||A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Wisteria Lane
Marc Cherry found comedy when he stopped trying to be funny. Furnished with a 30-year secret plus one tragic crime, he was ready to unveil Desperate Housewives.
Marc Cherry strides along the edge of his latest work-in-progress: a backyard oasis behind his new Toluca Estate home. Right now, it's more wood than water-just part of the process of turning a house into a home. He remembers those three little words that brought him here, the way they were said, the room, the cigarette. He was watching TV with his mother in the summer of 2002. Dominating the news was coverage of Andrea Yates drowning her five children in a bathtub. “How awful,” Marc Cherry said. “Could you imagine a woman being so desperate that she would murder her own children?” Martha Cherry took a cigarette out of her mouth, murmured, “I've been there,” and resumed smoking.
I've been there? Cherry looked at his mother as if for the first time. He realized that while raising three children on her parents' farm in Oklahoma, Martha had been going privately insane. Her husband attended the University of Oklahoma and showed up on weekends. Occidental Petroleum hired Marc's father upon graduation, and the Cherry family turned nomadic, following the oil business from Huntington Beach, California, to Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, and finally Iran. “I lived in all these different places, and I never really appreciated how my mother, with three young kids, had to periodically pack up all these boxes and move her entire family,” he remembers. “So when we had that Andrea Yates talk, I finally realized we must have been driving her crazy!”
But just as quickly, he realized: There's a show here.
“I always thought my mother had this wonderful life, that she had everything she wanted,” Cherry says. “To discover there were these moments of great frustration and desperation for her-that discovery just rocked my world. If my mother had those problems, then there were other women who must have those feelings too.”
Cherry had a hook. He would write about the lives of housewives, something that could be an interesting companion piece to Sex and the City: “I had the word housewives, and I remembered a friend did a musical called Angry Housewives. I always thought that was an interesting title, but I didn't want my show to be about women who were angry. The operative word for me was housewives, and that they would all want something they didn't have-desperate housewives. Once I had the title, I knew it would dictate the tonality of the show: a place with gorgeous suburban homes and lovely lawns where everything is pretty and nice but with dark secrets underneath.”
With the realization of his mother's frustration reverberating in his head, Cherry created the first character for his new spec script: “Lynette, a woman who gives up her career to be a mom because she thinks it would be best for her kids, but she is desperately unhappy because she doesn't feel as comfortable in motherhood as she did in her career. Then I tried to think of three other forms of desperation. The next character I came up with was Bree, the 'perfect' housewife who was driving her husband and her kids crazy. Then I thought about a single mom, a woman whose husband divorced her. I knew she would be my anchor character, someone who desperately wanted to get back to the dream. I thought a handsome plumber should move in. That's the sex symbol for Desperate Housewives: a good-looking guy, who is older, who can fix things. At this point, I was going to cast three normal-looking women [as the housewives]. So I thought I'd better have one sexy woman in the show-which, of course, becomes comical when you see whom I ended up casting. But I had Andrea Yates in mind the whole time I was writing this: women slowly going insane in the suburbs. A life that they bought into made them insane, causing them to do things that they normally would not do. Essentially, it's why I think the show became a hit, because of the title itself: Desperate Housewives.”
In th e Abbot and Costello building (aptly named for the comedians who helped build the structure) are the production offices of the Emmy-winning show watched by more than 23 million viewers every week. The show that won both the 2005 and 2006 Golden Globe for Best Musical or Comedy Series. But is Desperate Housewives a comedy? A drama? A dramedy? Maybe it's actually a musical: after all, Cherry titles his episodes with Stephen Sondheim songs. It's hard to categorize. As a renowned critic once observed, “All great works of literature found a genre or dissolve one … they are, in other words, special cases.” But on Sunday night television?
Similar to the Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton classics that executive producer-showrunner Tom Spezialy used to watch on his father's home projector, “there was pain and joy, tragedy and comedy, all in one scene. For Desperate Housewives, Marc will come up with something and I'll think, That's horrifying; let's do it. Then we look at every scene and decide where the comedy is and continue working on that idea.”
