LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
She was working at a bridal shop in Flushing, Queens, and now she's on HBO Max.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NANNY NAMED FRAN")
ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY: (Singing) She had style. She had flair. She was there. That's how she became the nanny.
HOLMES: "The Nanny," starring Fran Drescher as Fran Fine, nanny to the wealthy Sheffield family, originally ran from 1993 to 1999. More than 20 years after it ended, the show has made it to a major streaming service. And what that means is that a comedy that spent years a little under the radar has roared back into the public conversation. I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're revisiting "The Nanny" and taking your questions on today's episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. With me from his home in Columbus is Saeed Jones, author of the memoir "How We Fight For Our Lives." Welcome.
SAEED JONES: Hi (laughter).
HOLMES: You know, sometimes there's only one guest that can possibly join you for a particular conversation.
HOLMES: You, like me, have been diving into "The Nanny"...
JONES: I'm in deep.
HOLMES: ...Talking about "The Nanny." And I knew that we had to get you to come and talk to me about it. So I'm so glad you could.
For anyone who is not familiar with the premise because they have not heard the iconic theme song written and performed by Ann Hampton Callaway, here are the basics. Fran loses her job and gets dumped by her boyfriend, so she winds up selling makeup door to door. While she's on her rounds, she meets Maxwell Sheffield, a wealthy widower and Broadway producer played by Charles Shaughnessy.
He hires her to take care of his kids - teenager Maggie, played by Nicholle Tom, wiseacre middle child Brighton, played by Benjamin Salisbury, and extremely serious little Grace, played by Madeline Zima. Rounding out the main cast are Daniel Davis as the butler, Niles, and Lauren Lane as Maxwell's icy business partner C.C. If you're guessing there is sexual tension between Maxwell and Fran, you have definitely seen television before.
HOLMES: The show was famous for Drescher's bold performance and also for her outstanding wardrobe, which was established in the first few years by costume designer Brenda Cooper. Now, Saeed, I want to ask you what grabbed you about it when you started watching it now?
JONES: I've really fallen in love with Fran Drescher as a public figure...
JONES: ...Talking about breast cancer and sexual assault, her understanding of the fact that she was ahead of her time as a woman and advocating for herself and creating a space for herself in Hollywood and comedy. That's really compelling to me. You know what I mean? Like, shocker - like, a gay man stanning a woman who's, like, getting her flowers, you know? Like...
JONES: But, yeah, I just - that's kind of what got my attention, you know, like, a few years ago.
JONES: And so, yeah, I've just had, like, a charming nostalgia for the show. And also, her voice never bothered me. I was just so happy when I found out the show was on HBO Max because I was like, oh, let me see if I love it as much as I think I do.
HOLMES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I had the same reaction 'cause it really hasn't been on streaming. It's been, you know, running in reruns on various channels, but kind of a little bit off the radar for a while. I caught a bunch of it, you know, a couple years ago on television. When I went back to it, one of the things that I really loved about it is that, as you say, it's so personal to her. There's a running joke where C.C., this kind of icy blond, owns this little dog named Chester. And the joke is that Chester doesn't like C.C. but loves Fran and always wants to, like, go to Fran.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NANNY")
FRAN DRESCHER: (As Fran Fine) Oh, look. He's like a little chestnut. You should call him Chester.
LAUREN LANE: (As C.C. Babcock) If you don't mind, he's my dog. I'll name him.
HOLMES: And when I found out that that was actually Fran Drescher's Pomeranian playing that dog, it made perfect sense to me. It's such a funny bit because...
HOLMES: ...Every time that dog sees Fran Drescher, you can't fake it.
JONES: It's - the love is palpable.
HOLMES: It's like, Mom, come get me. And it's not as if this is a show that you could have created and then been like, who should we cast in this show? Like, it's fundamentally a Fran Drescher show. It just feels so much like she is the one who is driving it in the same way a lot of sitcoms have, like, a big personality male comedian and then the wife, who is often less strongly written. Look; I like Shaughnessy in this part. I think the relationship with them is fine. But he's written really to complement her.
JONES: I think you're absolutely right. Yeah, the show revolves around her. And it's exciting because she did - she produces it. She, you know, created it. And so it's both like she builds a show that loves her as a person, that loves Fran Fine as a character, but also, I mean, she is a master comedian. I think she's a comic genius. So she's also willing to put herself through it. And so there's this way in which, like, the show is - like, adores her. But also, she's constantly, you know, setting herself up for, you know, physical comedy. And I just - I love it.
HOLMES: Yeah. And I do think one of the things I also appreciate going back to it is how good the supporting cast is on this show. I consistently am so impressed by not just the character of Niles, the butler...
