For the last four seasons, ABC‘s The Conners have been welcomed into our living rooms from theirs, situated in a modest home in Lanford, Illinois, that resembles your average Midwestern household. Most of the drama and laughter involving Dan (John Goodman) and his new bride Louise (Katy Segal), Jackie (Laurie Metcalf), Becky (Lecy Goranson), Darlene (Sara Gilbert), and extended Conners relations, is centered around the iconic set of the Conners family living room. The kitchen is also a hang-out where sometimes appliances actually work, as Goodman’s Dan gleefully pointed out in the first episode, gently coaxing the microwave to life.
Production Designer Jerry Dunn, who also doubled for several episodes as art director, is responsible for making each environment a cozy and homey world for the characters to inhabit, creating that lived-in atmosphere. The sets in the spin-off are comfortably familiar, harking back to the beloved sitcom Roseanne, because, according to Dunn, they haven’t really changed. You might say Dunn is a legend of sorts, having worked on the original design of the Conners home for the Roseanne pilot, which was then adapted by Production Designers John Shaffner and Garvin Eddy. He jokes that the motto then was “Tacky is king,” which is still maintained with The Conners’ down-home set designs.
Dunn’s knack for designing sitcom homes began with the Fuller-Gibbler abode in Fuller House. However, after getting cut from the basketball team as a junior in high school, he found his footing with like-minded people in set design, when he volunteered to paint the attic for the theatrical school production of The Diary of Anne Frank. The first year of his career was in the soap opera world, beginning with the art department at General Hospital, following Luke, and Laura on their Mexican adventures. His professional portfolio boasts designing the sets of many situation comedies such as The Cosby Show, Anger Management, The Golden Girls, Blossom, and Roseanne.
Below The Line spoke with Dunn, who revealed the decision behind keeping the comfy, ragtag look of the Conners home intact since Roseanne. Dunn talks about the surprising places where they shopped for the original iconic set pieces, including something very personal to him. He also shares insightful behind-the-scenes design stories about keeping it real and homey, from the carpeting to the window treatments. Stepping outside the home, Dunn discusses the thought process behind designing some of the exterior sets, such as the church, the rock ‘n roll bar, and the hardware store.
Below The Line: The set for The Conners looks very similar to Roseanne, and maintains that homey feel.
Jerry Dunn: I actually decorated the original pilot for Roseanne. Way back when I did that house. I worked for a production designer, Garvin Eddy, who did the original series, and I was his assistant on the pilot. The great thing about The Conners was that it was pretty revolutionary at the time. When it was the Roseanne show, that was the first “real” looking television show. If you look at sitcom sets in the eighties and nineties, everybody lived in these perfect places and had this really nice furniture and you wondered if it was real or contrived. Until Matt Williams created Roseanne, and it was his desire to make this look like something that was real for the Midwest and the way people live. When we did the pilot, Matt brought in a big pile of 4×6 photographs and it was his aunt’s house in Indiana. He had gone through his aunt’s house and shot every single thing, so when Garvin was creating this set we were going through something that people hadn’t done.
BTL: What did you use for inspiration from his aunt’s house that made it to the set for Roseanne?
Dunn: It was the colors and the detailing in the kitchen. The house is really a simple funky Midwestern house. The fun stuff was that classic nasty carpet way back when from when you were a kid. A funny thing is we were looking for a fireplace and we couldn’t find one to save our lives. The original fireplace for the show, I bought out of a Sears catalogue. I was thinking it was probably an electric fireplace, so if you notice from the set, which is so funny, is I put a light switch on the fireplace so you literally had to flick a switch to turn the fire on. There was a small hardware store in L.A. called Builders Emporium, like a precursor to Home Depot, and things that I bought in there for this set you would never think to do today. I bought the sconces, light switches for the house in the crappy section of the hardware store. Sears & Roebuck was probably the nicest store we went to and I think that’s where we got the couch. We went to nasty old furniture stores and the antique district for some of the other pieces.
BTL: Is there anything from your personal collection that made it to the set for the pilot?
Dunn: If you look next to the arch in the kitchen, there is a tiny little piece of a crocheted sign that said “Bless This House” in a little frame. That piece was my great aunt’s. She made that for me when I moved to California because she wanted me to be safe. I had it in a drawer and when I was doing this house and looking for these little things that really get to you, I used that. That’s not the original anymore. They recreated it, but somebody took the original, I’m sure. Also, the jar of pickled eggs that sat on that counter forever was something that I found in a bar supply store. Truly they gotta have one of those! I think it cost about a couple of grand, no more than $5,000, where today you’d spend close to $40,000 to decorate.
BTL: How did you feel when you stepped onto The Conners set after all those years?
