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The actor: Alan Thicke will forever be best known as the father on the hit 1980s sitcom Growing Pains (and the father of R&B superstar Robin Thicke), but he’s had a surprisingly eclectic career. He composed the deathless theme songs to the sitcoms Diff’Rent Strokes and The Facts Of Life, wrote for the ’70s cult-hit comedies Fernwood 2 Night, America 2-Night, and The Richard Pryor Show, and presided over one of the biggest, most notorious failures in late-night television, the unfortunately titled ’80s talk show Thicke Of The Night. Thicke occasionally appears as himself on How I Met Your Mother, and as a talk-show host on The Bold And The Beautiful. He recently popped up in the overflowing supporting cast of the raunchy car comedy The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, which was just released on DVD.
The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard (2009)—“Stu Harding”
Alan Thicke: My recommendation would be that people remember that I told you to watch for the Will Ferrell death scene, where it’s raining adult pleasure toys, and remember that I was the guy who told you to keep your eye out for that. And I predict that’s a classic scene in the frat-boy humor domain, to be remembered and cherished along with the memorable semen-in-the-hair scene from There’s Something About Mary, and When Harry Met Sally, the famous restaurant, the luncheon scene. I think The Goods proudly gives you one of those memorable cinematic highlights.
AVC: I was watching it last night, and I went to bed right after that scene.
AT: There’s nothing to do after that. That’s right. You can’t top it. It’s over. When it’s raining dildos, you’ve got nothing left to say after that.
How I Met Your Mother (2008-2009)—Himself
AT: The role I was born to play, that of Alan Thicke. The plotline there is that Robin Sparkles and I, Alan Thicke, worked together on a Canadian variety show some years ago, and we’ve kept in touch since. And that’s how I get my annual recurring appearance on that show and keep my SAG insurance alive.
AVC: In the show, you mention playing the “I’m Alan Thicke” card. Do you find yourself playing the “I’m Alan Thicke” card a lot in real life?
AT: I do, you know. I have few other characters to relate to other than myself. I have enough of a body of work now that the paternal side of Alan Thicke gets a lot of play. I do get a lot of calls to play dads. In The Goods I’m Ed Helms’ dad, and I was known all those years as Kirk Cameron’s father, and now I’m known as Robin Thicke’s father, so I find myself playing myself a lot, and frankly living up to expectations of what the public’s image of me is. They see me as a family guy, so in some cases I’m able to play the family guy gone bad.
The Bold And The Beautiful (2006-2009)—“Rich Ginger”
AT: I enjoyed that. That’s another one of those annual recurring things I get to do. The character comes on every six months or so just to move the plotline along. I’m used. I’m a utility guy. I play a local talk-show host. So when they want to get 11 plot points mentioned in five minutes, it’s an easy way to do it when you have one of the characters come on the talk show, and then Rich Ginger interviews them, asks them a bunch of questions, and that covers about three months’ worth of plotline on The Bold And The Beautiful. And then suddenly everybody’s caught up, and they can move forward with their story.
So that’s kind of fun for me to do, because I’ve lived a bit of that life. One of my wives was a soap star, and used to get up and disappear at 5:30 in the morning every day, and I had no idea where in the hell she was going. She kept saying she was an actress on a soap. I had no reason not to believe her. And sure enough, when I got invited into that world to make some cameo appearances, I was curious to see how they worked, and it’s quite an art form. They do 400 pages of dialogue in a day. They have to be in character all the time and work ridiculous hours, and mostly get underpaid for it, which I recall her lawyer saying to me as part of our dissolution. It’s an interesting area of theater.
AVC: So your character was an exposition machine?
AT: Yeah, exactly. I’m used. I bend over, and they get their exposition.
AVC: Is it exhausting working through so much dialogue in one day?
AT: Well, I think that it is for the people who have to do it every day. To pop in for a couple of days is just an interesting challenge. But to have to do it every day, to be in character and do copious amounts of scenes and dialogue, that’s a lot. I mean it’s certainly not the way film people are accustomed to working, where you do a couple of pages a day. These people are literally doing, I don’t know, 20 or 30 pages a day, so that’s… it’s a volume business.
Fernwood 2 Night (1977)—Writer
AVC: Speaking of grueling, you were a writer for Fernwood 2 Night. That was on every night, was it not?
AT: It was. That was a grueling schedule. When Norman Lear first came to me to write and produce that series, his concept was totally improvisational, that we would give a couple of guys an idea, an outline as you would an improv troupe, and they would go and improvise comedy in these characters as faux host and co-host of a nightly local talk show. And that made me nervous, the fact that we had to produce 24 minutes of material every day, and we were going to rely on improv to do that. I’ve always felt that improv looks and feels more clever when you’re there to experience it live than when you have the degree of separation that television creates. Television raises expectations.
