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She had style, she had flair, she was there, that’s how she became the Nanny! With this week’s passing of the prolific television actress Ann Morgan Guilbert (The Nanny’s Yetta Rosenberg), I thought that I would highlight this beloved show. Created and produced by Fran Drescher and her then husband (but now happily divorced) Peter Marc Jacobson, The Nanny ran on CBS from 1993 to 1999. Nominated more than winning, The Nanny still earned one Emmy during its successful run. With a terrific lead cast, phenomenal guest stars from Carol Channing to Elizabeth Taylor and Bob Barker to Steve Lawrence, and incredibly comedic dialog with plenty of conflict and banter, this show continues to draw an audience today. Inspired by the plot from Rogers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, Fran Drescher and Peter Marc Jacobson added in real-life characters and material from Drescher’s own life growing up in Queens, NY and developed the idea for The Nanny then pitched it to CBS executives. Ordinarily, it can take a few years for a show to go from concept to delivery, but in less than two years The Nanny went from idea to weekly TV show. Furthermore, the confidence of CBS in this series can be seen in CBS’ Jeff Sagansky’s ordering of a full 22 episodes for the first season. Never hitting the top 10 TV shows and often hovering around the 40-60 range on Nielsen, the show’s popularity has actually grown over the years and remained on TV. It can presently be watched on Logo.
Such beloved characters! There are few shows that come along that feature such brilliantly developed characters that attribute so much to the success of the show. Each unique in appearance, behavior, history, and personal growth. Although there were many guest stars during the run of the show, most of the episodes featured a moderately large principle ensemble cast with a few reoccurring characters. The principle cast included the nasal-voiced outgoing and flashy Fran Fine (Fran Drescher), Broadway producer in the perpetual shadow of Andrew Lloyd Webber Maxwell Sheffield (Charles Shaughnessy), the deceptively reserved wisecracking busy-body butler Niles (Daniel B. Davis), Maxwell’s egocentric undermining snobby pining for his love business partner C.C. Babcock (Lauren Lane), and Maxwell’s equally eccentric often bickering children Maggie (Nicholle Tom), Brighton (Benjamin Salisbury), and Gracie (Madeline Zima) Sheffield. Supporting the principle cast were regularly reoccurring characters important to the pacing, structure, and humor of the show. Fran’s meddlesome mother Sylvia (Renee Taylor), Fran’s clueless naive and co-dependent best friend Val Toriello (Rachel Chagall), and the late Ann Morgan Guilbert as Fran’s lovable smoking-like-a chimney absent-minded forgetful grandma Yetta. Each the aforementioned characters provided a unique flavor to the show–character actors. It’s hard to imagine the show without even one of them. But why such negative reviews for critics and fans? Often it was Fran’s “annoying” voice that kept some people from falling in love with the show. For others, that voice is one of the most endearing part of this show.
If one element could be named as the chief reason for the show’s success, it is the comedy consisting of mostly running gags, much of which was character based. Moreso than other comparable sitcoms, The Nanny‘s characters, including guest stars, typically possessed a specific set of traits that was often the source of parody, conflict, and were usually played off one another in mostly pairs (i.e. Maxwell Sheffield v Fran; Niles v C.C. Babcock) with the occasional teaming up on a particular character. Not chiefly relying on pandering to a particular audience or, more often than necessary, breaking the fourth wall (speaking TO the viewers or audience directly by commenting), the comedy of The Nanny was pretty well contained in the diegesis. Every once in a while, one of the characters would break the fourth wall or include humor that a particular demographic would find especially humorous; however, most of the comedy directed at other characters and was full of satire, parody, and smartly written. Occasionally including humor that references pop culture or being a product of its generation, this show still holds up today. In addition to comedy emerging from character traits or diegetic conflict, a few times, the characters would reference their respective off-camera lives (i.e. Lauren Lane’s pregnancy) or past careers (i.e. Ann Morgan Gilbert’s role as Millie Harper on The Dick Van Dyke Show). Although an entire diegetic analysis would be written on the comedic structure of The Nanny, in a few words, the reason for the success can be summed up: dynamic witty comedy that could only happen on this show.
Reviews from the time the show first aired until now are incredibly mixed. Everything from being predictable to the funniest show ever. How can the reception of one show be so incredibly stratified??? If it wasn’t shown to continue to draw an audience today, then it wouldn’t be on any network channel (big or small). The show began syndication in 1998 before the series ended. So, the demand for this series was around during its original run and even to this day. Simple. It had SASS! There is no other show that boasted quite the prolific quips, comebacks, wit, one-liners, and brilliantly creative insults that The Nanny did. From the merciless barbs between Niles and C.C. and the love-hate relationship between Fran and Maxwell, the conflict never ended. And what is comedy without conflict? Not humorous at all. Conflict the the driving force for well-crafted comedy. The numerous one-liners and double-entendres never get old. Supporting the comedic conflict between characters is additionally self-deprecating humor. There are plenty of times that the material for comedy is the character him or herself. The is especially true with C.C. Although C.C. isn’t the only characters who integrates self-deprecating humor into the narrative of the show, she is the one who uses that comedic tool the most. Usually spawning from some one-liner delivered to her from Fran or Niles (and occasionally the children), C.C. is often the brunt of the joke but is totally cognizant of it as she would often contribute to the very reasons for the other characters picking on her. I think these characters have the kind of dynamic relationships that we would all like to have with out own family and friends. The timeless friendly banter between ourselves and those closest to us.
Thankfully The Nanny is still on TV and looks like it will remain that way for a long time. It takes a special show to last for more than two decades from the time Fran rang the doorbell, cosmetic sales case in hand. The best comedy is the kind that continues to elicit immense laughter time and time again. Like many you, I don’t think there is a running joke that goes by that I don’t still laugh at today. Whether laughing with or at the characters of The Nanny, this show continues to bring smiles to faces today.