Until 2004, there was really no such thing as a Russian sitcom, or at least, not a successful one. While the country has a proud tradition of comedy on stage and on film, Russian comedy on TV is quite a different story. “During the Soviet Union, the only comedy on television was sketch comedy and improv competitions,” explains sociology professor Jeffrey Brassard. Then, after the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Russia couldn’t afford to make much of anything, so all they had was dubbed versions of American shows and a few failed attempts to make their own situation comedies.
All of that changed in 2004 with Moya Prekrasnaya Nyanya — or My Fair Nanny — a Russian remake of The Nanny. Licensed by Sony, Moya Prekrasnaya Nyanya used the scripts from the original series, translated them, adjusted some jokes for Russian sensibilities and then taped them using their own actors. It was a smash hit, but its mantle as Russia’s number one comedy would soon be overtaken by something even bigger.
Premiering on March 8, 2006, Schastlivy Vmeste — or Happy Together — was the Russian adaptation of Married… with Children. Utilizing the same formula as Moya Prekrasnaya Nyanya, the show used the original scripts of the FOX sitcom, translated them, adjusted the jokes and performed them with their own cast of Russian actors. While it stumbled at first, the show would soon become Russia’s hottest comedy.
So successful was the sitcom that they ended up running out of American scripts to adapt and they soon began writing their own. All told, Schastlivy Vmeste ran for 365 episodes — compared to the 259 episodes of Married… with Children — and the show turned its stars into household names in Russia. Most impressively, in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, where Schastlivy Vmeste takes place, a statue of Gena Bukin — the Russian Al Bundy — now stands in a public square.
This is the story of Schastlivy Vmeste, or how the most “American” of American sitcoms became Russia’s biggest comedy hit.
Author’s note: Several people involved in this oral history are ESL speakers, so their words have been edited for clarity as needed.
Purchasing Married… with Children
Dmitry Troitskiy, Chief Executive Producer of Russia’s TNT Broadcasting Network (2002 to 2009): Starting in about 2004, Sony Pictures Television International began doing business in Russia. The first thing they licensed was the sitcom The Nanny, then they licensed a Colombian telenovela that was very popular [Yo Soy Betty, La Fea, which was adapted to Ugly Betty in America]. This was for a competitive network to ours, so we thought, “What else can American classic television provide us with?” The choice was obvious: Married… with Children.
There were other options, like Cheers and Friends, but this is very hard to repeat [in Russia]. Cheers is about bar culture, which is a very American culture. The lifestyles in Friends are very different from Russian lifestyles. But Married… with Children is about a family — a dysfunctional family — so we thought, “Why not try?”
Alissa Tanskaya, Producer at TNT in Russia (2002 to 2009): Also, with over 250 episodes, it had a lot of material for us. That was important in looking for shows to adapt. If something had less than 100 episodes, we wouldn’t even bother. A lot of time and energy goes into developing these shows, so it had to be worth it.
Troitskiy: At this time, Soviet-time television was already dead and new, commercial television was first appearing, so lots of American shows were playing in Russia, like Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, even Married… with Children was playing on some small channel. The first Russian, pure-entertainment network was created by an American guy — his name was Peter Gerwe and he created CTC, the first network in Russia without news. I began over there and came over to TNT in 2002, which is where we created the Russian Married… with Children.
When I came over, we contacted Sony. We brought these guys from their Moscow division into our meeting room and said, “Listen, we’re the biggest-growing entertainment network in Russia! Yes, we are still second, compared to CTC — with whom you made Nanny — but we don’t want you to continue doing Nanny or stuff like that with them! We are the best guys!”
“We want to make you an offer,” we said. “We give you X amount of thousand dollars per episode as a license fee, and we will need your consultants on set to help with adaptation and everything.” See, the technology of producing sitcoms is very old in America. Everybody knows how to write sitcoms, how to stage sitcoms and all that, but in Russia, it was all new, so we needed them to explain. Sitcom is something between theater and television. It’s like recorded theater, so it needs more rehearsals and better direction. Of course, Russia is famous for its theater school and there are great directors and actors, so that wasn’t the problem; we just needed them to explain how sitcoms are done.
So we told them our offer, and they agreed. Sony brought very good guys — they were senior people whose careers were, let’s say, in their former years — but they were the right guys to give their knowledge and to mentor us in Russia, and they did it brilliantly. So with the help of them — and luck and time — we managed to do it.
Casting the Bukins
Rick Hawkins, Sony Producer and Consultant on Happy Together: In 2005, I was hired by Sony Pictures International to go over to Russia for six weeks to help oversee the Russian adaptation of Married… with Children. That six weeks turned into three years, but it was three great years.
