There’s a scene from That ’70s Show that always pops into my mind when I think of Kitty Forman. Early in the series, she comes home from a long shift as a nurse at a hospital, where — just like at home — she’s overworked and undervalued. All she wants is those damn teenagers in her basement to give her a hit of nicotine. “I’m going to close my eyes,” Kitty announces, “and when I open them, there better be a cigarette between these two fingers.” One appears, followed by five lighters, but her puffs of ecstasy last for mere seconds before she’s back to reality. Her husband, Red, is barreling down the staircase, and he’s almost definitely going to call someone a dumbass.
Debra Jo Rupp played the endearing, often tipsy capital-M matriarch for the entirety of That ’70s Show’s run, nurturing anybody and anything that had the luck of crossing the threshold of her screen door. She’s now reprising her role, alongside Kurtwood Smith’s cantankerous Red, in Netflix’s That ’90s Show, which centers around their granddaughter visiting them for the summer in Point Place, Wisconsin. (Leia is, of course, the child of Topher Grace’s Eric and Laura Prepon’s Donna.) Rupp is still reckoning with this new decade of Kitty’s life, especially when thinking of her evolution. “She’s questioning her purpose now. I haven’t even told the writers this, but having that question hang over everything Kitty does is a fun thing to play,” she says. “It’s a secret and people don’t know I’m doing that. Well, now they will.”
You must be told this a lot, but I find you to be one of the most compelling sitcom mothers of all time. I feel like I’m disrespecting you by not sipping Schnapps right now.
I think most of that is due to the writing. They’ve made Kitty not a perfect person so can you identify with her more.
Hey, don’t sell yourself short with your acting.
I love her. I love that she smokes, drinks, and curses at Red once in a while. [Laughs.] She’s ever-cheerful and loves everybody. Except for Canadians.
Where should she rank in the pantheon of TV moms? Is it like — Carol Brady, Kitty Forman, Lucille Bluth, end of list?
Who’s Lucille Bluth?
Ah, she’s the mom from Arrested Development.
I never watched it but my friends loved it. At that point in my life I wasn’t watching television much. Carol Brady wasn’t my favorite mom, although I love Florence Henderson. Maybe because I’m older, but I wasn’t a Brady Bunch person. I didn’t grow up with a TV mom I loved. I generally wasn’t a fan of family shows; I grew up with The Mary Tyler Moore Show and workplace comedies. Also Happy Days. We’re just going to have to call it with Kitty as number one.
I can’t imagine That ’90s Show would’ve been made unless you and Kurtwood agreed to be the leads. How were you enticed to revive Kitty after all these years?
You know, I’m not sure that’s right. That ’90s Show could’ve been brought back with any of the original kids, but they’re so busy and have a lot of moving pieces in their careers. They’re young and active, and they should be.
I remember initially being completely shocked when I heard the pitch and then going … No? Maybe? There was a lot to consider. I don’t live in California anymore. But it was less episodes and I love Kitty. I love playing that part. There are no rules. I was shocked and then a little honored. And then I got very excited. The show needed a grounding force to bring it back.
Why were you shocked?
I have a very hard time saying good-bye. If I could sneak out the door, I would. When That ’70s Show ended I took pretty much everything from the set. I had the cheese-grater lights in my basement. I had Kitty’s sweaters and nursing shoes. I never thought it would come back.
I remember when they were talking to Kurtwood and I about it, and I said, “The ’90s? I don’t even remember the ’90s. What happened in the ’90s?” It was a very transformational decade for me. I moved to Los Angeles in 1990 from New York City. I was 40 years old. I had to learn to drive again. I was trying to be a television actress. I started doing series work and bought my first house. Oh, and my first computer and cell phone. When I think about it, no wonder why it was a blur. It went so fast and it was a total blur.
I thought it made a lot of sense that the new show centers around a grandchild.
I love the name Leia but I’m not big on Star Wars. Put a laser in my hand and I’ll wave it around and call it a day.
Did you hear some bad revival pitches over the years that you passed on?
No, we didn’t pass on anything. At some point, the idea was floated that Eric and Donna would do something, but it was quickly said no to. At the time, Laura was doing Orange Is the New Black, and Topher is always working.
Do you remember the first time you and Kurtwood met?