Those ideas get worked out in the writers' room. Blue couches surround a big red beanbag that holds centerstage. Co-executive producers Kevin Murphy and the writing team of Joey Murphy & John Pardee, who worked with Cherry on his last four shows, sprawl out in their reserved seats. Writer Scott Tobis takes his place in the corner, and Dana, the writers' assistant, sits at her computer, the second season's episodes on rainbow-hued index cards pinned to a corkboard behind her.
For today's scene, Cherry-dressed in blue sweatpants, blue T-shirt, and white low-cut leather Pumas-is enthroned on his beanbag performing from the double pink, work-in-progress script of episode #217. Today, he's playing Lynette Scavo, normally played by Emmy-winning actress Felicity Huffman. A conference call with her is scheduled for 4:10 p.m. to discuss the scene, and the team wants to make sure her dialogue about breastfeeding is clicking: “All I'm saying is … the day comes for every woman when she finally says to her kid, 'Hey, Mommie's nipples are sore-it's time to try Diet Coke.'” The line's a keeper.
Murphy and Pardee have been watching Cherry perform since their days together as part of the singing/dancing group the Young Americans. However, when it's the ersatz housewives, Susan (Teri Hatcher) and Edie (Nicollette Sheridan), who need to be imbued, Joey and John are waiting in the wings. “They're always at war with each other, slinging insults at each other,” says Cherry. “Sometimes it's just easier to do it this way.”
Training in Cal State Fullerton's theater program, Cherry was determined to become a great performer like the late great Stubby Kaye. “I thought that was going to be my career, because your look is your career as an actor,” he says. “[Kaye] was a great actor, great singer, but also a balding, fat guy-I pretty much look now the way I looked back then, a little longer hair, a little thinner, but not much different. About five seconds after I got my Equity card, I thought, I'm not going to be Tom Cruise. I'm going to be Stubby Kaye. But it was great being a theater major because I ended up reading a ton of plays. I got a good education in dramatic structure and dialogue. There are times when I'll be writing a scene and I'll go, I need something here, then something will pop into my head from a George Bernard Shaw play, and I'll decide to try something like that.” Cherry is tickled by what else “something like that” could also be-his all-time favorite Simpsons joke. “Marge Simpson asks, 'Grandpa, are you sitting on the apple pie?' Grandpa answers, 'I sure hope so.'”
Whether Cherry channels the great writers of yesteryear or the one-line geniuses of today, the credit goes to a little furry monster from another planet for pushing him into his career. “One night while watching a particularly bad episode of Alf with my best friend, Jamie Wooten, I said, 'I think I can write that in the same amount of time it took to show it.' Jamie said, 'I agree. Let's try it.'” In 1988, Cherry and Wooten moved to Hollywood. By March 1, they completed their first spec script, “but we fought a lot. Jamie and I had been friends for eight years, and in all that time I think we had one argument. In that first month of writing together, we had three knock-down, drag-out fights. It's this weird thing. I tend to be very passive except when it comes to writing. It's the only time where I become very controlling. Jamie wasn't used to me being like that because he was always the dominant figure in the friendship.”
By May 1988, Wooten and Cherry had two Golden Girls spec scripts and quickly landed an agent, Marcie Wright. Suddenly, the 1988 writers' strike ended in August, and everyone went back to work. Nobody was interested in reading two young unknown writers. “I was working as Dixie Carter's personal assistant at the time,” Cherry remembers. “Jamie and I would write, talk about writing, try to get people to read our stuff. Then Jamie read an ad in the Hollywood Reporter for the Warner Bros. Writer's Workshop. We sent in one of our scripts and got selected.” Six weeks into the 12-week workshop, David Himelfarb, head of development for Warners, met with the new writers. “Even though the workshop was filled with really smart, talented, driven people, they didn't have what Jamie and I had-a comic persona,” Cherry says. “We told David we wanted to be on a staff. David said, 'I am going to do something for you that I shouldn't be doing,' and set us up to meet with Gary Gilbert, who just got a sitcom picked up called Homeroom. David wasn't supposed to set up Warner Bros. workshop guys to a non-Warners show. But it was a friend of his, and David was upset at Warners because they wouldn't let him out of his contract to go work with Castle Rock. We met with David on a Thursday, met with Gary on Friday; he read our scripts on Saturday and offered us a job on Sunday.”