I’ve never been a big fan of improvisation, because, as I said, I think you appreciate the process and the cleverness of it more than the actual comedy in most cases. And I remembered having a conversation with no less an authority than Carl Reiner around the time we were getting ready to shoot the first episodes. I said, “Carl, Norman wants to do this improvisational show.” Carl said, “Listen. You know that I love Norman, but Mel Brooks and I are the funniest guys in the history of the English language at improvisation, the funniest team, and we could take one of your premises and give you 45 minutes of genius on any given day. And on every other day, we could give you two hours of deathly silence and come up with absolutely nothing. So you tell Norman that his friend Carl says this show needed a little writing.” So I went ahead and with my couple of writers, completely scripted verbatim the entire first week’s worth of shows. Five episodes. Took them to Norman, and he fired me. And he said, “This is not what I have in mind. I want to do an improv show. This is all crap. Get these first shows taped and you’re out of here.”
So I, with my tail between my legs, went and taped the first episodes, the audience went crazy, the show was hilarious, everybody involved loved it, and, to Norman’s great credit, he handed me a note afterwards. He said “I don’t get it, I don’t understand it. I don’t know how this is happening, but it’s obviously working, so I’m going to Tahiti, have a nice time.” So he left us alone after that to do it the way that I envisioned doing it, which was with a verbatim script, but always letting Martin Mull and Fred Willard improvise over and above the script. I always made sure we taped an extra five or ten minutes a day, because invariably they came up with something wonderful. But at the same time, we were always covered in case they had brain damage on any given day. I remembered a lot of that experience when I was doing The Goods; these guys would film a couple of takes and then throw the script out and say “Play with it.” I think my experience writing and producing that stuff years ago helped me understand how these guys work in this wonderful frat-boy type of comedy movie that they do so successfully time after time, and I understood the process.
AVC: Neal Brennan, who’s best known for Chappelle’s Show, directed The Goods, so he certainly has experience with improvisation.
AT: Part of the mystique of shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm is the idea that they begin with a couple of plotlines and then a bunch of geniuses improvise dialogue. It’s not quite that unstructured and loose. It makes for a good urban myth, but everything’s a little more tightly scripted and programmed than that. But if a director can find the exact combination between the written word as a guideline and improvisational input from his actors, I think that’s where you’ll find the most successful work being done.
AVC: You need a solid foundation to deviate from.
AT: Exactly. You know what the chords are, you just don’t know what the notes are.
AVC: You were also lucky to have as gifted improvisers like Mull and Willard.
AT: Yeah, brilliant, brilliant. And like I said, that’s what I was experiencing in that ensemble cast on The Goods. You have to have a wonderful confluence of good ideas that came from the table, and great execution, and the ability to go deeper from your actors.
America 2-Night (1978)—Writer
AVC: In the second season, Fernwood 2 Night changed into America 2-Night. How did the show’s shift from being a faux-local show affect you as a writer?
AT: Well, in a way, it became easier. The reason we shifted from Fernwood 2 Night to America 2-Night was the simple matter of ratings. It was around then that the networks were all feeling that celebrity big-name bookings were important in drawing a crowd and getting people into the tent. So we needed to find an excuse to have celebrities coming on the show, which was not the case at all in Fernwood, and, sure enough, the notion that we’d be moving from Ohio to Hollywood, or specifically Alta Coma, California, allowed us to be geographically within range to have celebrities on the show, so we were able to have bookings that were important at the time. Big names like Carol Burnett and Charlton Heston. And what we did was have them on the show and kind of poke fun of them, or more specifically, kind of laugh with them. These were big stars that were able to come on our show and poke fun at themselves. Stick some pins in their own balloons. And that was the very early days of that style. Nowadays, of course, it’s stock in trade if you watch programs like Head Case, or the Ricky Gervais shows, including the one he did called Extras a couple of years ago. People love to come on shows and lampoon themselves now. I did that on Jay Leno a couple of weeks ago, playing myself. I guess to some degree, I did that on How I Met Your Mother recently. But back then, it was the early days of giving stars the opportunity to poke a little fun at themselves. That was part of—if not the reason for the move to California, it was at least a product of it.
AVC: Wasn’t Tom Waits on Fernwood 2 Night?
AT: Tom Waits was, yes, yes, where he did the famous line “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
AVC: How was that? Creating the rationale for Tom Waits to be in Fernwood?
