Thursday, January 8, 2015

Revisiting Bosom Buddies

Was anyone else surprised by the multiple mentions of Bosom Buddies at the recent Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Tom Hanks?

I expected a clip of the series to be played during the video retrospective of his life and career, but the situation comedy practically became a running joke throughout the segment, inspiring cross-dressing quips from Martin Short and host Stephen Colbert.

The references were plainly intended as affectionate mocking, and a way to illustrate how far Tom Hanks has come from such humble and questionable beginnings.

There’s only one problem with that assessment – Bosom Buddies was nothing to be ashamed of. Hanks doesn’t think so either – when a cast reunion was arranged at the TV Land Awards in 2010, the A-list movie star was there alongside Peter Scolari, Donna Dixon, Holland Taylor and Telma Hopkins. I’m sure his TV Land Award is now proudly displayed between his two Oscars. 

The series is remembered as a failure because it was – just 37 episodes over two low-rated seasons, and a men-in-drag gimmick that was dated and desperate even in 1981. But as the old jazz standard reminds us, it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.

Actually, jazz is an apt allusion of why Bosom Buddies made its high-concept-to the-hilt premise work. With jazz it’s not the music on the page that creates the magic, but the inspired improvisations that take place within its framework. With Bosom Buddies it wasn’t the scripts or the ensemble that excelled as much as the lively riffing of Hanks and Scolari.

I still remember how fresh and surprising those moments seemed when the series first aired, as such instances of spontaneity were not typical of Miller-Milkis-Boyett shows.

Thomas Miller, Edward Milkis and Robert Boyett, working together and in various combinations from the 1970s through the 1990s, were responsible for the creation and/or production of several successful series (Happy Days, Laverne & Shirley, Full House, Perfect Strangers) and a few famous misses (Blansky’s Beauties, Joanie Loves Chachi, Goodtime Girls).

Television fans of that era came to recognize a house style for the team’s various shows – working class heroes, lovable eccentrics, and material that was rarely played with subtlety under a too-exuberant laugh track. So when a more obscure pop culture reference slipped into one of the conversations between Kip (Hanks) and Henry (Scolari), or their female counterparts Buffy and Hildy, Bosom Buddies became a different type of show – more clever and mischievous, and definitely funnier. Most of these highlights happened when the duo were not in drag – maybe it’s harder to ad-lib in heels. 

Such inspired moments seemed improvised, though that was unlikely in an assembly line product. But during interviews conducted around the aforementioned TV Land Awards, the cast confirmed what I had long suspected – during the tedious hours of camera blocking, the actors would indeed improvise material which often found its place into the finished episodes.

Perhaps, after letting Robin Williams run wild on Mork & Mindy, the network and the producers had become more open to letting stars tweak their scripts. Or maybe the ratings on Bosom Buddies were so bleak they didn’t bother paying attention. Either way, there was something a little subversive going on there, and I imagine it’s one of the reasons why the series still has its supporters.

Of course, it still doesn’t get any respect – a "Complete Series" DVD is available, but CBS-Paramount didn’t think it was worth writing a big check to retain the original Billy Joel theme song (“My Life”). Perhaps being referenced 20 years later at the Kennedy Center with the president and first lady in attendance is recognition enough. Nobody is still making Blansky’s Beauties jokes.  

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if Stephanie Mills originally recorded "Shake Me Loose" in 1980, the first year "Bosom Buddies" was on the air. BTW, Mr. Hofstede, do you think it's safe to say that "Santa Barbara" was a failure? It ran on NBC for only eight and a half years, which isn't too long for a daytime soap opera in the United States.