There was no real job description, but one job I had was to maintain the integrity of the original series. That might sound funny, but don’t forget that the original Married… with Children really was revolutionary. In the midst of the 1980s, when everyone had these perfect families on TV, the Bundys were really subversive. The show was brilliant in a similar way that All in the Family was in the 1970s.
A big part of getting this show right was the casting, because it doesn’t matter how good the scripts are — if you don’t have the cast, you don’t have the show. The casting was overseen by Alissa Tanskaya from the network. She’s Russian and Australian and she really understood the original show and understood what to look for. She was this little blonde woman who was a complete dynamo. She was the creative force of this series when it began. She had a creative vision for this show and she wasn’t going to veer away from it.
Tanskaya: Casting Happy Together was a nightmare. If you were one of the bigger, government-run networks in Russia, all of the talent went there. But if you were a smaller network like TNT, you didn’t get the pick of the crop. On one hand, you didn’t really want that, because you wanted something fresh and you wanted new talent, but it was still difficult to attain.
James Kramer, Vice President of Sony Pictures in Moscow: The casting took almost a year, but a large part of that was because Alissa wanted it to be absolutely perfect. So they went on this casting trip all over Russia to find the right people.
Hawkins: They were a good way into this country-wide casting trip and we still didn’t have anybody, but during auditions in Yekaterinburg — where Happy Together would take place — they got lucky and found Victor Loginov.
I say they got lucky because he wasn’t even there to audition, I think he was there with his wife at the time. She was auditioning for Peg, and he was just running lines with all the women. He had this motorcycle and was just this charming guy flirting with the women and, as I remember it, Alissa told someone to get rid of him because he was disrupting the auditions. But then they found out that he was an actor, and they told Alissa and she had him read.
Tanskaya: I wasn’t there for that, but I think they found Victor out in some provincial town in Siberia and he just drove his wife to the audition.
Victor Loginov, Gena Bukin (aka Al) on Happy Together: I got to the casting absolutely by accident. I was living with my friend and he was supposed to get the call, but he left his phone at home and I answered and asked if I could come in for the audition. I had been working in the theater for a long time, but I didn’t even try to gain popularity. I lived and worked in the city of Yekaterinburg and worked in theater, television and radio. I liked this rather quiet life in a provincial city, and Moscow casting would never have reached me if they didn’t go around Russia.
Tanskaya: However it happened, casting Loginov was a complete fluke. We were lucky though because he’s absolutely amazing. Up front, we knew we were casting for 250 episodes, so we wanted someone with this eternal sort of presence.
He also needed to have an obvious sort of virility, and that’s a problem in Russia. I don’t know how much you know about Russian history, but there is a long history of war, starvation, gulags and also extreme problems with alcohol and mental illness. All of that and, statistically, there are less men than there are women in Russia. All this is getting a little better now, but it was still a big problem in the early 2000s. Back then, Moscow was plastered with ads for Viagra and signs that said, “Go see this doctor, he’ll help you get it up.” That’s the environment you’re casting in, so it’s difficult to find someone who looks healthy, but it’s also really important to find that person because you know that you’ll be successful in Russia if the guy on screen looks like he can actually get it up.
I think he’ll be embarrassed about this, but that was a big reason why he got the part. Fortunately, he was very funny, charismatic and talented, too.
Hawkins: Once we had Loginov, everyone else was cast with him reading. We played everyone off of him. For the kids, they came in and read during auditions, and they were great. They were the least difficult parts to cast.
The Peg Bundy role was the one we had the hardest time finding. Alissa had this certain image in mind and she wouldn’t compromise. The network would suggest people and she’d turn them down, so it took a very long time to find the Peg role. She had to have that, “I’m a great gal, but don’t cross me” attitude. She had to be able to overpower Al because part of the theme of Married… with Children is that he never wins. But it also had to be clear to the audience that she loved Al just as much as she was annoyed by him.
We saw Natalya Bochkareva in a play in Moscow and she was brilliant. Then she read for us and she was super funny. She was funny because she didn’t play the comedy, she played the reality of the woman, which was even funnier.
Developing Счастливы вместе aka Schastlivy Vmeste aka Happy Together
Troitskiy: Of course, we changed the name. In the Russian version, Happy Together is more positive, and we did that because we couldn’t literally translate the name Married… with Children. In America, the saying “married with children” is like a stamp in your passport — it’s a social classification. You cannot literally translate this, so we got the title Happy Together from a Hong Kong film and we liked the sound of it. We thought, “Let’s put the focus on that this is a dysfunctional family, but this is a happy family.” There’s a lot of love in this show, and these guys love each other and the audience feels it. That’s why it’s Happy Together.
