By Sara Schieron
Steve Skrovan was a stand-up comedian when he met Henriette Mantell. Mantell had worked for Ralph Nader's office in the late 70s and had stories about the bizarre and incredible requests Nader would get from people around the country. At that point, Nader's political celebrity revolved around his consumer watch-dogging. Nader had dedicated his career to implementing the health and safety standards we take for granted today: seat belt laws, wholesome meat, worker safety laws, the list is pages long.
But Skrovan and Mantell didn't begin exploring the story of Ralph Nader as a documentary first (it would become the film An Unreasonable Man). Comics by trade, Skrovan and Mantell began their look at Nader to fulfill a development deal for a sitcom.
Why a sitcom?
Even before I was a writer, I thought, "That's a good setting for a show: a public interest office where you have quirky people coming in." A lot of sitcoms are a ploy to get disparate people into one room. That's kind of a key. So that office setting seemed like a natural. And 15 years later, I'm in Los Angeles, and I'm a writer for Everybody Loves Raymond, and I get a development deal. I'm looking for an idea, and I run in to Henriette, and I ask her if she did anything with her Ralph experience, and we started talking and collecting funny anecdotes, and she started introducing me to some of her friends from that time.
I even wrote an outline for the pilot, but during the course of this, I was also reading about Nader, and the more I read, the more I was impressed with his accomplishments. I mean, I had lived through them and I was barely aware and intrigued that this one person was behind so many changes. I looked back and found that there had not been one definitive documentary about this man, and with Henriette and her associations, and their access to Ralph and his associates, the documentary idea started taking over the sitcom idea.
Do you still plan to do the sitcom? It could reach a really wide audience. I can see it now: Flashback: "Nader Passes Wholesome Meat Act," "Hot Dogs Impure," "Missiles of Death."
Definitely. I've actually thought more seriously about it since the movie. You'll reach maybe thousands of people in movie theaters. You'll reach more through the DVD, and then, I think we're probably going to be on PBS and maybe start into the millions there, but I know from Everybody Loves Raymond, you can reach more people in one night on TV than you could in 10 years in theaters. So don't be surprised if this comes back.
Looking back on it, the film's probably a necessary thing for me to do. I learned so much more about the subject doing this, so I can write this whole movie off as research. Obviously, the sitcom would be fictionalized; it wouldn't be about Nader. There's a 10-minute-long section of the film that Henriette starts off, talking about the Reagan years and Dupont Circle. That section is the period of time the sitcom would take place in.
So it'd be a period sitcom?
Well, that's the time we'd draw from: the characters in the office, the quirky mail...
The Fed-Ex'd lung?
Yes. That's the section we'd adapt. Tiny story about the hot dogs: It was ongoing, getting footage from footage houses, and what happens is, they give you lists of log lines to choose from. In one list we got there was the log line: "Nader Called Hot Dogs Missiles of Death," and I said, "That's funny. Order that one." And we saw it and it was just a clip of this one guy saying, "I don't believe as Mr. Nader does..." - this was a guy you couldn't cast any better! - "that hot dogs are missiles of death."
I had the footage and it was only later on that I interviewed James Fallows. He was saying, "One time we sat around talking about what to call hot dogs... guided missiles? I can't remember." And I knew it, and I said, "missiles of death," and he laughed and we were able to cut that together. Serendipitous moment.
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