Graduating from the workshop to Homeroom turned into the proverbial nightmare. “We were terrified every time we were sent to our office to write. The writers kept wondering, Would someone really say that? And I wanted to scream, 'Can we just write something that's funny?'” Then Himelfarb was hired at Golden Girls and brought the Cherry/Wooten spec scripts with him. Based on their first spec, they were offered a freelance assignment. “That very first script of Golden Girls -we should've never written another one; it got us all of our work.”
Suddenly surrounded by people who knew how to be funny in a much sharper, more sophisticated way, Golden Girls was sink or swim for the neophyte writers. “It felt like I spent five seconds in elementary school on Homeroom, and then we went straight to college. Although I was capable of writing good dialogue, I was more a story guy, not a joke guy, not like the one-liners that came from James Vallely or Tracy Gamble. But that's an important part of being a writer-trying to figure out what you're good at.”
When Golden Girls was cancelled, Cherry and Wooten did the ill-fated spin-off, Golden Palace, and then created The Five Mrs. Buchanans and The Crew during their overall deal at Fox. “The network said, 'We want a show about flight attendants.' What they were really saying was, 'Friends is a hit, young pretty people are in, now give us that,' which is a tragically bad way to create. That's why if any network executive goes around pitching occupations-screw them! They're idiots. Stay away.”
Ultimately the disaster of The Crew caused the breakup of their partnership. Although artistically it was the launching moment for Cherry's solo career, it came with a high emotional price. “A dear friendship was lost,” Cherry says. “Had the show been cancelled after four episodes it would've been fine, but it lasted the entire season. One full year of fights and they [FOX] wouldn't cancel the thing!”
For the first time, Cherry was writing by himself. “It was a difficult time because people were giving me pilots, and pilots take a long time to do correctly. Nothing was working for me.” But then he came across Kiss Me, Guido, one of the only times that Cherry was pitched an idea that wasn't his that he completely got. “I thought the concept was really smart, but I was completely freaked out because [CBS] wanted a script instantly and I knew that we weren't going to be able to deliver it,” he says. “I was glad we [he and co-writer Jamie Wooten] missed that development season. Then we redeveloped it, did our whole thing, and I was really proud of that script. It's one of the same reasons why the Desperate Housewives pilot was so good; I took the time and did 17 drafts of that thing. I would stare at a page for a day, looking at every single word. My life was such that I could afford to do that, but there are a lot of writers who would look at their work and say, 'There, it's perfect.'”
Kiss Me, Guido (retitled Some of My Best Friends) was also the first time that Cherry, who is openly gay, had a chance to write for a homosexual audience. “I have to be smarter when I write for gay people because I'm basically writing for myself. I took a good, hard look at my spec material and realized that I had not set the bar high enough. I was the good little development guy who wrote what people wanted or pitched stuff that I thought was commercial. I made a determination that I was going to do something so brilliant that the town was going to have to pay attention to me.”
Attention Must Be Paid
“Cut on rehearsal!” The first AD barks the command in Universal Studios' Stage 3, the set of the interior of Bree Van De Kamp's house. Cherry, sitting next to director Larry Shaw, jumps out of his chair to give a note to the actors, Marcia Cross (Bree) and Shawn Pyfrom (Andrew Van De Kamp). The relationship between boozing mother and bitter gay son is delicate, and Cherry wants to make sure it's done just right. Too much motherly love from Bree, or too much teen-angst from Andrew, could turn this Chekovian moment into sloppy soap opera. Cherry privately describes the scene's intention to the two actors, then leaves them with a final comment: “That's what happens when people do horrible things to each other.”
