‘OH, People–People, No!’ TV’s Tim Stack on the cult of ‘Night Stand’

The mid-’90s seemed to be the golden age of syndicated television. After the prime-time, major network programming ended, you could search the dials to discover a vast swathe of programming populating the late-night airwaves. From Star Trek: The Next Generation to Freddy’s Nightmares: A Nightmare on Elm Street – The Series to Baywatch to Harry & the Hendersons, there was no end to entertainment possibilities.

However, a little gem of a program entitled Night Stand with Dick Dietrick made the jump from syndicated broadcast TV to a lengthy run on E!, based on the strength of its deadpan comedy, which parodied the massive array of then-hot talk shows like Phil Donahue, Sally Jesse Raphael, and Jerry Springer so effectively, it took many viewers a few minutes to catch on to the fact that it wasn’t real.

Starring Tim Stack as the titular Dietrick, the comedy program would feature many of the members of the Groundlings, where Stack first developed the character containing Dietrick’s character nucleus, along with a cavalcade of guest stars. Surprisingly, despite the show’s strong popularity during its original 1995-97 run, as well as repeats on E!, it’s never made it to streaming or DVD.

I got on the phone with Stack–also one of the show’s co-creators and writers–to discuss not only the enduring cult of Night Stand, but also his career as a writer and actor.

Grumpire: I first became aware of your work at an age that is probably far too young when I saw you on the Tales From The Crypt episode, “My Brother’s Keeper.” That was a show that seemed to relish using character actors such as yourself. There are a lot of people in that programs who are like, “Oh, that guy.” It seems the show was a really high-profile gig for those who got to be on it. Was that the case for you?

Tim Stack: Absolutely, it was because there were so many big names attached to that project as producers–Robert Zemeckis, Richard Donner–a lot of big names and there were a lot of great parts for characters. Also, what they were doing was they were getting some big names to do television. Now, it’s done all the time, but at the time, it was very, very high-end to get on Tales From The Crypt. I was surprised when I got the call because they originally wanted my brother, Pat, who was an actor, but he had just gotten out of show business and got into sales.

So, then I thought, “You know, there’s a friend of mine from the Groundlings named Jon Stark”–who went on to have a great career as a writer and created the show [According to Jim]–“and Jon and I kind of look alike and we’re the same height,” so I called Jon. I said, “Would you want to audition for this?” and he said, “Yeah,” so I called the agent. I said, “Jon Stark’ll come in,” and they said, “Great, come on in.”

When we got to the waiting room, there were two brothers in there who were twins–the Laurance brothers, Mitchell and Matthew Laurance–and one of them was on 90210 at the time and I just thought to myself, “Well this is over. This isn’t going to work,” and then we went in to audition. We were both shocked that they wanted us. Jon and I were just like, “We knew we did well. We were good in the parts, but they’re going to go with the twins–they look alike,” and they said, “No, no: we want you guys,” so we did it and it was a great experience.

It was really hard work and being attached to Jon–that was a whole thing, getting that prosthetic where the two of us are attached at the hip. That was a weird 20-hour day. I reported to work at 3am to get the makeup, but it was great. It was really really fun and every once in a while, I watch it and I still think, “Oh, wow: that’s really, really good.”

You also get that great closing line that is the line of the episode.

I laugh evilly, don’t I? I think that’s what I do.

Yeah, but then you hit on the nurse, saying, “under that crisp white uniform, there’s a studded leather corset just itching to get out,” which when I first saw it, I had no idea what that meant, but the interesting thing is that came in the midst of quite a few recurring character roles on shows like Doctor Doctor and Night Court, and then came Parker Lewis Can’t Lose.

I found an article in The Morning Call from when you were starting Night Stand, where you talked about how the amount of work you put into Night Stand was 20 times what you did on Parker Lewis Can’t Lose for one-tenth of the money. Parker Lewis seems to be a show that disappeared for a while and then when it came out on DVD, folks seemed to rediscover its quirky weirdness.

