Emily Webster only remembers her time at Small Wonder but she definitely remembers Lou.
Lou was a small person in his fifties who drove a Cadillac with foot pedals and had a gray handlebar mustache that fell over his face. When Webster, who played Harriet, and the rest of the cast rehearsed their lines, Lou stood in the dark behind the camera and laughed so they knew where to stop for the studio audience: Ha, ha, ha, Ha!
"It was a threatening laugh," says Webster. "A little worrying for a 6 year old."
Lou laughed on command because he was already on the set to replace the child actors. With a modest budget, Small Wonder was unable to pay someone just to get on the set and giggle. As one of the earliest half-hour shows that originated in syndication, it was an objectively banal sitcom about an engineer named Ted Lawson who makes a robot that resembles a 9-year-old girl. He calls his creation VICI (Voice Input Child Identicant, a.k.a. Vicki) and explains to the people who adopted her after her parents were killed in an accident.
Instead of selling his innovation for billions, Lawson acorns it away in a closet; Vicki spent four seasons and 96 episodes of angering the Lawson family (and television critic) with their literal disposition, superpower, and monotonous voice.
Children loved the show. Seniors too. This also applies to science fiction clubs that wrote frequently to analyze the suspicious logic of artificial intelligence, but were nevertheless pleased with a “science fiction sitcom”. Small Wonder was a syndicated hit two years before the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation but its reputation is that of filmed boredom. Almost 35 years after its debut, the show is being remembered with fondness and total contempt.
"You," said a stranger to Webster, "were on the worst show in television history."
The lack of subtlety of Small Wonder is usually at the feet of Howard Leeds, a former child actor who had started a successful career as a television writer. He was a co-founder of Silver Spoons and worked on Diff & # 39; rent Strokes and the 1
In the early 1980s, Leeds came up with the idea of a children's robot that was slowly adopting human characteristics that he wanted to write and perform widely for his intended audience of children. Leeds showed NBC where he had a deal; When they came by, Leeds bought it back from them and sold it to Metromedia, a company trying to break into the first-time syndication market. Instead of broadcasting expensive episodes of old hit shows, the stations were looking for fresh (and cheaper) material. Last but not least, Small Wonder was something else.
"To be honest, the whole thing sounded sketchy," says Marla Pennington-Rowan, who played Mrs. Lawson. (One figure, the authors complained, was drawn so thinly that it usually presented its chopped carrots.) “Syndication was unknown. I didn't think anyone would see it. "During a recording, Pennington-Rowan was disturbed that no one was laughing in the audience. She later found that all of them were Chinese tourists who did not speak English.
Metromedia committed to 13 episodes, each with a budget $ 300,000, which Leeds believed to be the lowest of all sitcoms on TV, did little to get special effects on Vicki's tricks – turning her head 360 degrees or picking up a fridge – turned green on Thursdays -Takes with the cast arriving early, Tiffany Brissette, the 9-year-old who was cast as Vicki, had difficulty breathing after pulling a green stocking over her head and her mother had to tell them to stop.
Not to suffocate as Brissette, a pageant who was eligible for the title role in Punky Brewster threatened she had a deceptively difficult job: staring expressionlessly and monotonously is not a matter of course for a child, and she gnawed on the inside of her cheeks in order not to smile.
She could also perform strange mimicry when the script asked to do so. "She made a good John Wayne," recalls Tiffany's mother Diane. Brissette was indeed better than the 400 other girls Leeds had tested – who probably couldn't do any kind of John Wayne – and as a result, he was paranoid that something might happen to her. "Howard didn't like her riding horses or skating. He was afraid she'd get hurt."
Brissette rehearsed and studied during the week. At the weekend, she and her mother were brought in and out of the country for advertising. Small Wonder was sold in more than 20 countries and was very popular in Italy, France, India and Brazil, where it was called Super Vicki . Brissette once sang in Bogotá, Colombia, in front of more than 30,000 people.
“She worked really hard,” says Diane, “and deserves to be paid more. That was a point of contention. The adults got more money than they did. “
Although Small Wonder hit the right demographics, there was surprisingly little license support for the show. A Halloween costume was released for a year, but ideas for a Vicki the Robot doll never made it past the prototype level. A cartoon was discussed and then released. One possibility is that Fox, who bought Metromedia, did not like Small Wonder and had no legitimate interest in honoring Metromedia's two-year extension for a third and fourth season. (The show was so cheap that it was practically impossible to lose money.)
As Brissette grew older, both she and her mother insisted that she be given more work: changing clothes, speaking with a “human” voice, or singing – all to promote the idea that Vicki would adapt to her surroundings. "Tiffany was extremely talented, but playing the role so well was a double-edged sword," said Webster. "She couldn't show range."
Writers requested a similar break in banality that Leeds did not allow. One of them, Mel Sherer, had written for Happy Days Laverne and Shirley and other classic sitcoms, as well as for Andy Kaufman's subversive appearances. Little Miracle was an aberration. A script contained eight pages of conversation – economically sound but creatively stilted. It prompted a writer to ask if he was working on a sitcom or an oil painting.
"The good news was it was the easiest schedule I've ever had for a sitcom," says Sherer. "We were always done at 5:30. But it was just so obviously not a good thing that there was no way to fix it. The reviews have confused us. But it was how Howard wanted it to be. “
A Small Wonder loan was not really desirable for a writer. "You can't remove it," he says. "I would let people look at my resume and say," Ahh, I see you are well prepared for a career in show business. "
Due to a combination of Fox & # 39; apathy and Leeds – who died in 2017 at the age of 97 – the show ended in spring 1989. Brissette turned her attention to the school to and became a nurse; She posed in Vicki's apron for a 2007 Details magazine shoot. The show still regularly creates lists of the “worst shows ever”, although in reality it's not far from the kid-friendly sitcoms that currently populate the Disney Channel.
When canceled, Fox hosted a graduation party for the cast and crew. "Some of us were sad and some of us were ready to continue," said Webster. "But I finally told Lou I was afraid of him."
An earlier version of this story originally ran in 2015.