AT: We got pretty good at creating that kind of rationale. We could occasionally have somebody pop through Fernwood. One of our famous pop-through-Fernwood episodes was one that we did called “Talk To A Jew,” the idea being that they’d never seen a person of the Jewish faith in Fernwood, and a traveling salesman was caught going 10 miles over the speed limit, and the local sheriff decided that instead of a fine, it would be a public service if he could come on television and local residents could see that Jewish people were just like anybody else, and this would be an enlightening appearance.
So he came on the show, and of course it became—the political incorrectness was hilarious on that episode. In real life, there was an outcry. We got a lot of letters, a lot of response—the show was fairly controversial anyway—but a lot of response from self-righteous, mostly right-wingers saying “How could you possibly make sport of our Jewish friends in such a way?” Because we had phone-in callers saying “What is that beanie you guys wear on the top of your head?” and “What’s your favorite Barbra Streisand movie?” The interesting thing was that we also at the same time got a commendation from B’nai B’rith that Norman Lear ended up being very proud of, commending us, giving us their award of the year for media enlightenment for showing the silliness and putting a funny face on prejudice and racial stereotypes, etc. So we were getting commended by the Jewish press at the same time that some people in Alabama were wondering why we were making fun of them. It was that kind of a show. If you got the satire, it was brilliant, and if you didn’t, it was just offensive.
The Richard Pryor Special? and The Richard Pryor Show (1977)—Writer
AVC: Speaking of satire and controversy, in 1977 you were a writer for both The Richard Pryor Special? and The Richard Pryor Show. That must have been interesting.
AT: It was fascinating, and another great experience or milestone in my improvisational life. I was a head writer for Richard’s show, and my skill there involved being able to push his button, and then push the button on my cassette recorder, and then transcribe the gems that fell out of his mouth. I quickly learned that the best way to work with Richard was to find a premise that he responded to, that made his eyes light up. After his horrible self-immolation incident, I used to tease him that I knew how to make his eyes light up, and he knew how to get the rest of his body to follow suit. The point being that if you came up with a premise, like a one-liner, as you’re sitting around at a meeting, and you say “Richard, how about if you were this old blues guy, and it was your very last appearance after 50 years with this partner of yours, and you had a few things to get off your chest?” If he was responding to that and he liked it, you could see the wheels starting to turn, and his eyes would kind of light up, and he would improvise a couple of lines in that character. Then if he really liked it—you knew it was time to turn on the tape recorder if he actually got up on his feet, got off the sofa, and started walking around performing this character, Mudbone or whoever it would be. That’s when you really knew you had something. So you turned on the tape recorder, and he’d start winging it, and you just made sure you had batteries in the machine, and you’d end up with a script.
AVC: That was also a fairly controversial show, was it not?
AT: Oh, it was, sure. He couldn’t do it any other way. Richard was not about to capitulate to the norms and standards of network television at the time. He was one of the guys that always railed against it, and here, all these years later, we remember that he took a stand, whether it was on racial issues, political issues, censorship issues… He tackled them all in ways that would be considered modest and mild by today’s standards, but then were considered revolutionary. People along the way in every decade have to push the envelope a little bit, and he was one of the guys that did that.
Diff’rent Strokes (1978) and The Facts Of Life (1979)—Theme Songwriter
AVC: In the late ’70s, you wrote two theme songs that will ricochet through pop-culture forever. How does it work when you’re writing a theme song? Do you get the script and write it from there? Do you see a pilot? What’s the process like?
AT: It’s all of that. The challenge was, you have 24 seconds to do something catchy and memorable and sum up the entire premise of the show in case somebody had never seen it before. You had to do it with an internal rhyme scheme and a perky little ditty. So it was an interesting challenge that way. It varied. I did over 40 themes altogether. Those happen to be two of the most memorable ones, and long-lasting. It would vary. Sometimes it would be brought in at the very last minute, when a show was already completely shot and the pilot had been edited, and they’d say “Here, add your 24 seconds.” There were other instances, and Diff’rent Strokes was one of them, where you got the information, you were included, from day one and page one. From the notion “Well, we’re developing this idea, and we kind of have an idea that it’s a couple of young black guys with an older white guy.” And then you would get a copy of the script a month later and the revision a month after that, and then you’re invited to the taping, and then you do your own editing right through their editing, so that hopefully you all come together at the end when it’s time to deliver. I’ve experienced it both ways.
Nowadays, I get paid by technology that didn’t even exist then. I get ringtone royalties now. Apparently what happens is, you get college kids after a couple of rounds of Beer Pong, and they start to bet each other who can remember the most lyrics to an iconic sitcom, and they order it up on ringtones, and I get 11 cents. It doesn’t keep up with the current state of the global economy, but it’s always a pleasant little surprise in the mail.
AVC: When you were writing those songs, did you get the sense that you’d nailed it, that the themes just worked?
