It seems like a foolproof formula—take a character who was well liked on a popular show and give him his own show—but when you hear the dreaded word “spin-off,” the programs that immediately come to mind are unfortunate abominations like Joey, After M*A*S*H*, Baywatch Nights, and the stomach-churning Joanie Loves Chachi.
To be fair to the TV gods, the concept has worked wonderfully before. After all, where would we be without excellent spin-offs like Frasier, Melrose Place, and The Jeffersons? But occasionally a television show comes along that seems so fresh, original, and unexpected that audiences forget that at least one of the characters had a previous incarnation on another program. In the case of these five series, it’s hard to remember that they were spin-offs in the first place.
The first time America saw Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson was as interstitial cartoons on The Tracey Ullman Show, a sketch-comedy program starring English comedienne Tracey Ullman. The forty-eight one-minute sketches, created by Matt Groening, appeared on Ullman’s show for three seasons; in 1989, the Simpsons got their own show.
When The Simpsons became a colossal hit, complete with millions of dollars in profits and merchandising rights, lawyers for Ullman and her show’s producers came calling. They claimed that since the characters had been created on her show, she was entitled to a share of all future profits. Unfortunately for her, courts ruled in favor of the network, finding that she was entitled only to the profits derived from characters she herself had created, and not the Simpsons, since they were Groening’s creations. According to The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized Biography, by John Ortved, Ullman was incensed by the royalties battle, saying, “I breast-fed those little devils.”
The Andy Griffith Show
Griffith’s portrayal of a folksy and down-to-earth sheriff in Mayberry, North Carolina, is one of the most beloved performances in all of television history. The show is enough of a classic that episodes still run on TV Land, but few viewers know (or remember) that the first appearance of sheriff Andy Taylor was actually on The Danny Thomas Show.
A 1960 episode of the show, also known as Make Room for Daddy during its first seasons, featured Thomas being arrested by Sheriff Andy in Mayberry; Griffith’s own series premiered later that year. A producer for The Danny Thomas Show had actually coordinated the development of Griffith’s show in an attempt to find a suitable vehicle for the star, who was well known to film and radio audiences. The episode “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” was meticulously planned to introduce audiences to Griffith’s new character, as the producers knew full well that a separate series would follow shortly.
Saved by the Bell
The exploits of everybody’s favorite ’90s teenagers actually originated on an ’80s Disney sitcom called Good Morning, Miss Bliss, which centered on a kindly teacher played by Hayley Mills. After one season, the network canceled the series, but NBC bought the rights, then changed the name, kept some of the main characters (Zach Morris, Lisa Turtle, Screech, and Mr. Belding), and put the focus on the students, not their teacher. Thus were born six future C-list celebrities. Viewers can still see the episodes of Good Morning, Miss Bliss, which were given new opening credits and repackaged as Saved by the Bell episodes to run in syndication.
Mork & Mindy
In 1977, a fifth-season episode of Happy Days (after the infamous “jumping the shark” episode) featured an unknown actor named Robin Williams as an alien. In the episode, “My Favorite Orkan,” the alien Mork tries to kidnap Richie Cunningham and take him back to his home planet, but is eventually fooled by the crafty Fonzie. Audiences loved Williams’s manic comedic style, and Mork received a spin-off show the next year.
In the original version of the episode, it’s suggested that the alien abduction is just Richie’s dream, but once the spin-off was planned, the episode was re-edited to suggest that it really did happen. Reruns of the 1950s-set Happy Days episode now show Mork being given a new assignment in 1978, which sets the stage for the premise of Mork & Mindy.
Ab Fab aired on BBC from 1992 to 1996, detailing the exploits of hilariously delusional and self-indulgent fashion disasters Edina Monsoon and Patsy Stone. To Americans, seeing the episodes on Comedy Central was the first time they’d witnessed Patsy and Edina’s madness, but Brits may remember that the show’s premise first took the form of a skit on French and Saunders, a sketch-comedy show starring British duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders.
French and Saunders were wildly popular in the ’80s and ’90s and were given their own sketch show. One particular sketch, “Modern Mother and Daughter,” featured Saunders as a deluded mother and French as the long-suffering level-headed daughter. The sketch’s popularity resulted in its being reformulated into its own show, Absolutely Fabulous, starring Saunders as Edina, a role for which she won an Emmy and a BAFTA award. Although French and Saunders have each pursued separate career opportunities, they still perform together regularly.
It’s inevitable that every time there’s a successful television show, there will be producers looking for ways to keep the money train moving, such as by relocating characters or by creating side stories to capitalize on a good idea. It’s worked for The Facts of Life, Maude, Rhoda, and even Flavor of Love (a spin-off of VH1’s The Surreal Life). As viewers, all we can do is hope that there are more spin-offs like Daria and fewer like Jake and the Fat Man—and pray that all the rumors we hear about a Jersey Shore spin-off called Snookin’ for Love are completely untrue.