Midafternoon on the set of the CBS teen sitcom Square Pegs: an abandoned, crumbling high school of brown stucco buildings and a weedy football field in the smog-ridden L.A. suburb of Norwalk. Decked out in khaki pedal pushers, pink stockings, a luminescent purple space jacket and a pair of tiger-striped New Wave sunglasses, Anne Beatts, 35, strolls from the school cafeteria to her office. It doesn’t matter that she looks like a cross between an Israeli Army sergeant and a refugee from a Lower East Side punk club—Beatts (pronounced “Beets”) very definitely is the boss. She is, in fact, one of the few female Hollywood producers in recent memory to create a weekly series single-handedly and push it into prime time. Mary Tyler Moore had Grant Tinker, Carol Burnett had Joe Hamilton and Lucy had Desi; Anne Beatts has chutzpah.
For the high-powered onetime Saturday Night Live writer, the decrepit high school location of her sitcom may be “New Jersey to the 10th power,” but it’s also a small patch of paradise. This is Beatts’ private, somewhat seedy universe, where she can be Queen of the Playground, high school principal, Hollywood enfant terrible and Miss Hip—as one colleague wryly calls her—wrapped up in one.
Beatts walks out of the glaring sunlight and into the gloomy, deserted hallway of the main school building, lined with rows of rusty metal lockers. She stops to admire a deep gash in the wall plaster. “How many set designers would build this into their set?” she says. “Everything would be clean, slick and bright—instead, we have this big crack in the wall.” She laughs—a hearty, throaty laugh that softens her style-conscious hipster look. “It’s all in keeping with the style of the show,” she explains. “We’re saying, ‘Wake up and smell the coffee. This is reality.’ ”
For Beatts, reality has improved dramatically since her days as a flat-chested 12-year-old high school freshman in Somers, N.Y., where she had no social life and was tormented for being “smart and smart-mouthed.” But the insecurities remain. “There was this real fear in doing Square Pegs after getting such a fast ride to glory on Saturday Night Live,” Anne says. “I was afraid that the word would be ‘peaks early, fails to live up to promise.’ I still have this fear that if I die in a plane crash, the obituary is going to read, ‘Ex-Saturday Night Live writer dies in plane crash.’ ” Beatts’ meteoric five-year stint on SNL—during which she was nominated six times and won two Emmys for her writing—may not be eclipsed by Square Pegs, which is still hovering precariously at Nielsen midpoint with its chances for renewal unclear. But, as Pegs goes into reruns next week, her worries of early burnout seem exaggerated. Reviews have called the series “the sweetest surprise of the season” (TIME) and praised it for its “bright dialogue, offbeat characters and jauntily sardonic attitude” (Washington Post).
A refreshing change from TV’s sanitized stereotypes of adolescence (as in Joanie Loves Chachi), Pegs centers on the teen trauma of two overbright, plain-Jane high school freshmen—spindly, bespectacled Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker) and her overweight best friend, Lauren Hollister (Amy Linker)—and their losing battle to “click with the right clique” of schoolmates. Beatts makes no secret of Square Pegs’ autobiographical roots. The characters of Patty and Lauren are “based on me and my closest high school friend,” she says. The show’s five writers also come from backgrounds remarkably close to her own. Most of them are Jewish, East Coast women in their late 20s and early 30s, who were nurtured on TV and whose angst-ridden teen years allow them to empathize with Beatts’ unofficial motto, “It’s okay to be lame”—meaning klutzy and out if it.
That attitude hasn’t helped them click with the TV establishment clique. “There’ve been a great many rumors about my sex life being lesbian,” says Beatts. “The word around here is, ‘Oh, you’re working for that dyke show?’ A lot of it has to do with the fact that there are women in a field in which there haven’t been women before.” The ill feeling also derives from Beatts’ controversial SNL-honed humor and her often intimidating style, a mixture of Manhattan punk and razor-edged spunk. “Anne can be rude sometimes,” says Kim Friedman, director of Square Pegs. “When she’s fighting for her material, she doesn’t care who she offends. I admire her for that.” Adds John Belushi’s widow, Judy Jacklin, who collaborated with Beatts on Titters, a 1976 women’s humor anthology: “If you’re a man in her position, people don’t care if you’re abrasive. But if you’re a woman, they say, ‘She’s bossy—what a bitch.’ ”
In the past several months, for example, Beatts has argued often and bitterly with the CBS Department of Program Practices over the use of brand names (“Usually it comes down to, ‘If I can say Pepsi, I’ll take out the Kleenex’ “), anti-Reagan jokes, Jewish American Princess jokes and even one student’s telling his friends that he is “springing for a keg” of beer at a New Year’s party. (CBS, worried about intimations of adolescent drinking, bleeped the word “keg”). Beatts views such censorship as absurd. “They take this whole position about TV being invited into your home, and what if suddenly a bad word like ‘f—-‘ comes and grabs you by the throat? They don’t realize that kids play Daddy’s obscene videocassettes while Mommy and Daddy are off at dinner theater.”
Beatts’ Saturday Night Live association with John Belushi and the hip, drug-fueled life-style he came to represent is another problem. “She has a natural intensity that leads people to think her drive is not normal,” says her business manager, Barry Secunda, “but it’s not drug-related. She can push herself for two or three nights without drugs.” Beatts’ fierce motivation has also put off some friends and former colleagues. “I think the pressures of Square Pegs made her obnoxious for a while,” says former SNL colleague Laraine Newman. “She became a locomotive with no engineer. I’m very fond of her, but I’m also one of the few people who’s still talking to her.”
