The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
The very funny Bonnie Hunt has had a lot of TV shows. Her first starring role came in 1990 in the soap opera satire Grand. From there she starred in five more, including three with some variation of the name Bonnie in the title. Today we’re going back to the third one she starred in, but the first that she wrote and produced. The result is a sitcom with a cast of strong comedic performers, and a breezy, improvisational tone that, like many of the shows we see in From the Archives, was gone too soon. 1993’s The Building was Bonnie Hunt in its purest form.
Bonnie Hunt was born in Chicago and went on to perform for years at her hometown’s famous Second City. Chicago is a big part of The Building. The main set on the show, Bonnie’s apartment, is right outside Wrigley Field, the friendly confines of the Chicago Cubs. In fact, the first thing we see in The Building is the theme song (Remember, it’s 1993 so there’s actually time to show a theme song) which serves as a lovely tour of the town as we see the cast out and about, on location in Illinois. In addition to serving as a love letter to the midwest, it also sets the tone perfectly for the show we’re about to see. The theme song itself is sung by a chorus who sing enthusiastically, and with pep, “In this windy city, / Toddlin’ town, / I looked all over, / Finally found, / A kindly place, / A comfy space, / In… the building.” My favorite part of this is that once the cast introductions start, Bonnie Hunt’s name appears on screen, but we only see a blonde woman stumbling through the wind, her face completely covered by her wind-swept hair. Immediately we are introduced to the star of a sitcom who is far more focused on making us laugh than worrying about seeming glamorous in her own show.
The rest of the cast is comprised of a number of Second City alumnus whose faces you pretty much instantly recognize as being “from that thing” once you Google them: Michael G. Hagerty, Richard Kuhlman, Don Lake, Tom Virtue, and Holly Wortell. According to an interview with The LA Times as the show was coming out, initially CBS wanted to recast the show but eventually, “they saw the chemistry was everything,” so they got to stay. It’s Bonnie and Holly that we see in the first scene, as best friend Holly helps Bonnie unpack, as she moves into her new apartment. In a matter of moments we learn a lot of information about our main character: Bonnie, an actress, is returning to Chicago after Jim, her fiance, called off their wedding, but she doesn’t want Holly to tell anyone that because she’s sort of well known around town as the Randolph Carpet lady from a local commercial, and so the word will spread pretty quickly. How is so much communicated so quickly? Throughout the show, but particularly in this scene, there is a very loose, improvisational structure to the dialogue. People talk over one another, conversations flow very naturally, and people speak very quickly, as you might in real life. When Holly commiserates with Bonnie, saying “Sorry your wedding was called off,” Bonnie responds in an authentic, almost tossed off way, “I’ll meet somebody else. I’ll hang out with you. I’ll borrow that shirt. I’ll meet somebody else.” It’s the perfect balance of a character almost believing what they’re saying but belying the deep-seeded fact that they’re lying to your face.
The first crazy character in the building that we’re introduced to is Big Tony, who shares a wall with Bonnie. He likes to “get his revenge on every noise” so when Bonnie starts hammering a nail, he pounds on the wall in return. A few moments later we’re introduced to Brad (Don Lake), in a towel, who was trying to shower until Bonnie used the sink and threw the whole thing off. Brad’s the loveable but dopey type. The kind who answers the telephone that Bonnie’s been avoiding because she just knows it’s going to be her ex-fiance Jim (it is). Jim’s flying into Chicago for just one night and now Bonnie’s going to go see him. Before she can do that though, she has to go pick up a package that’s arrived for her downstairs from Tony, an annoying neighbor (who frequently curses, but he’s bleeped out live in front of the studio audience). He insists that Bonnie sing her jingle from the carpet commercial, but in comes Stan, Brad’s roommate and fellow actor, who rescues her by saying she can’t sing the song due to union rules.
Back in her apartment, Bonnie, already moving on, talks to Brad about Stan. “He’s good looking. Nice guy. Sense of humor. You know what the odds are of finding that in one man? Trillion to one.” “What are the odds of two of those guys being roommates,” says Brad, fishing for compliments. “I guess I’d say zero.”
As Bonnie gets ready to meet up with Jim, she’s interrupted by the building’s occupants once again who find new ways of irritating her. Bonnie, a nervous wreck, tries to reason with Holly. “Why am I seeing him? Am I being ridiculous. Should I see him?” When Hollie responds with a flat, “No,” Bonnie quickly shoots back, “Stay out of this. I gotta make my own decisions.” Brad enters wearing a full dress because he’s writing a piece about J. Edgar Hoover. Then Tony returns with the package he forgot to bring earlier. When Bonnie thanks him, he responds with a line that perfectly encapsulates his character: “You know what my father used to say? You can’t blow the foam off thanks.” Bonnie promptly goes upstairs to grab him a beer. Then Hollie and Brad step outside, and realize they’ve locked themselves outside. Bonnie’s not ready to go meet Jim yet and Brad can’t run and get the extra set of keys from the landlord while in a dress, so Bonnie and Hollie have to go get them themselves.
Phil the landlord (Mike Haggerty) is tending bar and expresses sympathy since he’s heard through a game of telephone that the wedding has been called off and that Jim is gay. Bonnie protests the second part, but Jim, in a kind of progressive way for 1993 says, “It’s okay. I’d be gay too if I didn’t find women so attractive.” Jim shows up, played by a young George Clooney. This scene, lucky for you, is on YouTube, but be warned. If it were up to me, this is the last scene I would choose to show you. There’s no laughs, and it’s the only purely sentimental moment in the entire pilot. So you’re getting all of the heartstrings with none of the tugging that lead up to this, but it’s all I’ve got, so enjoy.
Back at the apartment, Bonnie finally opens up the package. It’s from the Randolph Carpet company to congratulate her for her wedding. Two wine glasses with carpet squares attached at the bottom. Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. It’s nice guy Stan, who brought along a welcome home gift: a giant beer. He’s been told that Bonnie’s meeting with Jim was an audition and he asks how it went. Here we get a little more sentiment, but it’s clever, and just a perfectly written moment.
Stan: How’d your audition go?
Bonnie: Not so good.
Stan: Really? Good part, was it?
Bonnie: I thought I could do a lot with it. Role of a lifetime, really, but I got down there and found out some other girl had already gotten it.
Stan: Don’t take it too hard. One day, the right movie is going to come along to you.
Bonnie: Here, here.
They clink their glasses together, and in a perfect callback, all the way to the first five minutes of the show, on the other side of the wall, Big Tony makes a clinking noise out of revenge.
The Building lasted five episodes, but with it came some big names. David Letterman made a rare sitcom appearance (albeit with a balaclava covering his face the entire time) in episode 2, and Andy Dick, Jim Belushi, Richard Kind, and George Wendt in the others. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough to keep the loose, warm, The Building on the air. While Bonnie Hunt would go on to appear and create several more sitcoms throughout the years, I feel as though this one perfectly encapsulated the show she wanted to make. It was The Second City way: she got some friends together, wrote down some lines, and put on a show.
Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. His webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” has a very self-explanatory title.