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The Untold Truth Of That '80s Show

"That '70s Show" was a successful television sitcom about a group of teenagers living in Wisconsin during the 1970s. The comedy utilized pop culture references of the time to ground it in the proper decade while telling engaging and funny stories about its cast of interesting characters. It proved to be such a hit that the Fox network decided to create a spinoff. The result is another decade-based comedy set in the '80s that failed to capture the magic of its predecessor.

Starring Glenn Howerton ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia), Chyler Leigh ("Supergirl"), and Brittany Daniel ("Sweet Valley High"), "That '80s Show" is about a group of young adults trying to figure out their lives in San Diego, California, during the 1980s. The premise sounds similar enough to appease fans of the other show, but the characters and storylines simply weren't strong enough to hold the audience's attention. Only 13 episodes were produced before "That '80s Show" was cancelled and everyone involved moved on to other projects.

Although the series is largely forgotten, the announcement that another "That '70s Show" spinoff titled "That '90s Show" was on the way has renewed curiosity about the unsuccessful retro oddity. While you can certainly track down episodes or read descriptions online, we're going to take a look at some behind-the-scenes info that's even more obscure and lost to time than "That '80s Show" itself.

Not technically a spinoff

Usually, when a popular television show gets a spinoff, the new show features characters from the original show. "Angel," "Torchwood," and "Family Matters" all focus on one or two characters who debuted in a previous show living their own lives. But when it came time to cash in on the success of "That '70s Show," the decision was made to go in a different direction. Instead of doing something like giving Eric's sister her own show or basing a new program around Donna's parents, early 2000s Fox executives decided to cook up a brand-new cast of characters.

"That '70s Show" producers Linda Wallem, Terry Turner, and Mark Brazill also shaped the new series, although they appeared to be more interested in exploring a new decade than exploring new characters. "You're out of college, now you're an adult, it's the '80s, let's go!" Wallem told Entertainment Weekly. "That's what we found interesting and that's where these characters are. The decade is telling them, 'You better grow up and ride the wave now,' as opposed to the '70s, where it's like, 'Well, just stay in the basement and behave.' In the '80s, there's more room for experimentation."

Regarding inevitable comparisons to "That '70s Show," star Brittany Daniel said, "They can compare all they want.... The only thing similar about the two shows is that we have a couple of the same words in our title and the same creators." 

San Diego is too far away

As mentioned above, "That '80s Show" was set in a different decade, a different state, and wasn't actually a spinoff of "That '70s Show." While that was the original concept, it doesn't necessarily mean that the two shows could never crossover. Had "That '80s Show" managed to gain a small audience, someone from "That '70s Show" could have conceivably made an appearance to draw in a larger crowd. Perhaps a slightly older Fez could walk into the record store where Corey (Howerton) works with his A Flock of Seagulls hair.

Well, according to then-president of Fox Entertainment Gail Berman, that probably wouldn't have happened. She discussed that the intention of the show was about trying something new. "While ”70s' deals with a group of high school buddies and the insular world of their family and neighbors, ”80s' is about a group of young adults making their way in the world and the struggle of art versus commerce," Berman said in Entertainment Weekly. She then crushed the idea of a crossover by saying, "It makes no sense to do crossovers. I used to live in Wisconsin, and we would never go to San Diego. It's too far away."

Brittany Daniel was in both shows

The pilot episode of "That '80s Show" premiered on January 23, 2002. One day prior to this, the Fox TV-viewing public saw Brittany Daniel guest star on "That '70s Show" in an episode called "Eric's Hot Cousin." Had "That '80s Show" actually been a spinoff, this would have been an excellent opportunity to introduce Daniel's character, Sophia. The audience could see what Sophia was like in the '70s before making the jump to the following decade. However, Daniel plays an entirely different character on "That '70s Show" with no visible connection to Sophia.