HOLMES: ...And this sort of super-dry - just super-dry Daniel Davis performance, kind of always sarcastically sitting back but also, like, rooting for the fact that he wants Maxwell and Fran to get together, originally because he wants to spite C.C., at least partly. And then C.C., this Lauren Lane performance - that is such a hard character 'cause she's so - it's so thankless.
JONES: Yeah. I mean, and I think about Niles and C.C. a lot because they're definitely, you know, one of the kind of standout qualities of the show that people talk about. I love their back-and-forth. I mean, their jabs are brutal (laughter) and iconic.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NANNY")
LANE: (As C.C. Babcock) Maxwell, look. They're making "Lost In Space" into a movie. Oh, I loved that as a child. Oh, I'm dating myself.
DANIEL DAVIS: (As Niles) Dating yourself? That's pathetic. Even you can do better than you.
JONES: Lately I've been thinking of Lauren Lane as kind of like the show's secret MVP because you're right. Like, what they kind of put her through is very unforgiving. But I think Lauren Lane has this quality of unabashed ambition. In a way, it's almost like C.C. isn't confounded by everything that's being thrown at her because she's, like, so fierce (laughter) in a way. You know what I mean? Like, she's almost oblivious...
HOLMES: She is.
JONES: ...To how wild everyone is treating her. And it's subtle, but I think it helps it look like she's not, like, totally, like, a punching bag.
HOLMES: Right. She's the butt of jokes in practically every scene. Now, some of them are unkind in a way that's very '90s.
JONES: That's true.
HOLMES: This is not a show that escapes everything about the fact that it was the '90s.
JONES: Excellent point.
HOLMES: You will see jokes go by that are like, don't do that. The sort of jokes about C.C. not having a sex life, C.C. not being feminine - like, those kinds of things are not things that you would want to see in a show now. And I think for people who kind of want to know whether it's worth diving into it, be aware of that. I love the fact that C.C. kind of brings in that contrast between Maxwell's world and Fran's world...
HOLMES: ...Because it's not exclusively money, right? It's who these people are, and it's what kind of person Maxwell mostly has in his world and what kind of women Fran encounters, both because he's this Manhattan Broadway producer and also just because he's rich. It's just an unease with the kind of loud, out-there person that Fran is and also that Fran is extremely Jewish, which we're going to talk about a little bit more later. That is certainly an element of it. But I think C.C. really brings in that contrast between their two worlds.
JONES: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think - and again, I think this is a praise to the show's writers and to Fran Drescher herself. The show really understands class.
HOLMES: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
JONES: And I think that's one of the ways in which the show was ahead of its time and why it's resonating with us now in 2021. And there's even, like, a union episode at one point - right? - that I thought was really interesting, where some premiere party that Maxwell is so excited about - he invites Fran, and then there's a picket line. And Fran said earlier in the episode - she's like, my family's been in unions forever. And it just seems like a throwaway detail.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NANNY")
DRESCHER: (As Fran Fine) Mr. Sheffield, I can't go in there. My mother had three rules - never make contact with a public toilet.
DRESCHER: (As Fran Fine) Never, ever, ever cross a picket line. What was the third one?
CHARLES SHAUGHNESSY: (As Maxwell Sheffield) Miss Fine, you're embarrassing me. Now come along.
DRESCHER: (As Fran Fine) I can't. My Aunt All-Blouse (ph) would roll over in her grave, which was paid for by her union.
JONES: You know, right in front of all the photographers, and it ends up in the newspaper. And, you know, if you're going to have a show about romance that - ultimately, you have to have an understanding of class. Like, any time people are coming together and falling in love and maybe trying to figure out how to build a life together, money, wealth, financial security is all wrapped up in, you know, how we understand it. And just the show does use C.C. and the fact that we have a butler (laughter) moving around, the fact that we have these really privileged kids, who are very aware of their wealth, by the way, you know, all helps us kind of work through that.
HOLMES: And it's interesting to me that one of the indicators of kind of the class and type of family that this is is that Grace, who is just a little thing when the show starts, is in kind of endless therapy. And it doesn't seem to be because she...
JONES: (Laughter) It's incredible.
HOLMES: Like, it's not making light of her being significantly disturbed. She's just worried about the world. Normally, don't make fun of therapy. But to me, it's kind of funny that that's part of the indication of this family is that she has, like, the neurosis that goes with rich New York people.
All right. We are going to take a quick break. And when we come back, we're going to listen to a couple of questions that you submitted, so come right back.
