You may not know it, but this is one of the most influential shows in television history.
You think I'm exaggerating but I'm not. When you look at the TV schedules from 1970 through 1996, there are only a handful of programs having to do with witches, or even magical themes in general, and whenever they DID show up, they were quickly dismissed as being too much like Bewitched. Every single review of Free Spirit knocked it for being an alleged "Bewitched ripoff" despite the fact that Samantha and Winnie are completely different characters. (I wish some of them had been as creative as this guy; "Occult Hazel" is my favorite summarization.) Why would anyone ever watch another show about magic? They already HAD one. As far as an entire generation of TV viewers was concerned, there could be only one show about a witch, ever.
Now take note of what happened in the late 90's. Harry Potter, Buffy, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Craft and Charmed all took off at the SAME TIME. And if you examine them side by side, you'll note that all of these things targeted the youth market. It was the first generation to NOT grow up on a steady diet of Bewitched repeats. Since nothing fresh had been done with magic in over 25 years, it was like the whole concept was brand-new. It took nothing less than a complete generational shift for Samantha's tyranny on an entire genre of storytelling to finally end.
So why am I bringing all this up, when you came to read about a completely different show? ....Because in the reviews, THIS got compared to Bewitched. THIS.
This isn't even about a witch! It's about a ghost! How is that fair? How closed-minded could Boomers get? If you've ever heard of Jennifer Slept Here in your life, it was probably because you remember Kenneth mentioning it in a 30 Rock episode. He wasn't lying -- NBC really had a crazy sitcom on about a ghost haunting a teenager, at a time when such things were just about forbidden. Today the Vault digs deep into it.
As I throughly explained, the early 80's were a very dry time for fantasy television. I was going to say something about what an odd duck this must have been on the 1983 schedule, but then I found out its timeslot followed NBC's Mr. Smith, which was about a superintelligent talking orangutan who held office in Washington DC. So...um, never mind.
Premise is this: Joey Elliot and his parents move into a Southern California home previously occupied by Hollywood legend Jennifer Farrell. Never mind what his parents do for a living (because it's never defined) nor how they could possibly afford a house that a famous actress owned before them (they just can). The point is.....
SHE'S STIIIIIIIILLLLLLL THHEEEEEEEEEERE! WWOOOOOOOOOOOO
As the theme song says, Jennifer slept here -- but she never really left here! Most TV themes are written with vague lyrics. The Mary Tyler Moore Show sings that someone is going to make it after all, but never says outright that it's Mary. Perfect Strangers is about a man and his foreign cousin getting into wacky physical comedy situations, but the song is about standing tall on the wings of your dreams or something. This theme, however, is specifically about a ghost named Jennifer who haunts her old house. There would be no repackaging it for radio if it had become a hit.
They know what we came for and they get right to it -- Joey meets Jennifer within a minute of the show's first episode. When casting for a show like this, you want someone who's naturally as white as a sheet, so actress Ann Jillian got the call. As far as I know, that is her actual hair color.
It's unfair to compare it to Bewitched, but it's not like Free Spirit either. Jennifer is not Winnie. Winnie would be a blast to have around the house, but Jennifer would be a pain in the badonk. You see....Jennifer is a meddler. A typical episode will involve her attempts to dissuade Joey from hanging with the wrong friends, making the wrong choices, or trying to date a girl she doesn't trust. Basically, Joey is stuck with two mothers, one of which can watch him through walls and in his sleep. He doesn't handle it very well, but who would?
Quite often Joey will snap and start yelling at Jennifer when she drives him crazy, which makes HIM look crazy to his friends and family. (There are around two to five of these gags in each episode.) Only Joey can see Jennifer, but it's not an ironclad rule -- she could make herself appear to others, she just doesn't want to. But it's also implied that the more people she appears in front of, the harder it is to maintain her visiblity to them. So she limits it to Joey because it's so fun driving him mad.
After Joey spends a few scenes trying to understand what Jennifer's about, into the room walks his new friend and next-door neighbor Marc, played by Glenn Scarpelli, and....hoo boy, this is another article in itself. Glenn's father was Henry Scarpelli, artist at Archie Comics. And Henry was so proud of his boy that he promoted him incessantly in his own work. Throughout the 80's and even into the 90's Betty and Veronica plastered their walls with Glenn Scarpelli posters and went bananas at the mere mention of his name. In reality, THIS was about as high-profile a gig as Glenn ever landed.
