New South Park Season … King of the Pilots … Teletubbies Made Me Rich! … Underpaid Friends ?

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

As questions of morality, ethics and honor in our society become ever more ambiguous, it might be salutary to see an American comedy of the highest order dealing with these troubling issues, made while World War II was daily bringing them in a different way vividly to the fore. In 1944, the inimitable Preston Sturges wrote and directed one of his most enduring works with these themes, Hail the Conquering Hero [Tuesday, April 7, AMC, 54, 6 A.M.] . It was the seventh picture in that most extraordinary run of eight consecutive movies in four years, all brilliantly conceived, written and directed by Sturges, whose centenary it is this year. Six Marines, survivors of Guadalcanal, try to cheer up a very sad, hay-fevered Marine reject (Eddie Bracken) by passing him off to his hometown as a genuine hero of Guadalcanal; they are so convincing that he wins his girl back and the typically American small town wants Woodrow (that’s his name) for their mayor! And, of course, the real point of the tale lies in how Woodrow finally deals with the truth. The performances are all top-notch, with a flawless comic rhythm that is uniquely Sturges, which is why he kept using the same stock company of actors–they knew his beat–like a conductor with his own orchestra. This was especially important with Sturges, who created his scripts by improvising them out for his secretary to write down. That would have been something to see! His widow, Sandy, who served as his girl Friday for a while, told me he was one really hilarious performer. Eddie Bracken, whom Sturges used again the same year (see below), gives a superbly real comic performance in which his pain and humiliation is both funny and palpably touching. He receives wonderful support from Sturges’ ever-present character-men par excellence, William Demarest, Raymond Walburn and Franklin Pangborn. As Woodrow’s girlfriend, the lovely Ella Raines, a Howard Hawks discovery of the year before (for Corvette K-225 ), is notably un-cutesy and straight. Former boxing champion Freddie Steele is especially memorable as a bass-voiced Marine, whose favorite human is his mother and who holds the very image of mother as sacred. Although this is done partially for the comedy of a macho mama’s boy, the question still occurs, Where is the America of that sentiment? Indeed, what has happened to the cloistered small town of the country’s heartland? The innocent America, which Sturges’ half-European upbringing made him see from unconventional angles, is never sent up. On the contrary, one of the most lasting impressions of Hail the Conquering Hero is how much it makes you miss that America, which now only exists in older movies.

Plus, previously recommended: Sturges’ other 1944 comic masterwork, also starring Eddie Bracken in one of the great farce performances, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek [Thursday, April 2, TMC, 49, 11:50 A.M.] . Sturges’ most outrageous premise–small-town girl Betty Hutton parties with a bunch of G.I.’s shipping out, gets drunk and “married,” finds herself pregnant and can’t even remember the guy’s name–becomes his most uproarious picture.

The Hitchcock Watch: The second of Hitchcock’s three innocent-man-on-the-run pictures was 1942′s wartime thriller, Saboteur [Saturday, April 4, AMC, 54, 1:05 P.M.] . Although the weakest of the trio–first was 1935′s previously recommended classic The 39 Steps [Saturday, April 4, WLIW, 21, midnight] , and last was my favorite, 1959′s Cary Grant suspense-epic North by Northwest . Saboteur features numerous terrific sequences, including the famous ending on the Statue of Liberty. Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane star, but the problem is that Hitch correctly wanted Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck. Much of the circus-sequence dialogue was written by Dorothy Parker.

Wednesday, April 1

Check The View this morning for flop sweat and a big display of togetherness from the show’s four co-hosts, Star Jones, Joy Behar, Meredith Vieira and Debbie Matenopoulos. What’s it all about? Well, in the March 31 New York Post , Cindy Adams more or less told the four mini-divas that their jobs are in jeopardy because they had riled the show’s producer, Barbara Walters. Ms. Walters, reported Ms. Adams, is “‘exasperated’ with these would-be stars … Says one close-close-close to it, they have ‘inhaled.’ Begun to believe their own publicity. Think they’re as important as their Creator.” An item like that is the media equivalent of a dead fish in your bed. [WABC, 7, 11 A.M.]