Tanskaya: Figuring out the setting of the show was also really important. In the original Married… with Children, the show is set in Chicago. At the time when we started to make Happy Together, every bit of Russian fiction took place in Moscow or St. Petersburg if it wasn’t happening in some random rural village. It was almost as if they were trying to annihilate the vastness of Russia, and I didn’t like that at all.
So when we were developing this, I thought “Chicago isn’t New York, and Chicago isn’t L.A., so what’s the equivalent of Chicago in Russia in 2005?” So I did a bunch of research to find out what Chicago meant to Americans and then I asked some Russians and we landed on Yekaterinburg, which is a town in the Ural Mountains with a mining history, just like Chicago. It also had a similar population size and a lot of factories like Chicago does.
Rick [Hawkins] and I went to Yekaterinburg just to get a feel for the place and see how people lived. We wanted to see what the architecture was like and how people dressed, particularly young girls so that the daughter character would look like a particular type of girl — one who goes to parties and things like that — from Yekaterinburg.
We also made Yekaterinburg part of the show. We mentioned their soccer team and their stadium. The set for the show is based on some buildings in Yekaterinburg that were two-family houses built by German POWs in the 1940s.
Troitskiy: In the American show, they live in a two-story house with a stairwell, but in Russia, people of such social class, they don’t live in such places. They live in apartments and only on one-floor, but the whole blocking of Married… with Children is around those stairs, so we couldn’t get rid of it.
Tanskaya: We had it so that they lived on the top floor of one of these buildings, but managed to get some attic space. We included the building in the title sequence to explain why they have these stairs.
Troitskiy: In the beginning though, the press was asking, “How do these people live in such an apartment with stairs?” But then they got used to it and stopped paying attention.
Tanskaya: We filmed it in Moscow. The Soviets had a lot of soundstages there, all of which were in almost total disrepair. We chose Gorky Film Studio, which was only somewhat in disrepair.
Hawkins: In a lot of ways, being in Russia was like being in America in the 1950s. The women always dressed and acted in a way to be attractive to men and everybody smoked. This was a problem at the film studio because Sony wanted to provide us with a safe work environment, but it was a huge, huge fight when Sony said they didn’t want smoking on set. This was finally solved by telling them that the smoking would ruin the equipment, which, I mean, maybe was true. Anyway, it was decided that there would be a smoke break every 20 minutes in the hallway instead.
Tanskaya: It took forever to get the right production company, and once we found them, we had to teach them everything about how to do a multi-camera show. My job at the network was to launch new programming — to purchase the rights, to put the team together, to find the production company, to oversee the casting, to find the writers and to oversee the budget. For an American equivalent, it’s a combination of what a showrunner does when they’re developing a show and what the network executives do when they’re commissioning a show.
However, a showrunner, in the West, usually continues with a show. For me, usually I would launch a project, make sure the baby could walk on its own, and then switch to another project. But with this particular project, we couldn’t get anyone on the show to completely take it over for a long time, so we did kind of a virtual showrunning for way too long.
Oh, and in addition to having to be taught how to do multicam, the production company didn’t really know how to do a writer’s room.
Troitskiy: We started with the American scripts. We translated them and then adapted them. We changed the situations, the jokes. I would call it a localization of the jokes because some American jokes aren’t translatable. But we kept the main feel of the scripts which, for me, were great examples of brilliant, sarcastic American comedy. [The American episodes] were so deep, and the writers were so talented. The characters are very human, they’re very warm and the writers love those characters and they took care of them and it was important to carry that over.
Alissa is Australian and Russian, so she understands more jokes in the original scripts than me, so she checked every single joke and found the right correlation in Russian culture.
Kramer: Alissa was just a tireless force on the show, and she was really determined to make this work. We were having problems with the writing, so she eventually went through all the American scripts and put smiley faces after each joke and instructed the writing team to be sure they had a joke in the exact same spot. She was obsessive, but it worked.
They were talented writers, though. We were lucky because the writers we hired came from a Russian sketch comedy program called KVN, which is basically the Russian version of Saturday Night Live. Anyway, they had a very good understanding of how to write jokes, but story structure was more challenging.
Shaban Muslimov, Head Writer of Happy Together: I learned a lot from watching the American episodes of Married… with Children, especially the ways of story building and jokes writing. The most challenging and exciting part of the process was trying to adapt jokes based on specific American realities for the Russian audience.
Hawkins: Some elements of American humor just didn’t translate. For example, the original Married… with Children had a lot of bathroom humor, but Russians don’t think bathroom humor is funny. All you have to do is go into a public Russian bathroom to understand why it’s no laughing matter to them. Another really important thing we had to change was that Al Bundy was against the local, state and federal government — in Russia, absolutely not. Those jokes had to go.
