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The Best of Friends, 04.29.02 ...

Written by Susan LaTempa

It's too soon to tell whether Lorelai and Rory will earn a place in the pantheon of wisecracking couples alongside Hope and Crosby, Burns and Allen, or Hawkeye and Trapper John--but Gilmore Girls' lineage is impeccable. Mother and daughter, the two characters sprang fully formed from the forehead of Amy Sherman-Palladino, and her roots stretch from the Valley to the Catskills.

In fact, meeting Sherman-Palladino at her office on the Warner Bros. lot is like hanging out backstage at a burlesque house. For one thing, her office décor is heavy on the overstuffed, the bordello-red, and the gilt-edged. ("It's a bit Moulin Rouge," she admits.) And then there's her propensity for assuming the voices and poses of a gallery of vaudeville-era characters.

Making a point about producers, she leers, waggles an imaginary cigar, and drops her voice several decibels, calling to mind generations of baggy pants comedians. Moments later, she uses a breathy showgirl voice for a moment of self-deprecation, batting her eyelashes and making a rosebud of her lips. When she gets serious, she assumes the comically mournful mien of the classic stage manager, amazed at her run of good fortune, resigned to future disaster, and doggedly shepherding things along in the meantime because of an inborn commitment to the Show.

Dorothy Parker Drank Here

There's no question that Sherman-Palladino's scripts for the WB series reflect a fresh, up-to-date sensibility (it's hard to call a program old-fashioned when it shows, as Gilmore Girls did, the mom having sex on a balcony), but the craft, technique, and even the heart that have caused the show to be embraced by critics and viewers owe a lot to the creator's confidence in her own voice. That voice manages to be distinctive and contemporary while it honors decades of American showbiz tradition. Sherman-Palladino even named her production company, Dorothy Parker Drank Here Productions, for the famous wit of yesteryear.

"My husband was watching the show the other night," Sherman-Palladino says wryly, "and there was a Lenny Bruce reference and a Bye Bye Birdie reference and a Charlie McCarthy reference, and he said it's like an 80-year-old Jewish man is writing this show sometimes."

Wearing a fashionable screen-print jacket, her black hair in a Clara Bow bob, and her feet in patent-leather knee boots, Sherman-Palladino, 36, doesn't look like a potential Friar's Club member, but those are the cadences and rhythms she heard at home growing up. Her mother, Maybin Hewes Sherman, is a former dancer who appeared in Broadway musicals, and her father is comedian and writer Don Sherman.

"I was supposed to be a dancer. My mother has still not gotten over the fact that I'm not in Cats. I was raised in a weird mixture of showbiz and suburbia. When I was young, my dad was still touring a lot with people like Sergio Mendez and Brasil '66 or Johnny Mathis. But he also worked in TV with Danny Thomas and Danny Arnold. The comics who'd come over had all worked together in the Catskills, and they'd sit around swapping stories. And Mel Brooks' The 2000 Year Old Man--that's what I listened to as a kid over and over again. So I think I was born as an 80-year-old Jewish man."

Gavin Polone, executive producer with Sherman-Palladino, agrees that "Amy's background with her parents" influenced her unique writing style.

"The writing is different and funnier and fresher than anything else you see in this format," brags Polone. "The pace of the show and the humor and characterizations are not like anything else on TV and certainly not like anything else on WB."

Bob Myer, the writer-producer who gave Sherman-Palladino her first writing job a decade ago, says, "What you see in Gilmore Girls is two halves of Amy Sherman: the half that has matured and the half that's still a kid. Both those characters sound like sides of Amy."

The Little Dramedy That Could

Entertainment Weekly cheered the "family dynamic" expressed by Gilmore Girls, saying that Lauren Graham (Lorelai) and Alexis Bledel (Rory) "successfully embody TV's first true post-baby-boomer mother-daughter relationship." Meanwhile, in a cover story for USA Today, Robert Bianco noted that the Gilmore girls are actually a trio, applauding as well Kelly Bishop, who plays Lorelai's mother, Emily, and focusing on the multigenerational bonds explored in the series. The headline marveled that Gilmore Girls is "a family show that isn't cheesy."

