How Small Wonder Programmed Itself Into a Hit

Tiffany Brissette stars as Vicki the Robot in Small Wonder.
Tiffany Brissette stars as Vicki the Robot in Small Wonder.
Shout! Factory

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.

Tiffany Brissette, Jerry Supiran, and Emily Webster star in Small Wonder.Shout! Factory

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.

Richard Christie, Tiffany Brissette, and Marla Pennington-Rowan in Small Wonder.Shout! Factory

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.”

Marla Pennington-Rowan, Tiffany Brissette, Richard Christie, and Jerry Supiran in Small Wonder.Shout! Factory

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.

11 Gifts for the Sci-Fi Fanatic in Your Life

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Science fiction has found its way into countless books, movies, TV shows, and video games over the years, making it tough to figure out which products are actually worth your time when shopping for a fan of the genre. We’re taking the thought out of it with these 11 recommendations for the sci-fi fan in your life.

1. Star Trek: The Original Topps Trading Card Series; $22

Abrams/Amazon

Topps trading cards were the essential collectible during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s—so it was only right that Star Trek would have its own set for fans to obsess over (though it actually debuted seven years after the original series was canceled). In this chunky coffee-table book from Abrams, high-quality scans of the fronts and backs of all 88 standard cards are featured alongside insights and essays from Trek experts Paula M. Block and Terry J. Erdmann.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Star Trek Socks; $25

Bio World/Amazon

Though you might not want your loved one to walk around the house in a Starfleet uniform, you should definitely get them these Next Generation socks to make their feet feel a bit more official. And whether they relate to the command, engineering, or science division of the Enterprise, there’s a pair here for them.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Frank Herbert’s Dune Saga; $28

Ace/Amazon

With a new take on the Dune movie franchise hitting theaters soon, there’s no better time to make sure the sci-fi buff in your life has the first three installments—Dune, Dune Messiah, and Children of Dune—in author Frank Herbert’s landmark book series.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Sci-Fi Book Cover Postcards; $21

Penguin Books/Amazon

One of the most striking aspects of the sci-fi genre is the imaginative, if not downright weird, book covers that come along with it. This collection of postcards features reproductions of 100 covers from publisher Penguin’s past, featuring work from H. G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ray Bradbury. This set is ideal for any avid collector, especially ones that want to turn the postcards into unique crafts and decorations for the home.

Buy it: Amazon

5. and 6. The Making of Alien and The Making of Aliens; $31-$42

Titan Books/Amazon

If you ever want a comprehensive behind-the-scenes book about your favorite movie, look for the name J.W. Rinzler. He’s best known for his in-depth accounts of the original Star Wars trilogy, but he’s also dabbled in other franchises, like the first two movies in the Alien series. Packed with rare photos, unused concepts, original script drafts details, and more, these books contain all the anecdotes and details a fanatic could ever want.

Buy it: Alien (Amazon), Aliens (Amazon)

7. The Future Is Female! 25 Classic Science Fiction Stories by Women; $20

The Library of America/Amazon

Some of sci-fi’s best women writers get the spotlight in this expansive anthology collection from the Library of America. The stories themselves range from the campier pulps of the '20 and '30s through the more thoughtful and serious evolution of the genre in the ‘60s. This is a crash course in sci-fi history, told through the lens of an often-unappreciated group of authors, including James Tiptree, Jr. (real name Alice Bradley Sheldon) and Leigh Brackett, who was responsible for the first draft of 1980's Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Classic Sci-Fi Magazine 1000-Piece Puzzle; $22

Brook & Wyman/Amazon

Though sci-fi is usually exclusive to novels and blockbuster movies today, it really got its start thanks to the plethora of genre magazines on stands during the ‘30s and ‘40s. And now, you can put together those striking—and impeccably surreal—covers to Fantastic Adventures, Amazing Stories, and more in this 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Cyberpunk 2077; $60

CD Projekt Red

Cyberpunk 2077 has arguably been the most anticipated piece of sci-fi media over the last five years. CD Projekt Red already created one of this generation’s best games with The Witcher 3, and now the studio is throwing players into a Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk world, where every choice you make will shape the world around you in different ways. Plus, you’ve got an arsenal of weapons and augmentations at your disposal. This one hits shelves on December 10.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Godzilla: The Showa-Era Films; $113

Criterion/Amazon

Godzilla’s unique charms resides in the way the franchise seamlessly alternates between thought-provoking and schlocky. And in this handsome, 15-movie Blu-ray set from Criterion, fans can revisit the series’s most influential installments, from 1954's groundbreaking original all the way through the campier later days of Megalon and Mechagodzilla. The set also contains both the U.S. and Japanese versions of 1963’s cringe classic King Kong vs. Godzilla. In typical Criterion fashion, the whole package is accompanied by hours of extras and a gorgeous hardcover book filled with original artwork.

Buy it: Amazon

11. Moebius Library: The World of Edena; $34

Dark Horse Comics/Amazon

One of sci-fi comics’ most important artists, Moebius helped define a visual style that would influence George Lucas, Ridley Scott, and pretty much every other major force in the genre for decades to come. In this collection, Moebius’s The World of Edna stories are reprinted in beautiful hardcover format, complete with lush colors that perfectly complement the strange worlds to which he transports readers.

