Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Hot Hero Sandwich — A Second Serving! A Retrospective Interview

 by G. Jack Urso  


An introduction to a retrospective interview of the innovative 1979-1980 Saturday morning children’s TV show Hot Hero Sandwich with Sherry Coben and Patrick McMahon, writer and film editor, respectively, of the series.

The Hot Hero Sandwich sign from the TV set, still lighting up the night in 2023!
 (image courtesy Sherry Coben).

Hot Hero Sandwich is a ten-episode Saturday morning TV series for a preteen/young teen audience that aired on NBC from November 1979 through January 1980. Created by the Emmy Award winning team of Bruce and Carole Hart, Hot Hero Sandwich is often described as a Saturday Night Live approach to children’s educational television. To a degree, that is true. Like SNL, there is a cast of comic actors, funny sketches, and contemporary bands playing their hits, along with a totally awesome house band — the Hot Hero Band. In fact, HHS also shares some cast and crew with SNL.
 
What impressed me about Hot Hero Sandwich as a teenager was how it framed that just surviving the everyday struggles teens face was something “heroic.” As the lyrics to the theme song explain, just getting out of bed and getting to and from school itself can be heroic. Even in the best of times, adolescence is a confusing, frustrating, and lonely experience. Throw in a host of societal problems and family dysfunction, and it becomes nothing less than a Labor of Hercules to survive.

Hot Hero Sandwich aspired to something a bit more than just entertainment. It attempted to reach a difficult demographic — tweens, that shadowy phase between being no longer quite a child and not yet quite a teenager. To a great degree, Hot Hero Sandwich was foiled in its attempt by a network that didn’t quite get the show and who just needed it to prove they had a commitment to children’s programming besides toy commercials thinly disguised as half-hour Saturday morning cartoon shows.

At 15, I was probably a couple years older than the show's target demographic, but the fast-paced mix of elements were hard to resist and given my undiagnosed attention deficit disorder the short segments satisfied my wandering mind. As I also watched Saturday Night Live, the general similarity in the structure of the shows (which also shared some crew members) made it a familiar experience. Admittedly, I was drawn in by the straight-ahead rock of the Hot Hero Band and the musical guests — a nice break while living in the Disco era — but the animation, celebrity interviews, comedy, and short conceptual films kept me watching.

I have previously written about Hot Hero Sandwich in my article Hot Hero Sandwich: The Late 70s TV Teen Scene (ergo the title of this series of articles, “A Second Serving”). Due to its short-lived history, there is little information about the series online. In fact, I really didn’t expect to get much of any response to the post. Yet, I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

As it turns out, that article is one of the most popular on Aeolus 13 Umbra, frequently entering the top ten. Considering the amount of work I had to do researching online, buying back issues of TV Guide, and searching through microfilm in the dusty backrooms at the library, it was very gratifying.

Somewhere along the way, the article found its way to Sherry Coben and Patrick McMahon, who not only worked on Hot Hero Sandwich as writer and film editor, respectively, but later married and were close friends of the Harts. They reached out to me and offered to speak about the show, graciously responding to over two dozen questions (note: McMahon also is credited as an associate producer).

My questions covered everything from their background and the origins of the show, to network involvement, production details, cast and crew notes, the Hot Hero Band, and much more. They also provided some never before published behind-the-scenes photographs as well as caricatures by Coben (a talented artist as well as a writer) of some HHS cast and crew that once decorated the hallways of their offices at Rockefeller Center that summer of 1979 when the series was filmed there. You'll see these scattered throughout the five articles comprising this post.

More than just a history of the show, or even the time period of broadcast history, what we have is a primer of sorts for how a show of this type gets produced. For educators living in the digital multimedia era, it provides insight on how a mix of different media with a unified theme can engage young people. For aspiring performers, it shows the skill set required for ensemble productions. For those interested in the technical side, it not only provides a look at the state-of-the art in 1979, but also at the timeless production challenges in bringing a show together.

As an introduction, please read the initial article: Hot Hero Sandwich: The Late 70s TV Teen Scene. If you’ve previously read the article, I encourage you to read it again as it has been updated with new information from my interview with Coben and McMahon.

The interview is presented in three parts:


I want to thank Sherry Coben and Patrick McMahon for reaching out and offering to discuss the history of Hot Hero Sandwich. They provided some behind-the-scenes photos as well as some of Coben's caricatures of the band and the crew dating back to 1979 which you'll see scattered throughout the five posts comprising this article . . . and yes, the photo above is indeed of the original Hot Hero Sandwich sign from the show in its current home as of 2023. 

