It was Channel 18's idea. We just happened to catch the pitch.
In April 85 Barb got a call from a producer at Channel 18, who wanted to take her to lunch. Being married n all, she thought it best if we went as a tag team; we knew the wiles of the Lexington theatre community and who could guess what deviltry might be on the mind of a so-called teevee producer? Best to show the Couple Front, just in case; it helped Barb to be more comfortable with the meet and I can always eat on somebody else's dime. So after establishing Bill's bona fides, to the extent that he was a known producer at Channel 18 and did have an expense account, we agreed to a lunch meet at The Magic Pan. The Pan was conveniently located in the Mall at Lexington Center, so I could get back to my day job in the arena; plus we liked the food. If you're getting a free meal, you might as well enjoy the food.
Bill arrived, and after his initial surprise at the two of us, exchanged the requisite pleasantries and got down to the Secret Plan. It seemed that Channel 27 generally owned the local teevee market at the time, which was somewhat galling to the good folks at Channel 18. They had, or were about to, come into a fair pile of cash from the sale of some underperforming assets, and were looking to put some of that money into programming to make dents into time slots where they thought Channel 17 might be vulnerable. One of those time slots was following Saturday Night Live, which was going to have a new and presumably much stronger cast in the fall; Lorne Michaels had taken the show back and was tasked by NBC to restore it to ratings glory, yada yada yada. Channel 27 seemed to be happy with endlessly programming movies in the 11:30PM slot, and Channel 18 thought that given a strong lead-in by SNL, the right kind of program could make a little dent into Channel 27's dominance. We enjoyed our soup as he continued.
This was the Age of Elvira, who was establishing a very big presence on that there cable teevee, the sworn enemy of over-the-air teevee; but if that brigand Bertolt Brecht could steal ideas with impunity why not our man Bill? It seems that Channel 18 had made some inquiries about acquiring the Elvira show outright for the Lexington market; but whatever riches were going to fall into their laps were apparently not enough for the likes of Elvira. So the fallback position was to develop a homebrew Elvira. Which is where Barb came in.
The good execs over at Channel 18 had agreed that if a local sufficiently Elvira-like presence was available, then it stood to reason that a homebrew Elvira could be brewed. The problem, as they saw it, was that there were no local sufficiently Elvira-like presences to be had for ready money in central KY: they had surveyed the local acting scene and found it wanting. This was believable; we knew the local acting scene as well as anybody, and it wasn't exactly teeming with strong personality actresses, much less strong comic actresses. People were generally either Taking their Art Seriously (goes with the territory staked out by post-college actors), or performing for a hobby (goes with the territory for geezers). It was at this point that Bill took a left turn at Albuquerque, and the waiter delivered the crepes.
Bill had taken it upon himself to scope out various local auditions in search of the perfect proto-Elvira, and had come upon Barb auditioning at Studio Players for The Man Who Came to Dinner, the Kaufman and Hart vehicle with the immortal star turn entry line "I may vomit". The director had called for improv auditions, and Barb had responded with improvs that had at least Bill rolling in the Bell Court aisles. Bill had inveighled whoever needed to sign off on his discovery to join him in watching the ensuing production, and they had concluded from Barb's performance that She Was Their Girl. Hence the free soup: was Barb interested in becoming Channel 18's Elvira?
Well, acting is acting and paid acting is better than unpaid acting; but since I was supposed to be the practical one, I had a few questions besides the obvious "Are you nuts?", which didn't seem to be the most polite opening statement. We at least knew enough brazen careerism to appear interested, and while imitating another actor's shtick was out of the question there seemed to be a decent opportunity somewhere in the proposition. So after stipulating that there would be no Elvira-imitatin' goin' on in these here parts, we wondered what the suits at Channel 18 saw as the connection between Elvira and Barb. That was easy: Barb took chances on stage. True that. So anyone who was willing to take chances on stage was tailor-made for live teevee.
Excuse me? Live teevee? After Saturday Night Live live teevee? Which, if I remember properly, ends at 1AM Sunday morning live teevee?
This was necessary, Bill explained, in order to have the proper sense of daring n danger to the show. He wanted a show in which anything could happen, might happen, and did happen. No rules. Ad-libbed. Wacky, zany, spontaneous. Not for the teeming masses, but for a dedicated cult audience. For which he was offering the princessly sum of fifty dollars per show.
"You want Robin Williams for fifty bucks a week," I summarized.
"That's it exactly," said Bill. I suspect he missed the irony.
"We'll think about it."