All right. Welcome back to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. Let's get to our first question. Let's hear from Sarah (ph).
SARAH: Hey, POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. I've been watching "The Nanny" since I was a child and watching it on Nick At Nite with my mom. I'm wondering if you can speak to how "The Nanny" fits into the broader sitcom and female comedian landscape. I've always seen Fran Drescher to be a sort of direct descendant of Lucille Ball with her rubber face and her antics in a domestic setting and especially working with a male counterpart who's in show business. From there, I think you can draw a line from Fran Drescher to a show like "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," which is also an extremely funny and female-centric show that also centers a lot on Jewishness and plays that for laughs. So I'm wondering if you can talk about that a little bit.
JONES: I love that. Oh, that was so thoughtful. I absolutely agree. I mean, you know, you don't have to watch many episodes of "The Nanny" to, I think, have the realization that it's like, oh, Fran Drescher was very clearly the Lucille Ball of her generation. It's her - I think it's her glamour. It's her physical comedy. I mean, Fran is ready to do a pratfall or faint or, you know, a well-timed dropped plate of food or something. The way that she both is incredibly charismatic, but also very vulnerable, you know, and kind of the men around her. And I think of Carol Burnett, as well. And then, yeah, what I think is interesting is that then I think there is a a real long gap. And I think it's interesting that it goes all the way to "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel." Maybe it goes to Lena Dunham in "Girls." It's a - I don't know. I don't know if we've seen a lot of other examples of women who've gotten to have this kind of show or this kind of opportunity. Is that a fair read?
HOLMES: Yeah, for sure. And I think it's so interesting to think about "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel" relative to this show because you can really tell a lot about the way that comedy - you know, television comedy has changed, you know, for good and for ill, right?
It's - 'cause "Mrs. Maisel" is a comedy, but it's not a full-of-jokes comedy in the way that "The Nanny" is. It's obviously single-camera, you know, filmed like a movie as opposed to "The Nanny," which was filmed in front of a live audience, which, you know, people will say laugh track in a kind of a disparaging way. But it's not a laugh track. It's an audience. And so you get that sound of people laughing, which has become kind of a class signifier of comedy itself, that somehow that's a less sophisticated or old-fashioned or more broad kind of comedy, when I agree with the listener that there's a lot that these things have in common. Right? They both are, as she said, heavily centered around Jewishness. They are also both really reliant on the look of the character.
HOLMES: You know, obviously "The Nanny" wasn't period costume like "Maisel" is. But, you know, they both really capitalized on making the central character glamorous and look beautiful. And, you know, there are "Mrs. Maisel" costumes that were donated to the Smithsonian. And I don't think something like "The Nanny" necessarily was treated with that same level of kind of reverence, like serious reverence. And I think it absolutely should have been. There's a great discussion with Brenda Cooper, who was the early costume designer, where she talks about building all these looks and how one of her big things was cocktail dresses over a black turtleneck.
JONES: Incredible (laughter).
HOLMES: And that's a very - that's a very Fran Fine look that sort of nobody was doing until then.
JONES: Or even, like, her bathrobes have shoulder pads.
HOLMES: Shoulder pads - absolutely.
HOLMES: I think this is a really cool comparison. And I think it's fascinating to think about the road from "The Nanny" to "Maisel."
All right. We're going to listen to a question from Joseph (ph).
JOSEPH: I grew up watching "The Nanny" first run in 1990s New Jersey, and I enjoyed New York City being depicted so diversely and lovingly. Now, shows with a classic sitcom structure usually hid their character's Jewishness at that time. Do you agree that in having overtly Jewish characters, this is why, despite its excellent writing, the show never even received an Emmy nod?
HOLMES: It's such an interesting question 'cause, I mean, when we talk about diversity in comedy, you wouldn't necessarily always see, like, I love this depiction of New York, which is still extraordinarily white, right? But it is true that it has a facet of diversity in the consideration of New York that Joseph is noting that I also always note when I watch this. What do you think?
JONES: You know, something that occurred to me is that when I was a kid, "The Nanny" was my introduction to New York. I grew up in Memphis, Tenn., and in the suburbs of of Lewisville, Texas. You know - so, yeah, New York was, you know, just very much a fantasy to me. And that's why Fran is such a fun character - because, you know, we kind of get to see that through her eyes. It's almost turned into a wonderland, I think, through her. Yeah. I mean, it is interesting, as someone who's now lived in New York, like, you know, for a decade at one point. I would say that the pale diversity (laughter) of New York, which is to say...
JONES: Yeah. You know, and maybe it's class. We're seeing all kinds of classes of people. And that's really important because I think often shows, even when they might have ethnic or racial diversity in sitcoms might not have, you know, people coming...
