Your TV Buddy, Robin Byrd … Rob Reiner’s Plot … Al Franken Returns … Grumpy Ol’ Jack Cafferty

Wednesday, Jan. 6

Al Franken’s Lateline , a sitcom that takes place on the set of a news program, returns to the NBC lineup tonight. The show got a brief run last year.

You know Mr. Franken, of course. A writer-performer at Saturday Night Live since the beginning. Did the “Al Franken decade” bit at the start of the 80’s in a “Weekend Update” bit. Came up with Stuart Smalley for the 90’s. Made a movie out of it-the underrated Stuart Smalley Saves His Family . Turned himself into a satirical book writer and Politically Incorrect guest who defends the Clintons like crazy, even if it makes him look like a White House court jester. He’s a man who almost needs no introduction, in other words.

Describe your show, Mr. Franken.

“We’re trying to do something different. Something that maybe someone like me would like to watch. Maybe in a certain way there’s some kinship to The Simpsons in that it goes from very silly humor to humor that’s smart and well written and changes pace a lot. And we’re able to use the show-within-the-show to do little things the way The Simpsons does things outside the story. We also hearken back, I think, to older sitcoms, like Taxi and Mary Tyler Moore , in the way we tell stories. It’s character-oriented and behavior-oriented and not so much joke-oriented.”

Did NBC tell you why they left you out of the 1998 fall lineup?

“My explanation is that we aren’t an NBC-owned show.”

That would explain it, wouldn’t it? Those money-grubbing bastards. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]

Thursday, Jan. 7

When last we checked in with Jack Cafferty, the interview didn’t go so well. At the time, the sometimes-surly anchorman, a 20-year veteran of local TV news, had just lost his job at WPIX. Asked by NYTV what the deal was, Mr. Cafferty said, “Never call again.”

That was then. Now, Mr. Cafferty’s got a fancy new job at CNN-FN and NYTV suddenly gets a phone call from a CNN flack wondering if we would like to speak with its newest employee.

So, Mr. Cafferty, what will you be doing on CNN-FN?

“It’s the financial news network so the title is sort of self-explanatory. They deal in financial news. I will be working there as an anchor and as a correspondent.”

How are you qualified to anchor a financial news show?

“I did a nationally syndicated show called Strictly Business a few years ago. It ran on 125 stations around the country.”

Going to miss the local news beat?

“Not at all.”

Really?

“Those words are n-o-t a-t a-l-l. As in not at all .”

Did you have an unpleasant experience at WPIX?

“No, not at all.”

So why did you leave?

“I’ll tell you what I told another reporter: After 22 years of doing local news in New York City, I felt it was time to do something grown up.”

What do you mean by “grown up”? I don’t want to read into it something that isn’t there.

“That’s a good idea. That would be a very good idea on your part.”

So how is local news not ‘grown up’?

“‘Not grown up’-just what I said.”

How are your relations with WPIX?

“I don’t work there anymore. What sort of ‘relations’ do you mean?”

I’m told you fought with the station over your contract and when you proved too stubborn, they simply let you go.

“I have no comment on that.”

Hey, CNN, that was a great idea, trotting Jack Cafferty out on the interview circuit! [CNN-FN, 32, 6 A.M. to noon.]

Friday, Jan. 8

Chris Rock is off the air for a while. What does that mean? The return of Telecom phone service pitchman Dennis Miller and his show Dennis Miller Live . Tonight’s guest: CNBC’s Hardball host, Chris Matthews. Boy, it’s going to be a loooooong half-hour. [HBO, 28, 11:30 P.M.]

Saturday, Jan. 9

The American President , a 1995 movie made as part of the Hollywood conspiracy to prepare the populace for the prospect of a President who dates. Directed by Rob Reiner (now a Clinton defender on Larry King Live -coincidence?) Michael Douglas played the President (and went on to date New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who became less critical of the President at around the time of their romance-coincidence?). [TNT, 3, 8 P.M.]

Sunday, Jan. 10

A new HBO mafia drama, called The Sopranos , about a bunch of mob guys who, at one time or another, all got kicked in the balls. [HBO, 28, 9 P.M.]

Monday, Jan. 11

Jon Stewart makes his debut as host of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart (kiss your agent, Mr. Stewart, for getting your name in the title like that). The show’ll probably be gentler, faster and jokier under Mr. Stewart. Let’s hope Mr. Stewart doesn’t get sleepy, the way he did on his Channel 9 talk show a few years back, at the start of his post-MTV phase. [Comedy Central, 45, 11 P.M.]

Tuesday, Jan. 12

When the apes take over, they will wonder how their human slaves interacted, passed on knowledge and comforted the lonely. And they will undoubtedly turn to television to see how we humans learned these important lessons-how Martha Stewart taught us how to be stylish and frugal, how Donnie and Marie taught us how to poke fun at our first careers, and finally how Robin Byrd, and her late night public access sex show, The Robin Byrd Show , taught us how to spend the evening alone.

“I got tired of watching television,” Ms. Byrd said. “It was very boring, so I decided to start a show that wouldn’t be so boring.”

Ever think about changing that red set of yours?

“We like familiarity as a human being. And because we like familiarity, so do I. And that’s what I stick with. They always said, ‘You can’t use red on television,’ so I always used red. I proved them wrong.”