It was really a great show. I’m so thankful for that show and a guy named Tom Straw, who is a great writer. Tom, his wife, and I had gone to Boston College together. When this part came up, he was sort of the number two guy on the show behind a guy named Clyde Phillips, who’s had a great career on the drama side–Dexter and Nurse Jackie–but Clyde had never really done a comedy, so they brought in Tom who had worked on Night Court and a bunch of other shows. It was just a great show. I have to say, from an artistic standpoint, I think the guys–I say “guys” because I don’t think there were any women, sadly–who were the directors really had the most fun creatively on that show because it sort of became a show about “What can we make the camera do? Can we throw the camera in the air and still get the shot?” That kind of stuff, and as a result, I think it also led to its demise, because it was a very expensive show to shoot.

That said, the other people that had the most fun were the writers. The actors loved it because, first of all, I got to play not as crazy a character as I normally did–or do. Also, I worked one or two days a week. I got network series money and it enabled me to move my family to Santa Barbara because I said to my wife at the time, “It’s never going to be like this again. I will never make this kind of money and work so little, so if we’re going to go, we got to go now, and we went.” I said, “You know, we’ll figure it out once I get up there,” and we did it. That was almost 30 years, so that’s worked out and that was all thanks to Parker Lewis and Tom Straw and Clyde Phillips and Lon Diamond, the other creator. It was a great show. Really fun. The kids were all really great.

One other weird anecdote was–when the DVDs came out, we went to do DVD commentary and everybody showed up and, for me, it was like, “Oh, it’s great to see everybody” and it was, but for those kids, it was sort of their high school reunion. It was their childhood that they spent with these other kids because they would go to class together, then they’d come and work, and it was very interesting to watch them together and weirdly pick up right where they left off, the way you do with old friends. It was fun.

The thing that I find most interesting about your career is that Night Stand‘s Dick Dietrick has this crazy evolution. Based on what I’ve read, he comes from a character, Guy DiSimone, that you created back when you were in in the Groundlings? I’m curious; how did this character evolve from being a nightclub Sinatra impersonator in the Groundlings, and then to the I’ll Do It Guy’s Way special to Night Stand?

It’s not as direct as you are portraying it. What happened was, I was in the Groundlings, and my big character there I had some success with–I did an HBO special and I got a CBS pilot that never went to series, based on the character–was this idiot Frank Sinatra impersonator whose motto was, “Close your eyes: you’ll think it’s Sinatra.” I look nothing like him, sound nothing like him but in his mind, he’s the next best thing, which is sort of what I’ve always made my characters be: they’re always sort of third-rate people who dream of being second-rate, with the exception of Son Of The Beach. That was even more absurd because he really was regarded as the world’s greatest lifeguard.

In the case of of of Dick Dietrick, what happened was there are two guys, Paul Abeyta and Peter Kaikko, who I created the show with and it was their idea. They used to book me as Guy DiSimone for some industrial corporate events. They came over to the Groundlings one night and at the time, I wasn’t doing Guy DiSimone. I was definitely doing Phil Donahue with Lynne Stewart–who plays Miss Yvonne [from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse] and is in Son Of The Beach and in Night Stand–as Dr. Ruth.

It was a very popular Groundlings sketch: Dr. Ruth was big at the time and Phil Donahue was big at the time, so they got the idea of kind of spoofing daytime talk because of Jenny Jones and Richard Bey and all those shows. They came to the Groundlings because of Guy DiSimone but they end up seeing Phil Donahue, and they came to me and said, “What do you think about this daytime talk?” and I said, “That’s a really funny idea. I think that’s something I can do.”

One little side story that’s kind of name-dropping, but–I had sort of walked away from acting at that point. This is mid-’90s and I had a couple of kids and I just thought I need to get into writing because it can be more lucrative and it’s just more steady and then they came to me and they said, “Do you want to do this?” I had just run into Jonathan Winters on the street in Santa Barbara.

