Get back to me: The totally new wave legacy of 'Square Pegs'

The <i>Square Pegs</i> cast: Tracy Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Merritt Butrick, Amy Linker, and John Femia. (Photo: Robert Phillips/Everett Collection)
The Square Pegs cast: Tracy Nelson, Sarah Jessica Parker, Merritt Butrick, Amy Linker, and John Femia. (Photo: Robert Phillips/Everett Collection)

Square Pegs may be best remembered for launching the acting careers of Sarah Jessica Parker and Jami Gertz, who respectively played brainy misfit Patty Greene and social-climbing prepster Muffy Tepperman. But if you were a new wave kid in the early ’80s, chances are you watched the literally totally radical high school sitcom for the music.

Whether it was Devo performing at Muffy’s bat mitzvah (which ranked No. 74 on VH1’s “100 Moments That Rocked TV”); the Waitresses rocking out at the Weemawee High School dance; dopey punk student Johnny Slash’s fictional band Open 48 Hours (featuring real-life Doors drummer John Densmore!) playing a pop-up supermarket concert; Paul Shaffer writing the “snicker-able” and politically incorrect Weemawee fight song; Ricky Nelson’s daughter Tracy Nelson portraying Valley Girl-ish mall rat Jennifer DeNuccio; the opening sax solo by jazz musician and Blues Brothers member Tom Scott; or new recordings by the likes of Billy Idol and Berlin, there was nothing like Square Pegs on major network television at the time. To quote Johnny Slash, it was just a totally different head. Totally.

Unfortunately, Square Pegs was maybe just a little too different. Or maybe it was just too cool for school. The show lasted for only 20 episodes on CBS, and it went off the air 35 years ago, on March 7, 1983.

However, the pioneering program — created by Emmy-winning Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts and music-supervised by future Lenny Kravitz manager Stephen Elvis Smith before the term “music supervisor” was even a thing — remained a syndicated cult favorite after its unjust cancelation. And it undoubtedly opened doors for music-centric scripted shows (from Miami Vice to Glee), zeitgeist-capturing high school series like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, and even the John Hughes movie era.

And who other but Beatts and Smith can boast that they convinced Devo to perform at a fake TV bat mitzvah? That alone qualifies Square Pegs for both the Rock and Roll and Television Halls of Fame.

To celebrate the totally tubular TV show’s 35th anniversary, Yahoo spoke separately with Beatts and Smith about their favorite musical memories from the set. Read on and see why it was truly hip to be Square in 1982.

Yahoo Entertainment: Before Square Pegs, it wasn’t common for scripted TV programs to include current pop music in such a prominent way. But new wave was almost like its own character on the series — it was that important to the show.

Anne Beatts: It was groundbreaking, but nobody [at the network] wanted us to do it, because they thought that it would interfere with the dialogue! And they sure didn’t want to spend the money on it. No one, no one, no one wanted us to do it. But I knew it was important to keep putting music in there.

Stephen Elvis Smith: I think there wasn’t any other show in prime time that was putting pop music into the background then. This was before Miami Vice, even. … Coming from Saturday Night Live, Anne wanted current hit music in the show. She didn’t want canned TV-situation-comedy music.

Beatts: I just remembered how important music was to me when I was back in high school, how we just listened to the same Top 40 songs over and over and over, all the time. I think when you’re that age, music is just tremendously important. So it would have been really hard to do a show about teenagers in any era — except maybe the Victorian era! — without the music being a major element.

Smith: After Square Pegs, it became very popular to lay in pop music as the soundtrack to a TV show. And then the profession of being a music supervisor became very popular.

Well, I of course have to start by asking about possibly the most new wave moment in television history: when Devo played Muffy Tepperman’s bat mitzvah. How did you pull that off?

Beatts: We weren’t sure who we were going to be able to get. I think that we had booked the Clash, and then they dropped out and we had to find a replacement at the last minute. Boomtown Rats really wanted to be the replacement — they sent us a side of smoked salmon, because they wanted to be on the show! But one of the fans of the show happened to be the daughter of a CBS executive, and so when were discussing who we would book, this guy at the network [Harvey Shephard] called up his daughter — and she said she liked Devo. So that’s why Devo was on the show.

