[10/13/09 - 12:46 AM]
Interview: "Rita Rocks" Co-Creators Stan Zimmerman & Jim Berg
By Jim Halterman (TFC)

There was a big surprise at the end of last week's second season premiere of cable comedy hit "Rita Rocks" as Rita (played by Nicole Sullivan) found herself with the news that she was pregnant. While the addition of an unexpected baby is a staple of situation comedies, it remains to be seen how this development will effect Rita's family as well as her aspirations to be a rock star in the Lifetime series. Creators Stan Zimmerman and Jim Berg talked to our Jim Halterman last week about patience in the business of television, being paired with the new series "Sherri" and how iTunes may be in the show's future.

Jim Halterman: What prompted the storyline of Rita having another child at this point in her life?

Stan Zimmerman: We were actually on hiatus and we didn't know we would be coming back that quickly and then when Nicole found out she was pregnant the network said, "How fast can you get back because we want to shoot some episodes and work it into the storyline?" It would be too hard to cover it up.

Jim Berg: Actually, Nicole and Tisha [Campbell-Martin] were both pregnant at the same time so we decided to write Nicole's into the show and, as you saw in that episode where Tisha's character Patty was just eating because her son was going to college so we gave her an emotional eating story but they will both be growing throughout the season.

JH: The show actually has a longer history that a lot of people realize, right?

SZ: We had been on "Roseanne" and had been at Fox for over three years on a deal and we just wanted to write something for ourselves. We loved music and we loved the whole vibe that "Roseanne" had and we put them together in a show and just wrote it for ourselves and tried to get it set up for ten years. It's a real lesson in waiting for the right time and never giving up on your dream.

JB: It was before the whole "American Idol" and before music became the zeitgeist and it just seemed like women empowering themselves and the music aspect made it relevant to today and to the Lifetime viewers so we were like better late than never. We were thrilled to have something that was sitting on our shelves finally get invented.

JH: During your first season you were paired with [repeats of] "Reba" but how do you think the fit is with Sherri Shepherd's new sitcom?

SZ: We love both of them, which is great because "Reba" had a built-in audience and our show kind of had a similar feel to them but it's also great to have a new comedy to be with in the same genre and feel for the show.

JB: And Sherri is a great promotable personality and we still feel like, going into our second year, that we're the show that nobody knows about. Lifetime hasn't really been a huge fan of big promotion for their comedies or for our show.

SZ: It's not like they're a big network and they can do as much as a [broadcast] network can do. They have a very targeted way of promoting shows but we feel like there's this audience out there that is not being addressed. There are so few shows showing a married woman in a sitcom. "Old Christine" [the Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom] is divorced but really not since "Roseanne" has there been a successful married woman traditional sitcom focusing on the wife. The wife is not the secondary character; the show is from her point of view and those stories were not being told.

JH: Lifetime rolled it out in a unique way, too, didn't they?

SZ: Lifetime stripped all new episodes during the week so it'll be so different each day because it will be a different competition and, also, Lifetime airs it at different times. It's not like a network where it airs at one time for the entire country. [This week] we land at Tuesdays at 10:30 PM after "Sherri" and so that's a whole experiment of us going up against "Leno" and how comedies will play at that hour.

JH: Nicole Sullivan plays both the comedy and music sides so well. How did she come to land the role of Rita?

SZ: She's so perfect but we had been looking for the actress who could do the comedy and also be real in the heart and she just had that magic about her.

JB: We originally thought that maybe we would get a professional singer that could act but it soon became apparent when we were auditioning that you needed somebody with amazing comedy chops to really make this character pop so you would be laughing along with her struggle. Nicole, of course we're fans of hers from "Mad TV"... she came in and auditioned and it doesn't get funnier than that. When we took her to the network, they loved her and we couldn't imagine anybody else in the part. When we see week to week what she does, how she brings the words alive, how she comes up with funny bits, how she really makes magic before our eyes, we're just grateful every day that we cast her as Rita.

SZ: If you didn't hear, we have Swoozie Kurtz for four episodes as Rita's Mom and the two of them together... we really get into some dramatic moments, which is what we loved about "Roseanne" is that you can be really serious but then so funny especially when you're dealing with someone from your family; it just brings up all kinds of stuff.

JH: Besides Swoozie Kurtz, you had Tony Danza and Deborah Gibson guesting last season. Anyone else coming up?

SZ: We're cooking up some names right now but we have Mike McDonald from "Mad TV" so we'll have a little reunion. Nicole and Michael are hysterical together. Melissa Peterman from "Reba" will return this year. We're working on getting a pretty big name for our final episode of the season.

JH: With the music element of the show, "Glee" is currently doing extremely well with selling songs on iTunes. Any interest in going that route?

SZ: Last year, we had the character Rita write a song and we hired actress Kathleen Wilhoite, the actress from "ER" and "Gilmore Girls," and we had been big fans of hers and had her CD. We thought she'd be the perfect voice for Rita and she wrote a song. In the show last year we only did about a minute and a half of it and the network loved it so much that they had us go back in, record the whole song as a single, they cut together a music video and it's online on www.MyLifetime.com and right now we're trying to get it so you can buy it on iTunes. This year, we had [Wilhoite] write another original song and we'd like to do the same thing. She's sort of become the in-house songwriter for Rita's voice.

JB: Anything we can do with the music, we'd like to further the outreach of that and, again, we're the little show that could. Everything has to be very inventive. We don't have network big budgets to work with so it's a lot of word-of-mouth and us being creative on how we get the word out.

SZ: My dream one day is to have a "Rita Rocks" CD and we can cover some great songs and do the whole number that we can only play limited in the show and have a "Rita Rocks" tour and go to malls everywhere.

JH: With the younger characters on the show, do you have a strong teenage market? The season premiere had a storyline about Rita's daughter possibly having sex so I was curious how teens might respond.

JB: I think we try to take it more from the mother's point of view because it's a subject that they have to deal with.

SZ: Also, we worked on "Gilmore Girls" and so many moms told us that it was a show that they could sit with their daughter and watch it and talk. We'd love "Rita Rocks" to be a show like that, as well. I don't know if that is Lifetime's ultimate goal but we think it would be great to have that.

Beginning tonight, "Rita Rocks" moves into its regular Tuesday night time slot of 10:30/9:30c on Lifetime.

  [october 2009]  


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