'Atomic Shakespeare': An Oral History of the 'Moonlighting' Classic

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·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Any time one of your teachers rolled an AV cart into the classroom, it meant at least a brief reprieve from the usual lecturing. And if you were so lucky as to have the teaching aide be “Atomic Shakespeare,” the November 25, 1986 Moonlighting episode that spoofed The Taming of the Shrew and has been a popular teaching tool for English professors ever since, chances are you not only became a Moonlighting fan, but you might have learned to appreciate the comedy stylings of Shakespeare.

"I have a friend who teaches high school English in Santa Cruz, and he used a VHS copy of that episode for his class for a number of years," Moonlighting writer Ron Osborn tells Yahoo TV. “And the one fan letter I have kept was from a father who wrote to us that his son had just undergone major surgery, had just been in the hospital for weeks, and that they were watching that episode and he was laughing so hard… it was the first time he’d seen his son laugh since the surgery, and they had to turn it off. So he was actually asking me for a copy of the show so they could finish watching it. I took the letter to editorial and had them make a tape and sent it to him.”

The Moonlighting-meets-Shakespeare portion of the episode is framed by an intro in which a young boy prepares to watch Moonlighting, but then his mom insists he do his homework — studying for a test on The Taming of the Shrew — instead. He reluctantly agrees, only to reimagine the Bard’s classic through the lens of the gang at the Blue Moon Detective Agency. The episode, the seventh of the series’ third season, found detectives/will-they-or-won’t-they romantic leads David and Maddie (Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd) playing Petruchio and Kate in the classic Shakespearean setting, right down to the grand costumes, bits of actual dialogue from Shrew, a script that unfolds in iambic pentameter, David and Maddie cohorts Miss DiPesto and Bert (Allyce Beasley and Curtis Armstrong) — a couple in the series — playing eventual marrieds Bianca and Lucentio, and a storyline that sees stubborn Petruchio and Kate butting heads the way David and Maddie did throughout Moonlighting.

"It was uncanny how well this worked in the context of the show and in the context of David and Maddie’s, and Bruce’s and Cybill’s, relationships," says Armstrong, an episode scene-stealer who was the only one of the regular actors who had Shakespearean stage experience. "It was sort of everything together."

Petruchio and Kate’s back-and-forth did poke fun not only at Willis and Shepherd’s notoriously fraught behind-the-scenes relationships — in the scene where Petruchio is detailing his dowry demands with Kate’s father, his list includes his own Winnebago, the chance to direct, and a piece of the syndication profits — but gave viewers who were waiting for David and Maddie to hit the hay a preview of coming attractions: Petruchio and Kate share a marital bed, though viewers only saw the afterglow and Willis’s fourth-wall breaking smirk. Says Shepherd of her co-star, “We were very careful to not be lovers in real life, because you can mess with that chemistry on-screen.”

The idea for “Atomic Shakespeare,” which won Emmys for editing, costuming, and hairstyling, and nominations for writers Osborn and Jeff Reno, director Will Mackenzie, and music composition, art direction, and sound mixing, came from Reno’s desire to pen an episode in iambic pentameter.

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"My initial thought was to do it as Hamlet, because it fit the show as a detective story. The uncle who helps the wife kill the dad and all that, and it just felt like a really nice, self-contained detective story that we could spoof, all in iambic pentameter,” says Reno, who, with Osborn, has also been a writer on The West Wing, Night Court, Mork & Mindy, and the canceled-too-soon 1998 romantic dramedy Cupid. “I ran it by Ron, and he hooked into Taming of the Shrew being a better vehicle for it. Not detective-y, but just something where we could examine the relationship in a lot more effective way. It was in that order, and that’s what we pitched to [Moonlighting creator] Glenn Gordon Caron.”

Caron, who says he became a fan of Shrew after seeing a particularly good production of the play starring Meryl Streep and Raul Julia in Central Park, signed off, and the episode was titled “Atomic Shakespeare” because, Caron says, it “sounded cool and conveyed the vague promise of Shakespeare reimagined in a modern way.”

Speaking of the anachronisms: Willis as Petruchio, riding into town on his horse — both of them wearing sunglasses — is the most memorable one in the episode. Where does one procure equine-sized shades? “At the Sunglass Hut. In the back. You just have to ask,” Caron jokes.

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The episode also includes a Western Union messenger, a Whitman’s Sampler, a Willis performance of The Young Rascals hit “Good Lovin’” that gets the whole church dancing during Petruchio and Kate’s wedding, and a BMW logo on the horse’s blanket. Despite the fact that ABC execs told the Moonlighting crew the lavish production — which cost more than $3.5 million in 1986 dollars (more than $7 million today) — was the most expensive hour of TV drama ever made at that time, the network loved the idea of the modern, spoof-y Shakespeare so much they approached Osborn and Reno with the idea of creating a whole series that would revolve around that concept. But “you could do only so many anachronisms,” explains Osborn, and the duo passed.

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The episode, despite its enduring appeal to Moonlighting fans and reluctant Shakespeare students, ended up being one of the series’ lowest-rated episodes ever. “People see those funny costumes and hear that funny way of talking, and they [went] right for the remote,” Caron says. The producers and writers must have known the episode would be a tough sell to fans, as they even wrote a self-referential joke into the final moments: The Moonlighting-loving kid from the beginning bounds downstairs to see if he can catch the end of the episode, only to find out he’s missed the whole thing. “That’s OK. It wasn’t very good tonight, anyway,” his mom tells him. Says Shepherd, “On Moonlighting, we never took ourselves too seriously.”