I hope this helps bring wider attention to an exciting experiment in children’s educational television that deserved a longer run and a stronger commitment from its network, as well as more attention to the work of Bruce and Carol Hart.
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Hot Hero Sandwich — A Second Serving! Part I: Origins

by G. Jack Urso 

The following is part one of an interview with Sherry Coben and Patrick MacMahon, writer and film editor, respectively, of the TV show Hot Hero Sandwich (1979-1980) with Aeolus 13 Umbra.
Backstage at Studio 8H (left to right), Patrick McMahon, Andy Breckman (Puberty Fairy),
and Sherry Coben, summer 1979 (image courtesy Sherry Coben).
In this first part of the interview, Coben and McMahon discuss their backgrounds and some of the history of the show. We learn more about show creators Bruce and Carol Hart and some tidbits, including the writing process for the show, the network commitment to the show, and some Sesame Street HHS crew connections!

                                              

Ae13U: Sherry, you noted that this was your first job out of college? How did you get it?

Sherry Coben: It wasn’t my first job out of college. It was my first WRITING job. While going to Swarthmore, I had started working in the art department of Philadelphia’s KYW TV Art Department, doing graphics, sets, illustration and animation for all their local programming and for The Mike Douglas Show. After four years working full time there and writing spec material and creating musical theater in my off hours, I moved to NYC. A few years later, I was recommended to the Harts as a potential animator by Penny Price, a producer friend from The Douglas Show. I really wanted to break in as a writer so took the opportunity to deliver a huge stack of scripts to the Harts’ apartment, a few blocks from my own. On the strength of my unsolicited spec material, they hired me to be one of the staff writers on the show. This little bit of serendipity is the kind of luck that rarely happens to anyone. 

Bruce and Carol Hart.

Ae13U: Were the Harts looking for young people for the staff? Were there other young people besides yourself and your later-to-be husband, Patrick McMahon.

Sherry Coben:  My husband Patrick McMahon was (and is) a film editor. He edited all the HHS interviews which were the heart and soul of the show. Pat also stayed with the show through post production which was a nightmare. I’ll let him tell his side of that story. It’s an epic.

 
The interviews were conducted by psychologist Dr. Tom Cottle [see image right]; they were incredible. I took the opportunity to watch most of them in their entirety. Though only a few minutes of each session were ultimately used on the show, each of the celebrities talked to Tom for about two hours. They went deep, and Patrick found the gold. Then we built segments around the different themes he uncovered, some at the writers’ behest and others that revealed themselves when common threads arose in more than one celebrity story.
 

In addition to hiring experienced writers with whom they were already familiar, the Harts were looking for some young people to staff the show. Andy Breckman was one; at the time he was discovered by one of the Harts’ managers, Andy was performing his own music. His quirky, unique comic voice got him signed as a singer/performer and staff writer. We wrote together occasionally. I created and wrote the Puberty Fairy sketches expressly for Andy to perform. He was (and still is) hilarious, loud, and eccentric – an indomitable life force and likely the hairiest man alive. Andy went on to a huge career, writing on SNL and penning a number of big feature films, and later creating the long-running hit show Monk.

Andy Breckman as the Puberty Fairy singing with the Persuasions
(image courtesy Sherry Coben).
Marianne Meyer was a young writer as well. She was hired on the strength of a spec M*A*S*H script she’d written as an audition. Among her other contributions, Marianne came up with Phone Friends, a sort of dramedy featuring Denny Dillon and Adam Ross as siblings, usually heavy themed and serialized within an episode.

Andy, Marianne and I were the only real neophytes on the writing staff and definitely the youngest.

Richard Camp had some significant credits already under his belt, but HHS was his first time working with the Harts. He came up with Ym and Ur, the aliens who recurred and also wrote some terrific pieces that would have fit perfectly into a Poetry Slam.

Comedy veteran David Axlerod met Bruce in college; they both went on to great success, working together on The Dick Cavett Show, Candid Camera and Sesame Street.

Stephen Lawrence had been Bruce’s composing partner for a long time; Bruce was always the lyricist. They co-wrote the Hot Hero theme. (Right before HHS, the Harts did a very successful TV movie called Sooner or Later; Bruce and Stephen wrote the music, and the theme became a huge hit and made singer/actor Rex Smith a star.) Stephen wrote many of the greatest Sesame Street songs with many talented lyricists and composed the scores of numerous feature films. FYI: Bruce wrote Sesame Street’s theme song with composer Joe Raposo.

