'Parker Lewis Can't Lose' at 25: Co-Creators Clyde Phillips and Lon Diamond on Creating a Cult Classic

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Phillips and Diamond about their '90s Fox sitcom centered on three "best buds" determined to keep high school interesting and their "If you could think of it, we could do it" approach to TV comedy.
Fox Broadcasting/Photofest; Sascha Knopf; Courtesy of Subject
Clockwise from left: 'Parker Lewis Can't Lose,' Lon Diamond, Clyde Phillips

In September of 1990, Parker Lewis Can't Lose premiered amid the nascent Fox Network's Sunday primetime lineup.

The fourth broadcast net had launched in October 1986, and it was still searching for an identity. It was experiementing with everything from primetime animation to primetime sketch comedy and had found success with both. 1990 was also the year Fox debuted Beverly Hills, 90210, a show that would shape its drama direction for a decade plus. But Fox comedies were still the Wild West.

Co-created by Clyde Phillips and Lon Diamond, Parker Lewis debuted between fellow newcomer True Colors, a traditional multicam centering on a mixed-race family described by reviewers as an interracial Brady Bunch, and In Living Color, Fox's hip, "urban" answer to Saturday Night Live that had debuted on its spring schedule and made an immediate impact. Insofar as any show could have served as a bridge between the two at 7:30, Parker Lewis made as much sense as any.  

The show — originally commissioned by CBS before being deemed too out-there for the even-then "older-skewing" network, as Phillips and Diamond recall — centered on a trio of high school friends and their ongoing war with their principal and took a kitchen-sink approach to single-camera comedy. The show's visual style was all bright colors, fast cuts, a constantly moving camera — and unorthodox angles whenever the camera was still. Voiceover, sound effects, fourth-wall breakage, a bully who could dent the floor with his tears, a teleporting principal's assistant who sleeps upside-down like a bat, a geek with a magic trench coat full of wonders — you get the idea. The ethos in the writers room and on-set, according to co-creators Clyde Phillips and Lon Diamond, was, "If you could think of it, we could do it," and the result was a series that resembled nothing else on television.

The show gained an immediate cult following, with celebrities from "Weird" Al Yankovic to Robert Zemeckis to the cast of 90210 signing on for cameos. And though it only lasted three seasons (due in part to Fox's continued evolution toward adult drama during that time), pieces of its influence can be seen in nearly every single-cam comedy since.

Ahead of the 25th anniversary of the series finale, creators Phillips and Diamond sat down with THR to discuss their unique approach to TV comedy, the show's legacy and exactly how many panes of glass Principal Musso (Melanie Chartoff) shattered.

I'll just start by asking about the genesis of the show, where did the idea come from, what were the influences and all that type of stuff?

CLYDE PHILLIPS I was doing a show at CBS called Houston Knights, which was in the late '80s and it was CBS' answer to Miami Vice. It was visually cool, musically cool, Stevie Ray Vaughan and all of that kinda stuff. The head of comedy at CBS called me in and said, "You're doing such a great job with this drama. Can you do something for us in comedy?" And so I went home and thought of an idea and was influenced — Lon, what was that Phil Joanou movie?

LON DIAMOND Oh, Three O’clock High? Which we watched a bunch.

PHILLIPS Three O’clock High. I went home and came up with a couple of one-liners about how to do a high school show and came back to, basically, what if the most popular kid in school is kind of like Tom Sawyer, which was actually another influence. He's the guy who when he's gonna paint the fence, finds somebody else to paint the fence, and then the person that painted the fence thanks Tom Sawyer for it! And they bought it in the room. But they said, "You have not written a comedy before. We'd feel a lot more comfortable if you would write this with somebody else who has done comedy before." So Lon was my eighth choice. (Laughter.) No. They gave me a bunch of scripts to read, and in the box of scripts was a feature that I still remember the title— it was called United Estates — and it was written by Lon Diamond. And I loved it. So we got together for lunch in the Valley and just hit it off. And Lon and I to this day are still great friends. And then we worked out a story and wrote a script. And Lon, monitor me on this — the script was way too out there for CBS. They didn't really know what they were getting into when they asked us to come up with something that was stylish and crazy.

DIAMOND CBS, even then, was an older-skewing network. Every year they were trying for the youth show that wouldn’t work.

PHILLIPS So CBS passed on it, and we were very disappointed. And then my agent got it to Fox, which was just starting out [Fox launched as a broadcast network on Oct. 9, 1986]. And Fox immediately saw the potential in this and bought the script, and then put us into rewrites. And while we were doing the rewrites, each executive that would give us notes would then either get fired or get hired somewhere else, and they would bring in another executive and we would keep redoing the notes. I remember Lon and I had an office at Fox, and we would just watch the parking signs get painted over.

