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BARNHART

Bonnie Hunt Made a Show, and It’s Just What You’d Expect

Funny and family-focused, Amber Brown marks a new twist in Hunt’s long and varied career.
  • Liliana Inouye, Carsyn Rose, Sarah Drew, Darin Brooks and Ashley Williams in Amber Brown. (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Liliana Inouye, Carsyn Rose, Sarah Drew, Darin Brooks and Ashley Williams in Amber Brown. (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    The beloved books about elementary-school kid Amber Brown have been made into an Apple TV+ series. This shouldn't be a surprise since streaming TV executives have a seemingly endless need for content — and reviving a popular ’90s kids book series worked for The Baby-Sitters Club.

    What is a surprise is who's behind the show: Bonnie Hunt, the comedian, actor, talk-show ninja, and famous Chicagoan. Until now, Hunt has never created a TV show that wasn't starring and all about her. But it’s a wonderful opportunity to roll out the long and colorful tapestry of her career. By all measures Hunt has had a nice run in Hollywood, even if (as she recently joked on the Today show) she never did land that defining role that every performer craves.

    Late Night Laughs with Letterman

    Hunt's best role has always been as herself — and she was never better than in her three decades of appearances on David Letterman’s late-night guest chair. Beginning in 1992, when she was booked following the success of Beethoven (where she co-starred alongside Chuck Grodin and a Saint Bernard), Hunt appeared 25 times over three decades with Dave, showing off her whip-smart reactions and unique blend of Midwestern sass. Many of her stories revolved around family, especially her mom, who raised her and six brothers and sisters in Chicago.

    Two minutes into this supercut, the new guest shows she is utterly fearless before Dave's audience. Six minutes in, she has Dave tied around her finger. This frisson also colored his on-air banter with Teri Garr and Sandra Bernhard, but with Hunt the exchanges are friendlier, a better fit for Letterman's shiny, happy early CBS era.

    There's three and half more hours where that came from and it's rarely not golden (although she did repeat some of the same family jokes over the years).

    Bonnie Turns Her Chitchat into Sitcoms and More Chitchat

    In the early 1990s Letterman wanted to expand his production company into making comedy shows. Another guest that Dave clicked with, Ray Romano, was offered a sitcom deal, which worked out pretty well. Hunt had at least as much potential as Romano, so when Letterman signed her to make a show about her life in Chicago, it seemed like a no-fail proposition.

    But it did fail — three times in fact. First The Building, then Bonnie and later, Life with Bonnie. The first two efforts were deliberate attempts to push the conventional sitcom. Scenes were fast and loose, with improvisation. Outtakes weren't taken out, but left in. This played to Hunt's skill as a fast-witted comedian, and critics took note. But TV — and CBS especially — simply wasn't ready for this kind of sitcom.

    In her third sitcom attempt, Bonnie cast herself as a daytime TV talk-show host. Eventually, maybe even inevitably, life imitated art. The Bonnie Hunt Show, a real live daytime talk show, would launch in syndication in 2008, run for two years, and earn her an Emmy nomination.

    Bonnie Does a Bunch of Other Things

    Between sitcoms two and three, Hunt co-wrote, directed and starred in the Chicago-based romcom Return To Me (the headliners were David Duchovny and Minnie Driver). She played opposite Steve Martin in two Cheaper by the Dozen films. She began lending her voice to animatied films like Cars (and Cars 2 and Cars 3) and Toy Story 3 (and 4). In Zootopia she even got to voice someone named Bonnie.

    The streaming TV era has been kind to actors of a certain age, including Hunt. Intrigued by the story of a prison break in New York, she called up director Ben Stiller and got a part in Escape at Dannemora, leading to a wave of "Bonnie is back" stories. She was cast in a Hulu film, The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, in 2021.

    Bonnie Creates a Show!

    But it was Hunt's decision to stay in the family-friendly lane that's resulted in a career first: Amber Brown, a show she created, wrote and directed for Apple TV+.

    "I have a bunch of nieces and nephews," Hunt explained in a recent interview. "My whole family has been such a big part of me." This helped her to win over Paula Danziger's family (the author died in 2004). They gave Hunt permission to change up the storylines of Danziger's original books and embellish the characters.

    It was while watching auditions over Zoom with her mother that Hunt spotted Carsyn Rose, a relative unknown, and she was their pick to play Amber Brown, a kid whose parents are breaking up and whose best friend moves away in the first episode. Rose is fantastic, bringing both strong feelings and a natural buoyancy to a role that demands both. The show is just what you would expect from a comic writer who has spent her career in roles that emphasize family.

    Just before the release of Amber Brown, Hunt's mother passed. Here's Bonnie tearing up while talking about her mom on a media stop.

    Bonnie Hunt may never have lucked into that big runaway hit show or movie role, but throughout her long career, her Midwestern roots and relations have remained strong. We should all be so unlucky.

    Amber Brown drops its complete first season on Apple TV+ Friday, July 29, 2022.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Bonnie Hunt, Apple TV+, Amber Brown, Escape at Dannemora, Late Night with David Letterman, Late Show with David Letterman, Carsyn Rose