Smith: Yes, I remember courting the Clash. I spent a long night at the Westwood Marquis hotel playing cards with Mick Jones, along with one of the writers, Marjorie Gross, and the Clash’s entourage, with Mick’s girlfriend in tow. As the sun was coming up, we went looking for food and ended up on the Sunset Strip. They had removed all the outer facade of the Whisky, which revealed ancient billboards from the ‘60s. I think it was a show with Sam & Dave, the Four Tops, something like that. We posed for photos in front of it. Wish I had [those photos]. I think the camera belonged to Mick’s girlfriend. In the end, Mick couldn’t convince Joe Strummer to do the show. I do remember phone calls to the Boomtown Rats and their label trying to make it happen. It didn’t. Devo almost didn’t happen. Music supervision is never easy.

You mean Devo almost fell through too?

Smith: There was lot of begging and pleading with Billy Gerber, their manager. They didn’t really want to be on the show; they weren’t sure if that was going to be the hip thing to do. Finally they agreed, and we started to build this potato set for them to perform on. Then, the day before we’re going to shoot, I think it was [Devo member] Gerry Casale who didn’t want to do it. Billy called me and said, “I can’t convince them to do the show now.” So we had to get heavy with them. CBS’s legal department called and said, “Look, we built this potato set, this spud set, for Devo, and we’re shooting tomorrow! We don’t have time to get another band! CBS is going to sue Devo!” So in the end, they showed up. They weren’t in the best mood; Gerry didn’t seem to want to do the show, though I don’t think Mark Mothersbaugh had a problem with it. But they worked really hard, all day. We shot the show at Excelsior High School in Norwalk, Calif., I believe in the cafeteria.

How did that scene go over with the public? Devo were pretty weird. Even the character LaDonna Fredericks calls them “weird guys” in that episode.

Smith: There was very little radio in the country that was playing new wave music at the time. But when the Devo episode came up, we were kind of on our last breath to keep Square Pegs alive at that point, and we thought it was such a great episode that I spent an entire week calling every radio station in the country, pleading with them to promote this episode with Devo to save television for rock ‘n’ roll. And they were like, “Devo? That’s not really our format.” But a lot of them ended up talking about the show, and it ended up being the highest-rated episode of the whole season.

Beatts: I have a Devo hat. I have the red hat. They also had these sort of paper-vest things. I had the whole outfit. I don’t know if I still have the paper vest, but I still have the hat!

Another big-name Square Pegs musical guest was John Densmore of the Doors, actually playing drums for Johnny Slash’s new wave band, Open 48 Hours. That was almost an even more bizarre cameo. How did you make that happen?

Smith: Yeah, that’s kind of out-there for an 8 p.m. prime time sitcom! John had been a friend of mine for a number of years. Years before, I’d worked on Mork & Mindy, and he was dating the makeup artist on Mork & Mindy, so we became friends and used to hang out a lot. So when we were doing Square Pegs, Anne said, “Who can we get to be in Johnny’s band that’s famous?” We didn’t have much time. I said, “Well, I know John Densmore of the Doors!” It was an odd pairing, but he was kind enough to do it as a favor to me, and then come back and do [the bat mitzvah] episode. This was 1982. The Doors weren’t that far gone at that point in time, so there was a lot of respect for John. He ended up doing more acting. I did a movie a few years later with Penelope Spheeris called Dudes, kind of a punk-rock cowboy movie, and he played a small part in that that I asked him to do.

Open 48 Hours, formerly known as Open 24 Hours, were actually pretty good. What’s the story behind their original music on the show?

Beatts: The “I’m Tired” thing was just kind of an attitude. I wrote the lyrics to that and the second song, which was called “Get Back to Me.”

Smith: The music for “I’m Tired” was written by a young composer named Jonathan Wolff, who wrote a lot of incidental music for the show. He went on to have quite a good career of his own, and he did the score for Seinfeld. So the classic basslines that began or ended every Seinfeld scene, that was him. He was kind of a square kid. He really didn’t know much about new wave music, but we kept pushing him in that direction, or trying to.

Beatts: Those songs needed to be a little bit on the stupid side. Because Johnny Slash wasn’t exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer. I always said that the thing about Johnny Slash was there’s been a “fire in the computer in his brain.” The synapses didn’t quite connect correctly.

