8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter ABC, 8-8:30 PM DEBUTS SEPTEMBER 17

During a rehearsal for the third episode of the sitcom 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, director Jamie Widdoes mock-deferentially refers to star John Ritter — who plays columnist Paul Hennessy, a newly working-at-home dad overwhelmed by maximum exposure to his two eye-rolling adolescent daughters and wisecracking son — as ”TV’s John Ritter.” As in, ”I have one note for TV’s John Ritter, if I may?” It amuses the Three’s Company double-entendre king, who is fond of making fun of the fact that he’s as closely associated with television as a remote control; he’ll stride up to a visitor to the set, throw an arm around him, and abruptly begin pontificating ”You know, back when I was doing The Waltons…”

Laugh as he may at his tube legacy, the fact remains, he’s thrilled to be back on the small screen. Since his last regular series, Hearts Afire, went off the air in 1995, he’s been TV’s hardest-working nomad: guesting on Ally McBeal, Felicity, and Scrubs, among many other shows, and thus sparking his desire to get another series. At first he was intrigued by a single-camera comedy called The O’Keefes, in which he’d play an eccentric father of genius kids (now set for midseason on The WB with Judge Reinhold), but he really wanted a traditional three-camera shoot (which, unlike the one-camera variety, is shot in front of actual clapping, laughing human beings). ”I guested on a couple of shows in front of a live audience and said, ‘I really miss this,”’ recalls Ritter, 53. He read and loved the 8 Simple Rules script, and even though O’Keefes was ”substantially more money,” he preferred Rules’ format. (As well as its shorter shooting schedule, which allows him more time with his 3-year-old daughter, Stella, from his second marriage to Wings’ Amy Yasbeck.)

”You take John Ritter any time you can get John Ritter,” says Rules executive producer Flody Suarez (The Tick), even though others mention that John Goodman was also considered for the role. And to further enhance the sitcom pedigree, Married…With Children’s Katey Sagal came aboard (sans bouffant wig) as his commonsensical wife, Cate.

The role of an overprotective, befuddled father, completely unable to reconcile his unflaggingly critical and crabby teens with their earlier, cuddly-toddler incarnations, is a far cry from Ritter’s swingin’-single sitcom days. ”Twenty-five years ago Jack Tripper was a bachelor,” says creator and executive producer Tracy Gamble (Home Improvement). ”And this is like karma coming back to get him.” His kids cross the spectrum of adolescent angst: There’s Bridget, 16 (Ladies Man’s Kaley Cuoco), the ditzy blonde fond of revealing outfits and terrified of being seen in public with her dad; Kerry, 15 (Amy Davidson from the Olsen twins’ So Little Time), the brainy, awkward daughter convinced that her father’s a moron; and Rory, 13 (Daddio’s Martin Spanjers), the smart-aleck son whose main hobby is hiding in his sisters’ closet to eavesdrop.

These kids resemble Gamble’s own offspring, right down to sharing their first names. And the homage doesn’t stop there. While the show was inspired by W. Bruce Cameron’s humor book of the same title, many of the story lines come from Gamble’s puberty-stoked household. Recently, when his daughter Kerry called to ask when he was coming home, he was touched, thinking she missed him. But when he returned early, it turned out she was out driving without a license; she had just called to make sure she got home first. When he called Suarez to tell him he would be late back to work because he was scolding her, Suarez happily replied, ”That’s an episode!”

While future plots sound like the usual family-comedy fare (Paul demands that Bridget get her first job, Kerry goes on her first date, Paul encourages Bridget to date the school’s dim-witted basketball star…okay, maybe that one’s a bit unusual), one main difference is how authentic the teens are — and anyone who knows a teenage girl will shiver at that prospect. Instead of the usual sitcom-tot precociousness, the grumpy daughters meet Ritter’s attempt at advice with sneers, door slamming, and choruses of ”Whatever!” ”You don’t understand me!” or ”You’re an idiot!” It’s not such a stretch for Cuoco, 16. ”It’s very easy to relate,” she says, laughing. ”I definitely have an attitude at home like [my character]. I’m the queen of eye rolling.” Says Sagal, who has an 8-year-old daughter, ”When we were doing the pilot, everybody with teenagers kept looking at me saying, ‘This is what you can look forward to.”’

Sullen adolescents are tough enough to spend time with in real life, so a show about them seems more like a Fear Factor stunt than an escapist sitcom. That’s why the producers make sure there’s one touching moment per episode to show the family’s love…even if said tender hugfest is always immediately followed by a daughter screaming something like, ”Don’t touch my hair, Dad. I just spent hours on that!”

”You’ll have a really vulnerable scene, and then it flops into the funny,” says Davidson (who has a healthy distance from adolescence; ABC diplomatically will only concede she’s ”over 18”). Explains Ritter, ”These girls really do love their dad in spite of everything. And he loves them, but he would like to put them in a room for about five years and let them out after they’ve been taught by nuns.”

After ABC’s ratings-damned last season, the network says this sitcom epitomizes its new direction, which is actually the old direction. ”This show fits into our traditionally successful footprint that was abandoned here for a lot of years,” says ABC Entertainment TV Group chairman Lloyd Braun. ”Commercial comedies with very broad appeal, but with a real point of view.” Perhaps not so coincidentally, both Braun and ABC Entertainment president Susan Lyne, have teenage daughters, and share a ”badge of honor,” as Braun puts it, with Ritter and Sagal’s put-upon characters.

Having your bosses depend on you for desperately needed ratings and a window into their own lives can be a mite stressful. ”I do feel pressure,” says Gamble. ”I’d rather be under the radar.” But it doesn’t faze Ritter, who leaves the Nielsens for execs to fret over, while he concentrates on the comedy. ”Other people have a lot to worry about,” he says. ”What I have to worry about is scene 3. That one little bit when I have a cupcake up my nose, what do I do when the fire people come in? Who’s gonna hold the elephant while I’m juggling the circus balls?”

Of course, there will be no nasal pastries or rampaging pachyderms on the show, they’re just generic examples of the kind of Ritter-based funny business he’s been pulling since he first tripped over a sofa or mistook plumbing conversations for sexcapades on Three’s Company 25 years ago. The guy’s good for a nice spit take as well. During an 8 Simple Rules line reading session, Ritter accidentally shoots some saliva onto Sagal’s arm. As she stares at the lingering wet dot with a raised eyebrow, he replies with an exaggerated actorly concern, ”Oh, you didn’t like that? I’ll make that note in my script. Paul does not spit on Cate.” Hey, they don’t call him ”TV’s John Ritter” for nothing.

8 Simple Rules
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