Wall Street Journal: “Ronna and Beverly”: How the Showtime Sitcom Went from Cancellation to Sensation

Originally published in The Wall Street Journal • Written by Katherine Rosman

Showtime’s “Ronna and Beverly” might be the most buzzed about television show … never actually to become a television show.

The sitcom focuses on two fifty-something yentas living in Boston and promoting their self-help guide, “You’ll Do a Little Better Next Time: A Guide to Marriage & Remarriage for Jewish Singles.” Ronna and Beverly are actually played by two women in their 30s – Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo, respectively – who created these characters about three years ago for a performance at the famous improv institution Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles. They continue to perform as the duo on stage every month in L.A. and several times a year in New York. The humor is raunchy, awkward and at times, both.

In the Showtime pilot, the duo gives a lecture on dating to a group of cancer patients. Beverly asks a bald woman if chemo-induced hair-loss is a whole-body phenomenon. (The woman—like the viewers watching the pilot—is rendered speechless by the question.) Then Beverly asserts that she prefers to look as if “Gene Shalit were laying his head in my lap.” The pilot was co-written and co-produced by Jenji Kohan, the creator of “Weeds” and was directed by Paul Feig, the creator of the cult-favorite “Freaks and Geeks.”

In May 2008, Kohan, Chaffin and Denbo pitched the idea of a “Ronna and Beverly” series to Showtime executives including head of entertainment Bob Greenblatt. The cable network ordered a pilot on the spot. Then this spring, the network declined to take any of its new pilots to series, including “Ronna and Beverly.”

That seemed to be the end of that.

But thanks to Twitter and an accounting procedure used by Showtime, it wasn’t the end. Showtime told the “Ronna and Beverly” team that for “tax purposes,” it needed to air the pilot before the end of the year.

Originally, Showtime told the team behind “Ronna and Beverly” that the pilot would air in the middle of the night, on a Wednesday in December. Then, the women were pleasantly surprised to learn that Showtime had reversed course and would air the show in a good slot—on a Friday night after a repeat of an episode of the popular series, “Dexter.” But then Showtime scrapped that plan and they were unable to get a clear understanding of when their pilot would ultimately air. “They gave us the run-around,” says Kohan.

(Representatives from Showtime declined numerous requests for comment.)

Enter Carol Denbo, the proud mother of co-creator Jamie. Momma Denbo combed through Showtime listings on her Comcast DVR at her home in Massachusetts. She found the air times: December 22nd at 12:05 a.m. EST and again tonight/Wednesday morning at 12:05 a.m. EST.

In advance of the December 22 airing, Jamie Denbo and Chaffin decided to harness the power of Twitter to promote the pilot. They reached out to friends they had made during their years on the New York and L.A. comedy circuit, including “Juno” writer Diablo Cody; “Daily Show with Jon Stewart” alums Rob Riggle and Rob Courddry; and Mindy Kaling, an actress/writer/producer on “The Office.” All four tweeted about the show, enticing people (Kaling alone has over a million followers on Twitter) to watch or record the episode. On December 20 and 21, “Ronna and Beverly” became a cause célèbre on Twitter with people like “The Office” co-star Rainn Wilson (who has more than 1.7 million followers) and Time magazine contributor Joel Stein (over 1 million followers) piping in. After the show aired, Twitter as well as the IMDB page for “Ronna and Beverly” filled up with mostly positive reviews and calls for Showtime to reconsider.

Because Showtime isn’t talking, it’s impossible to know how many people tuned in to the first airing, or how many might watch (or DVR) the episode tonight. But other people involved with the production are happy that “Ronna and Beverly” is getting exposure, even posthumously. Leah Krantzler, a spokeswoman for Lionsgate Television, which produced the pilot, said by email, “We are pleased that so many fans are expressing enthusiasm for the memorable characters of ‘Ronna and Beverly’ that Jenji and her creative team brought to life in this pilot.”

Co-writer and co-producer Kohan says she hopes that the attention might lead Showtime – or another network – to rethink the idea of a “Ronna and Beverly” series. “I hope Showtime is embarrassed to not have picked this up,” she says. “Having written over 17 pilots and having shot five, I usually understand why they don’t go. I cannot understand why this didn’t go,” Kohan says.

“It pissed me off but not just because I’m creator of ‘Weeds,’ a show that has done very well for Showtime,” says Kohan, ”but because ‘Ronna and Beverly’ is a great show.”

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