PAUL H. WILLIAMS
SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
BRANSON -- As any failed country comic can tell you, there are no safe bets in Branson, the Mall
of America of all things kitschy. Bill McFetridge is willing to gamble that Branson has the makings
of a hit television sitcom, with hillbilly laughs over the antics of the city's newest punch line: Joey
Riley, a putty-faced comic who is causing a ruckus in Mickey Gilley's Theater.
"Joey," McFetridge says, "is a unique entity. He's young and he just took the place by storm." As
the president of Ozark Film & Video in Springdale, McFetridge has spent years making
commercials and informational pieces. Now, he is producing a pilot for a situation comedy
starring Riley, based on his act in Gilley's Theater. Gilley -- known outside country music circles
for his huge Houston night spot, a key setting in the John Travolta vehicle Urban Cowboy -- will
have a part in the new show. So will fellow Branson mainstay Mel Tillis.
In the TV sitcom, titled Life of Riley, Mickey Gilley isn't Mickey Gilley, and Mel Tillis isn't Mel Tillis.
But Joey Riley is pretty much Joey Riley. According to McFetridge, the post-Seinfeld sitcom blurs
real people and real settings with fictional characters and humorous circumstances. It is directed
to look something like The Beverly Hillbillies taking a left on Mayberry R.F.D., and ending up
backstage in their own sound studios.
McFetridge first met the young star of the show about two years ago when producing videos of
Branson stage performances. Like the audiences, he was taken with Riley's presence and the
quick comic mind of his stage persona. Last year, Riley's act won him the Headliner Comedian of
the Year at the Branson Music Awards.
McFetridge, Minnesota native, broke into television broadcasting in the 1970s. He started with
news broadcasts and worked his way into producing and directing. By 1983, he was convinced
that there was an opportunity for independent film and video production in the area. He created
Ozark Film & Video to fill the niche.
His experience in professional video production was a far cry from creating a sitcom, however. He
knew that in order to make a show of prime-time quality, he had some homework to do." I spent
about 18 months researching how to do the show, " McFetridge says." If we were in New York or
L.A., we could have just pitched the concept to producers." Producing the show in Branson, far
removed from Hollywood's critical mass of talent, only stiffens the odds against his project's
success. Just a handful of successful shows, such as The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, have
managed that feat.
His enthusiasm aside, why would McFetridge want to pony up $450,000 on the chance? "The
rewards," he says, "are like the risks -- pretty substantial."
He had, by his own admission, almost everything to learn: financing, marketing, distribution. But
one thing everyone told him was: Start with a writer.
COUNTING ON THE PILOT
Enter Karyl Miller, a veteran television writer-producer and showrunner with an impressive
resume. She began in the early '70s writing for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Later, she was one
of the writers on the pilot episode for the The Cosby Show and staff wrote and produced the first
season's huge hit episodes. Among her credits is an Emmy Award for writing for Lily Tomlin.
Miller is also a fan of country and western music. She spent considerable time in Nashville,
Tenn., while married to songwriter Gary Geld -- whose country hits included "He Says The Same
Things To Me," and "Getting Married Made Us Strangers," written for Dottie West.
The award-winning writer calls Gilley and Tillis "two of my music heroes." So when McFetridge
contacted her earlier this year about writing a sitcom that would include the two country stars,
Miller was "more than a little interested."
She arrived in Branson in June, met with McFetridge, Riley and the others. Then, in her words, "It
was a done deal."
For the writer, however, the hard work was just beginning. Making a TV pilot is a daunting task.
In 22 minutes, it must introduce characters and situations that demonstrate the potential for as
many as 100 episodes. In this case, much depends on being able to do that with a relatively
Riley is a physical comic, with a mobile face and wayward limbs. He exudes the kind of naive
decency that marks him as a direct descendant of Gomer Pyle. But as an actor, he is a raw
talent. So it was decided, McFetridge says, to base the concept "loosely on Joey's life."
His character will be an aspiring musician/comedian in Branson, with the focus on his comic
tribulations behind the scenes, which will all be filmed in Branson. Gilley's theater will be the
backdrop for the performance sequences. The rest of the filming will be done in and around
Tillis' theater, and locations around Branson will provide the exterior shots.
A RILEY YOUTH
Using Riley's life as an approximate paradigm for his character also gives the writer and producer
a lot of usable material.
As with many "overnight sensations," Riley's success has been years in the making. He was born
in 1969 and grew up virtually onstage. His family operated the local Opry in Wylie, Texas, where
he began performing at age 9, showing an aptitude for the fiddle. Along the way, he also
discovered that he could make people laugh, pulling funny faces and wisecracking on stage.
Before he was 17, Riley toured with Capitol Records artist Gene Stroman and played dates in
Nashville where his parents allowed him to attend his last year of high school. They installed a
toll-free 800 number to make sure he was up each morning in time for class.
But Nashville was not the land of milk and honey.
"I was starving to death," Riley says of that time. "I just wasn't making it there."
He returned to Wylie for a while and met Summer, his wife-to-be, while playing in Dallas. Shortly
thereafter, he found work with the touring company Warren Stokes Country Revue out of Eureka
Springs, and eventually settled in Branson in the '90s, just as it was morphing into the new Mecca
of country music.
Still, things were not up to Riley's ambitions. He felt he would never make enough as a musician
to support a family. He had put his instruments up for sale and was ready to go to college in
preparation for a new career when Gilley saw him on Jim Owens' Morning Show and snapped him
"No one ever took a chance on me that big," Riley says. "He's the one who got me in front of
thousands of people."
Riley's evolution as a comic began by accident. When he plays the fiddle, he sometimes keeps
time by clenching his jaw and working his mouth. People said that when he did this, he looked like
the Cajun fiddle whiz Doug Kershaw. With Summer's encouragement, he began to consciously
work these facial tics into his act.
Stokes, who also found Riley funny, persuaded him to do comic turns dressed in outrageously
corny costumes -- something Riley swore after leaving the Revue that he would never do again.
But he had discovered that he liked making people laugh, that he could be more than a musician.
He just wasn't sure exactly what.
When Riley and McFetridge met, that began to become clearer. Once he recognized Riley's
improvisational skills, McFetridge gave him large ad-lib latitude in the All-Stars film.
Although he has plenty of stock jokes in his repertoire, Riley was new to working from a script.
One of the boiler-plate exchanges he and Gilley use on stage involves a seemingly flustered
Gilley telling him to stick to the script. To which Riley replies, "The script ain't funny."
And McFetridge often agreed.
"I really trusted Bill," Riley says. "I liked the way I worked with him. And he just let me fly."
McFetridge repeatedly emphasizes that a key characteristic of the new show-- as is true of
Riley's stage humor -- comes from one of Bill Cosby's dicta abouut comedy: "Keep it clean." Riley
echoes this notion. "Poo-poo" may be as rough as the language gets.
McFetridge runs on informed optimism. He knows the risks. But he also knows talent and has
learned that the market for situation comedy extends beyond the United States to Europe and
Scores of pilot episodes for television series debut each year. Only a handful go into full
production, and many of those fail to survive a season. But television comedy with a Southern
accent has been successful on occasion (witness Designing Women, Evening Shade and The
Jeff Foxworthy Show). And the Branson music scene has proved itself a sustained draw.
McFetridge, Riley, and Miller are banking that a wholesome,
behind-the-scenes look at this facet of show biz, along with a fresh and energetic young face, will
find a network home.
It's a brave gamble -- all just for laughs.
This article was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Tuesday, November 21, 2000