Critiques of The Nanny generally fall into two categories: 1) Fran Drescher is annoying, and 2) The Nanny was a three camera sitcom on CBS and Thou Shalt Not Permit A Three-Camera Sitcom On CBS To Live. On the first count, I can do nothing to dissuade you. Annoyances are as personal and unique as fingerprints. Personally, I can’t stand men who talk in the back of their throats like they’re gargling. But on the second count, I can say with nasal authority that you are wrong. The Nanny was a three-camera sitcom on the three-cammiest of networks, but it was a credit to the form.
The Nanny ran for six seasons on CBS, and lives on in syndication to this day. Fran Drescher played Fran Fine, who falls into the job of nanny for the three Sheffield children. Rounding out the cast was Fran’s extended family, the distant dad/love interest Maxwell Sheffield, his business partner CC Babcock, and snarky butler Niles. The crux of its humor was the upstairs-downstairs friction between the classless “no rules just right” Fine family and the hoity-toity and emotionally withdrawn Sheffield clan. The show made Fran the antidote to the Sheffield’s waspy, American Beauty-esque existence. Where they were stoic, she was emotional and very inclined to talk about it. Where they were divorced from their senses, she was overeating and constantly horny. To put it in 2016 terms: where they were basic, she was extra.
Fran Fine is a character we still don’t get to see enough of, even today in the Age of Golden Televisions: a likeable but flawed lady-protagonist. Fran is equally as likely to be the butt of the joke as the one doing the joking. She is ridiculous but relatable. And because the show’s supporting cast was mostly women, it was able to highlight all the ways to be a lady while still underlining how fake femininity really is. The number of chin hair jokes alone attest to the idea that Fran was supposed to be both alluring and disgusting at the same time.
All the characters on The Nanny are as well-drawn as Fran. That is the greatest strength of the show. Because all the characters are fully-formed AND belong to one of two very distinct camps, the writers have a character to fit any kind of joke. Need a dry aside? Give it to Niles. Big broad jokes could go to the biggest broad in the cast, Fran’s mother Sylvia Fine. Each character could do a different kind of physical comedy, too. I could watch Sylvia eat food all day. She chews with a methodical slowness that’s hypnotizing. No human eats like this; it’s captivating.The best thing about The Nanny is that every joke is deeply rooted in character. For all its schtick and slapstick, the jokes come from the natural consequences of very different people interacting.
Here’s a clip from the season one episode, “Schlepped Away,” where the entire family is stranded at Fran’s mother’s house.
Niles gets to snark, Fran makes jokes about her low upbringing, CC gets to menace a small child. Everybody wins! It probably helped that Drescher based the Fine family on her own, down to the names. Fran=Fran, duh, but Morty and Sylvia Fine are xeroxes of Morty and Sylvia Drescher. Grandma Yetta was named for Drescher’s actual bubbie.
Can we talk about Grandma Yetta for a second? The Nanny was very aware of its place in sitcom history. Before Community, it was a TV show with a lead character who loved TV. Fran had the TV guide memorized. The show did its fair share of parodies and featured scads of stunt casted guest stars. They did every stock sitcom plot in the book: 12 Angry Men, we think someone’s a murderer, we have to pretend to be married, the underling pretends to be the boss, bank robbery, bottle episode, trapped in an elevator (twice). But the biggest nod to TV history was the casting of the late great Ann Morgan Guilbert as Grandma Yetta, who had played Mary Tyler Moore’s bestie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Guilbert shone as Yetta. What could have been a stock senile old woman gained a certain sharpness with her portrayal. In a B story where Yetta teamed up with middle Sheffield child Brighton, they trick Yetta’s relatives into thinking Brighton is actually distant Fine relation Schmooey, and that he’s been recently bar mitzvah’d. Feeling guilty for missing it, the relatives all give “Schmooey” some cash to celebrate his manhood. Guilbert plays both sides of this interaction wonderfully. She’s sharp enough to con her relatives out of hundreds of dollars, but also believes that Brighton really is Fran’s son Schmooey.
The Nanny was meta well before it was fashionable. When supporting actress Lauren Lane (who played waspy shrew CC) got pregnant, they devoted an entire scene to making fun of the way Seinfeld tried to hide Julia Louis Dreyfus’ pregnancy. CC later enters a scene hiding her bump with a giant sign that read “BABY.”
The show knew it was camp from the beginning. The set was designed in neutrals so that Fran could wear whatever absurd outfit Todd Oldham gave them and she wouldn’t clash.
The Nanny taught me many things. Enough yiddish that my middle school Israeli friend was convinced I was Jewish, for one. But it also taught me joke structure. Because of its sometimes (OK frequently) formulaic style, the show was an excellent teacher of comedy. The Nanny reveled in an older set up-punchline style of joke that had fallen out of favor years earlier. The best of these jokes spread the punchline and joke over two people: the double act of CC and Niles the Butler.
That is not how people talk. It’s artificial and overly clever and I love it. Nanny reruns are a breath of stale air -a reminder that not everything has to be polished and naturalistic. Sometimes comedy can be arch. Sometimes jokes can be telegraphed from a mile away. Whether we’re talking about Fran’s sequined dresses or her three-camera existence, there’s beauty in the artifice.
Bethy Squires is a playwright and writer living in Bloomington, Indiana. She writes for Broadly, has a twitter, and is very proud of you.