Comedy Central is saying that tonight’s episode of South Park is the season premiere-meaning it’s not a repeat.…

It’s the highest-rated show on cable. Magazine covers. Frank Rich mentions. One night, it got more viewers than ABC’s Prime Time Live , the salacious nighttime soap opera starring Diane Sawyer and Sam Donaldson. Apparently, viewers have grown weary of wondering if Sam and Diane will ever get it on.…

Anyway, the success of South Park can mean only one thing: The other networks are busy trying to come up with their own knockoffs. But it’ll be tough to top South Park ‘s combination of talking poo, gay dogs, lesbian teachers and monkeys with two butts. “As SNL did in 1975, South Park is pushing the envelope in terms of TV comedy and what’s acceptable,” said Comedy Central president Doug Herzog. “It doesn’t surprise me to hear that the networks are sort of using South Park as a yardstick of how far to push things. A couple of networks have said that they would air it if they had the chance, like [CBS president] Les Moonves and [ABC president] Stu Bloomberg. I think it’s great that it’s showing up on their radar screen and that they think it has merit. Peter Roth of Fox said he wouldn’t.” Tonight: the identity of Cartman’s father, revealed. [Comedy Central, 45, 10 P.M.]

Thursday, April 2

With Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt signing up for a new season of Mad About You at over $1 million per episode apiece, and the three Seinfeld second bananas making nearly that much as they wind down their run, the six Friends seem underpaid. Press reports say they make under $100,000 a show (David Schwimmer put it at $85,000 on a recent edition of Howard Stern ) after a contract holdout in 1996. The buzz for Friends is gone, but the show is still perky and consistent-and it’s the foundation block of NBC’s Thursday night lineup. An easygoing half-hour of fluff that doesn’t leave you feeling cheap. Tonight: Ross’ troubles with his English girlfriend, continued. [WNBC, 4, 8 P.M.]

Friday, April 3

Cheerful sleazebucket Jerry Springer knows how to present slugfests and sex shows, but he has a tough time combining the two in a single show. But given today’s Jerry Springer “topic”-guests confront family members who are working in the sex industry-the host could bring his two favorite motifs together in a double whammy. Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry! [WB, 11, 11 A.M.]

Saturday, April 4

New Yorker show-biz and culture columnist Kurt Andersen, whose first job was writing daily radio pieces for Gene Shalit on NBC, was part of the first wave of Harvard Lampoon writers to choose TV over books. “There was a schism,” he said. “Jim Downey was sort of the godfather Johnny Appleseed of the Lampoon , and he got the job at Saturday Night Live in 1975 and took all these kids there with him. So there was this explosion of Lampoon -like comedy on television and in movies.” …

Now and then, he pops up on the tube-arguing with someone on Charlie Rose , and wasn’t that him interviewing the celebs at Comedy Central’s premiere party for The Birdcage ?-but he said, “To be television talent is low on my list of ambitions.”…

As a founding editor of Spy , he ran the magazine’s TV specials. “To get that much authority over giant budgets and not really know what you’re doing is always a gas,” he said. Give us your strangest viewing habit, please. “C-SPAN is my one sort of weird addiction, the close-up real-timeness of it I find just utterly fascinating. I can watch Richard Lugar for an hour and a half, taking short breaths in diners in New Hampshire. So sometimes during late-night channel-surfing, he will lay into me and I’ll be up till 3 in the morning. I think it’s the best thing on television.” But over all, it’s the end of the affair. “Like many things in life, I had this intense addictive relationship [with TV] and then moved beyond it. It’s very much the way I smoke a few cigarettes a week now, and I used to smoke three packs a day.” There isn’t much of an obvious Harvard Lampoon influence on Saturday Night Live anymore-and NBC took Mr. Andersen’s fellow alum Jim Downey off of “Weekend Update” earlier this year. Steve Buscemi hosts tonight’s show. [WNBC, 4, 11:30 P.M.]

Sunday, April 5

Is the cast of The Larry Sanders Show dispirited and depressed as the show moves into its last weeks? Or are they just doing too good a job of playing a dispirited, depressed cast that is heading toward its own finale? The show’s final nine episodes are probably all mapped out, but we’d like to see Garry Shandling kick some butt on his way out, instead of letting the show wither away in backstage grumbling. The last episode, on March 29, was a laugh, but maybe it was a little too much like a day at the office. [HBO, 28, 10 P.M.]

