Fox Plans Sapphic Smooch for Party of Five … Steve O’Donnell of Lateline Lets It All Out

Wednesday, Jan. 27

Just three weeks after NBC inserted Al Franken’s Lateline sitcom into its Wednesday-night lineup, the show has been shelved for the February sweeps period. It will return on March 16, in a Tuesday, 8:30 P.M. time slot.

One of Lateline ‘s writers, Steve O’Donnell, who spent 13 years writing for David Letterman, wanted to talk about it.

“I would cautiously express a little disappointment that the network didn’t have a little more faith in it, because one of the very things that could have made it more effective was timely references to current events, and the fact that they kept the show in such a perpetual purgatory–in a lot of the shows, we were writing six, seven months before they went on the air, so we had to use these glacial issues like, ‘How are the $20 bills being accepted?’ and you make a reference to a Monicagate kind of thing, and it can be superseded and outdated in a couple of days, let alone weeks. I actually learned a little technical term, ‘doughnut,’ which is when you intentionally leave a couple spots open in the show that you then go back and fill in. And sometimes you do it weeks after you’ve taped the show in front of an audience, just to add something that sounds like it’s contemporary. But see, and I know NBC’s got so many big concerns and worries, but they didn’t let Poland be Poland. You try and do a certain kind of show, and they’re not helping you do that kind of show by keeping everything very uncertain. We didn’t really know what the time slot would be for the show. We understood it would be a midseason replacement for the second season in a row. They were always telling us, ‘If our prom date cancels, you’re there.'”

Didn’t you work on Saturday Night Live ?

“No, it was my twin brother, Mark.”

Oh, really?

“No– O’Donnell . Yes! I’ve been waiting all week for that one. Actually, I worked on Letterman .”

Comedy. Where’s it going?

“It’s like in the 1840’s someone could play a banjo and sing a song about a skunk wearing overalls, and you know that must have entertained the pioneers. They had no radio, no television. That doesn’t cut it now. We’d go, ‘Oh, the old skunk in the overalls thing.’ We need something else. On sitcoms, most comedy now is about television. It parodies the form of television, the personalities of television. It makes reference to TV commercials. So in one way, it’s our national experience. But in another way, it’s a frightening diaspora.”

So you’re a television junkie?

“No. For the first couple of years I worked at Letterman , I didn’t have TV, and then he gave me a beautiful big one. I was at the office till midnight. I’m not a person who turns on the Today show–that’s like having Pepsi-Cola for breakfast. He once gave me a dozen coolers full of kielbasi because he knew that was my favorite spiced meat product.”

What’s your second favorite?

“Probably pepperoni. You can’t eat it in the great quantities that you can kielbasi. But, of course, you can–I mean, nobody’s going to stop you. What about your own preferences in spiced meat?”

Me? Being a fancy boy, prosciutto.

“Hard to eat it on a regular basis.”

Yes, but as a special treat …

“Yes. With the melon. You know, Lateline is a staff that likes eating. I remember one of the NBC stagehands talking about various differences in the styles of shows. That the old Tom Snyder Tomorrow was sort of a drinking show. The people involved on that show, from the host on down, enjoyed the cocktails, and Saturday Night Live was for a long, long time … the drug culture found expression there. The Lateline staff ate food and talked about food and analyzed the various new snacks.”

Catch Lateline for the last time until March 16. [WNBC, 4, 9 P.M.]

Thursday, Jan. 28

Bert Stern’s documentary Jazz on a Summer’s Day from the 1958 Newport Jazz festival, featuring performances by Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, Dinah Washington and a gaggle of drunken jazz lovers in khakis, sitting in lawn chairs, smoking cigarettes. [Bravo, 64, 9 P.M.]

Friday, Jan. 29

Color of Night , also known as “the Bruce Willis penis movie,” airs on Showtime. [Showtime, 48, 8 P.M.]

The E! channel reaches a new low. The show Behind the Scenes tours Live With Regis & Kathie Lee . [E!, 24, 9 P.M.]