In the Wisconsin-based retro smash series, Daniel portrays Penny, the cousin alluded to in the episode's title. We learn in the cold open that Eric's annoying cousin Penny is coming up for a visit from Florida and he's not looking forward to it. When they were kids, she was a tattletale, and he was a bully. Now that they're older, Eric is confused; that bratty little girl grew up into a young woman he can't stop thinking about.

To make things worse, she seems to like him too, and Eric might actually hook up with this family member. Of course, her flirting has all been a ruse to embarrass him in front of his parents and friends as revenge for the terrible way he once treated her. It's a shame that they didn't just change Penny's name to Sophia, because this could have been a neat origin story for the character we would meet on TV the very next day.

It's Always Sunny in the '80s

"It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia" is a long-running comedy series from FX about a group of truly terrible people who own a bar in the eponymous city but spend most of their time ruining other peoples' lives. Three of the stars, Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton, and Charlie Day, are also its creators. For almost two decades at time of this writing, the show has continued to thrive by keeping its stories fresh and adapting to the times. If you love "It's Always Sunny," then you can thank "That '80s Show" for making it happen.

Howerton's involvement in "That '80s Show" could not have been more of a blessing in disguise. On the one hand, he was a young actor leading a heavily promoted primetime comedy created by people with a successful track record. On the other hand, it didn't last, and he lost his job sooner than he probably would have liked. However, during the audition process, he met another young actor named Charlie Day.

Talking to GQ, Howerton explained just how crucial this event was to the development of his career. "I ended up testing for 'That '80s Show' with Charlie," Howerton said. "I ended up getting a part, Charlie did not. But we got to know each other through that process." Had he not auditioned for that role and been paired with Charlie Day, the pair may never have become friends with McElhenney and we may never have gotten "It's Always Sunny."

The cast had to learn to dance

There are a number of things that define a decade. Whether it's politics, television, movies, music, or the kinds of products being sold, every ten years sees new innovations that will irrevocably be tied to the time in which they were birthed. Dancing is definitely one of those decade-defining elements. If someone starts disco dancing, you will probably think of the '70s. The Charleston will inevitably remind you of the 1920s. But the robot, the running man, and the moonwalk all belong to the '80s.

When making a show set during this time period, it is critical that you nail the fashion and music. But fashion and music are useless if you don't get the dancing just right. Appearing on "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn" to promote the premiere of "That '80s Show," Brittany Daniel mentioned that a choreographer was brought in to teach them period-specific dance moves.

"That's when I learned how to dance, was in the '80s," Daniel said. "But they had someone come in and refresh our memory." Not only was this important to sell the audience on the fact that the show did, indeed, take place in the '80s, but these characters visit nightclubs quite often. Those scenes would've looked pretty silly if folks just stood around sipping drinks.

The creator married Melissa Etheridge

Before co-creating "That '80s Show," Linda Wallem had been an actress. According to her IMDb, she has done a fair amount of both voice and onscreen acting. She was in "The Carol Burnett Show" in 1991, the romantic comedy "Sleepless in Seattle" in 1993, and she even appeared in an episode of "Seinfeld." Shortly after, she became a producer on "Cybill" and "That '70s Show." 

Following the cancellation of "That '80s Show," she didn't stop working. She went on to have a producer role on the Lisa Kudrow series "The Comeback," and Edie Falco's "Nurse Jackie." So it's not like the failure of "That '80s Show" kept her down. If anything, like Glenn Howerton, she is still feeling the benefits of her time on the show thanks to her wife, Melissa Etheridge. Wallem wanted to bring the singer-songwriter in to play the record store owner role on "That '80s Show." The part eventually went to Margaret Smith, but Wallem and Etheridge kept in touch.

The friends ended up living together before starting to date, according to Variety.  They married in 2014. While "That '80s Show" wasn't the monster success everyone involved was probably hoping for, the fact that it exists resulted in a loving marriage, an incredible series on FX, and a small corner of pop culture where fans can get together and say, "Did you know 'That '70s Show' has an unofficial spinoff set in the '80s?'"