AT: Back then, theme songs were more important. They were a part of every show. Nowadays, they don’t aspire to have memorable themes for every show, because the networks are so competitive that as soon as you hit 8 o’clock, or 8:30, or 9 o’clock, that show needs to be in progress already. They don’t want to waste the time with 25 or 30 seconds of a ditty. They get right to the action, and that’s the case in both comedy and drama now. And certainly theme songs with a lyric, they have no time for that. So I think that’s almost a lost art. Back then, we took it a little more seriously, and you knew that your song would be heard every episode. So yeah, you spent some time at it, and took a little pride in it, and worked hard. Like, the Facts Of Life internal rhyme scheme was intricate and one that I remember finishing and saying “Yeah, that’s pretty good. That all rhymes. I got a lot of rhyming words in 24 seconds.”
Thicke Of The Night (1983-1984)—Host
AT: I remember that when I saw the first episode on the air, I literally fainted. I was in a writers’ meeting at my house preparing the next day’s material, and I got lightheaded and walked up to my kitchen and fell. The writers heard the clinking and clamoring, the disturbance, and came and rescued me, but that’s how disturbed I was at myself. The show was lousy, and I was super-lousy in it. To this day, I can’t even really watch it. It was a dark period in my life. I’m happy to say that it did, nevertheless, lead me to my opportunity on Growing Pains. But Thicke Of The Night was… I made the big mistake of listening to, paying attention to, some of my press clippings and thinking I was all that, and I really wasn’t. And the irony is that in today’s marketplace, those ratings would be considered a huge hit. Back then, it was just me and Johnny Carson, and I was getting clobbered, but I was getting clobbered and putting up numbers that today would be competitive in late-night with anybody, including Dave [Letterman] and Conan [O’Brien]. Not that we deserved it.
It’s not false modesty when I say I was pretty bad at it. I was quite terrific as an afternoon host, as a schmoozer kind of guy, more in the Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin mode, back when those shows were popular. I was good at that. I had a very successful show in Canada doing that. But in late-night, you can’t take yourself too seriously. You can’t think you’re all that or too sexy. It’s an environment in which you have to go for the jugular. You have to be prepared to be mean and nasty and get your laughs. And I say that with great admiration for the guys who do it. It really takes a stand-up mentality, where you can go for the killer joke at anybody’s expense at any time, in your monologue and beyond. That just wasn’t my background.
AVC: You lacked the killer instinct?
AT: I did. I don’t know if it’s just an instinct performance-wise, or even as a writer. Although as a writer for guys like Pryor, and other people I really loved comedically, like Sam Kinison, my feeling always was “I can write naughty things for other people to say.” I never had the balls to say them myself.
AVC: Johnny Carson was such an icon at the time that people were almost offended that anyone would dare compete with him.
AT: Oh, absolutely. And we made the terrible mistake—and I was compliant and just went along with it—but we made the terrible mistake of having an entire promotional campaign that said, “We’re going to take on Johnny and beat him, and nobody’s ever been able to do it.” That was an outrageous thing for an unknown, semi-talented, no-name Canadian, a terrible position for him to take against an American broadcasting icon. That wasn’t my idea, but I let it go, I let them do it, because they said “This is how we’re going to get attention. This is how we’re going to get eyeballs on the show.” They were half-right, but the show didn’t deserve to stick anyway. It didn’t probably deserve to die the horrible death and be the scourge of the land that it became. But we certainly invited that kind of reaction by this horrible promotional campaign.
AVC: The stakes were very, very high.
AT: Yeah, and I became the go-to guy as the guru of late-night failure after that. Literally, a lot of guys who followed would call me and take me to dinner to find out how I blew it so badly. Pat Sajak, Dennis Miller, Rick Dees, Arsenio Hall, they all called and asked, “Alan how did you fuck this up so bad? Tell us what mistakes not to make.” I did have a couple of important tips for the guys who followed, but it wasn’t until Chevy Chase and Magic Johnson came along that the stench of Thicke Of The Night began to dissipate.
AVC: They usurped you as the people behind the ultimate failed talk show?
AT: I had to be preempted by guys who raised the bar or lowered it, I guess.
Growing Pains (1985-1992)—“Dr. Jason Seaver”
AT: Loved it. Proud of it. Proud of what it stood for. I share the corny family values espoused on that show. Happy for the role, both, as I said, what it stood for and what it did for me and my life and my family and my career. So if that’s what goes on my tombstone, I’m perfectly comfortable with it. It was a great opportunity that made my life good and something that I can show to my 12-year-old now in reruns. Corny and dated as it is, it’s still relatable, understandable, and he can look at it and say “Yeah, I get it. Now I see what you did before I was born.”