to have a character like Marshall. Anne is a brave woman.”

The best and the worst “Anne Beatts is stubborn,” Kim Le Masters is saying. “She’s stubborn and determined and absolutely passionate about this show. In the original pitch meetings, she was remarkably like a bull mastiff that has clamped his jaw on your calf and won’t let go for anything.”

Kim LeMasters, CBS executive, laughs. He likes Square Pegs. Actually, everyone at CBS seems to like Square Pegs. And Anne Beatts, as LeMasters sees it, is Square Pegs. The original pilot, written by Beatts, in which Patty falls for the coolest guy in the senior class, was one of 55 comedy scripts that CBS had in development.

Out of those 55, only three (including Square Pegs) made it on TV. “It was a beautifully written show,” says LeMasters. “And the fact that it was set in a high school was a point in its favor. High school is a formula that has been successful on TV. Almost everyone had to go through at least some part of high school.”

This was not the first time Beatts had pitched a high school story. She, Deanne Stillman and Judith Jacklin had written a movie script entitled Where the Girls Are about high school life in the mid-Sixties. “It was like a female Diner” recalls Stillman, “but it was rejected.”

Other Beatts projects – a TV show based on Titters, a movie update of The Women, a murder-mystery comedy – were all in various holding patterns when Square Pegs was bought by CBS. “There was a point during the filming of the pilot,” LeMasters recalls, “when I would have been perfectly willing to fire Anne Beatts. I began to think Anne was the best of Square Pegs and, simultaneously, the worst of Square Pegs. There are definite problems with her as a producer. She has a desire, for instance, not to tell a story, to just have interesting characters who tell clever jokes.

“The show, then, becomes overly hip and difficult to follow unless you are a regular viewer. If a viewer hasn’t seen prior episodes or isn’t familiar with the characters, he will get lost and turn the dial. But CBS cannot write the scripts. All we can do is send notes, and if Anne, as the producer, chooses to ignore them, there’s very little we can do. Finally, Anne Beatts is this show.”

Certain compromises have, however, been made. To widen the show’s appeal, CBS asked Beatts to create sympathetic adult characters. “Our agreement up front,” says LeMasters, “was not to do Room 222. But we wanted someone who was like the kids, except an adult.”

At first, Beatts complained about the addition of an adult figure, claiming that “adults are irrelevant in high school.” But eventually she relented, and Mr. “Call me Rob” Donovan signed on as Weemawee’s hip political-science teacher. “At this point,” Anne told the Wall Street Journal, “if they wanted a dragon, I’d put in a dragon.”

Square Pegs is currently in reruns, which will air on Wednesday nights at 8:30 for the next seven weeks, and the show stands a good chance of being renewed. In many ways, its future may depend on Beatts’ flexibility. This is, after all, prime-time network TV. CBS executives are quick to point out that Saturday Night Live never did well in the ratings when the show aired in prime time.

“This is a business,” says Kim LeMasters, almost apologetically. “And TV does not afford the luxury of time. Hipness can be alienating. Anne Beatts may have to realize that.”

***

There is a story about Anne Beatts. She tells it. Other people tell it. It’s one of those anecdotes that is calculated to make the subject’s life sound wonderfully zany. In this story, Anne is learning to drive.

“One of my first driving experiences,” Anne begins, “was out in the Hamptons. I crashed John Belushi’s Bluesmobile. I was with Judy [Jacklin] Belushi and a girlfriend, and both of them have their licenses. I was going about five miles an hour, and I drove right into a tree. I banged up the car to the tune of $600. The Bluesmobile only cost $400. We thought John was going to be really upset. As it turns out, he was just relieved that someone else had fucked up.”

Anne relates this story as the phone is ringing. It’s a good story, better than a student-body-president story, more impressive than any senior-prom story. Stuff like having known John Belushi well enough to wreck his favorite car is, well, beyond high-school popularity. That kind of story makes you cool for life.

Anne decides to answer the phone. It is something about sets and budgets. “I am a self-styled girl satirist,” she says after hanging up. “I have always wanted to use the word self-styled about myself, but I really am. I have my own style. Humor for me is a weapon. When you’re not popular and you’re standing on the sidelines, you develop a keen sense of observation. At some point, I learned those observations could be funny, and that being funny was a way of being popular. My mother always said I’d look back on high school and laugh.”

The phone rings. “I think that people who were really popular in high school never go beyond that. Most successful people I know now were Square Pegs in high school.” The phone continues to ring. Beatts answers. The call makes her happy. “I get a terrific kick out of doing this show,” she says. “I get to play God.”

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