The Brat Pack: When ‘Parker Lewis Can’t Lose’ Took on ‘Ferris Bueller’

John Hughes didn’t have anything to do with this ’90s network showdown between two teen comedies that broke the fourth wall.

Melanie Chartoff as Principal Grace Musso With Corin Nemec as "Parker Lewis Can't Lose"
Melanie Chartoff as Principal Grace Musso With Corin Nemec as "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" / Melanie Chartoff

Who knows why Hollywood develops almost pathological obsessions with certain themes? In 1998, theatergoers got not just one but two movies about asteroids careening toward Earth: Armageddon and Deep Impact. The 1960s saw dual sitcoms about women with paranormal powers: Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie. Lately there’s been a surge in Dracula content, with 2023’s Renfield preceding 2024’s Nosferatu. (Actor Nicholas Hoult co-stars in both.)

In the fall of 1990, the most prominent mirror-image effect was on television. In Parker Lewis Can’t Lose, Corin Nemec plays a clever, fourth-wall-breaking high school kid who perpetuates schemes to get the better of authority figures. In Ferris Bueller, Charlie Schlatter also plays a clever, fourth-wall-breaking high school kid who perpetuates schemes to get the better of authority figures.

The television news media played up a rivalry of sorts between the shows, with some critics dismissing Parker Lewis as a bootleg version of the 1986 John Hughes classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which starred Matthew Broderick as a teen skipping school to hang out with his friends. Ferris Bueller was, of course, an official knock-off; Parker Lewis was the upstart. It was a question of which pseudo-delinquent audiences were going to watch.

Class Acts

Parker Lewis Can’t Lose began gestating in 1987, when CBS—likely noticing the immense success of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—asked writer Clyde Phillips to create a show about a precocious high schooler. With co-creator Lon Diamond, Phillips imagined Parker Lewis, a suburban kid with problems—a class bully, a vengeful principal, and an obnoxious little sister—that would be familiar to a lot of kids.

For Phillips, however, that’s where the similarities ended. “I’m watching a Marx Brothers movie last night, and Groucho Marx breaks out of the scene and steps forward and starts talking to the camera,” Phillips told The Los Angeles Times. “I mean, we didn’t invent this stuff. We did not invent high school comedy. Max Shulman didn’t invent it with Dobie Gillis. Garry Marshall didn’t invent it with Happy Days. John Hughes didn’t invent it with Ferris Bueller.”

For whatever reason, CBS passed. Phillips and Diamond wound up in conversation with Fox, then the fledging fourth network that was having some early success with shows like 21 Jump Street, Married…With Children, and The Simpsons. Homer, Marge, and the Bundys made it clear Fox liked irreverent rather than safe comedy. Parker Lewis, which would ultimately involve manic camera work and exaggerated sound effects, fit right in. (In fact, many of the effects were borrowed right from the Hanna-Barbera sound library.)

Phillips signed on as a co-creator and executive producer along with Diamond. Their premise: Parker was a student at fictional Santo Domingo High. With pals Mikey and Jerry, he navigates his social life while under threat of the militant Principal Russo and her assistant, Frank.

The role of Parker Lewis went to Corin Nemec, a 19-year-old actor best known for a recurring role on the ABC sitcom Webster. He had also appeared in a made-for-television movie ripped from headlines (the child abduction drama I Know My First Name Is Steven), and had a supporting role as Jeff Bridges’s son in 1988’s carmaker biopic Tucker: A Man and His Dream. (Billy Jayne, Troy Slaten, Abraham Benrubi, and Melanie Chartoff rounded out the Parker Lewis cast.)

As Parker Lewis was gearing up to debut in the fall of 1990, so was Ferris Bueller, a literal adaptation of the movie courtesy of NBC. John Hughes declined to participate in the project, which was overseen by executive producer John Masius (St. Elsewhere). Charlie Schlatter was cast as Ferris, a role that required a delicate balancing act of delinquency and charm. The actor, who had played Michael J. Fox’s brother in 1988’s Bright Lights, Big City and traded bodies with George Burns in 1988’s 18 Again, was often coy about his actual age. “I’m between 10 and 30,” he told one reporter.

