Book vs. TV Show: “Accidentally on Purpose”


Earlier this summer, I read Mary Pols' memoir Accidentally on Purpose, which chronicles the author's one night stand at age 39 that turned into a baby and single motherhood. (My review of the book is here.)

Accidentally on Purpose was also the inspiration for a new sitcom on CBS with the same name. It stars Jenna Elfman in the Mary Pols role -  a San Francisco movie critic who meets a younger man in a bar and ends up pregnant with his baby. CBS sent me a preview copy of the pilot of this sitcom – which is premiering tomorrow night (Monday 9/21) at 8:30PM. I was also invited to participate in a conference call with Mary Pols, Jenna Elfman, and Claudia Lonow, a producer and writer on the sitcom.

First, the sitcom. It's… a sitcom. Not a quirky, "Office"-style sitcom, but a traditional, laugh track sitcom (though Jenna said that it is taped in front of a live audience). It's clever, and Jenna is appealing, but it wasn't as touching or satisfying as the book. Of course, they are different formats with different purposes, so it's sort of unfair to evaluate them in the same light. If you enjoy sitcoms, give this one a try – the premise is different and I liked the cast. I look forward to tuning in to episode #2 to see how it develops.

I am interested in the process of transforming a book into a TV show, and here are some highlights from the conference call with Jenna, Mary and Claudia:

Jenna, what appealed to you about this role? JE: There was so much about Mary that wasn't like me – a new tone of humor I loved and wanted to express. I want to be her and be funny like that. I found her voice, charm and wit appealing. After I read it, I couldn't stop thinking about the script.

Jenna, why another sitcom?JE: Of all of my endeavors, TV comedy is the most satiating for me. I love a live audience. I love making people laugh. Expressing myself comedically is the most pleasurable of the arts for me.

Mary, how did you go from publishing a book to a script within a year? MP: I did nothing. My agent did it. She shopped it around, and the book was optioned before it was even published.

The book is thoughtful and intimate, and the show is comedic. Will it tackle the more difficult issues? CL: Yes, we will deal with some of these issues while still maintaining the form of comedy. There can be substantive issues underneath a comedy.

Jenna, of all the roles you've had, what is it like portraying someone's life? Is there more pressure? JE: I scared Mary with admiration and love when I met her. I couldn't leave her side. I love her voice and wit. CL: I was fortunate to have two smart and witty women contribute to this character. MP: I wouldn't want her to feel any pressure! It's important to let go – there are things about the show I can't change, things that won't fit into a sitcom.

Mary, your family had different reactions to your being a single parent. How do they feel about the TV show? MP: They are showing great humor, and were excited to see the pilot. The one person who hasn't been as excited is Matt [the father of Mary's baby].

Mary, there are a lot of changes on the show, compared to the book. What do you think of them? MP: The show is a different thing. Matt not having a job, for example, was really important in real life. It would have been good for the show – and timely! – but it's Claudia's baby and she reshaped it as she wanted it. CL: Making Matt employed on the show makes storytelling easier.

How do you guys do it all? MP: I try as hard as I can and try not to beat myself up if I am not the perfect mom on any given day. My boy knows how much I love him. Most days he gets a vegetable. I stay up really late at night writing – that's my life. I also get a lot of help from Matt. JE: I have a great husband – he's a saint. He does night duty so I can sleep. My son and I are together a lot on set – he sits on my lap when I do makeup.

Mary, what have you learned about yourself after writing the book? MP: I took a long look at my behavior, especially toward Matt. Writing the book tells you what a jerk you can be. I was not so nice to this nice person. We started getting along better. If I were writing the book now, I'd have fewer doubts about Matt, because they're gone.

Mary, do you have any regrets? MP: I can't regret a book! What are you going to do? It was a story that needed to be told. I'll never have another date, but I have my kid. People have asked, "Won't you be embarrassed when your kid reads it?" I heard Sue Miller speak once, and she said that her kids had no interest in reading her books. If my son wants to read it, there won't be any surprises. He knows his parents aren't married, and that they really love him. He will see sex and doubt but take love away from it.

Mary, what are you working on now? MP: I am writing a book now. My day-to-day life hasn't changed much since the book. I still can't afford to buy a house, but I did buy a sofa.

Thanks to Jenna, Mary and Claudia for taking the time to talk to bloggers!