Joe Bailey was another longtime writing veteran and Sesame Street staffer. He wrote several sketches located in the Hot Hero Café featuring most of the young cast.

The Harts were ever mindful about diversity, and they brought Sesame Street’s David, performer Northern Calloway, as a consultant. His input was vital to the show.

Ae13U: What was your educational background and work experience prior to working on Hot Hero Sandwich?

Sherry Coben: I went to Cornell University and transferred to Swarthmore College after three semesters. While in school working on an English major, I got a summer job in the art department at KYW in Philadelphia that lasted four additional years. While there, I did courtroom drawings, news graphics, set design, animation, typed on a Chiron, even ran a TelePrompter for the weekend, evening and late night news with Jessica Savitch. It was a fantastic job, and I could have stayed longer, but writing was always my goal. After four years in Philly, I moved to NYC to pursue my writing career. While waiting for my break, I made a living doing freelance art and animation for an extremely wide range of television and magazines, from the esteemed Children’s Television Workshop to NYC’s legendary cable porn Midnight Blue. Hot Hero was my first writing job, and I’ll be forever grateful for that life-changing opportunity.

Ae13U: Patrick, what was your training as an editor prior to working in Hot Hero Sandwich? 

Patrick McMahon: I started as an apprentice film editor on a Woody Allen film in 1972. After assisting of several feature films I became a full editor on Kojak in 1976. After Kojak, I worked on Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman and two TV movies, the second of which was Bruce and Carole Hart's Sooner or Later. A year later, I was hired on Hot Hero. I edited the interviews, and with Bruce and Carole, I oversaw the editing of the sketches and the integration of the visual effects and other elements.

Ae13U: For some career highlights, and give my readers more context, what are some of the shows you and your husband worked on?

Sherry Coben: My biggest writing credit is the long-running hit CBS sitcom Kate & Allie. I created the show a couple of years after HHS, but it took another couple of years to get the show on the air while executive Michael Ogiens fought long and hard to keep the production in New York City. In the early eighties, no prime time shows were shooting there, and it was Mike’s mission to make that happen. K&A [Kate and Allie] premiered in 1984 and quickly became a top ten sit-com and still one of only a few shows shot in NYC. We shot in the newly rehabbed Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway, the theater David Letterman took over, now the home of Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. (They even changed the name of the theater.) K&A starred Jane Curtin and Susan Saint James and ran for six very successful seasons. Along the way, it won 3 Primetime Emmys, earning five other award wins and 28 nominations. (Fun Fact: Fresh out of Juilliard, Kelsey Grammer appeared in the very first episode. His guest appearance was followed by just about every other NYC actor with a pulse over the next six years. K&A came along before the Law & Order behemoth provided health care coverage for virtually all of NYC’s SAG members.)

Patrick McMahon: Since HHS, I have edited movies such as Strange Brew and A Nightmare on Elm Street, mini-series such as Stephen King's THE STAND & Oliver Stone's Wild Palms, TV series like American Dreams and Monk and numerous documentaries including HBO's Baghdad ER and Emmy-winning Life of Crime.
Ae13U: Sherry, you mentioned that both you and Patrick became close friends with the Harts. Obviously, a lot of work went into writing and producing the show and they must have been very disappointed when the show was abruptly cancelled. In later years, how did Harts later come to regard Hot Hero Sandwich? Were there things they may have mentioned that they loved about the show or wished they did a little differently?

Sherry Coben: The Harts knew going in that the show would likely not last more than a season. They understood the network’s position when they agreed to do the job, and because they knew it wouldn’t last, they made every decision with quality in mind, not longevity. Showrunning is a political as well as creative position; the Harts knew very well what they were up against. They spent all the money they were given, ultimately delivering one less show than was initially planned. Technical problems were many; their ideas were a little ahead of their time, and budgetary inflation resulted from their high standards and unwillingness to compromise quality. When the network set the broadcast schedule, the writing was on the wall. The show rarely aired at all in the whole western part of the country because of college basketball. This caused ratings to plummet.

Patrick McMahon:  I edited a TV movie for the Harts about a year before Hot Hero Sandwich began shooting. I became personal friends with them and was apprised of the whole development story as it was happening. The United Nations had made a big deal about the International Year Of Children and one of the things they took aim at was how Television was selling product to children on Saturday mornings with cheaply made cartoons that had no redeeming social value. The US Congress and the FCC began making noise about this, and the American Networks got nervous. NBC had made the Hart's TV movie that I edited, and their executives approached the Harts with a proposition to create a show for children that would address this concern.

