There are no bare breasts on the set of Dream On today. No bare buttocks. No naughty naked bits of any kind. ”Sorry about that,” apologizes series star Brian Benben. ”We shot tons of nude stuff last week. You just missed it.” Bummer. The nude stuff is one of Dream On’s specialties — along with smart scripts, superstar guests (David Bowie, Eva Gabor, Sylvester Stallone), and campy cutaways to vintage black-and-white TV clips-all of which have helped the HBO ”adult” sitcom draw kudos from critics and over 5 million viewers every week. Now in its third season, the racy series has been smashing TV taboos not even Geraldo dares to contemplate. In an episode about dating anxiety, for instance, a near-naked female character was tied (voluntarily) to a bed and smeared with whipped cream. Another episode showed two characters smoking — yes, inhaling — marijuana. As Dream On cocreator David Crane puts it, ”Cosby it’s not.”
Here’s the show’s nifty retrofantasy premise: Benben (36; married to actress Madeleine Stowe; last seen as the geeky FBI agent in 1990’s alien thriller I Come in Peace), plays Martin Tupper, a shnooky New York book editor who’s such a repressed, television-sedated child of the 1950s that he expresses his thoughts through snippets of old TV dramas (when he thinks about, say, sex, up pops a clip of Jane Wyman churning butter). Martin’s best friend is his jittery ex-wife, Judith (Wendy Malick), who’s now married to Mr. Perfect, a doctor with two Nobel prizes, a Grammy, and a nod from People magazine as the Sexiest Man in the World (he’s never shown on screen). Martin also has to cope with his sneering secretary (Denny Dillon), a sleazeball boss (Michael McKean), his stuck-up pal Eddie (Dorien Wilson), a maturer-than-thou teenage son (Chris Demetral), and an endless string of girlfriends-of-the-week, who provide the show with its trademark jiggle.
Dream On’s vintage video bites come from MCA Universal’s vast library of ancient B dramas — more than 400 hours of Schlitz Playhouse, Kraft Theater, and other cheesy ’50s anthology series. In 1988, Universal president Sid Sheinberg asked feature film director John Landis (Animal House) to find a way to squeeze money out of these old shows. Landis, Dream On’s executive producer and occasional director, asked various writers to brainstorm. ”I got proposals for game shows, for splicing the old shows together, for redubbing them,” he says. ”But the only idea I liked was using the clips as ‘thought balloons”’ — a concept dreamed up by Crane and co-executive producer Marta Kauffman, both New York playwrights.
HBO was instantly intrigued: The pay channel snapped up Dream On’s first 13 episodes and put them on the air in the summer of 1990. Critics raved, viewership climbed, and last January the show led the ACE Awards (cable’s Emmys) with five trophies.
From the beginning, the most painstaking part of putting the series together has been choosing the vintage clips. Dream On has a three-member staff devoted to sifting through the MCA Universal video library, computer-cataloging every program’s every scene. ”We’ve found some unbelievable stuff,” says researcher Marcello Ziperovich, as he spools through an obscure clip of a young Ronald Reagan introducing the 1958 teleplay A Turkey for the President (that bit turned up in the June 6 season premiere, when Martin admitted he never voted). ”There’s amazing talent in these films — Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Charles Laughton — but the strange thing is, most of these shows really suck.”
Another challenge in making Dream On come true was ”finding talented actresses who would take their tops off,” says Landis. Nudity was part of the show from the start (there’s usually one R-rated scene per episode), mostly because Landis, who has full creative control, wanted it. And HBO hasn’t objected. ”Cable networks are always looking for what they call ‘cable edge,”’ he explains. ”They want things viewers can’t get on normal networks.” HBO had already embraced similarly risque original programming — First and Ten (1984-90) and The Hitchhiker (1984-87) — and Dream On offered the channel a chance to sharpen its edge even more.
Of course, Dream On’s boob tube aesthetic hasn’t endeared the series to everyone. A few critics complain that the show is a sexist ”titcom.” Landis claims not to understand the charge. ”What exactly does ‘gratuitous’ mean?” he booms. ”It means we have breasts in the script just for the sake of seeing breasts. Excuse me, but what’s so bad about that?”
His two female cast members, who have never undressed on camera, offer answers. ”I don’t think it’s the nudity that makes the show ‘adult’ — it’s the writing and the clips,” says Dillon. Malick agrees: ”I think our material stands on its own. Personally, I’d like to see less nudity this year.”
Judging from this season’s first few episodes, Malick might be getting her wish — there’s hardly an undraped bosom in the batch. Instead, the show seems to be concentrating more on adult plots: The season premiere (guest-starring George Hamilton and Teri Garr, with cameos by scandal queens Rita Jenrette, Gennifer Flowers, and Jessica Hahn) satirized recent political sex controversies. This week’s episode stars David Clennon (thirtysomething’s Miles Drentell) as a writer with AIDS whose book Martin is editing.
Still, coproducer Crane insists there’s no cover-up. ”There’s just as much nudity this year as in any other,” he announces. ”We’re just trying to spread it around, make it more balanced. We want to include a little beefcake.” Case in point: Benben’s tryst with Teri Garr in the season opener.
”It was a difficult scene,” says the actor. ”I just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible.” He pauses demurely. ”I didn’t use a stunt butt.”