I sure do. We did an audition together for the pilot. I had been cast as Kitty and they were looking for the Reds. I had to read with everyone they had chosen for the final group. I remember looking down the hallway and there had to be five or six men sitting and waiting their turn. I went, Oh, it’s going to be this guy. I swear, just from looking at Kurtwood. I don’t know if it was his big head. [Laughs.] When we went in and read together, I instantly felt like Kitty with him. I felt fluttery and giggling and happy. He was very RoboCop-ish in his audition, which made it really easy to be Kitty against that. His energy is so grounded and she’s all over the place. It wouldn’t have been the same if Red wasn’t as grounded. It would’ve been harder.
What’s the origin of Kitty’s laugh?
She uses it as a nervous laugh if people, say, aren’t getting along or if she doesn’t know what to say. Almost always, it’s a nervous laugh. In the pilot, something happened where Kitty snapped at Red at a party and that just came out of my mouth. It got a really big laugh and it was unplanned. Sometimes as actors you get a big laugh and you go, Wait, what was that? The writers knew what had happened and started to put the laugh in as much as possible.
Has your perception of Kitty changed over the years?
Both of the shows are period pieces. When I do period things, the first thing I look at is where women were in general in that decade. For WandaVision, I played a woman in the ’50s; women were very contained and it was all about the husband. For the ’70s, there was a women’s-lib movement and women were starting to come out of their shell a bit. They were working more. That was all Kitty — she’s a nurse, she went to college, and she makes her own living. She has a family. That’s what you did. But she was also a small-town person. I don’t think Kitty was out there burning her bra, although if someone else had started it, she would’ve jumped in. [Laughs.] It’s now 20 years later in That ’90s Show, and she’s lived alone with Red for quite some time. That’s always pleasant. Technology is coming in and Kitty is older. I think she has less patience, because I find that’s what happens with me, and Kitty is part of me.
Kitty was the sole breadwinner in her household for more than a season. That doesn’t get talked about enough.
Oh, yeah. There was an episode in the first season where it was really rough to shoot. I cried when we were filming. It was the one where Eric goes to work with Kitty for Career Day. First of all, I couldn’t learn that stupid song, “Bad Blood” by Neil Sedaka. But I took on some of Kitty while we were filming that episode: I’m exhausted. I can’t do this. That was a difficult time.
I’ve been enjoying a rewatch of That ’70s Show, and — maybe this is a passage of time thing — but I found myself noticing gloomier elements of Kitty’s life. She drinks a lot, has a season-long arc of dealing with menopause that’s played for laughs, and takes a lot more brunt from Red than I remembered. Was there anything more nuanced with your character that you would’ve appreciated being explored?
We had a lot of male writers. I understood that. But as the seasons moved on, we got more female writers, and now we have a lot for That ’90s Show. There were times that I felt I would like a little more as Kitty. I definitely remember thinking that, but that would be for, like, a season, and then the next season would be great for her. I personally loved the menopause thing. I had something to do! I pitched the idea of Kitty’s family forgetting her birthday. I said, That will get people talking.
Were there any plotlines for Kitty that you pushed back on?
There were a few episodes where that happened, but if I said something — and I didn’t say anything a lot of the time — it got fixed. I’ll say this: That ’70s Show listened to us. You don’t often get that.
You have the distinction of having memorable recurring roles on both Seinfeld and Friends. Settle a longstanding bet: Which show is better?
Oh, jeez, that’s a hard one. I have to say Friends, because it was in front of a studio audience. Every time I shot Seinfeld it wasn’t. Seinfeld did do an audience, but for the times I was on, they didn’t. Just my luck, right? I love an audience.
Did either of those experiences prepare you for the network grind of That ’70s Show?
Not at all. [Laughs.] I’m a theater actress so I like the audience. I get a lot from them. I appeared in every sitcom in the ’90s, practically, except for Murphy Brown, which I’m still bitter about. When they pitched That ’90s Show to me I said, “You understand I was on every television show, right?” I hope they do something with that if we get a second season.
With Candice Bergen in a guest role.
Right! You know what, I actually did a pilot with her a few years back that didn’t go anywhere. She made me laugh.
Jackie and Kelso are married. Eric and Donna are married. Fez owns a salon. Where is Hyde in 1995?
I think Hyde is traveling overseas somewhere and involved in some conspiracy theory.
That’s better than my theory, which is … jail.
He’s involved in some political thing. Let’s say that.