`HOUSE RULES' EXEC BREAKS THE MOLD; HONESTY WORKS FOR THIS TV GUY.
It's ironic that Chris Thompson is at the helm of a new show called ``House Rules.''
When it comes to playing the Hollywood game, he doesn't abide by many rules.
He'll poke fun at conventional wisdom, hold a mirror up to the system and, now get this, tell the truth - a pretty big step for a former juvenile delinquent.
It's his talent for fixing shows that appeared beyond repair that allows him to speak his mind and still have projects in the works around town.
He's creating two shows for CBS. And his latest fixer-upper, ``House Rules,'' debuts at 8:30 p.m. Monday on NBC. The sitcom, about a platonic relationship between two men and a woman living in Colorado, harks back to the buddy comedies of his entree to show business.
You'll recognize one of his writing projects, ``Laverne & Shirley''; one of his creations, ``Bosom Buddies''; and ``The Larry Sanders Show,'' which he executive produced.
It's apparently his track record for turning seemingly hopeless shows into moneymakers that allows him to get away with saying things such as, ``Right now it's good to have an angel on your show. We're going to add John the Baptist to our cast.''
Or, how about his thoughts on the latest version of his last show, ``The Naked Truth''? ``Unfortunately they took it and ran it through the network deflavorizing machine. Accessibility overrides originality.''
And on the subject of Hollywood's brigade of young, Ivy League-educated writers: ``Harvard people drive me insane. It's amazing how many times they can drop into actual conversations that they went to Harvard in the most inorganic ways. `I'll have an egg salad sandwich. And did you know I went to Harvard?' ''
While some writers were training at prep schools and small liberal arts colleges in New England, Thompson was paying his dues at San Fernando Juvenile Hall in Sylmar.
``I could take you to Hollywood Boulevard on a tour of the places I've shoplifted at,'' Thompson said. ``And I could take you on almost exactly the same tour of the places I was caught for shoplifting. I wasn't very good.''
The arrests and his status as a runaway led to a transfer from Fairfax High School to Juvenile Hall.
From trading candy for protection, Thompson moved to cleaning hairballs out of drains as a plumber. But his pursuit of clear pipes provided no vent for his creativity. That's when he found a place where a smart mouth could earn him cash instead of trouble. Comedy called.
Thompson hung out in comedy clubs, living his life in an alcohol- and drug-induced haze.
``When I started writing comedy, there had to be something wrong with you,'' said Thompson, who now lives on a ranch in the Santa Clarita Valley with his wife, two daughters, a son, some horses and a dog.
``You had to be disturbed and unfit for anything else. Now they teach it at almost every major university. We were misfits, in trouble because of our smart mouths. To write for television, you had to be disturbed, smart and funny-looking. If you were only disturbed and smart, you could be on TV.''
Times have changed in the 22 years that Thompson has been writing for television. Pilots have to run a plethora of gantlets to become shows. They have to please studio suits, network executives, advertisers and focus groups.
``When you have people who sell washers and dryers for a living making decisions about a sitcom, you've got a problem,'' Thompson said. ``The equation is simple. The more people in on the decision-making, the more diluted the product is gonna get.''
Back in the '70s, when he was writing for ``Sirota's Court'' and ``Laverne & Shirley,'' and even a decade later, as a creator of ``Bosom Buddies'' (where Tom Hanks' starting salary was $2,500 a week, according to Thompson, compared to the $600,000 supporting players on ``Seinfeld'' earn today) the creative environment of television was far more volatile.
``Nobody fights anymore,'' Thompson said. ``You used to be able to yell and fight, and the next day you'd be back on the stage working together. It was like a family. You could scream at each other, and the next day you'd be back at the dinner table. Now, if you get into an argument with someone, you come to work the next day and your parking spot is being painted over.''
There is a law of inverse proportion at work, he realizes. The higher your ratings, the less executives will mess with you. The secret, Thompson says, is sneaking up on people, a la ``Seinfeld,'' which was not supposed to amount to anything. It was allowed to be cutting edge and subversive before the network knew what it had. By the time they figured it out, ``Seinfeld'' was steering the ship.
``Bosom Buddies'' sneaked under the bar the same way. Thompson, who was finishing a deal with Paramount at the time, was called in to help create the show. The cast was already in place, and it turned out to be one of those rare occasions when everything clicked.
``I thought it was a dead piece of commerce,'' he said, ``and it ended up being my completely favorite experience in show business. We were left alone. Nobody was paying attention to us. We were all really young, but it was like we had daddy's Porsche. We had $500,000 to play with every week.''
When Thompson was brought in to save the new sitcom ``House Rules'' three days before the pilot was shot, he again looked at it as mercenary work - or in his words, ``just a quick piece of commerce.''
But the pilot sold the characters as being rich enough to carry a series, and he was contracted to do six more episodes.
``House Rules,'' Thompson said, has a shot at a long and prosperous run.
Like ``Bosom Buddies,'' he said all the pieces just fell into place. Both shows already were cast and had their basic premise set. Thompson just swooped in, did a little punch-up work and made them funny.
``As a writer, when you are brought in to get people out of trouble,'' Thompson said, ``all you have to do is succeed a slight bit, in which case you become quite a hero.''
Then again, it doesn't much matter. Television is a business in which people who fail are rewarded with another opportunity.
``I know people who have gotten much richer in failure than in success,'' Thompson said. ``It's not a meritocracy, nor should it be. When you are a writer/producer, after you've done it for a while you can have a litany of failure, but they have a level of familiarity with you. You can have 10 failures, but at least you've had 10 shows. They'll take that over someone with a wild idea. They are far more comfortable in the familiar.''
This coming from a guy who has managed to stay above the mess - for the most part, anyway.
``You can't stay above it all,'' Thompson said. ``You're unemployable if you do.''
See, he's honest.
Photo: (1--Color) `HOUSE RULES'
(2--Color) `THE NAKED TRUTH'
(3--Color) `LARRY SANDERS'
(4--Color) REBEL IN A SWEATER VEST
Behind the clean-cut facade lurks the irreverent mind of Chris Thompson, producer of hit sitcoms old and new
John McCoy/Daily News
(5) Three days before the pilot was shot, Chris Thompson was brought on board to punch up ``House Rules'' (starring David Newsom, left, Maria Pitillo and Bradley White).
(6) `When I started writing comedy, there had to be something wrong with you.'
credits include ``Bosom Buddies,'' ``The Naked Truth'' and ``Laverne & Shirley
(7) Thompson helped create ``Bosom Buddies,'' starring Peter Scolari, left, and Tom Hanks as guys who dressed in drag to score cheap lodgings in New York City.