It’s been nearly 20 years since Fran Drescher made her debut as “the flashy girl from Flushing” on The Nanny. While the ’90s sitcom lives on in reruns, Drescher has gone on to more work in both acting and activism. She now stars on Happily Divorced, a series she created alongside her ex-husband (and Nanny co-creator) Peter Marc Jacobson. Inspired by their lives, it’s the story of a woman who learns her husband of 18 years is gay.
LP: Happily Divorced is a traditional sitcom in many ways, but it deals with less traditional subject matter.
FD: Yeah, I think that at this stage in my career, if I’m producing something, I’d like it to have some social value in addition to making people laugh.
LP: So many sitcoms now are single-camera — what made you want to do another multi-camera show?
FD: You know, when you perform to a proscenium like a play, it’s a completely different energy. You’re working with a live audience. It’s usually a much harder laugh. And that’s my style of comedy. I like to strive toward big yuks and get an immediate audience reaction, and I’m used to working multi-cameras. I’ve worked single in film and done a little bit of TV with single, but I think that the tone of the single-camera comedy is completely different. I prefer the multi-cam, but I’m just happy that there’s so many scripted comedies out there now. It’s a nice change from all the reality.
LP: How is Fran the character different from you?
FD: I’m not as dependent on my ex-husband in the way that Fran is. We’re very, very close, and we’re like family, and I would certainly call him first if I needed anything or anyone. Our lives aren’t intertwined in the way that theirs are. They really haven’t experienced being single in the way Peter and I have been able to, and I think that that helps make me a more well rounded person. It’s hard to see where the marriage ended and the divorce began with them, because they’re still living together. She needs a little distance to help define her as an individual outside of that relationship, and I’ve really carved that path for myself for many years already, so I don’t need to prove anything to me or to the world.
LP: How do you manage to find humor in the less funny aspects of life — divorce, for example?
FD: I think that that’s part of what I do. I wrote the New York Times Bestseller Cancer Schmancer, and that had a lot of humor in it. It took me four drafts to do it successfully, but I did. I think that it’s a challenge that is really cathartic. Of course, my situation with Peter really wasn’t exactly like the character in the show, because he came out after we divorced, and that wasn’t really why we divorced, and he was very opposed to the divorce. So it made it painful to me to do something that I wanted for me, but because he was so against it — whereas in this show, he was the one who dumped his orientation on her, 18 years into the marriage. She actually was the one that had no choice. So it’s a little bit different. She had more to get past than I did.
LP: As a Jew I have to ask, why are Jews funnier than non-Jews?
FD: I wouldn’t say Jews are funnier than non-Jews. I just think the Western world embraced a kind of humor whose origins are part of what started out as Jewish humor. There are very funny African Americans and Asians and Latinos, but all of that humor is rooted in Jewish humor. All the comedy that we embrace has its roots in Jewish humor, which tends to be, at its core, a kind of self-deprecating storytelling, and a kind of acknowledgment that you can relate to it because it’s something that everyone experiences.
LP: How has the TV comedy landscape changed since you did The Nanny?
FD: In terms of the landscape of TV comedy, I think it went through a period of being very youth-driven. TV Land, my network, is not really that concerned about having a whole lot of very young characters in their shows. I think they skew a little older and yet we do have a lot of young fans. [In the ’90s] there were a lot more productions and a lot more willingness to take a risk on something, because profit margins were big, and that’s not the case anymore. So that kind of slows down productivity. It slows down creative risk-taking. I think there are a lot more commercials — I know that.
LP: Unlike a lot of other shows from the ’90s, The Nanny is still very funny and relevant. Why do you think it holds up so well?
FD: Thank you for acknowledging that it sort of has become part of the world of classic TV and continues to run worldwide every day for now almost 20 years. I think that it’s cross-culturally relatable. There’s sexual tension between the household staff and the master of the house — that is also very relatable. It’s laugh-out-loud humor, which is very addictive, and it was unique even when we were producing it for primetime. Nobody else was doing a show like that. It has its roots in the classic fairy tale of Cinderella, so there’s a timeless quality to it. And the fact that it had gay humor. It brought in showbusiness. It was nostalgic to I Love Lucy, the Lucy-Ricky relationship, Ricky in showbusiness bringing in stars, Lucy being starstruck — all of that was very reminiscent in The Nanny.
People want to visit that for 22 minutes. They want to kick back. They want to laugh. I hear to this day, over and over again, “That’s the only time of the week that we all sit down as a family and can watch and enjoy and laugh.” I hear from people who were struggling through a difficult experience with a relative or they personally were ill, and they said that was the only time that they really forgot their worries, their troubles, and they could all just feel the lightness and the humor of the show. And I think the fact that people feel like they know me, and that we’re friends. It’s also an invitation to share time together.
LP: Because people do feel like they know Fran, what are they most surprised about when they meet the real you?
FD: Well, you know, I’m not lying — most people say I look younger when they meet me in person. [laughs] I think that a lot of the intelligentsia are surprised at my level of intellect and culture. And people still say, “Is that your real voice?” So they’re kind of surprised that I really do talk like that. I think those are probably the most common comments — “You look much younger in person” being at the top of the list, of course.
Happily Divorced airs Wednesdays at 10:30 p.m. on TV Land.