Dunn: John Shaffner did the original chunk, but he would call me, because none of the original drawings from Roseanne existed anymore, because there were no computer drawings then; it was all done on paper. So John would do a floor plan and send it to me and ask me as a favor to see that the proportions and funkiness were all the same. I helped him and his set designer in the beginning with the detail, which was kind of like old home week kind of looking around. I remembered getting things done. There’s a mistake on the stairwell that I still laugh about today where the handrail goes up to the landing. If you look at where the railing goes and it dies into a block, and then it goes across the landing. I made a mistake on the original show on that banister, and they copied what I did wrong for the series because it had to match. My boss yelled at me at the time because I made the mistake, but then it was too late because it was built and we couldn’t afford to fix it. That’s a mistake I made that I live with forever and it’s in the Conners’s house (laughs)
BTL: Does the audience know about these mistakes?
Dunn: You get those purists which I used to get on Fuller House. They would send emails through the production company where they’d point minuscule things out, like on the second floor, two pictures were different. I’ve been doing this for a living for quite some time and I’m as fastidious as could be, but if you refer to episode 4900 in scene three where that was not what they had before. Who knew? When we did Fuller House, there was no set drawings to it, so we had to create that show by watching videotape (of Full House) and getting screen grabs. You’d watch a scene and the little girl would be on the floor and you’d do a screen grab and there’s the baseboard. We had to find the baseboard back to the molding catalog so we did that throughout the whole house. That’s the only real way you could do The Conners, too, is to watch hours and hours of programming (in Roseanne) to get the proportions right.
BTL: Is there anything on The Conners set that you think could use a little sprucing up?
Dunn: You know when you look at the floor plan of a kitchen and how it angles. Well, to be able to shoot from the kitchen through to the front door. When this pilot was done people weren’t doing that in multi-camera, it was a new thing. You have to work the angle of the kitchen in order to shoot it, and people struggled with it because it was different. You got so much more depth out of it in multi-camera which was Garvin’s intention. Dan’s got a new bride now so I keep waiting for her to want to paint the kitchen. I know Dan and his family are broke, but hey, are you going to do something about this place? (laughs) I’m fascinated to see where that’s going.
BTL: Stepping outside of the home, there’s a scene in the chapel where Dan and Louise get married amidst a tornado. Can you talk about the design of that set?
Dunn: We had done a church in the first two episodes when Sarah had her whole emotional breakdown. So when I did that set, I wanted that to be a little darker, a little more old-school church with a little more ominous feeling. What I love about The Conners are these storylines that you can play to. Sarah is going to the priest and she doesn’t believe in God and she’d never been to church all this time, so I wanted her to feel a little bit uncomfortable in that scene. For the wedding, here Katy (Segal) comes along and she’s the new wife and new to the family. If you look at the windows of the church, it’s a big sun design for the optimism of a new day of a wedding. When I painted it inside, I painted it yellow, which is really not like a Conners color. But when you look at the church, it’s very contemporary and has an uplifting feel to it. Subconsciously, I wanted to set the audience up to here’s this beautiful church in this beautiful moment, but then the sun explodes when the tornado hit.
BTL: How did you collaborate with the special effects team for that scene?
Dunn: It was super fun because it wasn’t really a Conners thing. We don’t really do those sorts of moments. I worked with an effects guy and I gave him footage of tornadoes that I had seen. He told me about the equipment he was going to use, and I said let me find pine trees that we don’t destroy, but the wind will make them blow over to help sell the storm outside the church. Another thing is nowadays you can print on breakaway glass. If you sneeze on something like that, it can break, so all day long we had to be super careful not to blow on the glass, because the reset would’ve been an hour and a half. We did it on the first shot and it came out pretty good.
BTL: What other changes did you make to exterior sets outside the home?
Dunn: It’s the purity of the recreation, which is what we did with The Lunch Box. You just want them to watch the show and go, “I’m with the Conners and I feel at home.” The biggest thing is we added a pizza oven to up their game from before. This year we turned it into a Chicago Bears sports bar. Everything is enhanced but it’s all within the world. It’s the Conners. It’s all white trash, which is the nicest way you can say that, but that was their world. For sure, tacky is king.
BTL: What is the most fun for you to work on sitcom sets?
Dunn: The thing that I love about The Conners is that it’s real. I grew up in a small town in Western Pennsylvania and so I know this world really, really well. That’s why I enjoy the show so much, because I get to pull things that I remember growing up. It’s fun when you get a chance to get nitty-gritty with things. The producers just let me kind of go and be real with things because they know I have a grasp on this world, so I’ll do things that are a little bit out there. The fun part is making it look real. The audience wants to be comfortable. They want it to be the old blanket that they’re putting on and that’s the way I think these sets are with people. During the pandemic, people wanted to feel more comfortable and more safe. Well, you’re no more safe than when you’re on the Conners couch with the afghan wrapped around you to feel like you’re at home.
The Conners airs on ABC on Wednesdays at 9pm EST/8pm Central and also can be streamed on Hulu.
All photos courtesy ABC – Photographer: Eric McCandless, except where noted. All set photos and headshot courtesy Mr. Dunn. Click on photos for larger images.