Marcy Carsey is a groundbreaking independent producer who has shaped network programming for twenty-five years, with an emphasis on independence: “When you share your financial risk with a studio, you give part of your creative control, too.” She and her professional partner Tom Werner are responsible for some of the defining situation comedies of the 1980s and nineties, including The Cosby Show, Roseanne, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and That ’70s Show. For Carsey and Werner, story and star go hand in hand: as network executives in the seventies, they argued strenuously for the casting of relative unknowns like Robin Williams and Tom Hanks, and later as executive producers, for Roseanne Barr and John Lithgow as comedy leads. According to Carsey, when negotiating, “The real power lies with the person who has the deep faith and creative vision.” Carsey is known for being persuasive and convincing at all levels. Case in point: if she had not persuaded Bill Cosby to play a doctor instead of a limousine driver as he originally wanted, The Cosby Show might never have taken off in the phenomenal way it did. She and Werner are also credited with reviving the dying comedy genre and the NBC network. Warren Littlefield, vice president of comedy programming at NBC in the eighties and nineties once quipped, “Without them, I would be behind a counter saying, ‘Would you like fries with that?’” Having produced two thousand episodes, Carsey-Werner has syndicated shows in over one hundred and seventy-five countries that have been translated into fifty languages.
She was born Marcia Lee Peterson and grew up in the middle-class town of Weymouth, Massachusetts, twelve miles south of Boston. Because of the cold winters, she gravitated to television, especially Father Knows Best and Maverick. She admitted, “I was always interested in TV, but I didn’t yet understand the breadth of jobs there were.” After college, she held various positions on the periphery of the industry: NBC tour guide at Rockefeller Plaza, gofer at the Tonight show, and program supervisor at an advertising agency. She and her fiancé, comedy writer John Jay Carsey, journeyed to Los Angeles where she acted in commercials and served as a script reader.
In 1974 Michael Eisner, then-president of ABC, hired Carsey when she was pregnant—something that was unheard of at the time and still unusual today. Carsey was invigorated by the “scrappy” network where she “figured I would succeed wildly or get tossed out in a year.” By 1978, she was promoted to senior vice president for prime-time series, a job she kept until the end of 1980. During this time, she was overseeing popular shows like Mork & Mindy, Soap, and Bosom Buddies. However, Carsey was frustrated with management and was looking for other career options: “I didn’t want to run the television division of a studio and I didn’t want to work at another network, so the only thing to do was to go out and produce. If I was going to do that logically, the only way to do it was independently.” As a result, she started her own production company, Carsey Productions. A year later, in 1982, she convinced, or “harangued”—in a good way, according to him—Tom Werner to leave ABC to form an independent company with her: the Carsey-Werner Company.
The Cosby Show was their first big hit, debuting in September 1984 on NBC. Like other series to follow, Carsey and Werner built this family show around a strong, recognizable lead. Carsey did everything she had to, including mortgaging her house, to get Cosby on the air. Cosby stipulated that the show had to be taped in New York, so it was a real sacrifice for Carsey to leave her family during production. The Cosby Show certainly was worth it and became one of NBC’s most profitable shows, leading to the beginning of NBC’s dominance of Thursday night that would last for eighteen years, as well as a syndication bonanza for the producers.
A slew of successful situation comedies followed: A Different World, Roseanne, Cybill, 3rd Rock From the Sun, and That ’70s Show. Carsey has tried to continually reinvent the family genre with eccentric, non-mainstream formulas: from an aging actress whose professional and personal life is in crisis (Cybill) to a “family” of aliens studying the ways of Earth (3rd Rock From the Sun). In their heyday, Carsey-Werner were able to balance success with such notable failures as Chicken Soup with Jackie Mason and their ill-fated attempt at reviving the quiz show, You Bet Your Life, starring Bill Cosby. Carsey described what she strives for in television comedy in the New York Times: “A great series requires wonderful talent on and off camera, terrific performers, a flash of comedic brilliance somewhere. You have to have terrific writers, direction, and a vision. It should be more than the sum of its parts. It should be an original of some kind.”
In 1998 Oprah Winfrey, Geraldine Laybourne, and Marcy Carsey (as a principal of the then Carsey-Werner-Mandabach Company), along with Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach, launched the Oxygen Network—the prominent cable channel for women, and in 2003 Carsey-Werner made a deal with Paramount Pictures for a three-year film development deal. In July 2005 Carsey and Werner announced that because of the changing environment of producing and owning shows they were scaling back development and beginning to work independently of each other. They had produced approximately two thousand hours of programming, including hit shows on all four major networks, and have received many awards for their work, including an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1985 for the series that started it all, The Cosby Show.