That '60s Show 

Oliver Beene goes against fake millionaires and phony idols.

This is a story with a happy ending, because, so far, nothing bad has happened to indicate otherwise. There are no ratings to sweat over, no network executives to fight with, no cancellations to suffer through. The rough territories lie ahead, over the horizon of 8:30 p.m. this Sunday, when a new show debuts on Fox that features no blockhead construction workers posing as wealthy heirs, no would-be stars singing out of key, no desperate singles willing to be married by mouth-breathers with access to a touch-tone phone. In a few days, when the ratings begin rolling in and the accountants begin crunching numbers (and nuts), only then will anyone really know how this story ends. We will just have to wait and see if America is ready for a comedy set on the playgrounds and in the bomb shelters and school hallways of the 1960s, where a football-shaped 11-year-old named Oliver Beene is coming of age surrounded by humiliating parents, a horny older brother and a gay best friend. Till then, all's well.

It wasn't so long ago the man who created Oliver Beene--who was Oliver Beene four decades ago--saw only an ending to this story, just a tiny period at the end of the sentence he began writing in the 1970s. Just two years ago Howard Gewirtz thought his career in television had exhaled its last tiny gasp. The young men and women who made television, in between sessions with focus groups and dinners with producers of reality shows, believed him a dinosaur and treated him like a fossil--something to be kept behind glass, untouched for a thousand more years. Even his agent insisted Gewirtz was doomed, unless he erased from his résumé all those years he spent writing for Taxi, among his first gigs in the business.

Gewirtz believed the ride, a roller coaster of immeasurable highs (writing for The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, even Bosom Buddies) and embarrassing lows (he created both Jenny and the small-screen adaptation of Down and Out in Beverly Hills), had slowed to a crawl. Then, a dead stop. He had run out of ideas, and the business he loved ran over him. His agent told him that the makers of modern-day television would look at his résumé, see Taxi and assume he was 100 years old; most of them didn't even remember if the show was in color. Might as well have said he produced Uncle Miltie.

"Ageism is definitely prevalent in this business," Gewirtz says, his matter-of-fact voice hinting at little bitterness. "In Hollywood it's all about heat--is there heat on you or no heat on you?--and at that time there was very little heat on me, which I found to be an unacceptable situation. But there it was. So, you can moan and bitch and say it's not fair, and it wasn't, but the only way to fight it is to just draw upon your reserves and challenge yourself and see if you're relevant or not, because no one's gonna turn around and go, 'Oh, gee, he's such a nice guy and worked on Taxi, so let's give him a job.' It doesn't happen that way. You'll only work if they think, 'Hiring him's gonna make us money.' But at the moment, things could not be better."

Gewirtz could have retired and lived off royalties, making pennies on the dollar for work he had already done. He could have pitched one more Friends variation or, as he says, "a show about Martians who inherit their dead children." Or he could write a script about his New York childhood, show it to friends and producers and hope a network was still out there willing to buy a scripted show in which no one gave lie-detector tests to would-be sons-in-law or was forced to eat a pig's penis. He did the latter, and come Sunday he will find out if a show about his life interests enough people for Fox's trigger-happy higher-ups to keep it on the schedule.

"The only reason I decided to write a show that was autobiographical--because, believe me, I don't think I've led such a fascinating life I'm ready to write my autobiography--it's just that I had run out of all terrible sitcom ideas," Gewirtz says. "But for the longest time, I've had these four or five anecdotes I would tell about my family that mostly focused on my father, who was kinda wacky. Whenever I would tell these anecdotes, they would always get a positive response. There was something there, and I was really too dim to realize it for all of these years--that's what I should be focusing on. And the people who've had the opportunity to respond to it so far all say the same thing, which is something feels genuine about it, something feels not cookie-cutter about it."

If quality alone guaranteed success in the TV biz, then Oliver Beene will live long enough to enter puberty, if not college. It's the sort of show that defines Fox, home to the dysfunctional-family comedy ever since the Bundys moved into the neighborhood and started lowering property values. The show makes sense on the network that airs The Bernie Mac Show and That '70s Show (Oliver Beene is, in a sense, Fox's That '60s Show), and it's the perfect Sunday-night closer, a curveballer from the bullpen after a lineup of King of the Hill, The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle.

It plays like an amalgam of early Simpsons and first-season Malcolm, with a dash of The Wonder Years minus that show's gooey sentimentality, since Mr. Show's David Cross provides the voiceover as older Oliver. Cross delivers his lines as though he's really commenting on old home movies; his voice is tinged with leftover hostility and not a little embarrassment. It's a little of what makes the show as dark as it is sweet, as twisted as it is straight-ahead sitcom.


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