But so much of it worked. It really did. See, the American psyche is, “If I work hard and believe in my dream, I can make anything happen,” but the Russian persona is different — it’s, “I can overcome anything. I can suffer through anything.” That’s their badge of honor and that’s why Married… with Children resonated with them, because Al was this long-suffering character. He loved his wife, but he also hated her. His job was that he sold shoes. Suffer through your neighbors, suffer through your children, suffer through your marriage. This show was so Russian, so it really really worked.
The Debut of Happy Together
Troitskiy: It started really slowly. The first episodes weren’t funny. I thought they were funny, but when we had an event for advertisers as a demo, we had a nice hall and it was a nice event. We put a few episodes back-to-back and showed them. The network’s CEO and I thought it was funny, but nobody is smiling and nobody is laughing. The advertisers didn’t get it.
It was a terrible feeling, but I had something to say. I said, “You know Nanny. Nanny is a big hit on the CTC and you’ve already seen it. This is another hit, and I give you a promise that it will be as big as Nanny!” I could give them only hope, and yes, some gave it a try.
We put it on the air once a week on weekends and that was a mistake; it almost didn’t work. Nobody noticed it. We thought that maybe we aren’t doing it really well. Maybe something is wrong with the characters — maybe we could do it in a more relaxed way. Sitcoms are like theater and when a theater troupe makes a premiere, the premiere is usually not as good as performance number five or six — they need to warm up. So, we gave them a bit of freedom, we reshot a few episodes, continued making more and we waited half a year. Then we started again.
We put it on every day — two episodes at 6 p.m. — and then the miracle starts happening. Every day it starts growing, growing, growing, so we decide to move it to 8 p.m. every day. We put premieres at 8 p.m., and we kept reruns of the same episodes the next day at 6 p.m. It started working in prime time and it was a big, big hit.
But then, we needed new, fresh episodes as soon as we could get them.
Tanskaya: In America, you would do one episode per week, but we shot three episodes per week. It was a crazy schedule.
Hawkins: They would read and rehearse on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then shoot on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Then it would start over again on Monday. It was grueling, and these actors had to memorize all these lines. I don’t know how they did it.
Loginov: We filmed the series for seven years on a rather tight schedule. We were tired, we didn’t see loved ones, we were in conflict, but we always gladly went every day to the set because everyone was very in love with the profession that they had chosen, with the project and with each other. These were perhaps the best years of my acting career.
And, of course, there were funny and sad moments on the set. Situations were always funny when one of us forgot the text or couldn’t pronounce certain words. There were also cases when unusual partners were brought to our set — snakes, pigs, horses, monkeys and even a bear were on our set. Everything was there — laughter and tears and dung!
Muslimov: There were a lot of problems with the episodes in which animals participated. One day the mouse that was supposed to run in the wheel lay down and didn’t want to get up, and a stand-in mouse refused to work as well. Instead of large pigs that were supposed to lie peacefully, they brought very active mini pigs who wanted to run and make love. One day they brought a monkey who was supposed to put on a character’s dress, but unfortunately the monkey had her “woman’s day” so the dress was ruined and had to be sewn again.
Nathan Dickinson, American Fan of Happy Together, Host of the“Yankee in Siberia” YouTube Channel: As an American who grew up on Married… with Children and then moved to Russia, I was excited to watch Happy Together. Some things did change on the show. In the American version, the dog dies and gets reincarnated in an episode, but in the Russian show, the dog remains the same throughout. Also, in later seasons of the American show, the kid Seven is introduced, and then he disappears, but in Russia, he stays on for the whole rest of the series. The show feels a lot like the original show, though, and I would watch it to help me improve my Russian.
Troitskiy: The show was huge. They became so popular, those actors. Wherever they’d go, they were recognized immediately and people were asking them to sign everything that could be signed. They were stars. They then played other parts in different shows and became television hosts. They have had a very long shelf life as actors and personalities.
Kramer: They were on the covers of magazines and getting constant interview requests. We even had to get security for the studio because crazy fans were trying to get in. The girl who played the Christina Applegate role — her name is Darya Sagalova — she was really funny on the show and really pretty, so she became a big deal and was in all sorts of magazines and things like that.
Creating Original Episodes
Kramer: When they exhausted those original 200 scripts — [not every American episode was adapted] — Happy Together was still enormously successful, so they went on to do, I think, 180 more, most of which were written by those same writers who had been working on the show and who’d learned story structure.
