"I like to talk and I like to eat," Anne Beatts says, and for the next 90 minutes she does a great deal of both in a glorified delicatessen on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood.
Beatts, 35, is the first of the founding writers from the original "Saturday Night Live" (R.I.P.) to go into prime time in a big way. She created "Square Pegs," the new CBS comedy series that tonight introduces an oasis of delightfulness into the valley of the shadow of death -- the prime-time network schedule. She produces "Pegs" and wrote the premiere, which introduces high-school pals Patty Greene and Lauren Hutchinson, who fight life's little battles relying chiefly on their wits, which God gave them plenty of, in lieu of what they think they would have preferred: great beauty and mesmerizing charm.
This isn't just another clattery comedy off the Hollywood assembly line. It has a non-stick surface. Also bright dialogue, offbeat characters, an occasional song and a sweet, jauntily sardonic attitude. Patty and Lauren (played by newcomers Sarah Jessica Parker, 17, and Amy Linker, 15) suffer through the cataclysmic traumas of adolescence at Weemawee High and toss out observations such as, "I think it's so unfair that guys don't get cellulite," "Nothing assures popularity like stardom," and, when one of them loses a handsome boyfriend to a shapely class vamp, "I guess the bottom line is: Cup size trumps I.Q."
Their friends and foes, the supporting players, include New Waver Johnny Slash (Merrit Butrick), who Walkmans his way around school saying, "It's like, totally different head"; Muffy Tepperman, the preppy dictator (Jami Gertz, hilarious), who will stand in front of an assembly and scream, "All right, pee-pull!" to get attention; the moderately militant LaDonna Fredericks (Claudette Wells), who in a future episode writes a poem called, "There Ain't a Black Girl Alive Who Can Look at a Broom and Think of Halloween"; and the definitively airheaded Jennifer DeNuccio (Tracy Nelson), who says she experienced her most devastating life crisis the day she left her makeup in the car at the beach and it melted.
"Gross me out the door," Jennifer will say.
Tonight's premiere, at 8 on Channel 9, is the freshest breeze yet of the new fall TV season. Yet industry savants have not predicted success for the show. It's too different, or something. The Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency (DFS) told its clients that the competition of "That's Incredible" and "Little House on the Prairie" will kill it: "The scheduling of this featherweight comedy is like sending toy soldiers into battle against Nielsen gladiators."
Beatts scowls at the naysaying. "I don't think the show is getting such a bad rap except from a few people who work for ad agencies and who are in their late seventies," she says, croissant in hand. DFS said, in effect, who needs another show about high school? But Beatts thinks this is an area that hasn't been explored on television in what might loosely be called a meaningful way.
"Well you know how there is always a catch phrase to describe something -- like, Dino De Laurentiis described 'Panic in Needle Park' as 'Romeo and Juliet on Junk.' And I guess the catch phrase I used to describe this was that it was the Dobie Gillis show of the '80s. Although, that was not such a dynamite catch phrase because a lot of people don't even remember the Dobie Gillis show. But fortunately, one of the network executives was Dobie Gillis, so he remembered."
That would be Dwayne Hickman, who played Dobie on the CBS Television Network from 1959 to 1963 and is now a CBS Entertainment vice president.
"I know that the negative press has said, 'Oh, who cares about a bunch of high-school kids?' But you talk to people and they remember high school very well," Beatts said. "Adolescence is really where you experience things very vividly. So what I was hoping is that I can tap into that memory, and that people will be interested to watch it because they will go, 'Oh, God, that's just what I was like,' and that there is a kind of -- dare I say? -- universality to that experience."
Beatts at first considered setting the series in the past, in her own high-school era, but was afraid that would trap her into writing "Unhappy Days." She graduated at 15 from high school in Somers, N.Y. -- "S-o-m-, e-r-s, Fight!" she says, recalling an old cheer. But cheer is not what she remembers most about those times. "I wasn't the class clown. I was more of a nerd in high school -- I was responsible, with Rosie Schuster, for Lisa Loopner and Todd De La Muca on 'Saturday Night Live'--and I never dated and I was 12 years old when I started high school and I was wearing undershirts and all the other girls were wearing bras, and the ideal of feminine beauty was Annette Funicello or Sandra Dee and I didn't make it in either direction."
Could we perchance think of "Square Pegs" then as "an intelligent 'Laverne and Shirley' "? Beatts says, "Well, that's true except Laverne and Shirley are, like, in their thirties. I think they were good when they were still in Milwaukee. Now, it's such a strange show because they have to remind you at the beginning of the show what year it is and who are these two crazy girls who are acting like 12-year-olds but are really in their late thirties and living in Hollywood in 1965. It's like they might as well be on the moon as far as I can see it, it's so completely detached from any kind of reality."