But his dad kept at it and kept plugging him. By the time I started reading Archie comics, Jennifer had been off the air for years and Henry was still doing this. I had no idea who Glenn Scarpelli was. I thought they were making him up. Then I noticed the artist's name was also "Scarpelli" and I thought, "That must be his kid and they're pretending he's a movie star." This was nearly accurate, only I think Henry believed it. And there's one other thing....now that I can see what Glenn actually looks like, I notice he looks nothing like the guy his dad was drawing.
You know what I'm talking about....he's....not exactly a white guy. How do you mess that up? Especially if YOU'RE HIS FATHER?
There is one other character besides Joey, Jennifer, Marc and Joey's parents.....his little sister, seen here. Since this is Joey's show and his parents get most of the side banter, this character doesn't have much to do. She usually only appears once or twice an episode to say a one-liner and then leave. That's all she's good for. She's barely in the pilot -- she appears in the first scene and mentions something about being gone at sleepover camp for three days, then departs and reappears in the final minute. It makes me wonder if she was a last-minute addition by the network and the pilot was originally filmed without her.
Marc came by to borrow some money and forget to repay it (he's quite the hustler) but he's also inviting Joey to a hot party that evening. He insists there will be lots of cute girls there, but Joey tells him he's taken. Jennifer wonders who, exactly, could have pinned Joey down in the week or so he's lived at his new location. Joey tells her his best girl is Debbie Linderman, from back in New York, all the way across the country.
Now Jennifer has her reason to meddle this week. "You can't commit to a long-distance relationship when you're only fourteen! It'll never work! Debbie's going to forget about you eventually; you need to forget about her first and go to that party!" She isn't wrong, but it's hardly any business of hers. That sentence could be applied to any of these episodes.
Joey's parents also feel he should go out and meet some new people, so he finally agrees to check out the party that evening....or so they think. After he allegedly leaves to meet Marc, he doubles back and grabs a hat and a suitcase. He is going out, but not to there....he's taking a plane back to New York to give Debbie a surprise visit! Ha ha ha! What could possibly go wrong with a 14-year-old boy traveling across the country by himself....okay, the meddling is justified now. Jennifer, do your stuff!
Jenny invisibly pulls Joey's suitcase away and dangles it over his head while he protests. "GIVE ME MY STUFF BACK RIGHT NOW!" he yells, which leaves an opening for Jennifer to pop the latch and dump his clothes onto his head. "WHAT'S YOUR PROBLEM, HUH??" he retorts. "I'm sorry I gotta live in your house, but you got no right to mess with my life!"
isn't gonna kill you. What are you afraid of?"
"I guess....starting all over. Debbie's the only one I've ever been with."
"Have you ever seen any of my movies?"
Joey is only familiar with the one where a gorilla threw her off a cliff, so she re-enacts a bunch of key scenes from this movie where a young girl runs away from her rough home life and tries to make it in New York City, only to be stuck in a stalled career. She falls in love with a man who ends up breaking her heart. It's a good scene for Jillian to show off her acting chops, running around the room and changing emotions on a dime.
realizes Jennifer isn't actually describing a movie at all.
"This is YOUR story. All this stuff really happened to you,
"Indeed. And you DON'T come from a broken home! You have a great home; you've got everything you need right here."
That's almost enough to convince Joey to stay, but it's the cute blonde that shows up at the door just then, looking for the party, that seals the deal.
Jennifer's backstory is a pastiche of several actresses from Hollywood's Golden Age. In one episode Joey is rummaging through Jennifer's attic when he discovers an old calendar that Jennifer posed nude for early in her career, when she was starving and needed any kind of work. The calendar was never released and it's up to Joey and Jennifer to stop it from being discovered. This actually happened to Marilyn Monroe, only that calendar was published.
As for the special effects....it's 1983, what do you want? You can always tell when Jennifer is about to do something because she casts no shadow on the floor and there's a blue aura surrounding her, almost like she was pasted in from another shot...hmm. There is one ambitious moment where Joey is being harrassed by a bike gang and Jennifer actually crashes through the front window on a motorcycle, posing as someone even tougher. They just take a still photograph of Jillian on a bike and skew it through the window quickly. It's not convincing.
