Talking television with Tom Werner

by Jason Madanjian / Beacon Staff • September 13, 2012

Foley werner
Tom Werner talks to Emerson College about his achievements in television and what it takes to make it in the business.
Courtesy of Lauren Foley
Tom Werner talks to Emerson College about his achievements in television and what it takes to make it in the business.
Courtesy of Lauren Foley

Roseanne wins the lottery. Theo Huxtable learns the value of a dollar. Eric Forman gets busted for smoking pot in his basement. These classic sitcom moments all stemmed from the brain of Tom Werner, who visited Emerson College Monday to talk about his career, his legacy, and the future of television. 

The event was held in The Bright Family Screening Room at the Paramount Center and hosted by Jonathan Wacks, professor and chair of the visual and media arts department. Werner served as executive producer on numerous television shows including The Cosby Show, Roseanne, and That 70’s Show.

Werner talked in length about his most well - known creation, The Cosby Show. Headlined by comedian Bill Cosby, the show went on to become the number one show in the ratings for five straight seasons during the 1980s. 

“It was a show everyone could identify with,” said Werner, mentioning President Obama crediting the show for moving race relationships forward. “There wasn’t a family in America that didn’t want to be a Huxtable.”

In creating The Cosby Show, both Werner and Cosby himself insisted on making Cliff Huxtable a strong father figure, in response to a trend in television shows at the time like Family Ties, in which the teenagers, like Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton, were the smartest people in the family. 

Alexandra Bender, a freshman visual and media arts major, was laughing hysterically alongside the rest of the theater as a clip of The Cosby Show played. In it, Cliff, using monopoly money, demonstrates to his son the importance of a good education in order live the life he wants to. 

“It’s timeless writing,” said Bender. “These characters feel like real, funny people.”

As a producer with numerous hits to his name, Werner was frequently asked throughout the night about how he knew which shows to take a risk on and produce. 

Werner used his TV show 3rd Rock From the Sun, about a group of aliens disguised as an American family, as an example of finding the humor in humanity. 

“It’s less important what the joke is than the honesty behind the voice,” said Werner. “[Every show we did] started with an honest attempt to capture a slice of American life.”

Chandler Kilgore-Parshall, a freshman visual and media arts major, said he relished the opportunity to get the scoop from an industry insider.

“He talked about how the key to making a successful show was to have characters and a setting that were very relatable,” said Kilgore-Parshall. “It’s interesting to see how some things work on TV and others don’t.”

Students were also curious about Werner’s thoughts on the future of television as an entertainment medium.

“I’m not smart enough to know how it’s going to be in 10 days, let alone 10 years,” joked Werner.

He did say, however, that the trend of the single-camera comedy, a proven popular format with shows like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as new technology like Netflix and Hulu, have radically altered the way of the sitcom since the days of the laugh track on The Cosby Show. But some things never change.

“If you are telling a powerful story,” said Werner, “people will find it.”