Buy it: Amazon

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Beyond Queen Elizabeth: 10 Fantastic Shows to Stream After The Crown

Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in season 4 of The Crown.
Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Josh O'Connor as Prince Charles in season 4 of The Crown.
Alex Bailey/Netflix

So you’ve already torn through the latest season of The Crown, which arrived on Netflix in mid-November. You’ve watched and evaluated the performances of the new cast members, including Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher. You’ve done your Google searches on the events depicted in season 4, including the disappearance of Thatcher's son Mark. You’ve played back every scene featuring a corgi. What are you going to do now?

If you’re looking for something else that’s historical, royal, or just vaguely British, give one of these shows a try. They’re all available on a major streaming service and they all feature the same whispered bombshells and meaningful glances that make The Crown such a quietly devastating—and highly addicting—drama.

1. Victoria

Like The Crown, Victoria opens with a young queen ascending the throne after a death in the family. Only in this case, the queen is 18-year-old Alexandrina Victoria, who would rule Great Britain and Ireland for an astonishing 63 years. This costume drama hasn’t even covered a third of that reign, but it’s packed with plenty of royal scandal, real-world politics, and dramatic gowns into its three seasons. There’s no official word on when fans can expect the next batch of episodes, but writer Daisy Goodwin has promised “an absolute humdinger” of a fourth season.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

2. The Tudors

Henry VIII famously had a problem with commitment. He married six women, more than one of whom he had executed, making his life prime material for a soapy drama. Showtime delivered just that with The Tudors, which aired its final episode in 2010. The show covered each of Henry’s marriages and various international affairs in between, casting now famous British actors in some of their earliest roles. Henry Cavill appears in all four seasons as the king’s brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, and Natalie Dormer (a.k.a. Margaery Tyrell) dominates the first two seasons as Henry’s doomed second wife, Anne Boleyn.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Outlander

Take all of the historical intrigue of The Crown, add in some time travel and a lot more sex scenes, and you have Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s best-selling book series, this Starz original centers on Claire Randall, a nurse living in post-WWII Britain who is sent back in time to 1740s Scotland. Her travels don’t end there. Over the course of the show, Claire schmoozes with the French royal court in Paris and gets shipwrecked off the coast of the American colonies. She also falls in love with a Highlander named Jamie, even as she attempts to reunite with her husband Frank (played by Tobias Menzies, The Crown's current Prince Philip) in the present day.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. Call The Midwife

Drawing on the diaries of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s, this BBC show follows young women in medical training as they travel in and out of the homes of expectant Brits. By focusing on a working class neighborhood, Call the Midwife paints a picture of the London outside Queen Elizabeth’s palace walls, exploring in particular the stories of mothers in a post-baby boom, pre-contraceptive pill world.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Upstairs Downstairs

The first Upstairs, Downstairs aired in the 1970s—and when it ended, the tony Bellamy family had just been devastated by the stock market crash of 1929. The reboot (note the lack of comma in the title) picks up in 1936, with one of the original series' housekeepers serving a new family. Just like the original, it shows the very different lives of the “upstairs” aristocrats and their “downstairs” domestic staff, while nodding at current events that would’ve affected them both. A special treat for fans of The Crown: Claire Foy, who played Queen Elizabeth in The Crown's first two seasons, playing the frequently misbehaved Lady Persephone Towyn.

Where to watch it: BritBox

6. Versailles

Ever wondered what it was like to party in the Hall of Mirrors? Versailles takes you inside the grand French palace of the same name, fictionalizing the lives of Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) and his court in the mid-1600s. Versailles isn’t quite as critically adored as The Crown and its cohorts—many reviewers have written it off as a slighter historical series—but it’s got all the requisite melodrama and the jaw-dropping sets we’ve come to expect from these costume epics.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Poldark

When war breaks out between the Brits and American colonists, Ross Poldark leaves his hometown of Cornwall to fight for King George III. After eight years of battles, the redcoats lose, sending Poldark back across the ocean, where he finds that everything has changed: His father is dead, his estate is in ruins, and the love of his life is engaged to his cousin. This is where Poldark, the BBC adaptation of Winston Graham’s eponymous novels, picks up. While Ross Poldark is a fictional character, the show incorporates lots of real history, from the aftermath of the Revolutionary War to the subsequent revolution in France. Amazon Prime has all five seasons of the series, which ended its run in 2019.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

8. The Borgias

Rodrigo, Cesare, and Lucrezia Borgia were extremely influential nobles in 15th and 16th century Italy. In 1492, Rodrigo claimed the papacy and, with it, control of the Roman Catholic Church. That basically meant he and his children ruled the country: as long as Rodrigo was Pope Alexander VI, the Borgias could get anything they wanted. Showtime dramatized their power plays, betrayals, and rumored incest over three seasons of The Borgias, with Jeremy Irons in the lead role as Rodrigo.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Downton Abbey

If you missed out on the Downton Abbey craze in 2010, now is the perfect time to catch up. The entire series—which concerns the upper-crust Crawley family and their many servants—is available on Amazon Prime, and the 2019 movie is available on HBO Max (or for rent on Prime Video). Though the story is primarily set in the 1910s and 1920s, Maggie Smith’s withering insults are timeless.

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime

10. Coronation Street

If you want to understand the royals, you have to watch their favorite shows—and Coronation Street has long been rumored to be Queen Elizabeth’s preferred soap. (Prince Charles is also a fan; he appeared on the show’s live 2000 special.) Airing on ITV since 1960, Coronation Street follows several working-class families in the fictional town of Weatherfield.

Where to watch it: Hulu, Tubi

This story has been updated for 2020.