Muslimov: While adapting the originals, we were learning how to write our own stories, and when the original series had ended, we were excited to start working on our own. Undeniably, it was more challenging and difficult, but it allowed us to grow professionally.
Richard Vaczy, “Program Consultant” of Happy Together: If you were to read the credits of Happy Together, I would be listed as a “Program Consultant,” but that’s not really correct. I supervised the whole show for the latter half of the episodes. I was essentially the executive producer of the show, but Sony didn’t want to give an American that title for a show in Russia. It gave the illusion that the Russians were running it but the Americans were just supervising, but that’s really not true.
I worked on the original Married… with Children for a brief time in Hollywood before I did The Golden Girls. So ending up in Russia doing hundreds of episodes was quite a long journey. I went to Russia in 2007, and after working on Happy Together for a while, I left because the American side was trying to save money. So I worked on the Everybody Loves Raymond adaptation, but when Happy Together began making new episodes, I came back because they just weren’t able to keep the quality up.
There were a lot of very talented people that were there, but the writers didn’t really understand the writing process or the structure the show needed to have. Everything went through translation. Every script, every outline, all of it went through translation and translating comedy can be very difficult.
The translator I worked with on the show was Marina Naumova. She and I worked together on Raymond and she had worked with Americans extensively and had really gotten to understand the American sense of humor. After a time, I would just look at her and say, “Is that funny in Russian?” and she’d say yes or no and I’d trust her. She became an invaluable part of the show
I couldn’t focus on individual jokes, so, after a while, I told myself, “Just make the script make sense” and that was it. Eventually they got it, and now many of those writers are still working in sitcoms over there, but it was difficult when we began writing those new episodes. It was almost like starting the show all over again because the process was very different.
Loginov: At the very beginning of the show, we watched the original episodes in translation and simply duplicated them. The actions of the characters, their intonation, absolutely everything was copied from the original. Only later, when we were filming the last season of Happy Together, were we allowed to act on our own. Still, I have kept my love for Ed O’Neill. I am always grateful to Ed O’Neill. You don’t even know me, but I learned a lot from you! Thank you Ed!
Vaczy: Eventually, of course, the show came to an end. I’d have to speculate a bit as to why, but I believe that TNT no longer wanted adaptations on their channel. They wanted Russian originals.
I went on from there to try to bring the show to Hungary and other countries, but it didn’t quite work, I think because we had some casting problems. A huge part of the reason why the Russian show worked was because they casted the crap out of it.
Eventually, Sony stopped selling shows like that overseas. I’m not sure why. It was probably a new administration that came in, and they fell into disfavor. It was unfortunate for me, because I really liked the international lifestyle. I managed to make friends everywhere and I really enjoyed that. Sony treated me well. I had a driver and a translator and a nice apartment. If I had to live like a regular Russian, I never would have stayed, but it was nice while it lasted and I really enjoyed the international lifestyle. I also wound up marrying Marina, my translator from the show.
Tanskaya: Victor Loginov also met his wife on Happy Together. She was a translator, and they got married during the show.
Loginov: She’s my ex-wife, actually.
Vaczy: I think the reason why this show was successful in America and why it was successful in Russia and all over the world is that many of the themes are universal — the concept that marriage is hard and it takes a toll on you is something everyone understands.
Hawkins: The reason why Happy Together was such a success is that it captured that same element that Married… with Children did where families could really relate to it.
Troitskiy: We started in 2006, and it was over by 2013. We produced 365 episodes, which is more than in the original series. Everything has a beginning and an end. It was a great hit in Russia, then Sony sold it to Ukraine and it was a great hit in Ukraine because Ukraine speaks Russian — or, they were speaking Russian at that time.
I actually work in Ukraine now, and I’m thinking of doing this all again and making a new comeback with Ukrainian versions of Married… with Children, The Nanny and Everybody Loves Raymond. I think it’s time for a comeback.
Tanskaya: Happy Together was the biggest comedy at the time. Since then, there have been other original sitcoms. Some were just as big and some may even have been bigger, but this is the cool thing. Gena Bukin is the only sitcom character that has a statue to honor them in Russia. In one of the main squares in Yekaterinburg, there is a statue of Gena Bukin because the show put that town on the map in terms of popular culture. It meant, and still means, a lot to people.
It also, of course, meant something to the people on the show. It was great to see young girls who would just fetch coffee grow up with the show and become one of the producers. Someone asked me the other day why I’d want to be interviewed about Happy Together, just because it was from another lifetime for me — I don’t even live in Russia anymore. Anyway, I told them that this isn’t about me. Hundreds of people worked on this show, and if someone wants to commemorate them in the English-speaking world as part of human history, I’m doing it for them.