Looking for the Big Laugh with Professor Ritch Shydner: “Married With Children”
Married with Children
By Ritch Shydner
In the fall of 1986 I auditioned for a sitcom pilot, Married with Children. The role was for a series regular, “Luke Ventura” -- the single, womanizing co-worker of the show’s lead.
Starring in movies and television wasn’t a youthful fantasy for me. That ambition was planted when I became a stand-up comedian in 1977 and learned that acting in movies and TV were steps on the stairway to comic stardom. TV and movie roles filled seats and boosted the pay. Roles on hit sitcoms sometimes transformed club comics into theater draws. At the very least, it was another credit to give the MC for your introduction.
So, I took acting classes, in New York with Ron Orbach, and then in Los Angeles with Michael Shurtleff, Jeff Corey and others. Jeff Corey, in the first class, gave everyone pencil and paper, instructing us to list whatever we might do to make a living other than act. Jeff then announced, “If you wrote anything down on that paper… leave. The only people who are going to make it are the ones who believe they can’t do anything else but act.” I heard, “Don’t quit your day job.” Mine was stand-up. I was the happiest guy in the class.
No matter how many classes I took, no matter how much I rehearsed, I never considered myself much of an actor. I never got lost in the moment the way I did in stand-up. I was a guy worried that he was standing awkwardly while waiting for the other actors to stop speaking their lines so he could get rid of his before he forgot them. Fortunately that was all the heavy lifting most sitcoms required.
My nocturnal lifestyle was not always conducive for daytime acting. In 1979, I dressed in a vintage 1940’s suit and fedora and stood in line with hundreds of other New Yorkers for an open call on a “Woody Allen Project”. The audition consisted of stopping in front of a camera long enough to state your name and phone number. I was picked to be an extra on a train scene, but was too hung-over to make the bus to New Jersey. It occurs to me every time I watch Stardust Memories that I would have fit right in on the train of “lost souls.”
In 1985 when interviewing to replace “The Coach” on the sitcom, Cheers, I was sober. I showed up early, bright and shiny, with my lines rehearsed and a plan to succeed. After a couple of call-backs, I went “to network.” This audition, in front of the producers and network executives, was typically the last hurdle. Three blond actors sat in the outer office, hoping to play the young, stupid bartender. Actually they used the word “naïve” instead of stupid so as not offend us blonds. Anyway, they chose the right guy, Woody Harrelson.
After a few more near misses, I went to network for Married with Children, sitting with two other guys in a hallway on the Paramount lot. We all participated in the usual nervous chit-chat. One of the actors just flew in from New York, his luggage sat next to him.
Suddenly the show’s two creators, Michael Moye, a short black man, and Ron Leavitt, a tall Jewish fellow, entered the building. The New York actor sitting across from me jumped to his feet and shouted, “Hey Michael!”
Michael Moye, one of the men about to decide the fate of this role, then embraced my competition warmly. They joked and laughed before Michael told the guy, “The wife has your room ready. You’re going to love this town.”
Leavitt and Moye then disappeared into the offices. The third actor looked like I felt, gut shot. It was over. I considered leaving and then for some reason just started laughing at the whole damn affair. The assistant called me into the office at exactly the right time.
For the first time ever, I walked into an audition not worried about getting the part. I was full of attitude, making fun of everything and everyone, including this alleged network, FOX, which didn’t yet exist. Naturally, I killed.
A couple of days later, my agent Bill Gross, told me to get ready to tape my first big-time, show biz, Hollywood, television sitcom pilot.
The pilot was shot in December, and we began filming the series in January. On the first day of rehearsal, Michael Moye pulled me aside and accused me of doing cocaine during the shooting of the pilot. He said I looked coked up and someone found “snow seals” on a bathroom floor. I admitted maybe I looked whacked with all my nervous coke-guzzling and chain-smoking, but insisted I was clean and sober. That was the first and last time I ever spoke with Michael Moye.
I got into a groove. Friday, a script was delivered. I worked lines with an acting coach over the weekend, and scored the expected laughs at the table read on Monday. My role was small but in every episode. My confidence was growing. The cast was great and fun, especially Ed O’Neill and his onscreen wife, Katey Sagal.
The seventh show featured my character. Al Bundy, after a terrible fight with his wife, Peg, came to stay at Luke’s bachelor pad. Al flew from the temptation of the two blonde flight attendants offered by Luke, bringing home a blonde wig for Peg to wear. During the taping, I waited behind the wall of my bedroom with one of the flight attendants, actress Jerry Hall. She was a beautiful woman with a cute Texas drawl, cracking me up with stories of her “cheap” husband, Mick Jagger. I thought to myself, “I can do this job.”
That Friday I didn’t get a script. I called my agent, Bill Gross, who said not to worry; it was probably just a delivery problem. A few minutes later he called back with the news that I was no longer on the show. No script delivered. A new name stenciled on a parking place. You’re turned away at the studio gate. That’s how you got notice of a firing in Hollywood.
My wife, Kay, became good friends with Ron Leavitt’s wife, Sharon. We attended quite a few parties at their Malibu home. Ron and I never talked about anything but sports and hamburgers. One day, Sharon, pushed Ron toward me, “Tell him, Ron.”
He walked me into a bedroom and said, “Look, man. I’m sorry, but Michael wrote that role for his friend. You wouldn’t believe the scene in the office that day. Michael fought like crazy but the network insisted on you. After that Michael wanted to get rid of you. We were fighting so many fires I finally let him have his way.” I lost the role as soon as I won it.
I did other failed pilots, but never think of those shows. Married with Children was on FOX for eleven seasons, nearly 250 shows, and continuously in syndication. Every residual check for one of my seven episodes made me think, “Charlie, I could have been somebody…”
Shydner is the co-author and editor of I Killed: True Stories of the Road from America's Top Comics
and was profiled in the documentary, I Am Comic.
Shydner's credits include appearances on Roseanne, Married with Children, Beverly Hills Cop II and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. He was a co-executive producer on The Mind of the Married Man as well as Blue Collar TV.
He also performed stand-up on HBO's One Night Stand, A&E's An Evening at the Improv, Late Night with David Letterman, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.