Monday, October 10, 2011

A look back at "Woops!" -- TV's first post-apocalyptic sitcom

Evan Handler asks, "Are you ready to laugh, America?"

These days, Fox is considered just another television network with little to distinguish it from ABC, NBC, or CBS. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the channel was just getting started, Fox was a brash upstart, the new kid in town. Much to the consternation of the easily-offended, Fox sought to make a name for itself by taking risks with its programming that the other networks wouldn't dare. This relative boldness occasionally paid off, with early hits like Married... With Children and The Simpsons. But there were bound to be some missteps along the way, perhaps none more memorable than the ill-fated post-apocalyptic sitcom Woops!, which ran for ten crazy weeks in the fall of 1992.

"A post-apocalyptic sitcom?" you might be asking. "Whose idea was that?" The answer is Gary Jacobs, a prolific writer on lots of 1970s and 1980s variety shows and sitcomsBy the early 1990s, Jacobs had graduated to the level of executive producer on NBC's Empty Nest, under the tutelage of sitcom kingpins Paul Junger Witt and Tony Thomas. These were the guys behind such hit shows as Soap, Benson, and The Golden Girls, so they had considerable clout in the industry. Their success had earned them the benefit of the doubt. With Witt and Thomas serving as executive producers (though you won't find Woops! on either of their IMDb pages), Gary Jacobs was finally ready to step into the role of creator and show runner for his very own prime time sitcom. The result was Woops! (And, yes, that's how the title is spelled. There's no h.) 

The show's pilot episode succinctly explains the offbeat premise. There's been a Dr. Strangelove-style accidental nuclear war, and only a "handful of survivors" remain on the otherwise scorched and lifeless planet Earth. Our protagonist, sarcastic schoolteacher Mark Braddock (Evan Handler), somehow manages to find a functioning farmhouse peopled by the show's five other characters, each representing a particular cultural stereotype. Let's see now. We have:
  • Snooty rich guy Curtis Thorpe (Lane Davies)
  • Naive ex-homeless dude Jack Connors (Fred Applegate)
  • Ultra-PC feminist type Alice McConnell (Meagen Fay)
  • Doctor and all-purpose no-nonsense black guy Frederick Ross (Cleavant Derricks)
  • Token bimbo Suzanne Skillman (Marita Geraghty)
The cast of Woops! in happier times

The show's premise might be daring and odd, but the execution is very, very traditional. Viewers weaned on Gilligan's Island will easily find their bearings on Woops! The show has the unmistakable appearance of a 1980s situation comedy: stagy and set-bound with a slightly gauzy, shot-on-videotape look. The characters tend to feel like... well, sitcom characters rather than real, fleshed-out human beings, and they have the habit of speaking in set-ups and punchlines rather than plausible dialogue. 

If Woops! were being made today, there would probably be some attempt to realistically depict what would happen to the six survivors of a nuclear war. But this show went the "fantasy" route almost immediately. There's a giant mutated spider in the pilot episode, for instance, and a giant mutated turkey in episode 7, not to mention the giant mutated squash in between. Other plots (not made up by me, I swear!) include "A crystal causes Alice's bustline to grow much larger" and "The survivors find hallucinogenic berries." And all of this takes place in and around the clean, well-lit, and comfortable farmhouse set, where food, water, and electrical power are all apparently plentiful. It's the coziest nuclear holocaust ever!

Although it received a great deal of publicity at the time, Woops! had a very short run on network television. Jacobs and his crew turned out 13 half-hour episodes, but only ten ever made it to air. As it happens, the last one to crawl into prime time was the show's Christmas episode, entitled "Say It Ain't So Santa," which a generous user named existentialjester decided to post to YouTube. (It has since been removed.) 

Because I'm a relative newcomer to the world of post-apocalyptic narratives, I sought the opinion of an expert on the matter, pop culture maven Emily Intravia of the Deadly Doll's House of Horror Nonsense blog. She agreed to watch the "Santa" episode of Woops! and share her thoughts. I now turn the article over to her:

A vintage TV Guide ad for the series premiere

Oh Santa. It’s the end of the world that got you down, isn’t it?” - ALICE McCONNELL
The appeal of the post-apocalypse is endless. Radiation sickness can be fascinatingly scary, loneliness poetically tragic, and the freedom to raid every candy and designer clothing store almost worth the risks entailed by poisonous airflow, carnivorous plants, or flesh-eating zom--er, the um, less advanced living impaired. 
Between books and film, the post-apocalyptic subgenre has something for everyone. Young adults eat up The Hunger Games, as their thoughtful parents sob away watching Viggo Mortenson pop open a Coca Cola can for his son in The Road. While television has dabbled in the world that starts after this one with the likes of Jericho and Battlestar Galactica, there’s one place I assumed the mass extermination would avoid: the sitcom. 
Whoops! Was I wrong. Thanks to your esteemed Wayne Kotke, I learned about the existence of Woops!, a short-lived 1992 Fox comedy series that followed the hilarious antics of six unlikely survivors of the nuclear apocalypse. My mind was blown...nuclear bomb blown. 
Hey, at least the show was available in stereo!
Due to the powers of the Internet, I was recently able to watch “Say It Ain’t So Santa,” Woops!‘s Christmas-themed episode. Though I had little background on the show’s mythology, the well-practiced sitcom approach ensured I’d know every character by their major quirk a line or two after their entrance. 
Conventional sitcom wisdom proved true. Shacked up in a farm are a childlike bum, stuffy businessman, black biologist, Mary Anne, Ginger, and everyman schoolteacher played by a shockingly full head of hair sporting Evan Handler (whom youngins will recognize as Charlotte’s non-Kyle-MacLachlan husband on Sex and the City, while oldins or theater nerds will know him as The Guy Who Nicol Williamson Stabbed During a Broadway Production of I Hate Hamlet), all of whom deliver perfectly timed jokes that land in between the gleeful laughter of their studio audience. Listen to those chuckles and you might not even know the show takes place in a world where 6 billion people have exploded just a few months ago. 
I recently engaged in a heated Twitter discussion regarding the use of laugh tracks and live studio audiences in sitcoms. In the age of Arrested Development and Community-like humor built upon on complicated layers of character, story, and pop culture references, the idea that the assumedly aware audience requires obnoxious cues for when to giggle is as strange as it is insulting. Witness the odd rhythmic death found inside the live episode of 30 Rock, a show that thrives on quick paced edits and complicated references rather than familiarity and punchlines.  
Fun fact: Ren-Mar Studios was the site of the original Desliu Studios! 
But such talk comes from a decidedly 21st century point of view. From the mid 80s to late 90s, television had found a comfortable pattern that carefully fit into 23 minutes, with about 3 of those reserved on the whole to audience guffaws. Actors delivered lines with timed precision to ensure each joke landed right on target. It was artificial, sure, but expected, even on more daring shows like Soap and Taxi
I harp on this because there’s something about the enthusiastic audience laughter on Woops! that is weirdly horrifying. This hit me early on in the episode as the survivors gather around to dress their first Christmas tree only to discover that it’s essentially a twig that makes Charlie Brown’s setup look like Rockerfeller Center. Now this is a "funny" reveal, but its humor lies in the positively macabre. We’re laughing at the fact that the world has been so destroyed that the best evergreen our leads can salvage is a dead piece of bark. It’s pure black comedy that’s made blacker--whether intentional or not--by the sunniness of the sitcom format. 
Even the central storyline of "Say It Ain’t So Santa" is dark stuff. The gang is thrilled to receive the red-nosed visitor himself, but aghast to learn that he spent the apocalypse holed up alone in the North Pole’s bomb shelter while Mrs. Claus and the elves pounded at the door from the wrong side. Like many a Twilight Zone tale, Santa has proven his true colors in the face of disaster and while they may be shining through, they sure ain’t beautiful like a rainbow.
Ah, but sitcom conventions brighten everyone’s day when we discover it wasn’t Santa’s decision to not open the door to his bomb shelter but the fact that a man whose only knowledge of entrances is a chimney has no idea how to open a door. His good name restored and gifts distributed -- including a not-so-thinly veiled vibrator joke to the crew’s token feminist -- Woops! ends on a happy note that would surely sit aside the likes of Santa’s Little Helper’s introduction to The Simpsons or Pee-wee’s enslavement of grown-up Mouseketeers to make his custom Christmas cards. 
Woops! is an odd duck, a show that could probably say it was ahead of its time but in reality, was also a slave to it. While sitcoms like Herman's Head were also experimenting with unconventional premises in the 90s, they still, for the most part, followed the rules and rhythm of the medium. As a result, Woops! isn't really funny by today's standards. The characters are types rather than people, the jokes are set up and slammed like an office volleyball tournament, and the careful timing of the story arc comes off as processed as American cheese. But the eerie undertones that hold the show up—and probably the same ones that got it canceled in the first place—are indeed fascinating from today’s standpoint, especially as our own thirst for the apocalypse seems to grow with every impending disaster or discarded day on a Mayan calendar. Were it airing now, AMC could have made it a single-camera black comedy lead-in to The Walking Dead. Instead, we have its brief, weird, and out-of-its element run floating through the occasional conversations of TV cultists and the “What Were They Thinking?!” media lists. Woops! was indeed a whoops, but in hindsight, it may have failed for not being dark and dangerous enough.
"Mein Fuhrer! I can walk!"

Thanks for the expert analysis, Emily. Sadly (or not so sadly), Woops! did not have the survival skills of its protagonists. Debuting in September, it was gone by the end of December. The silver lining is that, at least for the main cast members, this was far from the end of the road. All six of these actors accumulated plenty of TV and film credits after the demise of Woops! Evan Handler, for instance, has been a regular on Californication recently. Believe it or not, this was not quite the end of the line for creator Gary Jacobs either. After Woops!, he got one more big chance to helm a prime time network sitcom. Unfortunately for him, that sitcom was the infamous Margaret Cho vehicle, All-American Girl. After that show flamed out in spectacular fashion, Jacobs pretty much dropped off the map, at least in the television biz. In 2011, he did publish a book entitled Out of My Mind: A Collection of Essays, Short Stories, and Other Silly Things. Here's a link to his Amazon page.

For more of Emily's thoughts on matters pop cultural, you can visit her blog at or listen to one of her fine podcasts, Gleekast or Girls on Film.