Smith: Merritt Butrick, who played Johnny, was really too old for the part. I think he was 22 or 23 at the time. [Butrick died tragically at the age of 30 in 1989.] But his age kind of worked with the character as well, because he supposedly had been held back several times. I did the costumes for the pilot, so I kind of created Johnny’s look, with the Ray-Bans — pretty much dressed him out of a vintage store that was on Melrose Ave. called Cowboys and Poodles. It was a great source for the punk/new wave look.

Merritt Butrick, aka Johnny Slash. (Photo: Everett Collection)
Merritt Butrick, aka Johnny Slash. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Anne, I know you also wrote the lyrics to the “Square Pegs” theme song. How did the Waitresses come to perform and record it?

Beatts: I had been relying a lot on my friend Lynn Goldsmith, who was a rock ‘n’ roll photographer of note. She had a lot of connections in the music business. I was trying to figure out who would be the best people to do the theme, and I was listening to KROQ a lot, this hip music station in L.A. at the time. [KROQ DJ Richard Blade later appeared in two Square Pegs episodes.] Meanwhile, Lynn was saying to me, “Oh, you should get the Waitresses.” And then I heard this song, “I Know What Boys Like,” and I was like, “Wow! That’s who we should get!” And Lynn was like, “See? I told you!” So it was through her that we were able to get to them. The Waitresses weren’t really tremendously known, they didn’t really ever hit it big, but they were, in fact, the perfect group.

Smith: Remember Anne was living at the Chateau Marmont, and I think the Waitresses were staying there as well. I believe they were up all night in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont, writing that song, and then they had to record it the next morning to complete it in time for the shooting.

Beatts: They actually stayed at the Sunset Marquis. I remember when they arrived. They got to the hotel and they were not allowed to check in, because someone had to put down the “Keith Moon damage deposit.” So I had to go over there with my platinum American Express card and put down a personal deposit in the middle of the night. I remember I went to their room with a bottle of orange juice in one hand, a bottle of tequila in the other hand, and a bag of grass in my teeth, and I knocked on the door.

Smith: Later the Waitresses, for our Christmas episode, recorded a [version of the] song for that episode called “Christmas Wrapping,” which has become a classic rock ‘n’ roll Christmas song now.

So bands would record alternate versions of their songs for you?

Smith: Yeah, it’s interesting: That’s the way we got the music on the show, because we really didn’t have a budget for pop music or a big-name artist. I reached out to all the record labels, and they, at this time, were dying to get exposure for these bands. So we would clear the publishing for the music and then we would have the bands come in the studio. We’d book our recording studio, and they would come in and run through their songs live, so we wouldn’t have to pay a master fee to the record companies. And the record companies were fully on board with this! They helped us do it. So we had Billy Idol, Josie Cotton, Berlin come in.

<i>Square Pegs</i> recordings. (Photo: Stephen Elvis Smith)
Square Pegs recordings. (Photo: Stephen Elvis Smith)

We would record these songs, and then we’d have this little pool of songs that we would be able to draw from when we had a scene that needed music. A device that we use to insert music into the show — and this was my idea — was to have the high school radio station, so Johnny Slash and [his TV sidekick] Marshall Blechtman would run that station. And then we had posters of all the bands that we loved all over the radio station’s wall. And we’d have a scene where they would drop the needle on one of these songs.

They were great live recordings. They really had a lot of energy to them. I still have the 24-track masters too. I ran into Billy Idol earlier this year, and I said, “I have those 24-tracks. Do you want to do something with them?” And he didn’t seem that interested. And Keith Forsey, Billy’s producer, he mixed it! I probably should reach out to Billy’s management…

The label on a box of <i>Square Pegs</i> recordings. (Photo: Stephen Elvis Smith)
The label on a box of Square Pegs recordings. (Photo: Stephen Elvis Smith)

Probably the most obscure act to appear on the show was Jimmy and the Mustangs. Who were they?

Smith: I think we wanted the Stray Cats for that scene, and Claudette Wells, who played LaDonna, was friends with Slim Jim Phantom from the band. He wanted to do it, but I don’t think Brian Setzer wanted to do it, or maybe they were on tour. For whatever reason, we couldn’t get them for that episode, and Anne really wanted a rockabilly band that wasn’t on the road, so we got Jimmy and the Mustangs. But I actually wanted Wham! for that scene.