But I'm STILL trying to figure out how they did THIS:
The big reason this show failed was because Bewitched existed, but I would say a large part of the blame also rests with NBC's advertising and marketing department. On the night of Jennifer Slept Here's first episode, this was how they promoted it:
It's a bad drawing of Joey naked in bed next to a sultry-looking Jennifer in a loose nightgown that barely covers her chest. The implication is that Jennifer slept here....with Joey. WHAAAH?
"Well, Porky's is big....let's see if we can chase the horndog teenage male market with this!" must have been the thinking. Except Jennifer Slept Here really wasn't that kind of show at all, so anyone who didn't want to watch a show where an underage boy tries to do it with a dead woman (most people, probably) watched something else, and anyone who did fit that narrow demographic would have been bored with the first episode and retreated to their Playboys.
Strategy failed, take two.
Even though only 13 episodes were made, Jennifer Slept Here technically aired for a full season. After the first six episodes flopped, NBC pulled the show in December and relaunched it in April, with a decidedly more muted advertising scheme. They must have held a lot of faith in it, because you don't see those kinds of second chances given on TV today, and you really didn't during the time Jennifer was made.
The likelihood of Sony Pictures Television releasing the full library in any form is very small, because there isn't much demand. Of those 13 episodes, only seven decent-quality versions exist in the tape trading circles....the only known copies of the remaining six were encoded in 240p an eternity ago and stamped with a curious "I'M TRAPPED IN THE 80'S" watermark (a message from Jennifer?) If you're going to seek out Jennifer Slept Here anyway, there's only one episode you need to concern yourself with. How's this for a premise: "Joey's dad hires Zelda Rubinstein from Poltergeist to exorcise the house of Jennifer's spirit." The episode is among the seven, and yes, it is as every bit as awesome as it sounds.
Joey is messing around, bouncing a baseball around the walls of his room. Jennifer hates him for it because she can hear the noise from the attic where she sleeps and besides, he's supposed to be doing his homework. Marc comes in and Joey has another excuse to ignore his homework -- they both type up a mock letter to their teacher crammed with ugly lady and fat jokes. When the Internet isn't a thing and you don't even own an Atari, the options for amusing yourself are limited.
But Jennifer won't stop bugging him, so Joey marches up to the attic to tell her off. While he's there yelling, his dad happens to walk by and takes a peek through the door -- and through his eyes, Joey is having a conversation with a hat rack. Something's gotta be done before he goes completely kazoo.
Joey's father thins he has the perfect cure for his "psychosis" -- if he can convince Joey his "friend" is gone from the house, he just might believe it. So that evening at dinner, both he and his mother tell Joey they finally believe him (they don't believe him) and that they've decided to hire an exorcist to cleanse their dwelling. "Both Merv Griffin and Charo swear by her," Mom claims.
Jennifer is also present at the table and starts cracking up. "Charo believes her? Guess I gotta go pack!" Joey tries to shush the invisible woman, but that just makes him look crazier to his family. He's powerless in this situation and Jenny is loving every minute. "You know, they still think you're the one who put the hole in the screen door!"
In comes tiny Zelda, but she's playing a different character than the one from Poltergeist -- that one spoke quietly in an eerie voice, while this one (Madame Wanda) is very loud and boisterous. "YEEEEES, THERE IS A DARK PRESENCE IN THIS ROOM!" Wanda booms out. "I CAN SENSE THE EVIL!" Jennifer thinks this whole thing is rich. She can't stop laughing and making private jokes at Wanda's expense, all the more helped when the supposed exorcism ritual involves a Weed Wacker and several pairs of Odor Eaters.
A glass mason jar is placed in the middle of a pentagram and there, lit only by candlelight, the family stands in a circle while Wanda addresses the specter. "BY THE POWER VESTED IN ME I COMMAND THEE INTO THIS JAR! BEGONE, EVIL SPIRIT!" She then quickly seals the jar and flatly tells Dad, "It's in there."
The family sees just air inside
but plays along for Joey's sake. "Oh yeeeah, you can really
tell. Yup, you did a good job."
"That'll be two hundred dollars," demands Wanda. Little Sis, who asked for a dollar loan yesterday and was shot down, isn't feeling happy about this.
When Joey is handed the jar, though, he finds out the ritual actually worked. Jennifer's trapped inside!
Now it's Joey who has the gleeful expression on his face. If Jennifer's stuck in a jar she can't meddle in his life, or tell him when he can and can't play baseball in his room. His mother comes in and asks him if he's feeling any better now. "Oh, MUCH better," he assures her.
