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The Long, Complex Life of “It’s a Living”

The Long, Complex Life of “It’s a Living”

by Cary O'Dell

The somewhat jaded lyrics to the show’s opening theme were a little at odds with its bouncy, upbeat melody:

Life’s not the French Rivera/Life’s not a charity ball…

Perhaps, though, those original song writers knew what they were doing.  Because those few lines would prove quite prophetic.

There are few shows with a more complex, cumbersome—some might say “checked”—history than the TV half-hour sitcom, “It’s a Living,” which, originally debuted on the ABC network in 1980 before undergoing cast changes, a title change and then a hiatus and return via first-run syndication and more cast changes before finally coming to an end after 120 episodes.

Ann JillianIn any incarnation, “It’s a Living” followed the same set-up.  The series was set in a Windows on the World-type restaurant but one located at the top of a skyscraper in LA.  It was staffed by a group of young waitresses who were a cross section of background and types.  In its first incarnation:  Susan Sullivan played level-headed Lois; Wendy Schaal was Vicki, a young and naïve transplant from Idaho; Gail Edwards was a struggling actress Dot; Barrie Youngfellow was single-mom Jan, and Ann Jillian was been-around-the-block Cassie.

They all answered to a stern taskmaster, Nancy, the hostess, played by Marian Mercer. And they all tolerated Sonny (played by Paul Kreppel), the restaurant’s piano player and a rather greasy would-be Lothario.  Rounding out the cast, originally, was Bert Remsen who played the restaurant’s grumpy chef. 

 

The program was conceived, rather nobly, as the first all-female workplace comedy—an alternate if you will to such male-dominated work universes as those seen on “Barney Miller.”

Though the show was produced under the auspices of Witt/Thomas Productions, that firm had yet to achieve its “Golden Girls” success and reputation.  Therefore, even before “Living” debuted, the press seemed to treat the show like a new season “also-ran.”  Not helping the situation was the fact that the show was on ABC and ABC was, at that time, riding the crest of so-called “jiggle TV,” thanks to their then success with “Charlie’s Angels” and “Three’s Company.”  Hence, when “Living” came along with its nearly all-young and female cast, critics quickly dismissed the show as more of the same and, hence, worthless.  And though the “Arizona Republican” newspaper gave it a thumbs up, most other reviews labeled it “jiggly” and exploitative. 

Though the female cast and their costumes might have offered some views some “window dressing,” that did not mean the show was without substance.

For example, a very early episode of the series focused on Susan Sullivan’s character, Lois.  Lois is a married mother of two who is working at the restaurant to help support her family which includes two teenage children.  In the installment, Lois struggles with the idea of attending her daughter’s upcoming “career day” at her school.  Lois is worried that all the other moms in attendance will be doctors, lawyers and architects while she’s “just” a waitress.  But, during the episode, Lois does some soul searching and talks to her fellow waitresses and ultimately decides that there is no shame in doing an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and if this is what she has to do to support her children, then this is what she has to do.  In the end, she decides to attend “career day.”

A later episode also focuses on issues related to women and work.  Though the restaurant is in a busy part of downtown, by the time the waitresses get to leave, the neighborhood is deserted and may not be safe.  To protect themselves, all the ladies sign up for a self-defense class.  This course, of course, offers the show and the actresses a chance to engage in some slapstick, but, underneath those antics, is a serious message about women’s safety.

Still later, an episode focuses on Barrie Youngfellow’s character, Jan.  Jan is a single mother of one working at the restaurant at night in order to attend college during the day.  Money is tight.  And, at one point, she finds herself unable to pay for the dance classes her daughter so badly want.  To make that happen, she takes on another job—writing elaborate calligraphy invitations.  In order, to get everything done, Jan draws up a daily to-the-minute schedule.  But, soon, on the first day of her new schedule, she’s already falling behind causing her to run from the floor of the restaurant back the waitress’s lounge way too often to write out the invitations, on the sly.  This, of course, does not sit well with stern boss, Nancy.  Later, at the end of the evening, all the ladies chip in to help Jan finish her many tasks.  While this episode might have some fanciful elements to it, its subtext is clearly about the harsh economic realities of many working moms.

Speaking of Nancy, a later episode has the highly-skilled hostess being dismissed by the new owners of the restaurant.  Why?  They decide she’s too old.  The ladies then hunt her down and tell her to file an age discrimination suit.

Taking on everything from age bias to the financial plight of working single moms:  this was a show that was just about T&A?

After the first incarnation of “Living” debuted on ABC’s Thursday-night line-up in October, 1980 (and despite a certain amount of press showered upon the show’s breakout star Ann Jillian), the show drew few viewers.  Low ratings and issues to a then-raging actors strike caused problems for the new series and it eventually found itself pulled from the airwaves, after 13 episodes, (as ABC ominously put it) to “retool” the series.