The Hot Hero Sandwich sign in an undated photo in the Hart’s home office, where it remained until their passing (Bruce in 2008 and Carol in 2018).
The Harts had a friend at the network (a VP) who let them know that this was not a long-term project, that the network just wanted to get the FCC off their backs. Once this requirement was met, they would go back to business as usual. In order to make sure they could build a case, NBC gave this show a large budget but also programmed it to coincide with College Basketball that they also had a contract with. When the basketball season started, about 4 episodes into the run, HHS was preempted in the western half of the country pretty much every week and the ratings, which were okay but not great, took a big hit. Hot Hero was contracted for 11 episodes at a million dollars a show. When it started running over budget they cut it to 10 episodes. There was some controversy that I don't quite remember about where and how the last episode was aired. It may have only run in a few locations which might be why the references you [referring to the author, Jack Urso] used didn’t list it, but it did air in a few places including NYC. It won an Emmy as best children's show, but NBC was able to go the FCC and say we tried, but we lost so much money we can't afford to continue to do this. According to Bruce and Carole that was always their plan. Thus, the Fred Silverman statement about how proud he was of the show makes total sense [ed. note: McMahon is referring to a quote by Fred Silverman cited in my article “Aeolus 13 Umbra: Hot Hero Sandwich: The Late 70s TV Teen Scene.”]

Ae13U: What was the interview process like for a TV writer’s job?

Sherry Coben: Usually, a writer’s agent submits written material for consideration. I did not have an agent at the time and found out about the show through a producer friend, Penny Price, who was briefly working with the Harts in HHS’ pre-production stage. Penny knew I was looking for work and told me they were looking for animators and gave me their address and phone number. I wrote a cover letter to the Harts about my experience and qualifications as an animator but told them that my real interest was making the switch to writing. They read my stack of material and called me. I didn’t meet them in person until the job started. In writing, the work has to stand on its own. Some producers do face to face meetings, but the Harts trusted the writing and their own experience. Besides, they did not have run of the show contracts with any of us. We could be let go at any time if our work wasn’t up to par, and we knew that going in.

Ae13U: What exactly were your writing duties for the show? Did the writers work collaboratively? Did they work on their own? Did the Harts outline ideas for skits and then turned it over to the writers?

Sherry Coben: The writing started with some reading and a lot of talking. We all got together in our gorgeous offices overlooking the skating rink at Rockefeller Center and were handed the book How It Feels To Be A Child and a big pile of psychology/sociology papers and articles to better acquaint us with the specifics of our own childhoods we may have forgotten and the things that had changed for kids since. The younger writers on staff had a pretty good handle on the subject, but the book and other reading provided a great source for lively conversation.

We sat around that table for a while (I don’t remember exactly how long but I’d guess a few weeks) spitballing ideas for themes and topics we could cover, telling stories, reminiscing, laughing and going deep. The Harts’ concept was to create a new kind of variety show aimed at teens and younger kids, divided by commercials into four themed acts that, when considered as a whole, would add up to more than the sum of the parts. Using animation, film pieces, comedy sketches (some recurring), interview segments, and musical guests, the shows and themes were mapped out very loosely.

We writers mostly wrote alone, but we could team up if that seemed useful, depending on our ideas. I wrote a few sketches with Marianne and a few with Andy Breckman but mostly I wrote solo, submitting several sketches a day. Others wrote less, but all of us pulled our weight. I came early and stayed late every day, absolutely thrilled to be doing the job I’d wanted since I was a kid watching The Dick Van Dyke Show. That show misled me to incorrectly assume that women made up a third of that rarefied workforce. (Some sixty years later, we’re still not even close to that. Don’t get me started.)

Once we had our themes sketched out and a rough idea of what the show might be, we all started writing and submitting sketches. Bruce and Carole didn’t write sketches at all. That wasn’t their job. They read all the submitted sketches and stitched together the shows, choosing, editing, organizing and shaping the whole unwieldy thing out of all the pieces they could gather from multiple sources.

Joe Bailey’s wife Gail Frank produced/directed several film pieces – a memorable montage of city kids set to the song “I Love My Shirt” and others. Wonderful voice recordings of real kids telling their dreams were brought to life by a group of freelance animators. I particularly loved the animated cat dream, Welcome To Billy’s Castle and the rotoscoped dancers of “Wild Night”.