JONES: ...From different classes. So it is something the show does well.
HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, I think it's very uncommon for any show to single-handedly show the diversity of New York. It's just too much. But I do think that it's true that there is a facet of New York Jewishness and class, as you say, that is brought out in this show that was not familiar. I agree. A lot of other shows had people who were sort of officially Jewish, but they didn't talk very much.
HOLMES: ...About being Jewish. And it wasn't really a big part of the identity of the character as they would present it on the show. I don't know if I think that's why the show wasn't nominated for Emmys. I mean, this was the time when the shows that were getting nominated for Emmys, if you go back and look at kind of the best comedy nominations, were pretty much "Larry Sanders." And then it would be, like, some combination of "Mad About You," "Friends," "Frasier," stuff like that. I think it was just a time when there was a very narrow type of comedy and style of comedy...
HOLMES: ...That was being rewarded. And if you compare the - if you put "The Nanny," like, next to Frasier, in a way, they're both broad. But they are very differently broad, right? You've got the kind of, like, super ultra-rich jerks show. You know, in contrast with that, you have this show, which is so warm without having the kind of family sitcom, "Full House"-y, TGIF-y kind of everything ends with people learning a lesson. Very few episodes of "The Nanny" learn lessons.
JONES: These people aren't learning anything.
HOLMES: They're not learning anything except that maybe, like, that it's nice when people love you. So I think it just was different from what was getting Emmy nominations at that time. Fran Drescher was nominated a couple of times, as she should have been. But, you know, I don't know if that's why. But I do agree that it is a different look at New York.
JONES: Yeah. And it's interesting that the question about Jewishness, that element, because it is central to the show - one, when I was a kid, I mean, you know, I grew up in a Black family, Black community. I did not know a lot of Jewish people at that point in my life. And so, like, I was just like, oh, that's just New York. And so, you know, Yiddish, I just assumed - I was like, well, I'm 8 years old, and there are many words I don't know yet. And I guess that's just, like, how people in New York talk, I guess. You know what I mean? Like, I just - I didn't fully connect, you know, that, no, this is an identity. This is a culture that we're seeing that's different...
JONES: ...From the Sheffields' culture. And so that's a pleasure now. You know, there's a Passover episode at one point, and Fran does the four questions.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NANNY")
MADELINE ZIMA: (As Grace Sheffield) Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs?
DRESCHER: (As Fran Fine) To symbolize the bitter and cruel way we were treated under Pharaoh.
ZIMA: (As Grace Sheffield) Why on this night do we dip our food in saltwater?
DRESCHER: (As Fran Fine) To remind us of the tears we shed.
HOLMES: I love the fact that they really - you know, as the questioner was pointing out, it's a big part of who Fran is, and it's a big part of who Fran's family is, right? There's this wonderful performance from Renee Taylor as...
HOLMES: ...Fran's mother, Sylvia, just a - I mean, talk about an icon. I think she's so funny. And, again, as we said with C.C., it can be a little thankless, that kind of role, 'cause she's sort of rapacious. She eats all the time. She's a noodge (ph). She's - you know, but she's wonderfully funny. And, again, I think they keep that relationship really warm in a way that just benefits the show...
JONES: Yeah. I think - I mean, again, the fact that Fran Drescher is, you know, behind the show - not just a character on the show but behind the show and is clearly drawing from her life and - you know, I don't always know if that's exactly like what her mother is actually like or just inspired. But, yeah, she's able - it's so interesting, especially with the mother eating. And that's just, like - they're, like, hiding food when she - when Sylvia starts to, you know, randomly come over. It becomes a joke, and that can get really mean really quickly.
HOLMES: You bet.
JONES: Right? And - but there - it's so - I don't know. It's kind of like what we were talking about with C.C. The show is just kind of - it doesn't always pull it off. There are, you know, some brownface moments. There are some trans jokes, I think a couple of moments when the way they treat drag queens I don't love. You know what I mean? But with the central characters, I think the show is able to really thread the needle of kind of being exacting with the characters but also loving. It's special. It's strange.
HOLMES: Boy, when I'm in the mood for "The Nanny," nothing else will do.
JONES: Same. And it always makes me want to eat, which...
HOLMES: It always makes me want to eat and hug a Pomeranian.
HOLMES: We want to know what you think about "The Nanny" and your favorite Fran Drescher fashion moments. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to you so much, Saeed, for being here.
JONES: Thanks for having me. This was so fun, Linda.
HOLMES: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, subscribe to our newsletter. It's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all back here tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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