Beatts says that CBS was worried that a show dealing with contemporary high school would have lots of talk about sex and drugs. But Beatts didn't want to do an "issue show," and she thinks certain things about high school have remained pretty much the same, despite the umpteen revolutions the world has supposedly gone through in the past couple of decades. Beatts relies on her young cast members to keep her up to date on current high-school lore and lingo..
"I was wondering, with the changing morals, if the concept of 'slut' still existed," Beatts says. "The School Slut, right? So I took these two girls and a few others who were daughters of friends and came from really sophisticated New York backgrounds -- they were inner-city children, their parents were divorced, mother was an artist, blah blah blah -- and I said, 'Well, what do you think about sex? Is there a lot of sex in your school? What's going on?' One girl said, 'Well, everybody says that this one is doing it with that one and this one is doing it with the other one--but, I don't think anybody really is except the Sluts.' "
"Now to me, the real problems of life are when you get a blemish. And you have this pimple on your nose and you feel like Rudolph and you think that all the other kids will notice it and of course no one really does notice it, but it's just so big in your mind. And to me, those are the true tragedies of life. And I think that's the material the show should deal with. It's like Lily Tomlin has that great line: 'Sometimes I stay out of school for three or four days because my hair didn't turn out right.' "
In a way, Beatts has been to high school twice. The second time was her five-year term at "Saturday Night Live." Having a diploma from that one is the television-comedy equivalent of graduating magna cum laude from Oxford. She has brought a few of the old "SNL" people with her to "Square Pegs," including a couple of writers, musician Paul Shaffer, photographer Edie Baskin, and, on a future show, a guest appearance by Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci.
There are even references to "SNL" characters and routines in the first two shows. "I shamelessly trade on it -- what can I say?" Beatts jokes. "No, I think it's really part of the kid culture."
Beatts thinks the show's time has come and gone -- and based on Saturday night's tattered, self-derivative season premiere, she's right. "The Karen Ann Quinlan of television," she calls the show. "They pulled the plug and it kept on living. It should have gone away."
Someday someone will write a book about whatever-became-of the original "SNL" crowd, as if they were Harvard Class of '44. If the book were written now, it would be pretty sad. Chevy Chase makes one inane movie after another. Gilda Radner is off on an apparently disastrous bender with the insufferable Gene Wilder. Laraine Newman has been reduced to Cheech and Chong pictures. Dan Aykroyd seems to be in a cloudy limbo. Bill Murray keeps scoring triumphs, but he seems to be the exception.
And, John Belushi is dead of a drug overdose.
"Losing John was like losing a brother you didn't always get along with," she says. "We had some stormy times on 'Saturday Night Live.' Now sometimes I say to myself, when things aren't going so well on the show, 'Okay, John, if you're up there, I hope you're listening. You raked me over enough in life. Now it's your time to pay me back. Make sure the sun shines for today's shooting.' ".
Many of the people on the old "SNL" looked down their noses at TV, even though they were on it. But Beatts says, "I never looked down my nose at it. Looking down your nose at television is like looking down your nose at the automobile. It's a fact of life, it's here, it's a part of our environment, there's no point in saying you don't like it, and I never liked people who go, 'Oh, I only watch "60 Minutes." ' That's like people who say they only read Playboy for the articles.
"I do think that television is always being guilty of underestimating the audience. I've been to meetings where executives have talked about the audience as 'the people we fly over.' To me that attitude sums up what is wrong with television. What is this? Just because someone lives in Peoria -- Richard Pryor came from Peoria for God's sake -- doesn't mean that they can't get the joke. The whole idea behind television is that it upgrades everyone to a certain level of hipness. They all have the same information to work off no matter where they live."
Now Beatts is finishing her enormous breakfast and ready to depart for shooting, which takes place in an abandoned high school in the L.A. suburb of Norwalk -- "New Jersey to the tenth power," Beatts groans. She also says that Pat Nixon once taught at the school, which is small compensation, perhaps.
Beatts isn't so haughty and full of herself that she isn't willing to compromise on things like adding a laugh track to the show -- though it makes her cringe -- because she knows that prime time is simply not going to be the same as "Saturday Night Live." The trick is to hold on to as many of your standards as you can. "I've always wanted to appeal to the masses," she says. "I was never one to have my poems privately printed.
"I would rather do my show and have it be a flop than do somebody else's show and have it be a hit. I've been lucky enough that I've been able to do things that I've liked, and other people liked it, and if I can't do that, then I'll just go to France or something. That's what I always used to think. I mean, I don't know that this show will be an opening-night smash. It might take a little time to build its audience, and that's the part that scares me. However, if it's a flop, I get to go home to New York. The good news is, if it's a hit, you got a hit, but the bad news is that you have to stay here in L. A. and do nine more shows." CAPTION: Picture, "Square Pegs" creator Anne Beatts; (c) 1982, Edie Baskin