Jonathan Winters was a guy who would talk for two hours and ninety percent of what came out of his mouth was crazy and eight percent of it was hysterically funny and two percent of it was brilliant and one of the things he said to me was, “You know, if I had to do it all over again I would do one thing.” I just thought to myself, “That’s so weird–that Jonathan Winters, who made an incredible career out of doing multiple crazy characters–would say, “I would do one thing.”

So, when these guys came to me about the daytime talk I said, “You know, there’s one thing I do and it’s play that knucklehead who’s a third-rate person who thinks he’s second–who dreams of being second-rate, anyway.” That was Guy DiSimone but it was also the same thing for Dick Dietrick: he was just kind of an idiot who somehow got on daytime talk. We always made jokes on the show about Dick “owning 3am.” That was his time slot: “Don’t mess with 3am. I own it. You put the juice man on just before Dick Dietrick: it’s gold.” That’s how the Groundlings birthed Dick Dietrick.

The crazy thing about the show is that the story of the promotional push ahead of its release is a story in and of itself. It garnered this massive write-up in Variety about the lengths to which you all went to get these stations to take on the program in syndication–up to and including calling and leaving messages on people’s voicemail and sending them presents. Where did that marketing concept come from? It seems like that is far above and beyond the usual VHS cassette and a glossy photo.

It was beyond brilliant. It was not my idea. The distribution company was a company called Worldvision that’s no longer and there was a guy there named Gary Montanus, who unfortunately is no longer, as well. They thought, “Let’s put out Dick Dietrick as a character and just get Dick Dietrick in people’s minds,” so they slowly rolled it out as, “Hey, it’s Dick Dietrick: I’ll see you in New Orleans” or wherever the convention was. “Can’t wait to see you!” They just kept building and you’re right: they would send flowers to the assistant of the station manager. They would send weird presents, to the point where the company they hired to actually do everything was in a real town called Media, Pennsylvania.

I grew up there. I know all about Media but, if you get a package from there and you look at it, you think, “That’s a fake post office.” People thought they were being stalked or worse: literally, calls were made to the FBI to find out, “Who is this Dick Dietrick?”, because it gets into FCC stuff, and “I’m afraid of Dick Dietrick,” but then what happened was the word got out that, “Oh, Worldvision has this show,” and then, finally, they had to get Channel 9 in New York to take the show.

It was a surprise: they bring the stage manager up to their suite, they put on the pilot and the first thing out of my mouth is, “I’m Dick Dietrick and tonight on Night Stand, we look at sexaholics,” and then suddenly, the guy goes, “Oh my god, you guys!” and you sort of got the feeling like, “You know, this might have shot.”

By the end of the first day in the convention, it was just like, “Oh my god! You got a show. You are going to be on television with Dick Dietrick!” It was just shocking and it was, I think, the last time maybe a show sold on the convention floor in syndication–not that that world even exists anymore, but at the time, it became the buzz of the convention that there was a spoof of daytime talk and it was going to compete with Saturday Night Live. We were a one-hour syndicated show with two half-hours per hour. Then the E! channel came in the next year and it ran for four years.

The crazy thing about that is, according to the Variety article, at the end of that convention you were in 74 markets that represented 67% of U.S. TV watchers, which is just crazy numbers.

Wow, I’m impressed. [laughs] I mean, it was weird and they weren’t making a ton of money. Part of the reason that show got on was there’s a guy–an executive named Larry Little–and Larry had just gotten a deal with Blockbuster. He had all this money to spend and he was he’s a very intense, compulsive guy and he just loved this and he wanted to do a project right away. When we pitched it to him, he was very new: there wasn’t even furniture in the business, but he was very compulsive and he got these guys at Worldvision to do it and somehow, within literally six weeks, we pitched it, we wrote it, shot the pilot and then it got to syndication.

