On the evening of Nov. 3, 1993, Fran Fine traveled over the bridge from Flushing to the Sheffields’ door. And by now, 25 years later, you know all too well what happened next. She was there, of course, to sell makeup but the father saw more: that she had style, she had flair, she was there; and that’s how she became the nanny.
The Nanny was originally intended as a retelling of The Sound of Music, but where a svelte, leopard-clad, Jewish lady with big hair and a bigger laugh arrived at the door instead of the humble Julie Andrews as Maria. It was the brainchild of Fran Drescher and her then-husband Peter Marc Jacobson. To that point, Drescher had been relegated to roles as “the nutty neighbor and the banana,” as she told Jezebel last year. But both she and Jacobson knew she was worth more.
In 1992, Drescher was playing the brash Melissa Kirshner, a Jewish American princess who sold cosmetics on the short-lived sitcom Princesses. When the show got cancelled that year, Drescher headed to England to visit her co-star on the show, the former fashion model and fixture of London’s swinging 1960’s scene, Twiggy. Seated not far from her on the plane was Jeff Sagansky, then the president of CBS Entertainment. Recognizing him, she went to the bathroom and fixed her makeup, and then went over to talk to him. They spoke for three hours. “What she said to me was: ‘You know, people don’t understand. Because of the voice, they think I’m the seasoning in the show. That’s wrong. I’m a main course,’” Sagansky told The New York Times in 1994. He offered to set her up in a meeting with the network’s head of comedy development to give a pitch. And interestingly, the experience of feeling out of place while visiting Twiggy’s home in London became the foundation for The Nanny.
Greelighted to first script then film, buzz began to generate around the show to the point that Procter & Gamble offered to buy it outright, but with one hitch: Instead of being Jewish, Fran Fine had to be Italian. And Drescher emphatically declined. She was not Italian and didn’t want to create a character she didn’t know. She was Jewish, and knew her comedy would have both depth and relatability because of it.
She was right. By 1994, 13 million homes tuned in to watch The Nanny every week, bumping it to 15 in the Nielsen rankings, and it consistently won CBS’ 8 p.m. time slot. In its six seasons, the show received 12 Emmy nominations, including two for Fran Drescher as outstanding lead actress in a comedy series and one for Renee Taylor, who played her shameless mother, Sylvia Fine, as outstanding supporting actress in a comedy series; two Golden Globe nominations; and an American Comedy Award nomination among many others. Audiences latched onto Fran Fine’s “everygal” qualities, blue-collar background, her street smarts and Queens-inspired wisdom, her pizzazz and Lucille Ball-esque physical comedy, her toughness and her humor.
Not since Molly Goldberg in the 1940s was a female Jewish actress at the center of a sitcom (Rhoda Morgenstern of the eponymous Mary Tyler Moore spinoff was played by Valerie Harper, who was raised Catholic), let alone one who was also known for gorgeousness, glitz, and glam. Even so, Drescher’s characterizations occasionally drew criticism. In the L.A. Times, writer Judith Peiss called the characters “offensive” and “not funny; they are degrading,” but Drescher issued a rebuttal in the paper shortly after, writing “Fran is openly proud of her heritage. … I find it infuriating to deal with negativity regarding a character who is clearly carving inroads for other Jewish characters—particularly women—who will not have to apologize for who or what they are.” Unlike many in the generation before her, Drescher noted, Fran Fine is very much not an assimilationist. She is vibrantly, unerringly herself in all her Jewishness, noise and glamour, even when those around her are not.
Seeing The Nanny on screen, I saw a Jewish woman who was funny and sexy and smart for the second time (the first, of course, being Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, but that’s another essay). Drescher was a vivacious beam of light that click-clacked in high heels through a neutral-toned Sheffield home in a kaleidoscope of colors and sequins. She was unapologetically herself, and the things that made her different—her accent, her clothes, her traditions, her makeup, her passions, her voice—were things to be celebrated and adored instead of mocked and snubbed. I couldn’t help but look at my own life through the same lens. If Fran could be proudly herself, then I could, too.
I’m sure I’m not alone when I say Fran Fine and her mishpucha reminded me of my own family, in everything from the propensity toward yenta-ish behavior down to speech patterns and the construction of a joke (“I don’t care if I ever get married. Meanwhile, my mother has a sudden urge to jump out the window and she doesn’t know why,” Fran says in the Season 3 episode “The Hockey Show”). So much of The Nanny comes from Jewish traditions of comedy that it felt not just familiar but ancestral. It’s always been a show that makes fun of us in ways that only someone who knows us, who is us, can. Watching it still generates in me a warmth akin to being home for the holidays, even when my own home is thousands of miles away. Feelings like these have now traversed decades of audiences, so it’s no wonder The Nanny was and continues to be so easy to love.
Elyssa Goodman is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in Vogue, VICE, Elle, and T: The New York Times Style Magazine, among many others