There was a question of whether Schlatter could pull off the conniving charmer as well as Broderick had. In one early press gathering for the show, a reporter was heard to say, “This is the kind of kid you’d really like to hit.”

Bueller vs. Lewis

Strangely, the fall 1990 television season was home to several small-screen remakes of successful films. NBC had Parenthood, based on the Steve Martin and Keanu Reeves comedy; CBS had Uncle Buck, based on another John Hughes hit that starred John Candy and Macaulay Culkin. ABC had Baby Talk, a revamped Look Who’s Talking minus John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, and Bruce Willis, the original voice of the chatty infant.

None were particularly well-received, and neither was Ferris Bueller. Despite being openly self-aware of its lineage—Schlatter’s Bueller maims a cardboard Matthew Broderick with a chainsaw in the first episode and declares the movie was actually based on his “real” life—critics found this Bueller to be too much of a con artist to be likable.

“Ferris’s character gets away with his antics precisely because of his seemingly innocent facade, and so Mr. Broderick was perfect for the role,” wrote New York Times critic John J. O’Connor. “The smirking Mr. Schlatter is likely to leave most viewers reaching instinctively for their wallets.”

Contrasting the two series, O’Connor dubbed Parker Lewis a “Ferris Bueller clone,” though he didn’t seem to hold it against the show, which was nearly surreal in its execution. Thanks to Phillips and Diamond, the show had ambitions far beyond being a high school show, of which there was no shortage on television at the time. (Beverly Hills, 90210 was in its freshman year; Head of the Class had been airing for years.) Principal Musso is almost demonic in her presence, able to shatter glass with her voice; Parker’s friend Jerry has a trench coat full of gadgets; and bully Kubiac proudly proclaims high school “has been the best seven years of my life.”

Neither show was a hit with actual teachers, who bemoaned the portrayal of faculty and students alike as buffoons. “They make students all look like bubble heads,” said English and Humanities teacher Mike Morrill. “I teach remedial and I teach gifted kids, and (they have) more values than reflected here. Overall, I don’t think there were people in touch with education involved in these shows.”

While the shows were linked, they weren’t competing head-to-head. Ferris Bueller aired Mondays at 8:30 p.m. after The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, while Parker Lewis had a primetime-adjacent slot Sundays at 7:30 p.m. That put it in direct competition with the enduring CBS news show 60 Minutes, which predictably blew Parker Lewis out of the water.

Fox, however, considered this a victory. While 60 Minutes had the larger overall audience, Parker Lewis was attracting the advertiser-friendly teen and 18-34 adult demographics. After initially ordering 22 episodes, the network tacked on four more that season. For its sophomore year, it tackled more serious issues like low teacher pay and censorship. Fox stayed with it for a total of three seasons, and the show developed a cult following—one strong enough to incentivize Shout! Factory to release the first season on DVD in 2009.

In a 2018 retrospective for The Hollywood Reporter, Parker Lewis was cited as an inspiration for future shows that relied on live-action cartoon antics and frenetic camera work. Bill Lawrence was a Parker Lewis fan who went on to create Scrubs; director Bryan Spicer was offered a job by Steven Spielberg, who was a regular viewer.

Ferris Bueller didn’t quite reach the same heights. (The actress playing his sister, Jennifer Aniston, would have to wait a few more years for Friends and sitcom success.) Reviews labeled it “an obnoxious stinker of a show,” and it received an equally dismal audience response: It was 50th in the ratings. NBC canceled the series in December, though it aired through the following summer.

In fairness to Schlatter and his Bueller, there was little to be gained by inviting comparisons to Broderick and the film. While Parker Lewis may have shared a similar tone, it didn’t have to live under the shadow of John Hughes, who was (and is) considered to be one of the most influential voices of '80s teen angst. Schlatter went on to a successful career, most notably as a co-star of Dick Van Dyke in the successful medical mystery drama Diagnosis: Murder, which ran from 1993 to 2001.

Hollywood isn’t quite done with the Ferris Bueller legacy. A spin-off movie featuring the two parking valets seen in the 1986 film driving Cameron’s (Alan Ruck) father’s car is in the works. The project is being overseen by Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg, and Josh Heald. The trio are responsible for one of the biggest movie-to-TV hits of recent memory: Cobra Kai.