When they brought in E! to be a partner, Night Stand was the first show to ever run on cable and in syndication at the same time. Now it’s done all the time, and then it’s on streaming, too. There are three platforms you can run shows on now. Back then, we actually lost some markets because we were going to be on cable too–like, “You can’t do that to us!” and in other markets, we got downgraded to literally 3am, but we did end up doing 96 episodes in two years. It was really fun–really hard work, but it was great.

I think a lot of people think of the show as being just you, but there was a cast. As you mentioned, Lynne Stewart popped up frequently as the eyeglass-wearing audience lady who would ask a very inane question. Christopher Darga as Bob, Tim Silva as Dr. Lonnie Lanier –

All Groundlings, incidentally.

That’s what I find really interesting: for a talk show, you had recurring characters. Only recently, as I’ve watched documentaries about notorious figures, have I realized, “Oh: these people would pop up frequently on different talk shows, doing the same shtick!”–GG Allin appearing on multiple programs to be shocking and things like that. Was putting together a recurring character a way to keep the show grounded in some sort of reality?

You could, in essence, say that the show was a half-hour comedy with one set, in many ways and one regular character–although the Mueller character Dick abused was another Groundling. The first one was a guy named Peter Siragusa, who was a friend of mine from college. He played the first sidekick [Miller]. That’s built into comedy DNA: to recur characters. Any classic sitcom is all about characters and, if you can develop a stable of them, you can develop followings for those characters. It only adds value to the show and only makes it easier to write because you’re further developing these characters.

You find out more about Dr. Lonnie Lanier: that he was on FM radio in Sacramento. The joke was that he really wasn’t a doctor. Shirley Prestia played our unlicensed therapist–another Groundling. It’s a good thing to build up a stable of characters.

You likened it to a sitcom where you develop the characters and a prominent sitcom trope is the guest star. In addition to pulling in guests who had been fellow Groundlings, you pulled in Phil Hartman and Rosie O’Donnell and Morgan Fairchild and Charlene Tilton and even Jerry Springer–twice! I’m also greatly appreciative that you had noted character actor George “Buck” Flower, as well. Was it part of having been a character actor yourself to give these really choice parts, where everybody got at least a couple of great, quotable lines in every episode?

Well, that was certainly by choice, as far as the casting. Obviously, Hartman was a favor to me. Rosie O’Donnell was a favor to somebody else on the show. Other people? Charlene Tilton–at some point, we said, “We got to get a celebrity,” and maybe the casting director, Carol Barlow went out and got her. I can’t remember. Morgan Fairchild, I think was, again, a favor for somebody, because it was such a weird show, getting names to come in and do that show for what we paid was virtually impossible. That’s why you see so many people early in their careers–Anthony Anderson was on that show –

I was about to say: he and Hal Sparks both are names that, when I was digging through IMDB, I was like, “There are so many names that are names now.”

Yes, and they were young in their careers and you wanted to work and needed the tape. Hal Sparks was friends with a woman who was a writer on the show. She was also on it–she did all the voices– and unfortunately passed away: Judy Toll. Hal was good friends with Judy Toll, but I think he came in and auditioned for it, too, because he wasn’t that big at the time. I don’t think we would have cast Hal Sparks at the time without reading it.

Edie McClurg was on the show. She was a friend from the Groundlings. Most of those people were favors. Jerry Springer, we approached because he was a fan of the show. He loved it. Of all the talk show hosts that I went to meet that second year when Night Stand was being renewed–all these talk show hosts, some did not want to meet me. Sally Jesse Raphael had no interest in meeting me and Maury Povich sort of walked over and said, “Hello, Dick Dietrick.”

They all thought I was really Dick Dietrick: “Hello, Dick Dietrick. You’re making fun of me again this year?” It wasn’t like it was like, “Have fun!” He was okay, but Springer loved it. I mean, he just thought it was the funniest thing and said, “Please get me on the show somehow,” and we did it was and he was great. He was on Son of the Beach, too. He is such a nice guy–I can’t tell you how nice the guy he is.