"I Love my Shirt," by Donovan, directed by Gail Frank.
While the writers were writing, Tom Cottle was interviewing thirty celebrities, concentrating on subjects most hadn’t explored publicly in such depth before. The interviews were more like therapy sessions about focused on family, childhood, and puberty. About a month after the writers started meeting and sharing ideas, Patrick started editing those interviews, finding choice stories and themes and showing them to us on occasion. I befriended him early and often sat in his office, watching the interviews for inspiration. They were absolutely incredible and would have made a landmark series all by themselves though I doubt celebrities would ever agree to airing them.


Ae13U: Sherry, you noted that you won your first Emmy for Hot Hero Sandwich. The IMDB notes there were two wins (Outstanding Children's Entertainment Series and Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming, yours among the latter) and five nominations (Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children's Programming). It must have been great validation after getting cancelled. The show was so short-lived, did you expect to get nominated let alone win?

Sherry Coben: The awards came well after the show was over and done. We really weren’t thinking about awards during the production period. At least I wasn’t. And the Harts had so many Emmys already I don’t think awards were really on their minds either although quality children’s television was still so rare that such honors might have been expected by them. The Harts did the show for the money and for the opportunity to contribute something special to Saturday morning, a virtual quality wasteland at the time. We all knew we were making ambitious, meaningful television for children, and that was its own reward. I was so thrilled to be writing material that was funny but also touching and true and about something as universal as growing up, something that hadn’t been thoroughly explored in a serious or comic way. The glowing reviews and media attention might have made us think/dream/hope for a renewal, but it was pretty clear from day one that the network wasn’t all that interested in keeping their expensive showpiece going.

Ae13U: Sherry, how did your husband [Patrick McMahon] get involved in the show? Was he assigned to it by NBC or did he apply for it from an ad in the trades, word of mouth?

Sherry Coben: Patrick had worked on Sooner or Later with the Harts just before HHS, and they asked him to do the job. Networks don’t assign anyone. They might have lists of acceptable people, but they tend to trust the showrunners in such decisions.

 

End Part I

Next: Hot Hero Sandwich — A Second Serving, Part II!


                           

Hot Hero Sandwich — A Second Serving! Part II: Production Notes and Broadcast History

by G. Jack Urso

Most of the Hot Hero Sandwich cast, crew, and staff on a music taping day.
The only group shot existent, taken in Studio 8H, Rockefeller Plaza, summer 1979
(image courtesy Sherry Coben).

The following is part two of an interview with Sherry Coben and Patrick McMahon, writer and film editor, respectively, of the TV show Hot Hero Sandwich (1979-1980) with Aeolus 13 Umbra. Here, they discuss various aspects of productions and the broadcast history of the episodes.

In this second part, Sherry Coben and Patrick McMahon discuss various aspects of production and the broadcast history of the episodes. Production took place during the Summer of 1979 during the hiatus for Saturday Night Live so as to film on the same stage, Studio 8H. 

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Ae13U: What size videotape was used in production — 1 inch or two inch? I’m interested in what the standard was in 1979/1980.

Patrick McMahon:  It was one inch. One inch was brand new. Also, the visual FX and transitions that the Harts were asking for were executed by a new software called the Quantel. (I think that's how you spell it.) NBC insisted we use their facility for video editing, but the Quantel was so new that their in-house editors didn't know how to use it correctly [Editor's Note: UK-based Quantel Ltd. was active until 2015]. The editor would have to say it's down, call for a technician to come in, and the technician would show him the buttons to push and away we'd go. We eventually moved the post production to LA because we were not able to make our schedule in New York.
 
Sherry Coben: I’ve worked on a few shows a little ahead of their time, and I know these problems all too well. Technological advancements are always a little slow to reach the entrenched staffs of networks and production companies because they involve an outlay of money that management can’t quite grasp and creatives demand. Dissolves and graphics children can now accomplish on their cellphones or iPads with just a touch used to take overnight to render and considerable tech support to accomplish.
 

Ae13U: According to reports, Hot Hero Sandwich shot on Studio 8H, the same studio Saturday Night Live uses. The 1979 and 1980 season was the last with original cast members. Did the casts cross paths? Was there any friction between the two productions in scheduling time to use the studio?