DIAMOND I remember the one office, we were kicked out for The Simpsons.

PHILLIPS Oh, The Simpsons, that's right. That's just a flash in pan, that show.

Yeah. Never heard of it.

PHILLIPS So then they picked up the show and we had to hire a writers room. And we gave a lot of people their first jobs that have gone on to become well-known showrunners around town. But back then it just was a bunch of writers sitting in the room, thinking about, "How crazy can we get and still tell a story?" Meanwhile, we can't believe we're getting paid to have this much fun. We hired a lot of directors, gave a lot of directors their first staff jobs — Bryan Spicer, Rob Bowman, Larry Shaw — and told them, "If you can think of it, we can shoot it." Any piece of equipment you need. In fact, Brian Spicer invented what he called the "Spicer Spinner" so that you can go horizontal 360 with the camera and get just amazing shots.

DIAMOND They were very experimental, and they had some fun trying to outdo each other with shots. So there was this friendly rivalry, very friendly rivalry. We were all the beneficiaries. Again, it was if you could think of it, we could do it. So we'd break the fourth wall —

PHILLIPS Voiceover, the internet —

DIAMOND Yeah, the thing on anticipating the internet. We had Parker (Corin Nemec) in the one where he started out instant messaging a girl in the computer club. And he didn't see her. And then she turned out to be a little plus-sized. And then he dates her to fight all the prejudice at the time. We'd have TV screens, and we just would do it where the TV screens you could see in and you could talk to them. And there's no FaceTime at the time. But whatever. If you could think of it, you could do it.

I had a couple things written here to ask about that you guys have touched on: breaking the fourth wall, the technological elements of the plots, the magical realism elements in this show …

PHILLIPS The Marx Brothers were a big influence on us.

DIAMOND And remember we mentioned Terry Gilliam at that point too. Monty Python, some of that. But are we speaking about style now?

The magical realism was one thing that, rewatching the series, really struck me as something that was new at the time. I was wondering if you guys want to talk a little bit more about what went into those early decisions of, you know, Jerry's (Troy W. Slaten) magic trench coat, Lemmer (Taj Johnson) teleporting, Kube's (Abraham Benrubi) superhuman strength and all this type of out-there stuff that was incorporated into this otherwise realistic series?

PHILLIPS Sure. Well basically, as I'm sure you've heard before, there's only one story in the world: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. Every show, every movie, every play. So that was always basically the engine of the show. But we wanted to make it as original and as much fun as possible so that it represented, it resembled nothing else that was on television.

DIAMOND It was another weapon to tell a story. It was just freeing.

PHILLIPS We would also have these meetings called "look at the film" meetings where we would talk to the director about what he or she had in mind. And then we would make suggestions and we'd say, "You can go farther than that. It doesn't have to look like anything else that's on television. We have already gotten permission to go that far." There is one episode, "Close But No Guitar," where Mikey (Billy Jayne) is on the roof of [the school] where they hang out, and there’s a bunch of fans below, and he takes the guitar and he throws it down to the lucky girl. We put a guitar cam on there. Decades before that stuff was done. Now you'd put a GoPro on that thing. I'm not sure we invented it, [but] we had to figure it out because we knew the shot we wanted and it turned out great.

DIAMOND A natural segue is those three-hour production meetings. Because there was so much to work out in terms of whatever the shots, costumes, stunts, props. We had guys that had blown up stuff on Magnum P.I.

PHILLIPS Yeah, he almost burned down Sony Studios because he had napalm. This is our special effects guy, he had napalm in his truck and it caught fire. Luckily a security guard saw it and they were able to put it out. But we did things where Kubiac kills a bus, he punches a bus. We had to then figure out how to make that entire bus collapse.

DIAMOND You've got a production meeting, you're talking about Kubiac, you're saying, "There's rumors that he ate a freshman." And then I'll be damned, every time he took a drink of water we cut to the freshman in his stomach.

PHILLIPS No, Jell-O. Kubiak is eating Jell-O and it's falling on the freshman. (Laughs.)

DIAMOND There was one where Lemmer was searching for Kubiac. Of course we had the fog in the hallway and he had a bloodhound and a lantern.

PHILLIPS Right, that's right. With Andrew Prine as the big-game hunter, and he shoots Kubiac with a dart.

DIAMOND He left out a Ho Ho to lure Kubiac out. And then we did a Mutual of Omaha thing and tagged Kubiac with a number. So completely nuts. (Laughter.)

What were the origins of the Lemmer character?

PHILLIPS We wanted a spectral character. As you may remember, Musso will blow a dog whistle and only he will hear it. Or he will appear hanging upside down like a bat. We always thought that maybe he was part vampire way before vampire stuff was being done. And he also secretly was in love with Miss Musso. She would walk out of the room and he would smell the air as she walked away. And also, remember, the breaking the glass any time she slammed her door.