The crazy thing about the show is that it has all of these great guest stars. It has all of these folks who were in it early in their career. Then, in addition to running in syndication and on E! for several years, as well, you’ve got articles in all kinds of publications and magazines. You were in The New Yorker. You were in The Washington Post.

The New Yorker saved our show with that article because, at the time, it was sort of on the fence. Like, “Are we going to get picked up or not?” for the second year, and all of a sudden, a friend of mine–one of my wife’s oldest friends–called us. It was the night of the Oscars and I said, “Why is this woman Monie Begley calling? That’s weird. I hope everything’s okay.” She called my wife first and then my wife says, “You have to call Monie: something going on with Night Stand,” and I said, “Okay.” So I leave the room I was at and I went out to the side of the house and I called Monie.

She said, “You’re not going to believe this: James Wolcott of The New Yorker wrote a five-page article about you.” I said, “What?” She said, “I’ll fax it to you,” so I got [my friend’s] fax number and she faxed me a copy of the article and I was just like, “The New Yorker? With a cartoon? Oh, my god,” and then I called Larry Little and I said, “You’re not gonna believe this! What’s your fax number?” so I faxed him the article and I think he went into Worldvision and the corporate powers and said, “Look, I’m trying to start a company here that’s going to make a lot of money. I just got an article in The New Yorker. You cannot cancel this show,” and then they figured out the deal with E!

I’ve had a little bit of contact with James Wolcott since then and I always say he bought my house because it was the second year of Night Stand that we bought a house in Santa Barbara. Then I tell Howard Stern he put the addition on the house for Son of the Beach.

The company that put out Night Stand, Big Ticket: this was its first show, right?

Yes: first show under Big Ticket and then they went on to make Judge Judy. Larry’s made a fortune because of it but weirdly, it was Night Stand that got him into the syndication game. He was going to make half-hour comedies–that’s what his background was and that’s what his plan was–and he stumbled into syndication through Night Stand and found Judge Judy and the rest is history.

How many episodes total did the show have? I’ve seen a bunch of different numbers for Night Stand and I’m never quite sure how many.

Of the half-hour variety: 96. 96 half-hours, because we were doing our last show of the second season and we thought maybe there’s a chance to do more. In hindsight, I wish they had. Well, I shouldn’t say that, because they can’t seem to find a home for it now, but we did our 96th episode as if it was our 100th episode, like, Everybody in TV always celebrates their 96th episode!” It was a really stupid joke.

You alluded to it not being able to find a home. It’s crazy that a show that was this popular and well-regarded and well-covered hasn’t found a home on streaming or DVD, because Son of the Beach did get on DVD.

Son of the Beach: you know, that show pushed the envelope so much, I’m not sure where that can stream, but Night Stand? It’s a much more rating-friendly show. I don’t know. CBS owns it. I’ve tried to talk to them. I don’t even know they’re aware they own it, you know? Now they have CBS All-Access: why it’s not running on there, I don’t know. They run Strangers With Candy, I guess because Stephen Colbert is on the show. Reno 911!, which–arguably, they own it from Comedy Central–but I don’t know. I don’t get why they don’t run it on CBS All-Access because they literally own the show.

I think the reason I’m sort of flabbergasted by it is because, you can talk about button-pushing or humor or whatever but CBS Paramount also owns Friday The 13th: The Series which was another syndicated program like just slightly before Night Stand and it is supremely violent, but they put that out on DVD and Blu-ray.

Yeah, I don’t know. Night Stand, I don’t think there’s any excuse for it. I’m literally not even sure they know they own it. There’s a friend a guy in the sales department for CBS who was one of my partners on the show and he says, “Trust me: I’ve told them a thousand times. They don’t care.”