In these and other articles, critics have singled out the show from the first few episodes, citing the writing, the acting, and the increasingly colorful ensemble of supporting characters.

In the awards arena, Gilmore Girls was named Outstanding New Program of the Year by the Television Critics Association, and star Lauren Graham was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild award. It has also received Family Television Awards and Young Artists awards.

That's a lot of prestige for a show with just 5.4 million viewers.

The WB series, which received an early pickup for its third season, now airs on Tuesday nights. With a 60 percent increase in viewership last season, the network touts it as the fastest-growing series on TV. Of course, it had nowhere to go but up: Gilmore Girls began life two seasons ago on Thursdays opposite Friends.

That daunting timeslot proved to be a kind of safe harbor for the quirky show.

"Since we were against the monster show of all monster shows," remembers Sherman-Palladino, "all we had to do was survive. All we had to do was basically get here on time, turn the cameras on, and have a cocktail afterwards. That's all we had to do. Because nobody expects us to take out Friends, for god's sakes. And then when the critics--god love 'em, every one of 'em--chimed in and validated the studio and the network's feelings of being behind this, it just sort of grew. Then slowly but surely we built a tiny little audience that got bigger and then a little bigger.

"We got to build slowly and because of that we got to really do the show we wanted to do. You know, on other shows, you get that plum timeslot, then all of a sudden, you'd better fuckin' deliver. You'd better--or you're going to start having those ugly meetings."

Sherman-Palladino puts on a fake sweet voice and becomes a manipulative executive. "'You know,'" she enthuses like a dingbat, "'we think that we need monkeys. People like monkeys; they find monkeys very amusing, so now monkeys would be--.'" She interrupts her character and becomes herself again.

"We never had the monkey talk. It was all really focused on the show, and the process was very fruitful. This was a show that the networks and the studio could just enjoy because nobody expected anything out of this. If we were doing a certain amount, we were good. And we did that amount. So everybody could just sort of sit back and relax and just enjoy and let it grow and watch it turn into what it turned into. It was the kind of experience you always dream about, [that] you hope for."

She pauses for less than a beat, then laughs and moans at the same time, "It'll never happen again! I'm not naïve. I'm not crazy! I'll probably be hit by a bus in an hour! It's all going to be over soon!"

What to me had not been done was a girl who wasn't fucking around at 14. A girl who was not interested in boys, not because of an aversion to boys, but who was academically goal-oriented and really that's what made her tick. And a girl who was very comfortable in her skin. Didn't need to be popular, wasn't popular, but didn't care.

Married, With Pilots

Although the Gilmore Girls' voices may echo Amy Sherman-Palladino's, the circumstances of their lives are quite different. Sherman-Palladino is about the same age as her main character, Lorelai, but Lorelai's old-money background and job at a New England inn were dreamed up by the California-born writer when she was on vacation in Connecticut. Unlike never-married Lorelai, Sherman-Palladino is married, to writer Daniel Palladino (executive producer of Family Guy), who this year is an executive producer on her show, a situation which has, says his wife, "lightened my workload immensely."

"We've been married about four and a half years," says Sherman-Palladino. "We've known each other for about 10 years. I don't know how--he's still on crack?--how I landed him. How did that happen? But it's true! I got paperwork!"

Amy Sherman-Palladino joined the staff of Roseanne when she was 24 years old and continued there as a writer and a producer for four seasons. She subsequently worked on Can't Hurry Love, Love and Marriage, Veronica's Closet, and Over the Top. Daniel Palladino, who played keyboard in several rock bands before becoming a writer's assistant and then a writer, is a veteran of Who's the Boss, Roseanne, and Over the Top as well as Family Guy.

"Our careers were interesting because a lot of times I would not be working when he was, or I'd be in development when he was on a show. Or he'd be in development when I was on a show. But last year he was writing Family Guy with Seth MacFarlane and I was here, so we were both working at the same time, which is unusual for us. We quickly realized we weren't actually ever going to see each other if we didn't consolidate the arrangement."