On the set of Square Pegs, however, the feelings toward Beatts are decidedly warmer. Anne’s unorthodox hiring practices—she recently promoted her wardrobe assistant to associate producer and gave an actor (Craig Richard Nelson) with no directing experience the opportunity to direct a Square Pegs episode—have irked the network but helped nurture a tight-knit ensemble atmosphere. “Anne is very much an individual,” says co-star Amy Linker. “She’s taught us that it’s okay to be different.”
Beatts learned that lesson growing up in Connecticut, Florida and upstate New York, where her father worked successively as a private tutor, school teacher and IBM exec. Her mother was a housewife. “My parents [now divorced] were basically beatniks,” Anne recalls. “The best gift they ever gave me was to make me aware from an early age that I had a lot of options in living.” That didn’t seem true of her teenage years at Somers Central High School, class of 1962, a time that Anne remembers as a “constant struggle. I just wanted to fit in as a teenager, but it was hopeless.”
At McGill University in Montreal “things got much better,” Anne recalls. “I found my fellow misfits on the school newspaper. Ninety percent of them were left-handed and Jewish. There was no way I could convert to left-handedness, but I did convert to Judaism.” It was the mid-1960s, a time when Jewish writers such as J.D. Salinger, Bruce Jay Friedman and Philip Roth were at their peak, and Beatts “saw it as a passport to some sort of literary society. It came from a real desire to identify and be part of something.” (Today Beatts practices the religion “as much as any Jew in California. I fast on Yom Kippur but I don’t keep kosher.”)
Beatts graduated from McGill in 1966 with a degree in English and, after stints as an ad copywriter in Canada and London, moved to New York with then boyfriend Michel Choquette, a writer for the fledgling National Lampoon. Beatts became the only woman on the writing staff. “She was very aggressive at the Lampoon,” recalls Polly McCall, wife of Lampoon contributor Bruce (Zany Afternoons) McCall. “It was Little Lulu trying to get into the fun house.” But for Beatts, success wasn’t easy. “It was like being a black voter in the South,” she says. “Everyone else had to spell ‘cat’ and you had to say when the Edict of Nantes was revoked.” Beatts got needed support there from Michael O’Donoghue, the eccentric comic writer whose sometimes sadistic sketches set a Lampoon and Saturday Night Live style and with whom she lived for three turbulent years. “Michael taught me a lot about comedy,” allows Anne. “He also had a very sentimental and homebody side that I was one of the few people privileged to see. It was not three years of plunging needles into people’s sides.”
The pair left the magazine in 1974. They spent the last year there primarily writing for the National Lampoon Radio Hour (which featured, among others, Chevy Chase and John Belushi) and then were hired by producer Lome Michaels for Saturday Night Live before its debut in October 1975. Working there, Beatts recalls, “was a combination summer camp and concentration camp.” As one of only three females on a fiercely competitive writing staff of 10, Anne formed a partnership “in self-defense” with fellow writer Rosie Shuster and installed a hospital bed in her office for marathon 48-hour sketch-writing sessions.
“John Belushi often went to Lome and asked him to fire the female writers,” says Anne. “Basically it forced us into a position of ‘We’ll stay up longer, we’ll write more, we’ll work harder.’ ” Her collaboration with Shuster peaked in 1978, when they created the classic “nerd” sketches, featuring the sniffling, nearsighted Lisa Loopner (played by Gilda Radner) and her noogeying boyfriend-tormentor Todd Di La Muca (Bill Murray). “Anne was remarkably good under pressure,” recalls Michaels. “She had intelligence, wit and style. She also had a vulnerable side, which she hid less and less with people who appreciated her.”
After cast and writers disbanded in 1980, Beatts wrote a couple of unproduced movie scripts before getting an estimated $30,000 development deal from CBS for Square Pegs. She was about to start shooting the pilot when word came that John Belushi was dead. For Beatts, it was a devastating end to a tortuous relationship, complicated by Beatts’ close friendship with Belushi’s wife, Jacklin. “John felt competition toward me,” she says. “He thought I was advancing his wife’s career to the detriment of their marriage. But when he died I felt as if I had lost a brother. You might not like your brother, you could be mad at him, but he’s still your brother.”
Anne, thanks to her success, rents a luxurious Spanish Mission-style house (formerly Rod Stewart’s) in West Hollywood, complete with fountain and backyard swimming pool. But she misses “the visual beauty of New York City,” which, unfortunately, is the home of her current boyfriend, Jim Signorelli, a film director now working on Easy Money starring Rodney Danger-field. “My social life is pretty much on hold,” she says. “In some ways what I need is a wife.”
She could also use some higher ratings for Square Pegs. “It’s strange,” she says. “I’m 35 and my contemporaries say to me, ‘My kids love your show.’ And I say, ‘Well, what about you?’ They make me feel like some sort of Peter Pan figure, as if I’m interpreting their kids to them.” Despite Pegs’ high school setting, Beatts insists that its message—and humor—is universal. “Just remember that the people who seemed perfect to you aren’t necessarily the survivors.” That this onetime adolescent square peg has survived—and flourished—is an irony not lost on Beatts. “The great thing is that I’m getting my revenge on everybody who treated me badly in high school,” she says. “The bad thing is I had to go back to high school to do it.”