Sherry Coben:  The reason we got to use the studio was because the show was on their summer break. NBC likes to make use of their studio space and staff year-round. It was an absolute dream come true working in that building and on that stage so full of history, but we never saw any of SNL’s on-air talent. We did use many of the SNL crew though. I’ve forgotten most of the names of camera operators and other crew, but those credited on both shows include Production Designer: Akira Yoshimura, Lighting Director: Phil Hymes, Graphics: Bob Pook, Audio: Joel G. Spector, Video: Walt Werner, Production Administrator: Ken Aymong (still on SNL!), and Stage Manager: Robert Van Ry. 

Ae13U: How were the actors cast in the show? Was it an open cattle call?

Sherry Coben:  No, not a cattle call. Agents submitted photos and resumes to the casting director. The casting director culled the submissions, and then their picks read for Bruce and Carole who made their casting choices. (NBC might have had some say, but the Harts were quality children’s TV heavyweights and weren’t making any decisions worth questioning. Network interference in this part of the production was negligible.) 

Ae13U: Online sources report ten episodes were broadcast, but my research could only account for nine episodes. How many episodes were broadcast?

Sherry Coben: All were broadcast, but several didn’t air in the whole country. It was a mess to be honest, and we were heartbroken. The Harts and Patrick were still on the west coast, finishing post production when the show premiered, where several episodes never even aired. This impacted ratings of course, not that ratings would have made any difference. The die was cast by then, and we all knew it. All eleven aired, and I know this for sure because I recorded them all on my giant VHS recorder. The tapes are significantly degraded, but I put them on DVD so that my own children could grow up watching and loving the show that brought their parents together.

Patrick McMahon:  Several only aired in half of the country. It was the last one, the eleventh, that maybe ran in five or ten markets, as I recall. That's why there is a question about whether or not it aired.

Ae13U: How many episodes were originally planned for the first season of the show? I speculated that maybe 13 episodes were probably planned for the first season based on the usual first season order for similar Saturday morning live action shows.

Sherry Coben: I think eleven shows were initially planned, but one episode was dropped because the money ran out [Editor's Note: Coben means that a twelfth episode may have been planned]. Sketches and interviews were shuffled and dropped because of this problem. Technical difficulties blew up the budget significantly when NYC’s NBC staffers could not handle the sophisticated editing required, and the Harts and Patrick had to relocate to Los Angeles to finish the show at Compact Video.

Ae13U: Were there any episodes produced that were not broadcast?

Sherry Coben:  We shot all the music and sketches before anything had aired. Putting the show together turned out to be above and beyond the technical knowhow of NBC’s New York City setup. To finish the shows, the Harts and Pat and his assistant Stan Salfas had to go to Los Angeles to Compact Video.

All the episodes were broadcast but not nationally. Because of college basketball pre-emptions, viewers in the Western time zones never saw several of the shows. It was heartbreaking for all of us, and we hoped/imagined that NBC would rerun the show in afternoon slots or again at some other time of the year.


Ae13U: What was the production schedule for each episode? One episode per week? Monday through Friday?

Sherry Coben: The production schedule was about efficiency and use of sets and talent. We shot sketches every workday for a few months and music but not necessarily in show order. I think that we probably had about a week of shooting scheduled for each episode. Some sketches moved around long after show scripts were finished and shot. We started meeting and writing in late March or early April, Pat started working in mid-June, shooting started in the summer and ended before SNL returned in the fall.


Ae13U: What was the lead time between finishing an episode and when it was broadcast? One week? Two weeks?

Patrick McMahon: The first few episodes were finished a month or two before broadcast but it got closer as we got to the end. Maybe a couple of weeks. 

Ae13U: The first episode was broadcast Nov. 10, 1979. That strikes me as quite late in the season for a new show to be introduced. Why the late start date? Production delays? Network decision?

Sherry Coben: More likely pre-emptions for sports. The start date was never moved once we started. 

Patrick McMahon: I believe, and so did Bruce and Carole, that the schedule was designed to conflict with the College Basketball schedule, thus ensuring the preemptions, low ratings and ultimate demise of this fat too costly (but conveniently educational) children's show.

Ae13U: Why was the show cancelled after only ten episodes? Granted ratings are the reason, but considering it was a commitment to an experimental children’s education show, I thought the network could have shown a stronger commitment. Was the network fully behind the show?

Sherry Coben: Bottom line: The network never had any real interest in producing quality (read unnecessarily expensive) TV programming for children and did just about everything they could to sabotage it, airing it well after kids are up and out on Saturday at noon, and pre-empting it for sports every week in over half of the country. The West coast barely saw any of the episodes because of college basketball. It’s very expensive to do quality TV for kids or anyone else, and the networks were being forced to do it. They had no desire for it to succeed. They wanted to be able to say “We tried quality, and the kids didn’t want it.” so they could return to peddling the old bargain basement shlock -- cheap imports and repackaged cartoons. Network television was still something of a wasteland, a pretty dark time for quality programming.