The couple has formally collaborated only once before. ("We did a half-hour pilot together and immediately broke up afterwards. I don't blame the script," notes Sherman-Palladino.) But they've been unofficial alter egos for each other while working on pilots.

"He produced a pilot a couple of years ago, and I was there all day long with him, there for rewrites and run-throughs and through the whole process, and he's done exactly the same for me. It's really important because everyone around you, not in a mean way, has an agenda. To have one person who has absolutely no agenda except to make sure your project gets done correctly is absolutely invaluable. So he was there for the pilot of Gilmore Girls. Also, I write extremely long, and he's very good at suggesting cuts."

The Kid is Alright

Sherman-Palladino didn't draw on particulars of her own life in creating the Rory character, either. Rory attends an academically intense private high school and has her sights set on Harvard University. Sherman-Palladino, who attended North Hollywood High and graduated from Grant High, didn't go to college but headed straight to the showbiz trenches, auditioning as a dancer and an actress and joining the improvisational comedy company the Groundlings.

In creating Rory, she was focused not on autobiography but on presenting a fresh view of young people.

"What to me had not been done was a girl who wasn't fucking around at 14. A girl who was not interested in boys, not because of an aversion to boys, but who just was academically goal-oriented and really that's what made her tick. And a girl who was very comfortable in her skin. Didn't need to be popular, wasn't popular, but didn't care. Didn't look longingly at the group over by the soda fountain with the good shoes. Because she had her best friend, her mom, and she had her other friend, and she had her life. And her life is good."

But Sherman-Palladino doesn't turn her back on parent-child turmoil. She just pushes it up a generation.

"To me the fun was that the parental stress was in Lorelai's relationship with her parents. So we've got kids who deal well with their parents, or at least deal well with their lives. Then I've got a 16-year-old girl who, when anything happens to her, the first person she wants to go to is her mother--that was nice. That was just sort of different."

Those decisions are resonating with young women and girls who make up an increasingly loyal core of viewers. According to the WB, as of February 2002: "Gilmore Girls ranks as the No.3 show among female teens (6.7/22) versus all network competition, trailing only 7th Heaven and Friends." Still, says it creator, as much as Gilmore Girls might attract teenage girls who'd love to have a relationship with their mother like Rory's with Lorelai, the show has always been designed to appeal to all ages.

"I really believe there's something for everybody in the show," says Sherman-Palladino, "and I've structured it in my mind to that end. As lovely as it is that we have young girls watching the show, some of my favorite stuff is done with Emily and Richard (Lorelai's parents) and the generational stuff. We've done a lot of stuff with Richard this year--getting forced out of his company and being forced into retirement--which I think is all really wonderful storytelling, and that's for an older audience. The main thing for me when I think of audience is just to make sure there's something, no matter who is sitting down to watch the show, that there's something that they can relate to or will make them laugh or that they find interesting."

Roseanne U.

It was as a member of the Groundlings that Sherman-Palladino began writing, working with fellow Groundling Jennifer Heath.

"We were two short, Jewish, annoying women that no one wanted to deal with, so we dealt with each other. One day she said, 'Let's write a spec script,' and I said, 'I'm a gypsy. I don't know how to use a computer.' And she said, 'Well, let's just do it, 'cause you never know.' So we wrote a Roseanne, and we wrote an Anything But Love because I wanted to meet Richard Lewis [who played Marty Gold]." She pauses to reflect a moment and then says mournfully, "I still haven't met him, but that's okay." She smiles bravely and with quivering lip notes that "life just sends you roadblocks."

Returning to her story, Sherman-Palladino explains that, on the contrary, the road ahead of her and Jennifer Heath at the time was amazingly obstacle-free. "It was a great timing thing. It was right when Roseanne fired everybody for the second year, and they were restaffing, and they needed women because they didn't have any. We were a team, and we were cheap."

Bob Myer remembers, "I was brand new as Roseanne's executive producer, so their spec Roseanne script was one more than I'd written and I was the producer. I looked at this script, and it had a real attitude about it that I thought would be valuable to the show. There were a lot of things I thought Darlene and Becky would say and that was not something I was going to bring to the party."

