PASADENA, Calif. -- Big name stars haven't fared so well this television season. John Goodman's "Normal, Ohio" lasted barely two months on Fox. Same with NBC's "The Michael Richards Show." NBC has yanked "The Weber Show," starring Steven Weber, from the February sweeps schedule. And CBS's "Bette" (8 tonight) languishes in the ratings.
Bette Midler, who plays a version of herself on the sitcom, hasn't helped the "troubled" perception of her show. She complained to David Letterman that she wasn't having fun making "Bette." Then actor Kevin Dunn, who played Midler's husband, Roy, quit.
Monday afternoon, Midler met reporters on her set. Sitting in a director's chair in the kitchen of her sitcom home, Midler said she's happier now.
"I got into a lot of hot water" because of the Letterman appearance, Midler said. "But I'm not sorry I said it. I don't like to lie. I'm obliged to tell the truth, and the work I'd been doing before that pronouncement was really hard work. I was singing, dancing, had costume fittings. The shows in the first half of the season began technical work on Tuesday and lasted until Friday at 2 in the morning. I'd never encountered such a pace."
Midler said the show has scaled back now and dropped some of the more ambitious song and dance sequences to allow for more stories involving other cast members.
"I really like the idea of having success in a medium that's so hard to get your arms around. That makes it a great challenge," Midler said. "I'd like to come back [next season], and I certainly wouldn't go down without fighting."
Midler said she wants to be surrounded by more comic actors, a bigger ensemble.
That would also take some of the burden off Midler.
"The last episode [we filmed] before hiatus featured Joanna Gleason, and I was really happy because it wasn't me shining for a minute," she said. "We'll follow that path and see how we feel."
Gleason, a veteran of many TV sitcoms, agreed with Midler that "Bette" has been unusually difficult work.
"This is the hardest show I've ever done, because it's so huge in scale," Gleason said. "We were pre-shooting on location. It's like making a movie some weeks because the shows were so huge in their scale. They've dialed it back so we have some energy and brain cells when the live audience comes in for tape night on Friday."
In addition to the show's rigorous schedule, Midler had to deal with a disgruntled Dunn.
"Kevin Dunn wanted to be let go," Midler said. "He was very unhappy with the material he was given. He works a lot on features, and I think he just preferred that life. I thought he was a terrific husband, a wonderful actor and I was lucky to get him for the few episodes I had him for. He just wasn't happy."
Midler is gun-shy of recasting the role -- in episodes filmed since Dunn left, Roy, isn't seen -- because she doesn't want to get another actor who will be unhappy.
"I'd like to have a husband because I'm a little bit embarrassed that he dumped me so quickly," Midler said. "But I'd like to have a husband I really can write for, someone who will be happy. It would be a shame to hire another actor and then have them run away again because too much of the burden is on me and they don't get anything to do."
Midler acknowledged there are several options for replacing Dunn. She could pull a "Bewitched" and have another actor play the part. She could have her TV character get a divorce after Roy "is caught with his pants down in Aruba." Her favorite option: a different actor plays Roy each week.
"This week as Roy: Fred Willard. This week as Roy: Martin Short. This week as Roy: Chris Rock. ... And then if you like someone, they can come back for a couple episodes. Maybe have a contest for the longest-running Roy," Midler said. "We have started talking about this because in the world of television people really take this seriously, and I say, what are you talking about, it's ether! It's a picture in the air! You can't touch it. It's not votes, it's not chads. It's ether! But you really have to think this stuff through because apparently people care, which I think is hilarious!"
Network executives especially care, and CBS executives seem unlikely to approve the rotating Roy concept.
"I appreciate Bette wanting to have a different husband every week; frankly, I would like a different husband every week," said CBS Entertainment president Nancy Tellem. "But I would like to make the series as realistic as we can and we're currently looking to cast a husband, and I think we're going to end up with only one."
MORE "SURVIVORS": Even before "Survivor: The Australian Outback" premieres after the Super Bowl, CBS has given "Survivor 3" and "Survivor 4" the green light. The third installment of the reality show will premiere this fall with No. 4 to follow.
"Hopefully in the near future we'll be announcing 'Survivor 19' and '20,' " said CBS president Leslie Moonves.