Wait. What? Wham! were considered for Square Pegs?

Smith: Yeah, the labels were really pitching bands to us, and it was more arguing with Anne Beatts that “this band is going to be big, and we should put them on the show.” CBS really wanted Wham! to be in that basement party scene; Wham! was just breaking in England and hadn’t been released in the U.S. Also, Boy George and Culture Club — CBS really wanted them on the show, and I wanted them on the show, but I just couldn’t convince Anne to work them into the script. She just said, “Look at this guy. How do we weave him into a story in a high school?”

Madonna was somebody else that I wanted. Her record had not come out yet, but Warner Bros. sent it to me, and I was saying, “This girl’s going to be big. We should put her on the show!” And it never happened either.

Well, Jimmy and the Mustangs were still pretty cool.

Smith: I think Tracy Nelson was a big fan of Jimmy and the Mustangs. She liked rockabilly, she liked the Stray Cats — kind of like her dad Ricky Nelson’s music, I guess.

What kind of music did Sarah Jessica Parker like?

Smith: Sarah loved Billy Joel. And I hated Billy Joel. She kept saying, “Don’t you just love Billy Joel?” And I said, “No, Sarah. I don’t. I really don’t want him on the show.”

Beatts: I don’t really know what her musical tastes were. Or what anybody’s musical tastes were, for that matter. It was just sort of what my musical taste was. Or like, what would Johnny Slash have been listening to at the time?

There’s a sort of fanfic-like theory that instead of The Carrie Diaries, the real prequel to Sex and the City was Square Pegs, and that Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, Patty, grew up to be Carrie Bradshaw.

Smith: Well, I think it’s a logical progression for Sarah’s character, but I don’t think we can claim a copyright infringement! I do think for fans of Square Pegs, it was not a large jump to see Sarah Jessica Parker and this character as a writer, because in Square Pegs, Patty is a smart girl. She’s writing poetry and stories. The Patty character in Square Pegs is actually based on Anne’s life, as being the kind of odd girl who was very bright and a good writer, but always kind of put down by the hip kids.

Beatts: Well, it was the prequel to Sex and the City! Because, basically, I felt that’s what would have happened. I mean, what happened to me was I grew up and became a writer that lived in New York, and this show was based on my high school experience. So it seemed like that would have been what happened to Sarah Jessica Parker’s character — that she would have grown up and become a writer in New York.

Well, it’s one way to imagine Square Pegs living on. It was such a cool show, with so much going for it. Do have any theories why it lasted only one season? And then the same thing happened in the ’90s and 2000s with My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks

Beatts: Oh, you mean those shows that totally ripped us off? [laughs] I mean, we were the first, the paradigm for that. And yeah, those shows weren’t successful either. Maybe people didn’t want to see shows about being unpopular. Maybe people wanted to see show more like Happy Days, or one of those shows where like they’re impossibly rich and popular, like Beverly Hills, 90210. Interestingly, remember that show called Popular? Well, that show’s executive producer, Greer Shephard, was the girl I mentioned who picked Devo. She was in high school at the time!

Head of the Class was another show that copied us quite a bit. They actually called me up, the producers of Head of the Class, and started asking me: “Who was your costume designer? Who did your music?” And I mean, I wanted to say, “Um, gee, would you like some of our unused scripts as well?”

Merritt Butrick, aka Johnny Slash, and John Femia, aka Marshall Blechtman. (Photo: Everett Collection)
Merritt Butrick, aka Johnny Slash, and John Femia, aka Marshall Blechtman. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Smith: There were only three channels at that time, so I think Square Pegs kind of lived around 20-24 in the ratings of the top 50 shows. However, in today’s market, the number of people watching that show would far exceed the No. 1 show on the air today. The show was extremely popular with kids; I don’t know if it was with their parents, though. Maybe CBS was looking at advertising dollars. At the end of the day, that’s always what it’s about for a network.