Cherry understands this all too well. By 2003, Cherry remembers, “I had become one of those washed-up writers nobody was interested in. I remember when my agent said her client Marc Cherry wanted to pitch a pilot. The head of comedy development at ABC responded, 'I'm not excited by the name Marc Cherry.'” When that conversation occurred, Cherry had just finished the first draft of Desperate Housewives. “When most artists hear the 'I'm-not-excited-by-you' thing, they'll go to that 'fuck 'em' sort of place. But I felt like I created something new and different. It had layers. I said I am not going to worry about extended punchlines. The first time I stopped trying to be funny, I probably wrote the funniest stuff of my career. I was talking about pain and desire and relationships and what people want, how frustrating it is to want something and then, even if you have it, you're not happy.”
Adding injury to insult, Cherry discovered that his agent and friend of 13 years had embezzled $79,000 of his money. (Marcie Wright was eventually convicted, served 160 days in jail, and was released.) “I didn't go around saying, 'Can you believe this horrible person did this horrible thing to me?' My attitude was, What kind of idiot am I that I let my agent get away with that? Why was I not keeping better track of my bucks? ”
Enter longtime friends Joey Murphy and John Pardee, who not only knew Cherry for more than 20 years but had been inspired by him to launch their own writing careers. “We knew Marcie, spent social time with her,” says Pardee. “Then we had a joint meeting with Marc, Marcie, and our agents, Andy Patman and Debee Klein, about a pilot we wanted to do together. Marcie became really belligerent about how we were going to divvy up the money. And we were all friends!”
Cherry refused to leave his agent. When he completed his Desperate Housewives spec script, Marcie gave it to comedy execs, who all turned it down. “Marc was in trouble; everything was going against him,” remembers Pardee. “What he had was his talent. We asked Andy if he would take a look at it. Andy read it and Debbie read it, and they got it. Marc wrote his way out of trouble.”
Steve McPherson, then head of Touchstone Television, gave the greenlight to Desperate Housewives. When he moved from studio exec to primetime programming chief at ABC, he handed the show the coveted Sunday 9 p.m. timeslot. Cherry and his first non-sitcom script were nominated for an Emmy. “That's something I'll always be proud of,” he says. “I did what writers hope to do when they actually try to change their lives. I got the town to pay attention to me in a big, ol' major way. Am I proud of that? Damn straight!”
Wisteria Lane Follies
After a full day of working in fabricated structures, Cherry is home, getting dressed for a Hollywood party. “The joke of all this is I thought I had written the next American Beauty,” he says. “I remember when TV Guide did their fall issue, right before Desperate Housewives premiered. They referred to it as 'this year's must-see guilty pleasure.' I thought, That's what I created? Something that people have to feel guilty about watching? It was such a joke to me because there it was, even at the height of my burgeoning success-I had tried as hard as I could to create something brilliant and what I did was create something that some people considered campy-fun, but campy. You get so proud of yourself and then you get brought back down to Earth one way or the other.”
An old friend, Roger-Cherry's black cat-pauses to listen as Cherry reflects on the days before dinner invitations with the Hollywood elite. “One of the biggest gifts I got from my mother is, 'Don't whine about your troubles, figure out a way to fix them. And if you can't figure out a way to fix what's wrong with your life, then you better learn how to live with it.' It's what you see on Desperate Housewives. It's not a show with four chicks sitting around bitching about their troubles. It's a show about women taking action to correct the problems in their lives.”
Cherry, now in a designer blue suit, moves through the quarter of his house not under renovation. Unlike most homeowners tormented by a home in a similar state of chaos, he is not disturbed by the displacement. “I think about how dramatic it is for some families, the idea of moving. In my family, a house is just a building. You live in a house; your home is where your family is.”
When the day comes that the families of Wisteria Lane are told to pack up, they might be wise to take advice from the housewife who inspired their creation and the son whose resilience triumphed over a desperate time. “When my career was going badly, I had a house in Hancock Park I had to get rid of. For a lot of people, that would have been devastating, but it wasn't to me. I just said, 'One day, I'll just buy another one.'_” I credit that with the common sense I got from my mother-there are a lot of other houses.”
For someone who has captured fame and fortune from suburban houses and the wives who occupy them, Cherry has finally found home.