By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Which of the following was not in an episode of the 1980s sitcom The Facts of Life: (a) Tootie announces the onset of puberty by yelling "I'm bleeding down there!"; (b) Natalie is nearly date-raped while wearing a Charlie Chaplin costume; (c) Jo catches a teacher doing cocaine; (d) Blair dates a retarded boy.
Trick question. These all happened in episodes of the issues-oriented estro-fest, which aired on NBC from 1979 to 1988. Think of The Facts of Life as the Junior Miss Golden Girls. Except the dotty old broads made out more, were way funnier and had better figures than their schoolgirl counterparts.
If Facts is your favorite TV show past or present—good luck with that adult acne, by the way, and yes, it is sad that you still get tingly down there when you see Scott Baio—you'll either laugh yourself sick over The Facts of Life: The Lost Episode or think it's heresy. Staged by Uptown Players at Oak Lawn's Rose Room (a two-story gay bar that requires the first floor to remain quiet during the show), the two-hour parody-with-music is done in full drag by five male actors who attack their roles with more comic ferocity than the young TV cast ever did. If the girls who originated these characters had been as attractive and comically gifted as the Uptown guys now playing them, they'd still have careers.
The TV series and its R-rated theatrical spoof revolve around Edna Garrett (Paul J. Williams), clucking dorm mother at the tony Eastland Academy girls' school in Peekskill, New York. Her charges, and apparently the only four students living on campus, are: Blair (Chad Peterson), a blond stunner with a huge trust fund, bitchy attitude and bouncy knockers; Natalie (Chris Peterson), an insecure wisecracker built like Chris Farley; Tootie (Cameron Leighton Kirkpatrick), a sprite who scoots around on roller skates and dissolves into spazzy tantrums; and Jo (Kevin Moore), a blue-collar tomboy so butch she has a five o'clock shadow before noon.
In the first act of this "lost episode," the evil headmaster (also played by Chris Peterson, who quick-changes through five different parts) schemes to sell the school, raze the dorm and put Mrs. Garrett out of a job. In one of those typically unrealistic turns of plot, the girls brainstorm ways to earn money to save "Mrs. G." Bake sale? Car wash?
Here playwright Jamie Morris starts borrowing ideas from more than the old NBC sitcom. Blending Risky Business with Best Little Whorehouse, the Eastland four decide to turn tricks to fill the coffers. Act 2 opens with the girls hustling customers (men plucked from the audience, so be ready if you sit up front) in and out of their dorm beds in a scene as raunchy and crisply staged as a good French farce.
There's rarely a second of the Uptown Players' production that isn't gaspingly hilarious. Every character comes more than adequately quipped by Morris. "Being pleasantly plump runs in my family," says Natalie, munching fistfuls of Doritos. Retorts Tootie: "Girl, no offense, but ain't nobody runnin' in your family."
Mrs. Garrett moonlights at her shop, Edna's Edibles, just like on TV. She's named all the coffee drinks after "colorful black celebrities." Any guesses what a "Gary Coleman" might be? (Answer: One short black. And, noting trivia, Facts was a spin-off of Coleman's vehicle, Diff'rent Strokes.)
These little dollops of drollery serve merely as preambles to the really good, much filthier stuff later on. Referencing sex acts, Morris invents euphemisms that could set the short and curlies on end. For lady-parts we get "meat shutters," "beef curtains" and "fruit roll-ups." Self-pleasure with electronic enhancement is described by Mrs. G. as "putting the metal to the petals." Doing it manually is "making your wineglass sing." Comparing notes on technique with the now sexed-up young tarts hanging out in her bakery, Mrs. Garrett remembers her younger days, when she "was as moist as a Sara Lee pound cake."
She gets all the good lines, old Mrs. G. Actor Paul J. Williams, waddling around under 10 pounds of red bouffant beehive, gives some masterful—or would this be mistressful?—line readings. He adopts the quavering delivery of Facts' character actress Charlotte Rae ("Gir-rr-rrls! Gir-rr-rrls!"), staying just this side of over-the-top. The show stops cold when he comes out with a snapper involving an image of a domestic animal and a common condiment (I won't spoil it with a direct quote). The line sends the audience into the kind of thundering, rolling waves of laughter rarely heard in Dallas theater. I wheezed so hard laughing at the joke that the guys next to me asked if I was having an asthma attack.
The cast and designers of Facts of Life: The Lost Episode have triumphed by doing low comedy with high production values. This so easily could have been reduced to a campy skit that still would have been fun to watch. But director Andi Allen, costumer Suzi Cranford, wig and makeup master Coy Covington, and choreographer Linda Leonard have put the polish to every detail. When the girls and Mrs. Garrett launch into "Peekskill's got a whorehouse in it," they sing and dance all-out with layers of harmony and complicated steps.
Every one of these sharp performances owes something to the self-conscious eccentricities of the television cast they're imitating. Williams' scarily accurate Mrs. Garrett is matched by Chris Peterson's scarily accurate Natalie, who laughs at everything she says (just like the TV Nat, Mindy Cohn), even when announcing her parents are dead. Kevin Moore's Jo takes on some of Nancy McKeon's swagger, but Moore doesn't even try to be feminine. He's a guy in a girl's school uniform—much the way McKeon played Jo, come to think of it. Cameron Kirkpatrick looks nothing like Kim Fields, but even on skates he manages to capture the original Tootie's flippy emotional instability. Chad Peterson super-sizes all the annoying affectations of the original Blair, Lisa Whelchel. The exaggerated hair-flipping and Lolita-esque posing become more than visual punch lines; they're comments on the ghastly, amateurish acting styles acceptable in the sitcoms of yore.
Created by comedy team Jenna McMahon and Dick Clair, The Facts of Life offered nine years of thinly written, hammily acted "very special episodes." Like the time Tootie brought home free bongs from the record store. "You put jellybeans in 'em!" she said. (She really should have been in special ed.) Mrs. Garrett at first was aghast at the glass tubes, then reconsidered, saying "I don't like to look a gift bong in the mouth." This was TV circa 1985 on a series that un-ironically titled one of its made-for-TV movie specials The Facts of Life Down Under.
Some now-famous actors passed through the halls of Eastland back then, including George Clooney (who had a recurring role and caterpillar eyebrows), Molly Ringwald (cut after the first season), David Spade and Helen Hunt. In one of its later seasons, the show introduced a new character, Blair's cousin Geri, played by Geri Jewell, a stand-up comedian with cerebral palsy. Her presence may have been the writers' attempt to teach young viewers a lesson in acceptance of disabilities, but it provided some of the most awkward and unfunny moments in sitcom history.
The Lost Episode includes "Geri" in a bawdy cameo that so shocked the opening night audience, someone yelled "You're going to hell!" from the back of the house. Yes, they go there and back, and back again and again.
Playwright Morris, who flew in from his home in Las Vegas for first night of the Uptown production, first found success with Mommie Queerest, a comedy that "reveals" that Joan Crawford was actually a dude. His next play, Lucy & Ethel, will re-imagine the vintage TV pals as Thelma and Louise.
Viewer discretion is advised.