About one year after “It’s a Living” debuted, it returned as “Making a Living.”  Along with the title change, there were some cast alterations as well.  Susan Sullivan (who had previously starred in the title role of a woman doctor on ABC’s “Julia Farr, MD”) was out.  She, it was decided, came across as too “uptown” for a series focused on a group of working women.  (Sullivan, of course, bounced back quickly and debuted in “Falcon Crest” in December of 1981.)  Also gone was Wendy Schaal and Bert Ramsen (Ramsen was replaced by Earl Boen).

Ann JillianLouise Lasser, who had become world famous in her title role on “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman,” now had the de facto lead in the series.  She played a character named Maggie.

But, the tinkered-with “Living” under any title, didn’t really excite audiences either and, after 14 episodes as “Making a Living,” ABC killed the series.

But WAIT!!!....  “It’s a Living”—or whatever you called it—wasn’t done.  By the middle of the 1980s, first-run syndication sitcoms were coming back into fashion especially if they could bring a one-time network audience with them.  By 1986, “Mama’s Family” and “Charles in Charge” (which both began on network) would also return and have prosperous lives in first-run syndication.  “It’s a Living” though led the way. 

“Living’s” superfan Dario Witer also points out an interesting phenomenon that lead to the show’s resurrection.  He says, “In 1983, one year after the program was canceled by ABC, all 27 original network episodes were syndicated to local TV stations across the country, where it did very well in local ratings.  Here in LA, ‘It's A Living’ was shown on KHJ-TV (now KCAL) Ch. 9 for a few years….”

Returning to its original title, “It’s a Living” debuted with new episodes off-network in September of 1985.  Though Louise Lasser did not return, most of the show’s original cast did;  those who came back were Edwards, Mercer, Kreppel and Youngfellow.  By the time of the show’s return though, it’s biggest draw was probably original star Ann Jillian who, in the intervening years, had becomes acclaimed in various film supporting roles, in her Emmy-nominated turn as “Mae West,” and for her extraordinary candor when forced in real life to undergo a double mastectomy. 

Jillian, though, signed on for only the new incarnation’s first season.  After her departure, Crystal Bernard joined the program to round out the cast.  The season after Bernard joined, Sheryl Lee Ralph was also brought into the show.  In 1985 until the end of the show, character actor Richard Stahl played the restaurant’s final gourmet, Howard.

It's a Living TV show season 5In syndication, “Living” was a success.  Between 1985 and the program’s final bow in 1989, 93 additional episodes were produced and broadcast.  Most of the latter-day episodes steered clear of some of the program’s more women’s work talking points, but that does not mean that it was not without its moments.  For example, in one latter installment, Nancy is ordered to search all the lockers of her employees and Howard, among others, protest it as a violation of privacy.

 “It’s a Living” never quite reached the status of super success, or even classic.  But it was beloved and often did far more than just trade in fluff.  As an example of working women on TV—and funny one at that—“Living” survived its original dismissal. 

 

 

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  A few things I want to point out on "It's A Living."  On an old upload of an "It's A Living" episode on YouTube, one viewer stated that ABC was hardly receptive to the show because 1.) ABC thought the premise of the show(a comedy about five waitresses working in an exclusive restaurant in Los Angeles) would not work as a program, let alone a comedy, and 2.) ABC executives were afraid that "Living" would be a very "girly" show and that its core audience would be mostly female, instead of having a well-balanced mix of viewers.  Thank goodness the latter point never happened, for the show dealt with everyday problems of life that all five(later four) women faced in their private lives or at work at Above The Top, the name of the restaurant on "It's A Living."

  Gail Edwards, who played Dot Higgins on the show, states in her website that the show was in trouble from the first broadcast, when Procter & Gamble dropped "It's A Living" from its sponsorship of the program following the airing of "Pilot"(Season 1 - Episode 1; October 30, 1980), due to the risqué dialogue involved and the waitress costumes the actresses wore on that episode.  Gail later states that when P&G committed that action, the show "became a pawn amid the producers and the network" and that it was "jerked from one time slot to another, victim to a name change['Making A Living'], and dealt with numerous cast member changes throughout the entire series."

  But in spite of all of the stuff that happened behind the scenes, Gail says that "it's hard to believe that it got past its first year. But due to an excellent written pilot, great producers and a kick-ass cast, it did and went on to become one of the first television series specifically produced for strip-syndication, culminating in 120 episodes.  As they say in the 'biz,' that's a 'World-Series' series."

  Back in June, I sent an email to Gail, asking her a question involving former cast mate Ann Jillian.  As of this writing, I have yet to receive a response from Gail, so I don't know if her website is active or not.  The above-mentioned quotes from Gail's website.  To view the quoted comments that I referred to on this email, just go to the "It's A Living" article on Wikipedia and see the "External Links" section there.  Then press the URL of "GailEdwards.com" which will take you "web.archive.org" which in turn will take you to an "It's A Living" archived website.  She's got some interesting insights about the show and her career which you'll find quite entertaining.

  Sincerely,

 Dario Witer

 

 

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