How The Nanny’s stalker changed TV forever
IN 1985, close to a decade before she would find worldwide fame as the stylish, no-nonsense "flashy girl from Flushing" in the hit series The Nanny, Fran Drescher experienced the most harrowing experience of her life.
It was an ordeal that would haunt her for years, causing her to inadvertently change the way sitcoms are made.
The home she shared with her then-husband, The Nanny co-creator Peter Marc Jacobsen, was broken into by two armed robbers.
"The front door was broken down, and two men with guns were running toward us", Drescher wrote in her 1996 autobiography Enter Whining.
"I let out a scream that was more like a primal roar, when every nuance of your being is focused on one thing."
One robber ransacked the house, while the other tied up Jacobsen and brutally raped Drescher and her female friend, who was having dinner with the couple at the time of the invasion.
"We were never the same again," Drescher wrote.
In the aftermath of the trauma, Drescher worked to put the incident behind her.
"I wasn't able to get in touch with my pain," she told CNN in 2002. "Back in those days, I didn't want to burden other people with my pain. And so I sort of tucked it away and picked myself up, and dusted myself off and just marched on."
In 1991, Drescher found herself sitting next to the president of US TV network CBS, Jeff Sagansky, on a flight to Paris. She had dealt with Sagansky before, after landing a role on a short-lived sitcom Princesses, which was cancelled after five episodes. Whether or not Sagansky initially remembered her - "Where was he gonna go, coach?" she quipped of cornering him into conversation - she certainly made an impact; by the time they touched down in Paris, Drescher had convinced him to meet with her and Jacobsen and listen to a sitcom pitch.
A London shopping trip with her friend's teenage daughter, in which Drescher gave the "proper British boarding-school girl" doses of brash fashion and life advice gave her the kernel of an idea.
"It occurred to me this was a funny kind of Queens logic, self-serving advice I'm giving her," Drescher told The Hollywood Reporter. "I wasn't really functioning in a parental mode, and it seemed humorous. I called Peter and said, 'What do you think about doing a spin on The Sound of Music, except instead of Julie Andrews, I come to the door?'"
It was a home run.
The Nanny debuted in 1993, with Drescher as the main course, and immediately became a ratings smash. Unfortunately, her quick rise to fame saw her attract a rather serious stalker. He harassed her and her loved ones with calls and letters hung around the outside of her home, and he was spotted at the CBS compound. Naturally, this unwanted attention revived anxieties over her ordeal all those years ago.
She became fearful of her life, and took measures to protect herself from this man at all costs, hiring a security firm and screening all the show's employees. The nature of The Nanny meant the show was filmed, in part, in front of a studio audience. Rather than move the show to a sound stage and insert canned laughter - an impossibility given it was mid-season at the time - the network and Drescher decided to cast extras in the studio audience.
They tasked Lisette St Clair of Central Casting - Hollywood's oldest and most established casting agency - with finding and screening 30 to 40 actors for the unusual role.
"They decided instead of having an audience come in, just have people from Central Casting that they know," St Clair explained to Radiolab.
Given the work meant anyone with a clean police record would be suitable, St Clair went through the Central Casting database, which was categorised by age, race, height and a number of other attributes irrelevant to the role. Seeing she would be holding casting sessions anyway, she aimed for those with boisterous, infectious laughs.
It was a logical idea, but one that had never been done before. She put out a casting call on the agency's wire, and did a series of blind, over-the-phone auditions, in which she simply said: "OK, let me hear you laugh."
The job paid $75 a day, and St Clair aimed for a 50-50 gender split. She found the majority of those she chose were aged between 40 and 50. "Maybe it takes more life experiences, more joy and sorrow, to find things to really laugh about," she suggested to Wired later.
Although the job began as a necessity, other show-runners saw the wisdom of hiring such infectious laughers to bolster their program's audience interaction, and soon hit up Central Casting to provide laughers for their shows. St Cair was soon casting audiences for four shows a week, and two new jobs were created: laugher-wrangler and pro-laugher.
Now the practice is standard in Hollywood, although the rise of reality programming, and single-camera comedies that don't use laugh tracks has seen much of the work dry up. Still, Hollywood goes in cycles, so it probably won't be long before the golden age of the pro-laugher comes back.
Although the pay is meagre, the benefits couldn't be better, as one such professional laugher explains: "Can you think of anything more wonderful than sitting in a comfortable chair all day long and being amused?"
It does sound like a total laugh.