Why do you stick one of the male strippers’ penises in your eye when the song “Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box” is playing at the end of the show?

“Those were the older shows,” Ms. Byrd said. “Now I put them in my cheek. There’s a reason why I do everything. Back in the old days, the rules were you couldn’t put it in your mouth. You couldn’t put it anywhere you couldn’t put it. But it was O.K. to put it in your eye and it was OK to put it in your ear. It was O.K. to put it on your cheek, so I did what I could do. I did it as a rebellious thing. Then I realized that when I put it in my eye that in the day of AIDS you can get pre-come and pre-come has the H.I.V. virus as well. It can transmit it that way as well. And I realized that that wasn’t such a safe thing, and here I am preaching safe sex and get your rubbers and use your dental dams. And here I am sticking it in my eye. So I caught myself and I’ve started putting it in my cheek.”

What’s your role in society?

“I’ve always been on your television for you. Many people have come up to me and said-and this is really true-and they have said to me that I’ve helped them through bad relationships and that I was there for them when they didn’t want to go out. I’m there for you when your guests come in from out of town and you don’t know what to do. Well, you turn the TV on for them, and there you are and here I am. I’m always there for you. I’m your buddy that doesn’t yell back at you. In the realm of relationships, I could think of worse relationships. I don’t beat you. You don’t beat me. Well, you beat off to me. There are a lot of people who are not only single but also some homebound people who can’t get out and there are a lot of elderly people who watch the show. There a lot of elderly people who watch the show. I’m there for them. They still have something going on.”

Something to think about.

[Leased Access, 35, 11 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovich’s Movie of the Week

While Brigitte Bardot was at the height of her international superstar fame and success–having been responsible through Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman in 1956 for breaking French cinema out of U.S. art houses and into the mainstream and thereby inadvertently also paving the way for the takeover in France of the New Wave filmmakers–she agreed to act in a movie by the most revolutionary of these Nouvelle Vague directors, Jean-Luc Godard, making his first (and pretty much, only) “star picture.” Adapted by Godard from Alberto Movaria’s novel, Le Mépris , the film co-starred Jack Palance as a devious Hollywood producer, Michel Piccoli as Bardot’s somewhat passive novelist-screenwriter husband, and legendary German pioneer Fritz Lang as a legendary German pioneer named Fritz Lang shooting for Palance an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey . With Godard appearing briefly as Lang’s assistant director, the provocative, disturbing color and wide-screen result opened in 1963 as Contempt [Friday, Jan. 8, Bravo, 64, 4 P.M. also available on videocassette] . For all these artists connected with the film, it stands among their finest hours.

In his quirky, idiosyncratic way, Godard achieves all his effects through a kind of artful indirection, a loosely circuitous-seeming but actually Spartan style that relies heavily on his actors’ movements, gestures, body language and intonation far more than words. Bardot is especially good at this–being a true-born movie-star personality as well as an increasingly resourceful actress–and this is one of her subtlest, most touching performances. What a world of joy and fulfillment Piccoli loses through his self-absorption, ambition, his blindness to everything his loving Brigitte is signaling. It is the story of her contempt not only for Palance, with whom she will have an affair, but mainly for Piccoli, whom she eventually leaves, after which she is accidentally killed. If only she hadn’t left. Whose fault is it? Hers? Palance’s? Piccoli’s? The film makes no moralizing statements, nor does it nudge you into complicity. Like Otto Preminger, whom Godard always admired, he presents all the facts–often only fleeting moments–and lets the audience decide what happened and why. Contempt is a cool, very troubling work, speaking directly to the most difficult war of all, the battle of the sexes, incisively revealing that essential central difference in how most men and most women think and feel.

The first shot in the picture presents Bardot lying naked on her stomach while talking with and listening to Piccoli: Godard’s camera pans slowly over her body, giving the audience exactly what they thought they wanted but without preamble or foreplay, so that it is quite unsettling, overwhelming. Even here, with blatant nudity, Godard works through indirection: By handing us Bardot as we want her, he makes us uneasily question this very precept; by getting it immediately out of the way, he allows us more easily to see Bardot through the rest of the story as considerably more than a naked body.

At one point, Piccoli–deceptively unmacho in a brilliantly subtle performance–puts on a cowboy hat and wears it in the bathtub; when Brigitte comments on this, Piccoli says he is emulating Dean Martin in Some Came Running (1960; directed by Vincente Minnelli; co-starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine). In that movie, Martin not only refuses to remove his cowboy hat, but also plays a largely unregenerate misogynist who only at the very end of the film shows some respect and consideration for a woman: at MacLaine’s funeral he finally takes off his hat. In Contempt , therefore, the cowboy hat is not simply a passing homage or inside joke from a cinema-hip director, but rather a revealing insight into this character’s submerged lack of understanding of women, central to the tragedy that evolves. Fritz Lang’s presence–a superbly shaded portrait of cynicism and sagacity, combined with an innate artistic conscience–is equally significant: The inescapability of fate was Lang’s great theme. Godard here links fate irrevocably to character. Lang also brings a strong sense of aged wisdom, the only ray of hope in the entire piece. Now 36 years old, Contempt seems not only far more youthful, enduringly modern, but in human relations, still terribly relevant at the end of the 90’s.