Tuesday, January 24, 2023

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”.

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!


                           

2 comments:

  1. To understand the amount of work that goes into the writing, editing, and production of the show is amazing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The Harts, Coben and McMahon should be commended and remembered for their visionary and quality work for childrens t.v. Well done.

    ReplyDelete