Monday, April 6

Oh, Lord. So Teletubbies is a monster hit in England. Little kids are mesmerized by the preverbal creatures (Winky, Tinky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa), and it secretly appeals to raving club kids who like to get stoned and turn it on. It’s put out by an outfit called Itsy Bitsy Entertainment Company, headed by Kenn Viselman. Asked how the show changed his life, Mr. Viselman said, “People respect me now! I get calls from the presidents of stations when two years ago I couldn’t even get secretaries to return my calls! … I really want to make great television for children. Last week, we had an event with over 2,000 people. When I saw 700 kids dancing, I started to cry and had to walk away. This is what I want to do, make great stuff for kids-and I’m not bashful about saying that it doesn’t mean you can’t get rich.” [WNET, 13, 9 A.M.] It’s pilot season-and writer-actor-comedian Sam Seder, 31, is the king of the sitcom pilots. Some of the forgotten numbers he has appeared in: All American Girl (the Margaret Cho show that tanked), On Call (he played a boyish doctor) and Boys and Girls (he was the boyfriend of former Facts of Life sex-tomboy Nancy McKeon). Hey, it’s a living. Mr. Seder used his knowledge of pilot-season madness in writing, directing and starring in Who’s the Caboose? , a faux documentary about pilot season in Los Angeles …

Mr. Seder bagged law school to get into show biz. Before moving to New York, he spent four years performing in Boston with the Cross Comedy Troupe, which included Jonathan Benjamin (now the voice of Ben on Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist ), David Cross (who ended up on The Show ) and Jonathan Groff (now head writer for Late Night With Conan O’Brien ).…

“The success that I have in sitcoms comes from the fact that 60 percent of the writers are Jewish guys in their early to late 40′s,” said Mr. Seder from his New York apartment. “They’re a little fat and a little balding, and most of the shows that they write are really about their high school years, but set in their late 20′s or early 30′s. And they see me walk in and they say, ‘You’re me! You’re perfect!’ I look like a very nice, benign Jewish man-boy. So in about three years, I’ve been able to do about six pilots.” …

Between pilots, Mr. Seder does stand-up at Luna (on Ludlow Street) and at what looks like the next hot spot for up-and-coming funnymen, the Gershwin Hotel on East 27th Street.…

“I’ll probably end up in TV for another round,” he said. “I’m ‘offer only,’ so I don’t have to audition. The networks are aware of me. I feel like I don’t mind acting in a sitcom because it pays well and is good exposure, but I don’t feel like, comedically, what I have to say I can say on a show that needs to draw 14 million each week. I’m not of the ilk that there’s something immoral about doing an unfunny sitcom-it just gets boring and unchallenging.” …

He said he’s looking for distribution for Who’s the Caboose? …

“I have some streaks of paranoia,” Mr. Seder said. “I didn’t even tell my agent I was doing the movie. My feeling is that, on some level, I see that I do a lot of things for commercial purposes, but for some reason I didn’t want the movie to be commercial. They’d start telling me to give it an MTV soundtrack and get a young hot indie actor.” …

Tonight’s TV pilot is yet another glorious workplace sitcom with a meaningless title. It’s Getting Personal , with Jon Cryer, Elliott Gould and Vivica A. Fox. Get ready to laugh and laugh. [WNYW, 5, 8:30 P.M.]

Tuesday, April 7

Here’s the new Quentin Tarantino thing , O.K.? He’s an actor , O.K.? Who just happens to direct once in a while, O.K? Like, that’s the whole reason he got into this business, to act , O.K.? Like this new Broadway play, Wait Until Dark , he’s an actor in it, dig? How badass is that? That was his dream , O.K., before people somehow got this idea he was like a director . I mean, don’t get him wrong, he likes to direct, O.K., but acting is, for him, like, the bomb . And he’ll tell you all about it on tonight’s Late Show With David Letterman , O.K.? [WCBS, 2, 11:30 P.M.]