 

End Part II

Next: Hot Hero Sandwich — A Second Serving, Part III!


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Hot Hero Sandwich — A Second Serving! Part III: Commercials, Demographics, and Music

by G. Jack Urso 

The Hot Hero Sandwich sign from the show in its current undisclosed location,
looking as good as it did in 1979 (image courtesy Sherry Coben).

The following is part three of an interview with Sherry Coben and Patrick McMahon, writer and film editor, respectively, of the TV show Hot Hero Sandwich (1979-1980) with Aeolus 13 Umbra. Here they discuss commercial, demographics, musical revelations, and final thoughts.
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Ae13U: The Mar. 29, 1980, TV Guide article features an interview with a teenager who noted, “Sometimes you'd wonder who this thing was for. It would seem too dumb to a teen-ager, but a really young kid wouldn't understand it.” What are your thoughts on this observation? Were the Harts trying to cover too much? 

Sherry Coben: I thought we could have (or should have) targeted a narrower range, but that was not the concept of the show. It seemed to me that it was for tweens, kids too young for high school and too old for little kid programming. I was writing for that age, knowing that other groups would find something in it for them as well. Middle schoolers, kids in the thick of puberty, always seemed like a group that never quite got targeted. That’s who I was writing for. Some of the older writers didn’t know any kids and hadn’t been kids for a long time, and their Sesame Street roots occasionally showed. Our scattershot focus showed, and it might have confused the target audience.
 
The most shocking thing for all of us when the show aired were the commercials that were paired with our sophisticated, ambitious show. They were aimed at really little kids. Interviews about very serious subjects were followed by the usual fare of loud, raucous, kidvid commercials for crazy cereals and babyish toys bound to make any high schoolers feel decidedly uncool about watching a show clearly not aimed at them. I don’t want to be paranoid about it…but…it seemed like part of a plan to me.
 
The Harts had taken great care to book musical talent and interview subjects that would appeal to high schoolers and also, perhaps surprisingly, their parents. The Harts knew the statistics about Saturday morning viewing; adults comprised over a third of viewers, meaning that they too needed content that would entertain and keep them interested.
 
While the subject matter was clearly aimed at kids and their developmental issues and struggles, like most television catering to kids, the actors playing kids were older than they played. This is/was such a common practice that no one questioned it at the time, at least not publicly. I was thrilled to have the chance to meet and write for Patty Duke Show’s Ross, Paul O’Keefe, but since he seemed older than most of the company, he played the Hot Hero café owner/manager and Stanley Dipstyck, the high school kid with a bag on his head. Eighteen year old Vicky Dawson was the youngest actor in the company except for the actual child actor, Adam Ross, who played Captain Hero and other little kids as required.  

Ae13U: Reportedly, NBC had child psychologists review the scripts. Did that include yours as well? How far ahead of production did they need to get the scripts before the episode went into production? 

Sherry Coben: I don’t think there was much lead time at all. I have no memory of this step. I suppose it’s possible that someone was consulted or hired as a consultant, but I doubt very seriously that anything was affected. We never got notes except from Standards and Practices, and those were usually hilarious. One of my favorite sketches I wrote was about Miss Pinch, a very uptight school librarian and her S&P- inspired parochial idiocy. It was a very subtle takedown of book-banning and censorship, and Bruce Hart had to go to the mat fighting for its inclusion in the show. The irony of that particular battle was lost on no one, at least none of us.
 

Ae13U: The same TV Guide article cited above also notes that “there were almost no test screenings.” Is that true? The statement suggests that there were some test screenings, just not very many.

Sherry Coben: I don’t think there were any, but I could be wrong about that. The network may have screened an episode for their own purposes, but there just wasn’t any time between finishing episodes for broadcast and broadcast to make any changes. The network may have done some internal testing to justify their tepid support, but their findings never made their way to anyone involved in the production. I suspect they used their findings to back up the decision to kill the show. At the time, ABC was a much more quality-driven programmer with their after-school specials and interstitials like Schoolhouse Rock. NBC probably should have aired Hot Hero Sandwich in the afternoon like ABC’s After School Specials. NBC started their own after-school programming with Project Peacock not long after their much-lauded Hot Hero tanked.
 

