Monday, July 19, 2010

It Wasn’t Called The Cherie Johnson Show

EDIT: The post appears how it looked when it went up. However, someone claiming to be Cherie Johnson has told me that she is not the granddaughter of Susie Garrett nor a relation to Marla Gibbs. That info also seems to have vanished from Wikipedia. So there you go. See comments below for further info.

So Punky Brewster was a TV show. This is not up for debate. Also wholly factual — and don’t try to tell me otherwise — is that the show starred Cherie Johnson as the title character’s best friend, whose name also happened to be Cherie Johnson. According to Wikipedia, the character Cherie was written for and modeled on the real-life Cherie. A little weird, right? That a TV show would feature a second banana based on a real-life person when the protagonist was wholly fictional?

(image courtesy of cherie johnson’s childhood diary)

Even more so because Johnson would have only been eleven years old at the time. I mean, it makes sense to have a show made by and for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz to have characters based on themselves, but when I Love Lucy hit the air they were grown-ups and slightly more seasoned performers than Johnson was when Punky premiered. It may have helped Johnson that her on-screen grandmother was also her real-life grandmother, singer and actress Susie Garrett, who happened to be the sister of then-big deal sitcom star Marla Gibbs. So I guess little Cherie Johnson may have had some clout, but I still think it’s a fairly unique case to have a role written for and modeled after a complete unknown eleven-year-old who also isn’t the show’s lead. No, instead of writing a show all about Cherie, Punky’s creators made her play the second banana. (I guess it might have been good training for Johnson, who went on to play a not-even-in-the-opening credits banana on Family Matters, where she played Laura’s bestie Maxine.) And if the show’s creators were so keen on using child actors’ real names on the show, then why on earth did they not stick with the name of the actress who played Punky? I mean, maybe little kids would have trouble spelling Soleil Moon Frye, but it’s the kind of name you remember. And I think calling both the child leads by their actual names would have been especially tempting because the name Punky Brewster happened to belong to a real person who had to give her consent not to sue NBC for transforming her into a plucky, pig-tailed orphan with penchant for dayglo.

Maybe someone owed Marla Gibbs a favor and thought it would be easier if Cherie Johnson didn’t have to learn a stage name?

A side note: I guess the woman who was actually named Punky Brewster gets to be the real-life Punky. However, it’s worth noting that the George Gaynes, the actor who played Punky’s adoptive dad, has a daughter who was a member of the Santa Barbara City Council. Daughter of Punky’s dad = Punky, sorta, if you don’t think about it too hard. Working for the paper, I had met this woman a few times. Although she’s about as un-Punkyish as a person could be, I feel comfortable saying I met a real-life Punky Brewster if not the real-life Punky Brewster.

Pop culture minutiae, previously:

13 comments:

  1. As you know, this is my area of expertise...

    It wasn't just that Susie Garrett played her grandmother: her uncle--David Duclon--was the creator and producer of the show. (Nepotism alert: He was later an executive producer on Family Matters, too.)
    As to why he didn't just base the show around Cherie... well... I couldn't tell you for sure, but his major producing credits before this were The Jeffersons (spin-off of All in the Family, and pretty much the first major "crossover" hit) and Silver Spoons which, again, acknowledged race, but with African-Americans in secondary roles (Hello, Alfonso Ribero!). My guess would be, he was trying to write and incorporate strong Black characters into his work, but by the time he started up Punky Brewster, The Jeffersons was seen by NBC as more of a "niche" show with failing ratings (It was still in the top 20, but nowhere near what it used to be... then again, this was, like, the tenth freaking season...), so Duclon settled for a strong Black presence in the supporting characters. (Trivia note: One of my favorite classic actresses, Beah Richards, guest-starred on the show. So: a very strong Black presence in the supporting characters.) Also: Diff'rent Strokes had already "done" Black orphans, and there were already so many paternalistic overtones in that, you mix in a Black female orphan and... well... dicey, to say the least.
    Duclon would make up for things later, of course, with Family Matters, one of the strongest and--arguably--least stereotyped portrayals of Black family life ever seen on television.

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  2. Huh. Very interesting. Bri, I swear you're better than freaking Wikipedia --- and I unabashedly love Wikipedia.

    But one quibble: Do you think that Family Matters is a stronger and less stereotyped portrayal of a black American family than The Cosby Show?

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  3. Good point re: The Cosby Show. I guess I wouldn't want to judge them that way, though one of the major qualms people have with The Cosby Show is in the exceptionalism of having both a doctor and a lawyer in the family whereas the working class background of Family Matters is arguably more realistic... then again, there's Urkel, which done fucks everything up.
    I'd say it's a strong portrayal that doesn't fall into major stereotyping, but The Cosby Show is, of course, the Ur-Black family sitcom.

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  4. Ah, I see what you're saying.

    Speaking of the parents' jobs on Family Matters, did the show actually have Harriette Winslow being an elevator operator on the show like she was when she was a character on Perfect Strangers? Also, isn't it weird that Family Matters was a spin-off of Perfect Strangers? And that ABC never allowed the ratings bonanza that would have been a Balki-Urkel meeting? Possibly because of the murder-suicides that would have surely resulted nationwide?

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  5. I had completely forgotten that it, too, was a spin-off. I think they kept it in continuity for awhile, but I don't think it was every emphasized.
    The only thing that would have made a Balki-Urkel meeting even more epic is if they'd somehow managed to write in Axel Foley and had the three of them foiling some sort of caper. (Bronson Pinchot's character in Beverly Hills Cop, "Serge," always seemed like Balki-lite to me.)

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  6. Actually you guys are so wrong LOL this is cherie Johnson mmm David Duclon is my uncle but I am not related to Marla Gibb or Susie Garret Wakipedia Is Hella Wrong!!

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  7. Huh. If you're really Cherie Johnson, thanks for the clarification. If you're not, then this all is quite strange.

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  8. Yes I am the real cherie and your facts are all wrong. I was 6years old when my uncle wrote the show. He never intended for me to act at all much less on this show, he had sold it to NBC and I wanted to audition. After 7 auditions the president of NBC gave me the job. Not related to Marla Or Susie though I love her like she is my grandmother!

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    1. That's so weird. I got that info from Wikipedia, I think, but it's been stripped now. Apologies for that.

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    2. Anonymous8:44 PM

      That is not Cheri. Cheri is related to Susie Garrett, she is her grandmother. I remember when the show aired and Ms. Garrett explained how she won the role on the show. She said she took Cheri to the audition and she was backstage lookingfor Cheri. She was just being herself calling her granddaughter's name and it caught the producers attention because although it was loud it was humorus and loving. The producers approached her for the role.

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  9. @Anonymous you made that shit up and forgot the E on the end of Cherie

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  10. In the special features on the punky brewster dvd set for season one came out in 2008,Cherie Johnson talked about her Uncle David how she auditioned for the role Susie is NOT her grandma but she loved her like one and she was 6 when the show started. I trust her actual words NOT wikipidia! -drops mic-BOOM!

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  11. In the dvd release of Punky Brewster season one Cherie Johnson talks about her Uncle David her audition and her relationship with Susie Garret NOT her actual grandma but she loved her like one. I trust her actual words NOT wikipidia oh and the dvds came out in 2008. PUNKY POWER FOREVER!!!

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