I was going to ask about that, if you had any idea how many Musso doors you broke.

PHILLIPS We probably broke three per episode, so that's two hundred doors.

DIAMOND Not only that but we had to find inventive ways to—

PHILLIPS Just to make it different. One time she slammed the door and the glass all fell away but the letters all still magically, "Miss Musso, Principal," all magically stayed in place. Or there's another time when she slammed it and it didn't break and she turned around and gave it an evil look and it broke on its own.

DIAMOND Yeah, she'd look it into breaking. And if she was having a bad day, she couldn’t break it. So we did whatever we could to flip that around every episode.

PHILLIPS And then we got all these great people who'd come on and guest-star for us. Sonny Bono guest-starred in an episode as a record producer. We had Harry Anderson and Charlie Rocket and Ziggy Marley and "Weird" Al Yankovic.

DIAMOND Phil Hartman, Marty Mull

PHILLIPS Ozzy Osborne.

DIAMOND Remember we had Bob Zemeckis on?

PHILLIPS We had Bob Zemeckis on, who at the time was married to the woman who was playing Parker's mother, Mary Ellen Trainor, who sadly has passed. And he was making the documentary of a young girl who was becoming a rock star and she throws everybody out because she's having a breakdown and she turns to Zemeckis with the camera on his shoulder and says, "You too, Spielberg, get outta here!" We could do anything. Just as long as the story had a beginning, middle and end and a purpose and was funny.

The cameos was another thing I'd written down. Were these people reaching out to you?

PHILLIPS As the show got more popular, and it became appointment television people started calling up. I remember one time the phone was ringing, there were a couple of phones going at the same time. So I picked up the phone in my office and said "Hello?" and he says, "Yeah, yeah, Clyde Phillips, please?" And I said, "This is he, who is this?" "This is Little Richard, I want to be in your show!" (Laughs.)

So the show during the first season was heating up. What was the reaction from the Fox execs?

PHILLIPS At first the network didn't know what they had. And then [Peter] Chernin called me one day and said, "We love this show but I gotta tell you, it's getting a little repetitive." And he was right. So that gave us license to mix it up and make it even crazier. It was really a good executive call on Peter's part, to just be upfront about it.

DIAMOND As it went on, there was a little tussle with the network because we had to blend in with 90210 and some of the more CW-ness of the shows that they were putting on. So there was a little push in the later seasons to sort of broaden the audience. And they wanted more romance. So we gave Parker a girlfriend, which is always the wrong thing to do. You never want to see Sam kiss Diane on Cheers. Once you do, the competition is over. So the show flattened out a little bit in the third year.

In the second or the third season you guys started to get into more teen issues, like drinking, sex, stuff like that. Was there any conscious decision to avoid that stuff at the beginning?

PHILLIPS The danger is when you do a high school show, as everyone who has does one knows, is that your characters have to grow and in fact they have to grow out of high school. So it was a natural evolution. We set up this zany, Marx Brothers, Monty Python world and once the world was set up, then we wanted our characters to grow, we wanted to start dealing with real problems that teenagers face. Problems are opportunities.

DIAMOND One other thing I definitely want to say watching these again, obviously the style jumps out, obviously all the machinations and angles and stuff like that. But I was very surprised rewatching them how heartwarming they were in the end.

Can you guys talk about the cancellation of the show a bit?

DIAMOND It was Fox looking a bit to broaden the audience, get more adult. It fit in great in Fox in the beginning, but they were kind of metamorphosizing into more CW-ish …

PHILLIPS As the show evolved, and the network also evolved, we just weren't evolving in the same way.

DIAMOND Today, with all the channels and sources, it would be on a network that would have a dedicated fit like that. You can see its progeny on Nickelodeon in some ways. And Disney.

PHILLIPS Malcolm in the Middle.

DIAMOND Yeah. Bill Lawrence was in my office at Fox and he was saying, "I love the style of the show, it's inspiring, and I'm gonna take it and somehow find a way to use it in future shows." And from him came Spin City and Scrubs.

Have you heard anything from other showrunners when you were doing later shows, like "Oh I took this or that from Parker Lewis"?

BOTH All the time.

PHILLIPS I'm hiring a writer and she'll say to me, "Parker Lewis changed the way I looked at writing and the way I looked at entertainment." They're talking about making the impossible, possible on film. And again, we took it from the Marx Brothers and Max Schulman and all these other giants, we just made it accessible and at the right moment, 1990. TV was ready for a change and we did it.

DIAMOND Just wanna say I think it's still ripe for a reboot, if possible. Clyde and I have loosely chatted about that. It'd be interesting to see where they are today.

PHILLIPS Good luck with that, Lon. Nice try! (Laughter.)