I think what happens is: somehow, if I were to hit on another show–I don’t know how that would happen because I mostly spend my time writing now–then they would put it on because then they think that’s enough to promote. I wish I had an answer. I get asked that all the time on Twitter: it it’s like, “Please, where’s Night Stand?” Well, it’s in a vault somewhere now.

What I find really interesting is that you have portrayed yourself on on two separate shows. You were “TV’s Tim Stack” on My Name Is Earl and Raising Hope. How did you come to play yourself?

A drunken version of myself! What happened on that was my friend Greg Garcia–who I met way back when I had left acting–we met on a show called On Our Own as writers and became friends and he created My Name Is Earl and it got on the air. When it got on the air, I just said, “Greg, if you have any spots open for writers,” and so I went to work for him as a writer.

We had this episode where there was a kid’s beauty pageant and he said, “Hey, Tim, I need kind of a b-list celebrity to play the host,” and I went, “Hmm. Okay, let me think who can we get,” and he said, “Well, no–I want you to play it.” The bit in My Name Is Earl is there’s a song I had heard by Vic Damone called “Little Girl” and I thought, if a male adult is singing a song called “Little Girl,” it really becomes weirdly perverted, in a funny way.

So, I played in the song, he said, “That’s great! You’ll play the part.” It started off as just me in a tuxedo and then he said or one of the other writers pitched it as like, “Have Tim play that drunk,” so then I said to him, “Let’s go for it. We’ve already played me as a pedophile–let’s make me a drunk,” because I just thought it was really funny and also if I wear my uniform from Son of the Beach.

That was based on an episode of Son of the Beach: Lee Majors came on the last three episodes and he told me a story about a guy who was on the show The Big Valley. The guy who played Nick Barkley [Peter Breck] wore black gloves. He was the tough guy and Lee told me, on Saturdays that guy would wear his Big Valley costume wardrobe to do errands: he’d go to the bank, he’d go to the hardware store in this Big Valley outfit and I thought to myself, “That’s the craziest thing. Does the guy not get enough attention?”

Then I thought, “What if TV’s Tim Stack–where he lives in a motel and he’s a drunk–basically what happened to TV’s Tim Stack is that he moved to this little crappy town of Camden County and that’s where he lives” and it was really really fun. Playing a drunk version of myself it was really fun: that’s as much fun as I’ve had acting.

There’s a Cops episode with Kathy Kinney in the scene where I’m at a strip club but I think I’m at a theater and I’m doing a performance from Oklahoma and I fall off the stage into a table and it was just really really fun.

It wasn’t long after My Name Is Earl that you got out of acting and into writing more. what have you been working on?

Raising Hope went off and then I went to work for Greg again on The Millers which got canceled, weirdly, 12 episodes in of its second season and I literally thought, “I’ll go on The Millers working for Greg and I’ll just ride that one into the sunset,” and it got canceled. Then, even though I never worked in animation, this offer came up to do this half live-action, half animation show for Disney called Kirby Buckets.

There’s ageism in Hollywood and if you want to keep working–which I do–in animation, for some reason, they don’t care how old you are, which is really astounding because most animation is made for kids but they don’t care. So, I learned a bunch about animation and then, with the two guys I did Son of the Beach with–Jim Stein and Dave Morgason–and then we got Courtney Cox involved and the comedian Maz Jobrani, the five of us sold this animated pilot to Fox that Fox just passed on.

I’ve done some other animation–writing a bunch of other animations since then and keeping busy, although I just did some acting work. I did an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm and I just did a show on Netflix called Family Reunion. I did a guest shot there. There’s a mini-series called The Old Man with Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow I did some work on, mostly because I had found the book the show was based on. My wife was very good friends with Jeff Bridges’ wife and I found this book years ago. I read it, gave it to his wife Susan, and said, “Jeff’s gotta think about this for a movie,” and sure enough, it came back three years later. That’s sort of what I’ve been doing. ★