Nanny on the Spot


Hollywood Reporter, Wednesday, May 21st, 1997

From the read-through to the taping, efficiency is the name of the game for cast and crew.

It's midweek on stage six at Culver Studios, the home of "The Nanny" for the past four years. The cast has assembled this morning for an informal reading of the 99th episode, the next to last one of the season. Actors and crew mingle and chat over bagels, fruit and coffee before gathering around a long table headed by resident director Dorothy Lyman. The show's star, co-creator and co-executive producer Fran Drescher arrives -- unpainted, hair loose, dressed in white hip huggers -- carrying her dog, Chester (the Pomeranian who has a recurring role on the show). She extends an amiable greeting to the group, takes her seat and things get under way.

As with every episode, this week's "The Boca Story" was conceived -- or "broken" -- by Drescher and co-executive producer Robert Sternin. It was then fleshed out by Caryn Lucas one of eight staff writers on the show. Lucas and the rest of the writing team, headed by series co-creator and co-executive producer Peter Marc Jacobson, have spent the previous day making the script cleaner, funnier and tighter based on notes offered after Monday's initial reading. As with every "Nanny" episode, this one contains several strains: Fran Fine's (Drescher's character) ambivalence over her mother, Sylvia (played by Renee Taylor), moving to Boca Raton, Fla.; Niles' (Daniel Davis) depression over being lonely; and Fran trying to keep her eye on Maxwell (Charles Shaughnessy) as he judges a Miss Universe contest. The parallel story lines interweave and overlap, always concluding in a tidy little denouement.

"It's very confusing, and by season's end you're not sure which show you're writing," concedes Jacobson of the multiple story lines. "That's why you need the run-throughs, to see where the connective tissue should go. Sometimes you'll see a B story you don't like. Yesterday, we added the bit about youngest daughter Gracie (Madeline Zima) stuffing her shirt with Kleenex to create boobs. The original B story - something about one of the kids having PMS but not knowing what it was - wasn't working as well. It was a smart idea, but it didn't feel right on this show."

Today's reading goes smoothly with director Lyman doing her best New York accent as she fills in for the absent Taylor, who is in New York starring in her play, "The Bermuda Avenue Triangle," and won't be on hand until tomorrow. Occasionally, an actor questions the interpretation of a phrase, but, by and large, the jokes work, the barbs zing and the quirky little moments play effortlessly.

Next comes the blocking rehearsal in which the actors take their places on the set and figure out where to stand, how to move and what pieces of business they'll be doing as they recite their lines. This particular episode begins in the kitchen, where Fran Fine is having an allergy attack.

Listen to me, I'm all stuffed up.

How can you tell? (LAUGHS)

(OFF JOKE) I don't get it.
ANOTHER TISSUE) Hey? This was a new box.
What happened to all the

Drescher stops abruptly. "I want to red flag this," she says to the director in her trademark nasal honk. "It seems awkward and difficult to get to from the previous line." After a few minutes of improvisation, she concludes, "Maybe I'll try it with a sneeze."

Lyman instructs the actors to take it from the top. This time, Drescher adds the sneeze and the scene comes off without a hitch. "That made all the difference," she concludes with a nod as she heads to the next set. And so it goes as the scenes are blocked one by one.

After lunch, it's time for the network run-through. Folding chairs are placed in front of each set for the writers and producers who are joined at this session by Jill Bowman, CBS' director, current programs. Giggles and chuckles fill the stage, punctuated by some serious note taking. Drescher and Jacobson (or Petah, as she calls her husband of 18 years), though currently separated, seem joined at the hip as they confer privately when walking together from set to set.

When it comes to the scene with the beauty contestants, Drescher eyes the jean-clad extras and asks of no one in particular, "What happened to the evening gowns they were wearing earlier?" Lyman shrugs and responds that the girls have apparently changed back into their street wear. "What is the point of having gowns for the blocking and not the run-through?" Drescher counters with a hint of irritation. But in the breakneck pace of network television, there's no time to sweat the minor annoyances, and Drescher lets the moment pass.

"Fran notices everything," Taylor comments later. "She'll see a candy dish and say, 'There should be more candy in there."'

Though the run-through appears flawless to the casual observer, changes in the script are inevitable. Immediately following the rehearsal, Drescher and Lyman gather with Jacobson and Bowman, the producers and writers in a closed-door session to offer notes for tweaking and tightening the script. By 10 p.m., significant adjustments have been made. "Fran's emotional drive as far as missing her mother was lacking," says Jacobson the next day during camera blocking. "At times it was going from joke to joke. We also punched up some of the jokes and clarified certain situations."

The changes are all in place during Friday's taping, which is no longer performed before a live audience due to the complexities of the fantasy sequences, costume changes and so on. As the show approaches its 100th episode, the taping runs like a well-oiled machine. The biggest transformation is found in Drescher herself, who now appears in full "Nanny" drag: big hair, spiked heels, micro-mini skirt. But as anyone who works on the show can tell you, regardless of the size of Drescher's hair, the head beneath it is always on straight.

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