From Intern to Improv to
f you ran across Cheri Steinkellner grabbing lunch at Pierre Lafond or
browsing the selection at Tecolote, you’d have no way of knowing that
she once ran the writers’ room at
, NBC’s Emmy Award winning
sitcom that ruled the TV world from the mid-‘80s to 1993. Even if you struck
up a conversation, there’d not be any indication that she’s written high profile
projects for Disney, including the stage adaptation of
. She’d be more
likely, perhaps, to tell you about Bill, her writing partner and husband, or
Kit, Teddy, and Emma, her young adult children who are following in their
mother’s creative footsteps.
Cheri Eichen had a career as a steadily employed L.A. actress early on,
before joining the scribes on TV shows such as
Facts of Life
ended, she moved to Montecito, yet continued to
work in entertainment while raising her three kids. And she hasn’t stopped: her
Hello! My Baby
, now about five years old, is taking on a life of its own.
The Pee Wee Herman Connection
None of it would have happened – at least not as quickly, if at all – if not
for a brief encounter at the start of her career. Cheri was just out of college
and interning at NBC. While cleaning up trash left behind by a
audience in a Burbank studio, she paid one of the performers a compliment on
his act, and the two began to talk.
The comedian mentioned to Cheri that he did improv at the Groundlings,
the comedy troupe and school. “It was like he was speaking a different
language,” Cheri remembers thinking during our interview outside Pierre
Lafond in Montecito’s upper village. She was intrigued when he explained what
comedic improvisation is and what the Groundlings do. At his invitation, she
tried out at the next audition, and has been improvising there – “playing,” as
she puts it – ever since.
It’s at Groundlings that she met Bill Steinkellner. The pair would soon
enough be writing for some of the most popular sitcoms on television, and the
comic from the
that invited her there in the first place, Paul Reubens,
would soon create the character that made him famous: Pee Wee Herman.
Cheri’s initial foray into scriptwriting was a happy accident of sorts,
although it wasn’t very happy at the time. Because she learned to touch
type as an English major at Occidental College, Bill asked her to type up
an original pilot he had written. Innocently enough, she went about her
work. “I thought I had just edited, added a few commas, moved a few
apostrophes,” Cheri laughs, “but it turned out that I had contributed some
writing to it inadvertently.”
Bill didn’t appreciate the rewrite.
“We had a big falling out over that,” Cheri says, “but when it turned out
great, we became writing partners.” The two became more than just a writing
team: they married in 1982.
by Jeremy Harbin