Ae13U: I can’t let the interview end without asking a question about the Hot Hero Band. People who remember the show always comment on the band – fans absolutely love them. Is the claim by band member Mark Cunningham who claimed that he and Felix Pappalardi, "wrote, played, and recorded the musical soundtrack" entirely accurate? Particularly on the theme song which seems to include some very layered child psychology ideas behind the lyrics. Did the Harts contribute to any of the songs, at least conceptually and/or lyrically?

Sherry Coben:  Bruce Hart and Stephen Lawrence wrote the theme song. Andy Breckman wrote and performed his own songs with backing from the band. Mountain’s Felix Pappalardi was the musical director, doing arrangements, including short interstitial style stings based on the theme used to lead in and out of sketches, interviews and acts. These musical transitions were crucial to the show since the tone of material varied so dramatically.
 
Hot Hero Band caricatures by Sherry Coben, 1979
 (image courtesy of artist).
The Hot Hero Band wrote their own songs with Felix’s assistance. Felix arranged the band and supervised the guest artists. They were a real highlight of production. We writers always took a break and came to the studio to watch those performances along with a small (and mostly young) studio audience sitting on the floor. 
HHS writer and performer Andy Breckman performing his song "Tommy Two"
with the Hot Hero Band (photo credit: Sherry Coben).
Patrick McMahon:  As for who wrote the theme song, it was Bruce Hart and Stephen Lawrence. I was there when it was recorded, well before Felix Pappalardi and the Hot Hero Band were hired. What we did have in the show were incidental music cues to segue between interviews and sketches. Those were written by Felix and members of the band. That is what the band member was talking about. I know because I edited them in and helped them to learn about click tracks, something I thought Felix would be familiar with but he wasn't. 

 

End Part III

Next: Hot Hero Sandwich — A Second Serving, Credits!


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Hot Hero Sandwich — Episode 10 Scene-by-Scene

by G. Jack Urso 

Sherry Coben’s personal archival copy of Episode 10.
Sadly, we will likely never see a DVD release of the series.

Hot Hero Sandwich has not been released on video and there are very few clips available online; however, at the time of the broadcast Sherry Coben recorded the programs on a rather large early home VCR and later transferred them to DVD. The source video tape was degraded, but sufficient enough for Coben to provide us with a scene-by-scene walkthrough of Episode 10 as an example of how the show structured the mix of animation, music, sketches, and short films.   

Hot Hero Sandwich Episode 10

Interviews: LeVar Burton, Michael Learned, McLean Stevenson, Stockard Channing

Musical Guest: Rex Smith

Scenes

10.1:  Sketch: Class Clown Pageant - Denny does teacher impressions (wins), Matt makes fart sounds, Paul gets booed.

10.2:  Animation: trippy sea/sky abstract to “Have You Seen the Stars Tonite” (Paul Kantner).

10.3: Sketch: Coach giving locker room pep talk for school dance, “What are we gonna do?” “Dance!”

10.4:  Music performance: Rex Smith, "Tonight."

10.5:  Sketch: Excuse of the Week — Nan-Lynn didn’t want neighbor to think typing was tap dancing, after she promised she’d stop.

10.6: Short Film: Asking teens and kids what’s in/what’s out.

10.7: Short Film: Kids describing/putting terms to “when someone’s out of it.”

10.8: Sketch: Stanley Dipstyck looking at his stamp collection, parents interrupting him, Puberty Fairy shows but disappears when Stanley says “Go away! . . . Why didn’t I ask for a girlfriend?”

10.9: Animation: Kid Dream! A boy dreams of being led onto airplane, flying across Atlantic Ocean to New York, meeting his parents (Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty), flashbacks of life in the Netherlands, and told he was born in Beth Israel Hospital.

10.10: Sketch (part 1): Denny Dillon seeking help for the refreshment committee for the Victory Party, Nan-Lynn and L. Michael feuding over where to get the burgers and how to cook.

10.11: Short Film: Black girls and women montage to “Ebony Eyes,” plus woman doing snippets of Phenomenal Woman, another poem (“I’m gonna draw me a Black Madonna”).

10.12: Sketch (part 2): Nan-Lynn and L. Michael apologizing about their fight, which leads to flirting and they agree to go to the Victory Dance.

10.13: Sketch (part 3): Nan-Lynn and L. Michael realize they don’t have anything besides cooking in common and decide not to go to the party together.

10.14: Music performance: Rex Smith, "Sooner or Later."

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