July 13, 2007 10:23 AM
Who: Steven Peterman and Michael Poryes, executive producers, "Hannah Montana"
When: Thursday, June 28, breakfast
Where: Mel's Diner, Hollywood
Dined On: Your eyes are not fooling you. That is the sign for Mel's Diner on Highland in Hollywood. I met "Hannah Montana" executive producers Steven Peterman and Michael Poryes for Mel's Diner, at Mel's Diner.
It's close to Tribune Studios, where they are in the throes of producing the second season of their tremendously popular Disney Channel series.
"During the season, food is just what gets you through," Steven said. They have been working on the current 30-episode order since October and expect to keep it up until September.
Steven had turkey hash. Michael ordered oatmeal.
I had my usual: Poached eggs, toast, fruit and tea. I also had far more enthusiasm for the food than the showrunners showed.
I see those eyebrows going up.
Nooo, I am not playing faves just because of the restaurant's name.
My breakfast was truly at least as good as the exact same order offered around town for four times the cost.
What's more, the Mel's Diner atmosphere is fun and laid-back and the service is quick. It's smack in the middle of Hollywood, but still a few sweet steps away from the actual fray of Hollywood Boulevard.
It is an easy-peasy central location for folks on either side of the hill. Something to consider for discreet, no-frills breakfast meetings.
When I walked into Mel's Diner, Steven and Michael already were sitting in a window-seat booth. I was immediately impressed by how much energy and personality they both exude. (Bright and early, I might add.)
I downed my tea quickly; if they could keep up with millions of tweenage fans and a young cast, I should do my best to keep pace at breakfast.
I was not surprised to learn they both were performers early in their careers before going on to write and/or produce some of the most successful comedies to air in prime time.
Steven's credits include "Murphy Brown," "Suddenly Susan" and "Becker"; Michael's include "That's So Raven," "Cybill," "The Facts of Life" and "Who's the Boss?"
Steven, who attended Harvard, quit law school to be an actor. Michael left Berkeley to join a comedy troupe and go to "the college of waiting tables." Michael said he got his first agent the classic way: Someone he waited on found him funny. (I did, too, by the way.)
What was remarkable was that these guys have been working together only since the beginning of the show. Michael co-created the show, and Steven joined the project soon after, co-writing the pilot.
I took them to be longtime writing partners as I listened to them finish each other's sentences throughout our meal. They obviously share a similar sensibility.
The dish: The Steven-Michael combo appears to be working.
A few nights before we met for breakfast, "Hannah Montana" rang up its most-viewed episode: 7.4 million people watched Sunday, June 24, at 8:30 p.m., according to Disney Channel. That's a solid number-especially in summer, especially on cable, and especially for a kids show. (Some context: The program with the most viewers in prime time that same night was "60 Minutes" on CBS, earning 8.5 million viewers.)
Also that week, the show's star, actor-singer Miley Cyrus, released her second album, "Hannah Montana 2: Meet Miley Cyrus." It was the top-selling record for the week in the U.S. (Miley's dad is country music recording artist Billy Ray Cyrus; he also plays her dad on the show.)
Add to all the momentum a bunch of recent or upcoming cameos, and the show just may continue to snowball. Season two guests include Larry David, Joey Fatone, Dolly Parton, Vicki Lawrence and Jesse McCartney.
A hit show is always a confluence of things-great writing, production values, casting, promotion, platform, timing, luck.
But Steven and Michael are veterans with a clear vision and deserve some serious credit for "Hannah Montana's" success.
They are, after all, working with a unique set of challenges.
For one thing, cable shows like this typically are made for about half the budget of a typical prime-time comedy.
Also, the show centers on the life of a teenage girl who happens to secretly be a rock star (only a few people in her life know it), so it operates in two different worlds. There's Miley's day-to-day life and then there's her alter ego singer Hannah Montana's life as a performer.
These guys create a truly complex show each week. They avoid obvious jokes, and they aim to be responsible yet subtle with their core 6- to 11-year-old audience.
"We try to make it so adults can watch," Steven said.
"We don't write down," Michael said, adding that in a way it's harder than traditional prime time. "You can't go for the cheap, easy, sexy, edgy funny. There are more restrictions."
The producers both said they feel a sense of personal integrity about this show.
"We see if we can teach some morality, how to be a good person without shooting a flare up," Michael said.
Then there's the little fact that Steven and Michael are grown men writing for a teenage girl character.
That's actually the least of their concerns, they say.
"Everybody has the same insecurities, same fears," Steven said. "When you get older you just have a bigger vocabulary. Michael and I having been performers, we also are familiar with that part of things."
The writing process is very collaborative, they said. The entire staff, which all came out of prime time, writes all the episodes together.
The producers also tell the kids in the cast to flag dialogue if it doesn't sound right to them and to suggest alternatives.
Steven and Michael do all this with a largely inexperienced cast, which must film during limited hours due to child labor regulations.
The producers are quickly bringing the cast along as they go. Their mantra lately is reminding the kids to hear the laugh of the studio audience; it helps with comedic timing.
They say Miley's evolution is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job.
She has literally grown before their eyes. She was 11 when they saw her tape, 12 when they cast her, and now she's going on 15. She's also shot up about a foot in that time, they said.
"We are so lucky to have a show that can be so goofy, so silly, then have emotional moments," Steven said. "In the first season, Miley was more uncomfortable with the more emotional stuff. Now she not only can do it, she loves it."
Miley is grounded and hard-working, they said.
"She drinks it up," Michael said.
"She soaks it up," Steven echoed. "Some of it she was just born with in her genes. She's seen her dad and wants to do this for the rest of her life."
The producers also seem to be getting paid by this show with more goodwill and lifestyle perks than perhaps either has experienced in his career. Steven said he never thought he'd top the experience of working on "Murphy Brown," but just might be doing it with "Hannah Montana."
Steven and Michael said they generally pull off their jobs by working approximately 8 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. Monday through Friday. That's an unusually civilized workday in the world of sitcoms.
"I saw too many suns coming up working on other shows," Michael said.
"We like our families, so we want to go home," Steven said.
Prime time is just plain hard, he added.
"You do the best you can, the show goes on the air," he said. "People say they saw the show, they might say it was cute, and that's about all you get.
"Or they say it's cute but .," Michael chimed in. "On this show we get 'Omigod.' There's so much positive feedback."
"Nobody's getting rich on cable, but everybody is proud to be part of this," Steven said.