Beatts: Really, it was just the difficulty of being ahead of its time. Because back then, they wanted to have everybody watching TV all at the same time, together, like around the fireplace. The networks were still clinging to this concept, which was totally changing and wasn’t the way people were watching TV anymore. I mean, if you had a show now that every adolescent girl in the country was watching, it would be gold! That would be like The Vampire Diaries or something. You know what I mean? But back then, it was like, “We don’t have adults 18 to 36. Male adults.” That was why we had Bill Murray guest on the show, because they were saying, “We don’t have men watching the show.” So I go, “OK, who’s the top male star in the country right now? Bill Murray? OK, let’s get him.” But it didn’t matter, because guess where [CBS] promoted that episode? On Saturday morning, with the cartoons.

Smith: I think most everybody’s favorite scene from the show was when Bill Murray [who played a substitute teacher] is dancing with Sarah Jessica Parker to Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself.” The night before he was supposed to be on the set, Anne got a call from Bill Murray, and he said, “Look, I’m in Mexico. I’ve been arrested. I’m in jail. I’m not going to be on set tomorrow.” It caused this great panic: “What are we going to do? We’re shooting tomorrow? Who’s going to play this character?” But he was just pulling her leg. It wasn’t true at all.

Bill Murray on <i>Square Pegs</i>. (Photo: Everett Collection)
Bill Murray on Square Pegs. (Photo: Everett Collection)

Was there any chance for Square Pegs to be revived for a second season?

Smith: Well, there was an article that came out months after the show went off the air in TV Guide [“Anatomy of a Failure: How Drugs, Ego, and Chaos Helped Kill a Promising Series,” which placed most of the blame on Beatts’s lack of experience as a showrunner]. The article accused everybody of being on drugs, and there was fear that because there were underage kids in the cast, that they were being exposed to drugs. I don’t know, there might have been some fear at the network that there would be some backlash.

Beatts: It was a devastating article, and it cost me probably about $100,000 in terms of what my [future] negotiating price was. It was sort of my fault, in a way. This writer was like, “Oh, I’m such a fan of Square Pegs and I want to come and hang out on the set, blah blah blah.” And I was like, “OK, sure!” And the Embassy Television people were very annoyed at me, because I hadn’t gone through proper channels to have this guy there. I thought, “What does it matter? He’s a big fan! It’s fine! He works for an obscure newspaper!” Well, guess what? He came up with this whole thing about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, or whatever. I don’t think he implied that much about sex, but he certainly implied a lot about drugs. And he sold it to TV Guide, this sensationalistic article. And then he got a job writing for TV Guide. Boy, was I stupid.

Smith: The under-18 kids [in the cast] were not using drugs. I can say that for certain. I think it was really unfair and outrageous for TV Guide to write that article. At the time, when I was interviewed for it, I told them that: “This is really out of line, and you’re just trying to write a sensational story that isn’t true.” But they went with it anyway.

TV Guide’s notorious <i>Square Pegs</i> story. (Photo:
TV Guide’s notorious Square Pegs story. (Photo:

Gerry Casale from Devo claimed in Heeb magazine that he did cocaine in the trailers with Sarah Jessica Parker and Jami Gertz, and that the girls were hitting on the band.

Smith: I think that came out later [in 2009]. I read it years later, but I don’t know why he would say that.

Beatts: The show was canceled anyway [by the time the TV Guide article ran], so it didn’t hurt the show. But it hurt me personally, a lot, in terms of my reputation and all that. And it was pretty inaccurate. There weren’t a lot of drugs and debauchery connected to the show. I mean, they were kids! How could there have been?

Anne Beatts in 1982. (Photo: Lynn Goldsmith/Everett Collection)
Anne Beatts in 1982. (Photo: Lynn Goldsmith/Everett Collection)

It’s nice that the show is remembered fondly now, though. And it obviously launched quite a few careers.

Smith: Yes, the show launched a music supervision career for me, at the time. I did eight or nine films with Penelope Spheeris, and I did A Different World with Lisa Bonet [the first season of which was co-executive produced by Beatts], and from that, Lisa’s then-boyfriend Lenny Kravitz asked me to manage him.

It’s funny — when I meet people now for the first time, they always want to hear about Lenny, but then when they ask me what shows I’ve worked on and I say Square Pegs, they really go crazy, like: “That was my favorite show when I was in junior high school!” It really seemed to touch a lot of kids, and they remember it today. It’s always really wonderful to hear that. I think Square Pegs did have an impact.

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