How Small Wonder Programmed Itself Into a Hit
Emily Webster only remembers so much from her time on Small Wonder, but she definitely remembers Lou.
Lou was a little person in his 50s who drove a Cadillac with foot pedals and had a grey handlebar mustache that drooped over his face. When Webster, who played Harriet, and the rest of the cast rehearsed their lines, Lou would stand in the darkness behind the camera and laugh so they’d know where to pause for the studio audience: Ha, ha, ha, ha!
“It was an ominous laugh,” Webster says. “A little disconcerting for a 6-year-old.”
Lou laughed on command because he was already on set as a stand-in for the child actors. With a modest budget, Small Wonder was in no position to pay someone just to come to the set and chuckle. One of the earliest half-hour shows to originate in syndication, it was an objectively banal sitcom about an engineer named Ted Lawson who fabricates a robot to resemble a 9-year-old girl. He dubs his creation VICI (Voice Input Child Identicant, a.k.a. Vicki), explaining to people she was adopted after her parents were killed in an accident.
Instead of selling his innovation for billions, Lawson squirrels her away in a cabinet; Vicki would go on to spend four seasons and 96 episodes antagonizing the Lawson family (and television critics) with her literal-mindedness, super-strength, and monotone voice.
Children loved the show. So did senior citizens. So did sci-fi clubs, which frequently wrote in to analyze the suspect logic of artificial intelligence but were nonetheless delighted such a thing as a “sci-fi sitcom” existed. Small Wonder was a syndicated hit two years before Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered, but its reputation is that of filmed tedium. Nearly 35 years after its debut, the show is simultaneously remembered with fondness and outright scorn.
“You,” a stranger once told Webster, “were on the worst show in the history of television.”
Small Wonder’s lack of subtlety is usually laid at the feet of Howard Leeds, a former child actor himself who had gone on to a successful television writing career. He co-created Silver Spoons and worked on Diff’rent Strokes as well as the 1960s series My Living Doll, which featured a pre-Catwoman Julie Newmar as an android trying to blend in with society.
In the early 1980s, Leeds came up with an idea about a child robot who slowly adopts human traits, which he intended to be broadly written and performed for his intended audience of children. Leeds showed it to NBC, where he had a deal; when they passed, Leeds bought it back from them and sold it to Metromedia, a company that was trying to break in to the first-run syndication market. Instead of airing expensive episodes of old hit shows, stations were looking for fresh (and cheaper) material. If nothing else, Small Wonder was something different.
“Honestly, the whole thing sounded sketchy,” says Marla Pennington-Rowan, who played Mrs. Lawson. (A character, the writers lamented, so thinly-drawn they usually introduced her chopping carrots.) “Syndication was not well-known. I didn’t think anyone would even see it.” During one taping, Pennington-Rowan was distraught that no one in the audience was laughing. She later figured out they were all Chinese tourists who didn’t speak English.
Metromedia committed to 13 episodes with a budget of $300,000 each, which Leeds believed to be the lowest of any sitcom on television. It did little to contribute to special effects for Vicki’s feats—spinning her head 360 degrees or picking up a refrigerator. Green screen shots were performed on Thursdays, with the cast having to come in early. Tiffany Brissette, the 9-year-old who was cast as Vicki, once had trouble breathing after she had a green stocking pulled over her head; her mother had to tell them to stop.
When not in danger of suffocating, Brissette, a pageant girl who had been up for the title role in Punky Brewster, had a deceptively difficult job: Staring expressionlessly and speaking in a monotone do not come naturally to a child, and she’d gnaw on the inside of her cheeks to keep from smiling.
She could also perform strange mimicry when the script called for it. “She did a good John Wayne,” Tiffany’s mother, Diane, recalls. Brissette, in fact, was better than the 400 other girls Leeds tested—who likely could not do any kind of John Wayne at all—and as a result he was paranoid something might happen to her. “Howard didn’t like the fact she rode horses or went ice-skating. He was afraid she’d get hurt.”
Brissette rehearsed and studied during the week; on weekends, she and her mother would be shuttled around and out of the country for promotional appearances. Small Wonder was sold to more than 20 countries and was immensely popular in Italy, France, India, and Brazil, where it was called Super Vicki. Once, Brissette sang for a crowd of more than 30,000 people in Bogotá, Colombia.
“She worked really hard,” Diane says, “and deserved to be paid more. That was a point of contention. The adults got more money than she did.”
Though Small Wonder was hitting the right demographics, there was surprisingly little licensing support for the show. A Halloween costume was issued one year, but ideas for a Vicki the Robot doll never made it past the prototype stage; a cartoon was discussed, then dismissed. One possibility is that Fox, which had bought Metromedia, was not fond of Small Wonder and had no vested interest beyond honoring the two-year renewal made by Metromedia for a third and fourth season. (The show was so cheap that it was virtually impossible to lose money.)
As Brissette grew older, both she and her mother insisted she be given more to do: a change of clothing, speaking in a “human” voice, or singing—anything to further the idea Vicki was adapting to her environment. “Tiffany was extraordinarily talented, but playing the role that well was a double-edged sword,” Webster says. “She wasn’t able to show any range.”
Writers petitioned for a similar break in banality, which Leeds did not grant. One of them, Mel Sherer, had written for Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and other classic sitcoms, as well as for the subversive performances of Andy Kaufman. Small Wonder was an aberration. One script featured eight pages of conversation—economically sound but creatively stilted. It prompted one writer to ask if they were working on a sitcom or an oil painting.
“The good news was, it was the easiest schedule I’ve ever had on a sitcom,” Sherer says. “We were always done by 5:30. But it was just so obviously not good that there was no way of fixing it. The ratings confounded us. But it was the way Howard wanted it.”
A Small Wonder credit was not necessarily desirable for a writer. “You can’t remove it,” he says. “I’d have people look at my resume and say, ‘Ahh, I see you’re well-prepared for a career in show business.'”
Owing to some combination of Fox’s apathy and Leeds—who passed away in 2017 at age 97—wanting to move on, the show ended in the spring of 1989. Brissette turned her attention to school and became a registered nurse; she posed in Vicki’s pinafore for a 2007 Details magazine shoot. The show still periodically makes lists of “worst shows ever,” though in reality, it’s not far removed from the kid-friendly sitcoms that currently populate The Disney Channel.
When it was canceled, Fox threw a wrap party for the cast and crew. “Some of us were sad and some of us were ready to move on,” Webster says. “But I did finally tell Lou I was scared of him.”
An earlier version of this story originally ran in 2015.