Most of the situation comedies that producers Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner have created over the past few years, including the new Davis Rules, have followed the same formula: Take a well-known comedian who ( is not a major star, surround him or her with sympathetic, lovable costars, and work a lot of the comedian’s trademark material and attitude into every script.
Sometimes their formula has worked — as it has, spectacularly, with The Cosby Show and Roseanne — and sometimes it hasn’t, as Jackie Mason’s disastrous Chicken Soup proved. Sometimes even Carsey and Werner get tired of the formula: They attempted something new with Grand, which broke with the producers’ tradition by casting Pamela Reed, an actress known primarily for drama, as its star. Kept alive for two seasons by NBC’s very artificial respiration, Grand was a big, unfunny flop, and now Carsey and Werner have reverted to form. The ”Davis” in Davis Rules refers to Randy Quaid, who plays an affable public school principal, but the real star of this show is Jonathan Winters, who appears as Quaid’s father, ”Gunny” Davis.
Like Bill Cosby before The Cosby Show debuted in 1984, Winters arrives in sitcom land a faded star hoping to become hot again. If the first few episodes of Davis Rules are any indication, he’s warming up fast. Winters became a legend with exactly the sort of comedy that’s wrong for sitcoms — improvisational, stream-of-consciousness joking. In his late-’50s, early-’60s prime, Winters would turn up on The Tonight Show or The Steve Allen Show, and he’d seem like an exploding genius. Vivid voices, surreal one-liners, and risqué lunacy just seemed to burst out of him.
But the decades went by and the variety-show format waned — including Winters’ own two stabs at the format, The Jonathan Winters Show (1967-69) and The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters (1972-74). After that, the only place besides talk shows to showcase comic talent was in a sitcom. One unfortunate attempt to mainstream Winters’ manic style was his 1981-82 season with Mork & Mindy. Winters was hired at the instigation of the show’s star, Robin Williams, who idolized and had been profoundly influenced by him. The idea was that these two wild guys would spark instant laughs off each other. But Winters always looked pained and distracted, as if worried that he’d forget his next scripted line if he let loose with a spontaneous zinger.
On Davis Rules, the 65-year-old Winters seems finally to have found the sitcom that will set him free. The show provides him with a good setting for his offbeat humor. As the elder statesman in a household with a single-parent son (Quaid) and three grandsons (Trevor Bullock, Luke Edwards, and Nathan, Witt), Winters is a sort of loopy, out-there version of William Frawley’s Uncle Bub on the old My Three Sons. In the context of Mork & Mindy, Winters was just another wild element in a wild show; here, plopped down in a standard sitcom family, he stands out as the one character who can consistently break through the conventions of sitcom humor. Carsey and Werner hired him, Winters has said, ”because I was going to be able to do some off-the-wall stuff, and then get back to the script.” So far, that seems to be just what he’s doing.
It helps, too, that Winters’ costar is such a suitable choice. Quaid was capable of his own aggressive comic lunacy during his 1985-86 stint on Saturday Night Live and in the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies; as Dwight Davis, however, he’s surprisingly, charmingly low-key. Perhaps realizing that the best way to play along with Winters is to lie back, Quaid delivers his lines in a low, soothing voice and makes the most of his gentle smile. Equally good is Patricia Clarkson (Tune in Tomorrow, Rocket Gibraltar) as Quaid’s girlfriend. In a recent episode, when Winters kissed her hand and remarked dreamily that it was ”so smooth, like a little porcelain mitt,” Clarkson’s reaction was perfect: a tricky combination of charmed swoon and utter bafflement. Much less good are Quaid’s sons, all of whom are whining wisenheimers. Hey, Carsey-Werner, get these kids some personalities — and some manners!
Winters, though, has been consistently pleasurable. ”What’s for breakfast, Grandpa?” asked one of the young whiners in a recent episode. ”Gopher paws in a sort of light cream sauce,” replied Winters quickly, his little raisin eyes dancing. That’s the kind of psychedelic stuff you’ll never hear on Full House, unless someone puts LSD in Bob Saget’s milk. B+