Myer hired Heath and Sherman and then kept them both on as individuals when they split up the following year.

Sherman-Palladino credits Myer as a teacher, not only of television writing ("He taught me about keeping that story going and structuring it out and really getting to the meat of things and below the surface"), but also of lessons about "just staying in the business."

"I was very lucky," says Sherman-Palladino, "because I don't think a lot of people run into that. Roseanne, for the first couple years I was there especially, was a real functioning writing staff in the old-fashioned sense, and I haven't been on a lot of those since. There were seven people, and you really broke stories in the room, you really went over outlines in the room, and everybody really got to write. You went off, you wrote the script, you got notes, you got the second draft, and people really worked from that draft. It wasn't gangbangs and everybody take a scene and throw it together and there's 20 people on staff and splitting rooms up. It was a cohesive group of people.

"I saw the value of the room from that, and I worked on a couple of sitcoms where the room was not valued, and I just don't understand that. I mean, you have people who have lives--suck 'em dry, man, steal from 'em! Why not? What are you waiting for? Also, the motto on Roseanne was, 'Make the small big and make the big small.' I've applied that rule to everything I've written ever since. I'm not sure if that was a Bob Myer rule, but that was the rule we actually lived by. When we broke stories, we would take that small incident and blow it up and make that big, and then if there was something really big and over the top, we'd make it tiny. That's usually the way your real life works. And I think our best shows reflected that on Roseanne."

Of her experience as half of a writing team and the decision to split up, Sherman-Palladino says simply, "Partnerships are hard," adding, "Jennifer Heath is a terrific, brilliantly smart, wonderful writer. She wrote a book recently, and it's just so kick-ass good! She's really smart and terrific--you know, we did it for a year."

During their pairing, they received the show's only Emmy nomination for writing (for an episode in which Becky, played by Alicia Goranson, and Roseanne talk about birth control). After they began separate careers, Sherman-Palladino was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for the episode focusing on Roseanne's father's death.

Hot and Cold

"It was clear to me from the beginning," Bob Myer says, "that Amy was fresh, she was motivated, and that she would be a strong writer. That proved out through the second season when she wrote on her own. Amy and I were the only ones to survive into the fifth season, me as a consultant, Amy as a supervising producer. Her writing continued to be excellent. I never expected anything less than what's happened for her. I expected it to happen way earlier than this. I was a little bit surprised that it happened in the one-hour arena as opposed to the half-hour. But I was only a little surprised."

After her quick start out of the gates, Sherman-Palladino experienced several seasons of dues-paying ups and downs. Says Gavin Polone, "Amy's a great example of how the entertainment business is screwed up, because when Amy was on Roseanne, she was white-hot. I was an agent at the time, and I tried to sign her. Everyone wanted Amy, and she didn't want to sign with me. She eventually went and did some pilots and then for whatever reason, the business said, 'Oh, these two pilots didn't go,' and she became cold. I started being her agent, and she remained cold and maybe got colder. But she was the same writer. The problem with the business is that she's the same writer. People don't trust their instincts about who's a talented writer, but they are constantly trying to follow who's hot. But a hot writer could be hot for the wrong reason. Maybe they weren't the reason for the show's success. And writers who are supertalented and used to be hot could be cold because of bad casting, bad direction, or it's not the right concept."

Still, Sherman-Palladino wrote and produced four sitcoms in six years and had champions among network executives. Although Sherman-Palladino's writing experience was exclusively in half-hour format, Susanne Daniels, then WB's co-president of entertainment, asked, about a year before Gilmore Girls was pitched, that she come to that network with ideas for an hourlong.

"I thought, Should I be insulted?" remembers Sherman-Palladino. "I'm not sure how to take that: 'I won't hire you as a half-hour writer, but if you write an hour...' So at the time, it sounded like, oh, that might be kind of fun to do, but I couldn't do it at the time."

When Sherman-Palladino and Polone did pitch the Gilmore Girls concept and WB went for it, the project was still, she says, "under the radar."