Saturday, Jan. 30

Neve Campbell, who smooched naughtily with Denise Rich in the trashy-on-purpose flick Wild Things, is scheduled to kiss a girl on her TV show, Party of Five , according to a well-placed source at the Fox network.

Whoopee.

Ms. Campbell’s character on the show, Julia, who’s away at college and sad and dating a mean guy, will canoodle with a visiting female writing instructor, the source told NYTV.

“There is a kiss, but Julia is not gay, which is sort of the upshot,” said the source. “She kisses her visiting writing instructor, who’s sort of a mentor. She’s undergoing this thing with Ned and he’s slapping her around. He’s a screwed-up kid, you know–it’s sad, it’s tragic, it’s Party of Five . So she’s kind of coming off of that a little. She’s shaken and vulnerable, and she’s sort of reaching out to people and she goes to this women. The mentor’s actually not predatory or anything. She just sort of says, ‘Look, Julia, you need to find yourself.'”

The first lesbian kiss on TV occurred on L.A. Law in 1991, between the characters of C.J. Lamb (played by Amanda Donohoe) and Abby (Michele Greene). Then, in 1994, Roseanne was the recipient of a Sapphic smacker initiated by Mariel Hemingway on Roseanne . Roseanne’s slow-burn reaction take was a classic.

Why does Neve Campbell’s character engage in such a kiss?

“It’s just one of those moments when … I don’t know, it happens,” said the Fox source, reaching for the dramatic reason for a moment that is almost sure to bring big ratings. “More between women, especially in colleges … more than guys kiss. I don’t want to make it sound more than it is. It’s a simple kiss. We haven’t cast the mentor, but I don’t think there’s that much difference in age.”

So why, exactly, is Julia tempted by the forbidden kiss?

“I think it was like, ‘What would a person do coming off this really bad relationship?'” said the source. “You’re kind of vulnerable and looking in other places for some sort of personal affirmation. The mentor is totally cool. She’s young, smart, hip and she’s not after Julia. She’s sympathetic more than anything else.”

It’s sure going to get a lot of attention, huh?

“Oh, God, you saw how they pumped ‘the hit.'” “The hit” refers to the episode in which Julia’s boyfriend struck her. “The previews just showed Ned slapping Julia over and over. So I’m sure they’ll spin it.”

Any possibility of seeing Ms. Campbell’s co-star, Jennifer Love Hewitt, in a similar situation?

“It doesn’t seem to be in her makeup as a character. I think Julia has always been the more experimental and adventurous role on the show. It kind of makes sense for her.”

Ah, but of course. The air date is not certain for the lesbian kiss episode. Alas, it has yet to be shot. Today, it’s just a non-lesbian rerun. [WNYW, 5, 1 P.M.]

The Sundance Film Festival comes to a close in Park City, Utah–and the Sundance channel is there, with cameras, and it’s on your TV set tonight even if you’re not a regular subscriber, as part of a promotional freebie. Also: interviews with “independent stars,” who are like regular movie stars, only not quite as rich. What’s the awards show going to be like?

“We’re gonna broadcast live about 15 minutes after the awards show officially closes,” said Tom Harbeck, the Sundance Channel’s executive vice president of programming. “We’ll have interviews with winners of the key categories–with the directors, the filmmakers. That’s pretty exciting, because it’s a state of euphoria for these guys.”

Not like the Golden Globes?

“Our show is as far from the Golden Globes as you can. It’s about filmmakers and about the festival. It’s nonetheless going to have a lot of high-profile actors and actress who have tended to star in independent films.”

Who you might see: Liv Tyler. [Sundance, 60, 11 P.M.]

Sunday, Jan. 31

Round off your night on the town with this 5 A.M. episode of Trains Unlimited . Today it’s a feature on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe train line, which connected Chicago to California.

NYTV asked executive producer Donna Lusitana, a partner at Greystone Communications, what was special about this particular train.