"By the way, while you
were at school today I washed your sheets and mailed your
"YOU DID WHAT??"
"I washed your sheets..."
"NO, BEFORE THAT!! YOU MAILED THAT LETTER??"
It was the insult letter to his
teacher he wrote earlier with Marc. Maybe he shouldn't have put
it into an envelope and addressed it?
He has to get it back, but the post office is closed at this hour. His only salvation would be someone who could walk through walls, which means....
"HEEEEEY! FARRELL!" he addresses the little figure in the jar, with a sudden sweet tone in his voice.
I hope Joey enjoyed the three minutes of freedom he had. Jennifer takes complete advantage of the situation, refusing to leave the jar unless Joey does all his homework and stops his indoor ball practice cold turkey, as well as "grovel and do menial tasks that are demeaning to my character."
Once satisfied, Jennifer walks toward the door to set off on her mission -- and faceplants right into it. Normally she can just walk directly through it. What's going on?
That's when Joey remembers what ELSE the exorcist told him. Once the ritual was successful, he was to keep the spirit in the jar for at least six hours -- because it would disappear in that time. Since the jar trick worked, that means everything else was correct as well. Jennifer's doom is in six hours.....and that was three hours ago! They have half that amount of time to figure out what to do, or Jennifer will vanish into oblivion!
"Call the exorcist back!" Jennifer orders. "Tell her the ritual didn't work and that your father is suing her! That oughta bring her over quick."
Indeed it does. Wanda is fuming mad when she walks through the front door. Joey shushes her and tells her to keep quiet, but Wanda only shuts up when Jennifer appears before her. This is because she outright faints.
After being given smelling salts, Wanda confesses that her whole exorcising business is a scam and that any instance of her methods working is purely by coincidence. But Jennifer is already starting to fade. She pleads with Wanda to start one of her reversal rituals. Even if Wanda doesn't believe in it herself, odds are if some trick of hers worked, another ought to work as well. So Wanda flips through her book and then commands Jen to hold a cat hairball while she lights a small explosive. It does nothing, and Jennifer looks at the audience while saying "Why do I get the feeling I'm in big trouble?"
"I got it....take off your shirt and I'll rub mustard all over your back! ....No, that's for werewolves.....Okay, how about this! Get me a raincoat....and a salami!"
transition, there's a knock on Joey's door. It's Jennifer, and
she didn't walk through it, which means....
"I'm afraid so, Joey. Madame Wanda tried everything she could, but...."
Jennifer slaps a
supportive palm on Joey's back and assures him that maybe they'll
let him out of the ninth grade after a few years.
"It's not about that anymore!" Joey exclaims. "I can't believe this is happening, Farrell, I'm really gonna..."
"I'm really gonna.....you know...."
"Say it, Joey, say it!"
"I'm gonna.....miss you."
"THAT'S WHAT I WANTED TO HEAR!" Jennifer hands Joey a salami, and then his letter, salutes him mockingly and then cheerily walks away directly through the door.
'FAAAAARRELLLLLLL!!!" Joey screams in rage as they cut to an establishing shot of the house. EXECUTIVE PRODUCERS: LARRY AND LARRY
This episode works like no other JSH because it's just plain fun. It's just the two characters messing around and antagonizing each other. Plus, the nature of the curse places a death clock over the second half of the episode, with no obvious resolution. If only they all could have been like this, but the producers thought it was more important for Joey to learn some moral lesson in every show.
They must have known how good the episode turned out because it was originally meant to air as Episode 2, right after the pilot. Instead, for unknown reasons, it was delayed into Episode 6. However, that was Thanksgiving Weekend, so thanks to my tape of the 1983 Macy's Parade (coming soon), not only can I bring you the print ad, we have the actual TV promo as well!
Even if Jennifer Slept Here hadn't flopped in the ratings, I'm not sure it would have continued for long. The sad truth is that Ann Jillian was about to be socked with a nasty case of breast cancer, which would take her out of commission for several years. The good news is that she did not become a literal ghost and she beat the disease, eventually returning to her acting career...though it had been long enough that she did not receive as many parts as she used to.
But hey...it could have been worse. She could have been Glenn Scarpelli.
Note: If we ever find Mr. Smith, it is getting its own page guaranteed.
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