Tuesday, January 24, 2023

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.

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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1 comment:

  1. The HHS sign is groovey. I want one. I was surprised to learn about all the work that went into the musical end of the show. Great article.