Family & Companions
While lacking the name recognition of fellow sitcom auteurs like Norman Lear, Garry Marshall and James L Brooks, Jay Tarses must be counted among the major voices to emerge in the genre over the last two decades. As a writer-producer, he has worked on some of the most acclaimed sitcoms in recent memory. As few of them lasted more than a season or two, however, a typical Tarses comedy was more likely to be a critical darling or cult favorite rather than a ratings powerhouse. His most characteristic sitcoms, including "Buffalo Bill" (NBC, 1983-84) and "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd" (NBC, 1987-89; Lifetime, 1989-91), were notable for their wry and rueful qualities as well as a relative lack of sentiment. Tarses' one great commercial (as well as critical) success was as the executive producer and sometimes writer on "The Bob Newhart Show" (CBS, 1972-78), a sitcom more memorable for its eccentric characters and absurd situation than the warm-fuzzies the genre often delivers.
Most of the first two decades of Tarses' TV career was spent in close collaboration with writer-producer Tom Patchett. The pair first gained some notoriety during nearly two decades as the standup comedy team, Patchett and Tarses, in clubs and TV appearances that included a stint as ensemble players in the summer replacement variety series "Make Your Own Kind of Music" (CBS, 1971). They segued into TV comedy writing working on the classic comedy-variety star vehicle "The Carol Burnett Show" in the early 1970s. The duo became executive producers as well as sitcom writers with "The Bob Newhart Show." They found less success with "The Tony Randall Show" (CBS, 1976-78), a likable family sitcom about a widower judge who juggles work and family with attempts to kick start his love life. "We've Got Each Other" (CBS, 1977), an amiable romantic comedy about a non-traditional couple, failed to hold on to enough of the huge audience delivered by its formidable lead-in "All in the Family." "Mary" (CBS, 1978), a variety vehicle for Mary Tyler Moore, was dispatched after only three episodes. Tarses and Patchett endured a series of busted pilots and another failed sitcom ("Open All Night" ABC, 1981-82) before crafting a minor classic with "Buffalo Bill."
Starring Dabney Coleman at his most unsavory, this sitcom broke the rules by placing a detestable protagonist center stage. It conformed to accepted norms, however, by having his schemes continuously fail. Bill was the popular host of a local talk show in Buffalo NY who dreamed of big city success and cared not a whit about who he used or abused to achieve it. Mild by today's standards perhaps, "Buffalo Bill" was remarkably clear-eyed and unsentimental for its day as it dealt with such "hot button" topics as racism and abortion in a much less didactic manner than Norman Lear-produced fare. The superb Coleman was abetted by a first-rate supporting cast that included Joanna Cassidy, Geena Davis, Meshach Taylor and Max Wright. The end of this series marked the end of the long and fruitful Tarses-Patchett collaboration.
On his own, Tarses achieved his greatest success as a sitcom creator with "The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd," an affecting "dramedy" starring the splendid Blair Brown as an attractive thirtysomething divorcee navigating the complications of romance and career. A critical favorite with a devoted following, the show underperformed on CBS but received a new lease on life on the cable network Lifetime. In addition to serving as creator and producer, Tarses frequently wrote and directed and made occasional appearances as an actor. He achieved less success with "The 'Slap' Maxwell Story" (ABC, 1987-88), a failed vehicle for Coleman as an irascible but lovable sports writer.
Tarses also dabbled in features, making his debut with Patchett as screenwriters for the Robert Downey-directed, MAD MAGAZINE-financed "Up the Academy" (1980), a teen comedy set at a military academy. Seemingly (mis)calculated to cash-in on the raucous youth comedy craze inaugurated by "Animal House" and continued by the "Porky's" movies, "Up the Academy" was decried as racist, sexist and gross by offended reviewers who were not amused. A strange project for writers then best-known for the cool absurdism of "The Bob Newhart Show," this was an aberration that was not repeated. The pair went on to write two successful films starring the Muppets: Jim Henson's "The Great Muppet Caper" (1981) and Frank Oz's "The Muppets Take Manhattan" (1984). Both films proved critical and commercial successes.
Tarses' next TV project, "Black Tie Affair" (NBC, 1993), was a short-lived misfire that satirized 1940s film noir in a serialized format for four weeks. If controversy brings ratings, the prognosis for his next project "Public Morals" (CBS, 1996) should have been excellent. Tarses executive produced with Steven Bochco and scripted the pilot for this edgy comedy about the NYC Public Morals Division. Industry buzz predicted that the show would push the envelope of TV taste. The viewing audience stayed away in droves and the series was pulled after one airing.
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Special Thanks (Special)
Formed partnership with co-worker Tom Patchett
Appeared as an ensemble member (with Patchett) on "Make Your Own Kind of Music", a summer replacement comedy-variety series on CBS
Segued into TV comedy writing (with Patchett) as a writer on "The Carol Burnett Show"; shared an Emmy award for the 1972/73 season
Served as executive producer (with Patchett) and writer on "The Bob Newhart Show" on CBS
Executive produced, wrote and co-starred in (all with Patchett) "The Chopped Liver Brothers", an unsold ABC sitcom pilot about a pair of unknown stand-up comics struggling to become headliners
Produced (with Patchett) "Mary", a short-lived variety vehicle for Mary Tyler Moore
Feature writing debut (with Patchett), "Up the Academy"
Wrote (with Patchett, Jerry Juhl and Jack Rose) the screenplay for Jim Henson's "The Great Muppet Caper", a British production (and the second Muppet feature)
Co-wrote (with Patchett) and produced the Patchett-directed "Sitcom", a busted HBO sitcom pilot spoofing network sitcoms
Scripted (with Patchett and Frank Oz) and provided story (with Patchett) for "The Muppets Take Manhattan"
Debut as a TV series regular, "The Duck Factory", an NBC sitcom set at an animation studio
Feature acting debut, played Coach Finstock in "Teen Wolf"
Directed the busted sitcom pilot "The Faculty" (also executive produced and wrote)
Debut as a playwright, "Man in His Underwear", produced off-Broadway in NYC
Created and executive produced as well as wrote and directed episodes of "Black Tie Affair", a short-lived sitcom spoof of film noir
With Stephen Bochco, produced and served as writer for CBS sitcom "Public Morals"