October 1987 - 'Trying Times,' Public Television's First Comedy Series, Premieres

Geena Davis, Trying Times
Geena Davis was one of the many celebrities to star in the KCET-produced 'Trying Times,' the first comedy series to air on PBS. | Photo: Mitzi Trumbo

On October 19, 1987, the series "Trying Times," co-produced by KCET and TV director, producer, and writer John S. Denny, premiered on PBS as the network's first-ever comedy series.

The weekly half-hour anthology series, which depicted a unique, humorous perspective on the trials and tribulations of contemporary life, featured atypically constructed all-star casts from the worlds of TV, feature film, theater, and performance art.

The premiere episode, entitled, "A Family Tree," was written by playwright Beth Henley, and directed by Jonathan Demme. It starred Rosanna Arquette, Talking Heads' singer David Byrne, and Hope Lange.

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Other episodes featured stars such as Candice Bergen, comedian Steven Wright, Jeff Daniels, Terri Garr, and Geena Davis.

Denny specifically brought the "Trying Times" concept to KCET, with the belief that public television was in need of more humor. KCET President and CEO Bill Kobin agreed, having long wanted to take on a comedy series. Kobin felt that Los Angeles' entertainment industry ties and live stand-up comedy venues were a perfect mix for bringing the series to life. "For KCET and public television this is unique, and as such generates a special kind of excitement," said Kobin.

"The funniest things I've ever seen on PBS are the pledge breaks," Denny said in a 1987 interview with the L.A. Times. "They're very good at doing programming with llamas and insects and sharks, but the only comedy that I remember seeing had a British accent."

The show's writers eagerly took to the series, emancipated from the formulaic constraints of commercial network TV comedy shows. The actors were also enthusiastic about working with quality writers.

However, comedy was a hard sell to PBS viewers, raising funds for the series was challenging, given the network's typical donor base.

"Trying Times" lasted for two seasons, ending in 1989.

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