"Let's be honest--I was cheap. We had no studio attached, so I developed it with the network and then Gavin Polone went into the Gavin Polone attack phase and got them to pick it up. Let's face it, there would be no show without Gavin Polone--the only person to have on your side, other than Satan. He really wore them down, didn't let them back off from this for a second. We came to the studio once it was picked up, and because the studio hadn't invested a lot of time and money, it was all small and low key. It's probably the nicest way to work because expectations aren't huge.

"The pilot process was really fun. First of all, going on location was fun. I'd never been on location. On a sitcom you walk from your set to your office, and that's it. Also, not having those horrible run-throughs. The half-hour process is just killed by those. God forbid the lead actress is in a crabby mood the day of the network run-through and scenes that are brilliant and funny and will work just tank and the network--you have that awful meeting with them and they say, 'You have to rewrite the whole thing.' And you know it'll work! Not having to deal with that, being able to really craft something from beginning to end, and see it through is just immensely gratifying."

Going with the Flow

Although the pilot was shot in Toronto, the Gilmore Girls as a series moved immediately onto the Warner Bros. backlot, at Sherman-Palladino's insistence. "I gave up a lot to stay here in L.A. I fought them tooth and nail. The only reason they wanted us to go up there was because of money. But there's sort of a creepy element about all of the productions going out of the country and out of state, and that's taking jobs away from people here, which doesn't sit great with me. I'm a union gal. But also there's an element of control. When you go to a town in Canada, they're gonna find it cute that you're there for about three hours and then they want your ass out of there and then you're on soundstages. One thing that I did know about this show was that it needed air. It needed a pace and a life. That was going to mean people walking around. People being able to walk across a square, walk into a place--the scene doesn't stop. I write nine- and 10-page scenes that we don't break. The only way to do that is to have the space to do that and that meant backlot.

"This show is all about flow. We don't have a lot of money. We can't go on location a lot. We can't blow up things or have dinosaurs come out of walls. It's a lot of dynamics of people just talking to each other. So if you can't have space and air for them to do that and you have a lot of short choppy scenes, this show wouldn't work."

Sherman-Palladino, who now directs some episodes, has continued to do much of the writing. "This show and I are getting along very well right now. We're in a groove. I only find scenes hard to write when I get really, really tired. Which I do. A lot. I get really, really tired, and then I write really long and I get lost in my own page count sometimes."

Of the writing staff, she says, "It's been a rotation, and we will continue rotating to find exactly the right people and keep training. I'm not the easiest person because I want very specific things. I read a lot of scripts. This show needs comedy, but most comedy scripts don't show me that they can write the drama. I usually ask to see original material. Original material gives you the truest sense of what somebody is and that's always the best sample. I look at pilots or screenplays. Aaron Sorkin's shows have a lot of pace to them, so those are sometimes good samples. Plays sometimes. Ed now. One of our writers I hired off a spec Ed.

"I'm trying to train my writers because I hope that by next year I'll have a great groove going with them," she further explains. "They're a really great group. They really love the show, and they really care. I'm going to have to step back, although I will probably continue to oversee all stories and as much as possible take last passes at scripts for as long as I can possibly do that and give my notes on cuts. The basic things. I don't want to relinquish those. At least not yet. The show's too young and new. Maybe in year five the show's gonna have a rhythm all its own, and I can go to Maui."

A pause. She laughs.

"I can do it now. I'm still vertical. You work for so long to get something like this, and then a lot of people rush out of it. I don't want to rush out of it. But as a writer the scary thing that you face is: Am I just writing the same thing over and over again? That's why it's important that I keep doing other things, whether it's a feature or a pilot."

As she gets ready to return to a day that began with time spent in the writers' room and will include hours in the editing room, meetings about the soundtrack, and a reshoot of a scene in an episode she's directing, Amy Sherman-Palladino says she never misses performing.

"I have the best job here. I get to come up with the stories; I get to write them. I'm in the editing room. I piece those performances together. In this role you get to really shape what goes on screen."
Credit: Written By

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