“It went through the Southwest. It had a famous jingle that people might remember from a Judy Garland film. It also had a really nice dining car. Service was their hallmark.”

What’s the appeal of transportation documentaries?

“I think people like to see the evolution. And in America they like big machines. Viewers like fast, big machines.” [History Channel, 17, 5 A.M.]

Monday, Feb. 1

Night Stand With Dick Dietrick is a nightly parody of Jerry Springer -type shows on the E! channel. One question: If Jerry Springer is faked, as some former guests have said, then it is a much more convincing brand of fakery than what’s offered on Night Stand . The performances on this one are wooden. And the material on Night Stand is not as smutty as the stuff on Jerry Springer or even Sally Jessy Raphael –and yet Night Stand’s satire is not so cutting or illuminating. Night Stand , what are you? [E!, 24, 10:30 P.M.]

Tuesday, Feb. 2

Some shows work because they present a world that you’d really like to live in–with funny, beautiful people in nice apartments–but don’t. Then there are shows that show you a world you’d probably rather not live in, if given the choice. The public access show Tenants & Neighbors Hotline belongs to this latter group. Host and producer Michael McKee fields call-in questions from disgruntled citizens, and a guest lawyer proffers advice like this little nugget: If you don’t pay the rent for your last month in a given apartment because you’re worried the landlord won’t give you back your deposit, it’s O.K.–chances are he probably won’t sue. [Manhattan Neighborhood Network, 34, 9:30 P.M.]

Peter Bogdanovitch’s Movie of the Week

A couple of years ago, when Bruce Springsteen did the title song for his moody, introspective album The Ghost of Tom Joad , he was not only thinking about the leading character of a famous John Steinbeck novel concerning the Depression plight of displaced Okies, but also of Henry Fonda’s unforgettable portrayal of this role in the celebrated 1940 John Ford film version of The Grapes of Wrath [Thursday, Jan. 28, American Movie Classics, 54, 8 P.M. and 2:15 A.M.; also available on videocassette] . Mr. Springsteen was wondering what exactly had become of Tom Joad’s ghost, the spirit of that typically American idealist who told his mother just before he left for good: “Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there … Wherever there’s a fight so that hungry people can eat, I’ll be there …” Mr. Springsteen was lamenting the apparent loss of that special nature which galvanized us, took us to victory in the Second World War, that crusading indignation and anger at injustice. Indeed, it’s difficult to watch The Grapes of Wrath without a heartsick feeling of nostalgia for the Roosevelt years that seemed to inspire such sentiments.

For that last key scene with Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, Fonda would tell me, Ford wouldn’t allow the two actors to rehearse it for him, but only let them play it in front of the camera, and the very first take is the one in the picture. “Of course, by the time we got to it,” Fonda said, “we were just chomping at the bit to do the scene.” It was Ford’s way, Fonda explained, of insuring the absolute freshness he strove to get in all his work. When Fonda’s Tom returns at the start of the film from several years in prison and sees his mother again, the actor said he wanted to kiss her, but Ford stopped him, had them shake hands instead, saying: “Country people don’t kiss.”

Ford’s movie, for which he received his second of four Academy Awards as best director (plus two Oscars for war documentaries), is certainly among the darkest, most anti-establishment ever produced by a major Hollywood studio (20th Century Fox), shot on real locations in sharp, ultra-contrasty black-and-white by the legendary Gregg Toland (of Citizen Kane fame). Since during his lifetime Ford was America’s most honored director–four New York Film Critics Awards to go with the record number of Oscars, plus the first filmmaker ever to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom–and since he was as well the most highly respected among his peers, one could as easily lament the contemporary loss of the kind of economically minded, visually eloquent directorial professionalism for which he stood. That he was also one of the few poets of the screen was a bonus. This Feb. 1 marks the 105th anniversary of his birth, so it’s most appropriate to pay him homage yet again for the enduring legacy he left behind. Essentially, he was a moving balladeer of the lost family–so many of his films, like The Grapes of Wrath , deal with the dissolution of a family–and by extension, a way of life, a country.